-- The Trappist monks at St. Sixtus monastery WESTVLETEREN, Belgiumhave are waiting for you to call them on their beer phone. Monks have been brewing Westvleteren beer at this remote spot near the French border since 1839. Their brew, offered in strengths up to 10.2% alcohol by volume, is among the most highly prized in the world.
For the 26 monks at St. Sixtus, however, success has brought a spiritual hangover as they fight to keep an insatiable market in tune with their life of contemplation.
The monks are doing their best to resist getting bigger. They don't advertise and don't put labels on their bottles. They haven't increased production since 1946. They sell only from their front gate. You have to make an appointment and there's a limit: two, 24-bottle cases a month. Because scarcity has created a high-priced gray market online, the monks search the net for resellers and try to get them to stop.
"We sell beer to live, and not vice versa," says Brother Joris, the white-robed brewery director. Beer lovers, however, seem to live for Westvleteren.Two American Web sites, Rate Beer and Beer Advocate, rank the strongest of Westvleteren's three products, a dark creamy beer known as "the 12," best in the world, ahead of beers including Sweden's Närke Kaggen Stormaktsporter and Minnesota's Surly Darkness. "No question, it is the holy grail of beers," says Remi Johnson, manager of the Publick House, a Boston bar that has Westvleteren on its menu but rarely in stock.
Thanks to the beer phone, there are no more lines of cars outside the monastery now. But production remains just 60,000 cases per year.
Belgian monasteries like St. Sixtus started making beer in the aftermath of the French Revolution, which ended in 1799. The revolt's anti-Catholic purge had destroyed churches and abbeys in France and Belgium. The monks needed cash to rebuild, and beer was lucrative.
Trappist is a nickname for the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, who set up their own order in La Trappe, France, in the 1660s because they thought Cistercian monasteries were becoming too lax. The monks at St. Sixtus sleep in a dormitory and stay silent in the cloisters, though they speak if they need to. Today, though, Trappists are increasingly famous for making good beer.Seven monasteries (six are Belgian, one, La Trappe, is Dutch) are allowed to label their beer as Trappist. In 1996, they set up an alliance to protect their brand. They retain lawyers in Washington and Brussels ready to sue brewers who try use the word Trappist.
The monks know their beer has become big business. That's fine with the brothers at Scourmont, the monastery in southern Belgium that makes the Chimay brand found in stores and bars in Europe and the U.S. They've endorsed advertising and exports, and have sales exceeding $50 million a year. They say the jobs they create locally make the business worthy. Other monasteries, which brew names familiar to beer lovers such as Orval, Westmalle and Rochefort, also are happy their businesses are growing to meet demand.Not so at St. Sixtus. Brother Joris and his fellow monks brew only a few days a month, using a recipe they've kept to themselves for around 170 years. The result is a brew with a slightly sweet, heavily alcoholic, fruity aftertaste.