Westvleteren: The taste of scarcity
Of all of the beers in the world, the Trappist beer Westvleteren is arguably the most elusive.
You can scour the internet for offers which can top out at 40.00 USD for one lonesome 11 ounce bottle!
People are crazy about this beer. Many take trips to Belgium for the purpose of tasting the beer. Recently, I brought two bottles back to the US for a bachelor party and you swear I was bringing a piece of the Virgin Mary’s shroud, a relic that beer aficionados humbly bow before.
Iphone photos were snapped, messages to friends and other beer nuts were sent. A general wave of beer euphoria came over our small group of friends. It’s that hard to get.
But is it that good? Once you taste it will you ascend to some higher level of beer knowledge? Will you attain beer enlightenment? And if it is really that good, what does it taste like?
The beer has a great story. There are 8 Trappist breweries, 6 in Belgium, 1 in France and 1 in Austria. Westvleteren is the only one of the Breweries where the Monks still make the beer themselves (along with three non-monk manual laborers). They brew just enough beer to support the monastery, around 60,000 cases a year.
Except for a 2012 increase in production to cover urgent restoration costs (they exported 6 packs to the US which sold for 85 USD a piece); the production has remained constant since the 40s.
They brew beer so that they can be monks; they are not monks so that they can brew beer. They do not raise production to meet demand.
According to Westvleteren, you are only allowed to buy the beer directly from them.
The sale of beer outside the monastery is considered gray market. The price reflects this too. To give a comparison, the price of one Westvleteren 12 bought at the monastery is approximately 2.16 USD. The beer is in such high demand that people are willing to pay 18 times that on the gray market.
To buy beer directly, you have to call a beer phone at the monastery, which sometimes is answered and sometimes not. Until a couple of years ago when they installed a modern switchboard, their beerline would crash often due to the number of calls.
If you get through to the beerline, you can then place an order. However, you are limited to one case of beer per 60 days. They write down your phone number and when you come to pick up the beer from the monastery, they record your license plate number.
The Monks have inadvertently created such high scarcity that you are already thinking “If so many people want this beer, it must be good!”
Couple the scarcity with a great story and a good quality beer, you have a great brand.
And when you consume any product, you are not consuming just the product itself - you are also consuming the brand. Because you know the story of the hardworking and pious Monks brewing beer to restore their monastery and you know that its scarce, that people are willing to pay up to 18 times the actual price, the beer tastes better.
There have been numerous studies behind scarcity and preference. Simply put, we want what we can’t have – everyone knows that. And when we know others want that same thing, it becomes even more valuable.
In today’s society, we can show off with what we are able to consume. The Westvleteren is not only a delicious beer, but a trophy that can be held up to society to show both our good taste and the reach of our resources.
So what does Westvleteren taste like? To me it tastes like scarcity and monk.
Where to buy it in Belgium
Even in Belgium its not an easy beer to find. Besides directly from the Abbey, I found it at two places.
I found it at a Beer shop called de Bier temple, that has a great variety of belgium beer. They also have a location in Brussels, however I did not make it here there to confirm that they sold it at this location as well.
In Brussels, there is a great market on Saturdays and Sundays at Place Flagey. Look for a truck that is selling cheese. The prices are more reasonable than at Bier Temple. It only costs about 10 dollars for a westvleteren 12 (7,90 Euro).