If you’re a beer nerd, or have a friend who’s a beer nerd, you’ve heard of Belgian beers. Belgians take beer very seriously. Amongst the 200 Belgian breweries, there’s a very specific sub-type: Trappist beers.
According to our reporter Cyrus Farivar (also from Episode #36 “Super Bonn Bon”), there are two things you need to know about Trappist beers. First, they’re amazing. Second, they’re made by Trappist monks. These monks trace their roots to a monastery in 17th century France, and have since spread out to all over the world.
The main concept behind the Trappist lifestyle is that the abbey should be economically self-sufficient. In other words, the monks should make something and sell it to the public as a way to fund the operations of the abbey itself. Some make cheese. Some make spirits. There’s even one in Germany that makes lentil soup. But none of the Trappist products are as famous as the beer.
The beer that is considered the best of the best is Westvleteren 12. With its plain brown bottle, no label, the only writing is on the cap- the beer is super cool. It’s quite rare and year after year it’s rated the best beer in the world.
But here’s the thing about Westvleteren. You can’t just go there and have as much beer as you want. You can’t even have it shipped from the abbey. If you want to buy beer to take with you, you have to look up the beer reservation phone number on the abbey’s website. Then, you call a certain phone number during certain hours, on certain days.
If you’re lucky enough to talk to a monk to take your reservation, you have to give your license plate number and be available to come pick up your crate during the appointed time that weekend. You’re limited to one crate per person per car, maximum two per car. And, you can’t buy more than one crate during a 60-day period. You also have to agree not to resell the beer.
This sort of thing is not unheard of: velvet ropes and random reward have long been imposed to create artificial scarcity to heighten demand, but the mainstream trend today seems to be more geared toward greater access and accommodation for customers. The new ideal is that everything is available, at all times, no matter where you live. Yet the Westvleteren Trappists are trying to make it as difficult as possible.
Jef van den Steen, author of a book called Trappist: The Seven Heavenly Beers and an acclaimed brewer himself, says that’s not the case, “Before, Westvleteren was only well-known was in Belgium. And now it’s worldwide, and that’s the problem. They decide we will brew the same amount as the last 40-50 years, and they have enough for that, so why must they brew more? Because you want? No. They live between the walls of the abbey, so for them it’s not a problem.”
The “customer service” is not designed to provide convenience for the consumer of their beer, it is designed for monks themselves. Their “customer” is God, so to speak. They have a mission, and making beer is only a fraction of that. The Head of the Abbey says, “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”
Cyrus Farivar recently returned to California after having lived in Bonn, Germany for two years. These days, he can be found frequenting The Trappist bar in downtown Oakland. He plans on presenting a bottle of Westvleteren 12 to his favorite bar owners. His book, The Internet of Elsewhere, was published last year.
For an interesting discussion of my rattled off aside about black markets/piracy being a design problem and why I wish I could legally download “Game of Thrones” on demand go here and even (snicker) here. Most notably, this update by Erik Kain draws the best parallel between the Westvleteren Abbey and HBO. It comes down to this: service is provided to the customer that matters most. For the monks, that means God, for HBO that means the subscriber base and the cable companies.