Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I am Roman Mars.
Roman Mars: Cyrus Farivar is on a mission. He’s trying to get a case of beer called Westvleteren.
Cyrus: Westvletern. I’m not Dutch so I’m not a hundred percent sure but I think it’s Westvleteren.
Roman: It’s not easy to get but apparently it’s worth it.
Cyrus: Oh ho oh, yes.
Roman: If you’re a beer nerd or have a friend who’s a beer nerd you’ve probably heard of Belgian beers. Belgians take their beer very seriously. There are about 200 breweries in a country about twice the size of the Bay Area where I’m from.
Cyrus: Now, amongst these Belgian breweries and Belgian ales there’s a very specific sub-type, Trappist beers. Anyone who knows anything about beer will probably start to get glassy-eyed and have a warm delicious feeling whenever they talk about them, myself included. Sentences will be punctuated with superlatives and exclamations.
Roman: Now, I’m a person just like you, but I don’t actually drink beer so I’ll take Cyrus’s word for it. Or the word of one of the many beer reviewers on Youtube.
Male 1: It’s a beautiful day.
Male 2: It’s all dry fruits, it’s boozy, it’s earthy.
Male 3: Looks amazing.
Male 2: There’s something almost woody and tannic about it. It’s so many flavors going on in there that’s uh…
Female: Yes, and I think we all know what you’re going to get.
Male 4: This is an A plus. I mean, I can’t give it anything less.
Male 5: That’s something else. That’s uh…
Male 2: The flavor just keeps on going and going and going. Uh…
[sound of glass toast]
[music playing Hallelujah]
Male 6: [laughs] My tongue is tingling. Yes, it’s wow.
Cyrus: Here’s what you need to know about Trappist beers. First, they’re amazing, second, they’re made by Trappist monks. These monks traced their roots to a monastery in 17th century France and have since spread out to all over the world.
Roman: 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.
Cyrus: But none of the Trappist’s products are nearly anywhere as famous as the beer. Only seven beer-making Trappist abbeys exist, six are in Belgium and one is in The Netherlands.
Roman: The most widely available Trappist beer is Chimay. You can get it in a lot of U.S. specialty grocery stores and some bars too. They make over 3 million gallons of the stuff a year. By comparison, Westvleteren makes less than 4% of that volume annually but Westvleteren with its plain brown bottle, no label, and the only writing is on the cap, it’s super cool. It’s one of the rarest and many say it’s the best beer in the world. But here’s the thing about Westvleteren. You can’t go there and have as much beer as you want. You can’t even have it shipped from the abbey.
Cyrus: 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 this certain phone number during certain hours on certain days, and as the monks themselves warn on the site:
Audio Voice Recording: Please take into account that you may often think you get a busy signal when you call to make a reservation. Due to the fact that our beer lines are overburdened, you’re not the only one who is calling at that moment. Due to our small scale production, the number of telephone calls is much greater than the number of available reservations. That means it’s a matter of having a lot of patience as well as a lot of luck.
Cyrus: And here’s what you need to understand about me: I am totally game for this. I love being challenged as a food consumer. In fact, there’s a burger place in Connecticut that claims to have invented the hamburger in America. And, you know, true to their century-old rules, they refuse to serve burgers with ketchup or mustard and they only serve it on toast. I love that! I mean, if they told me that I had to do 50 jumping jacks and run around the block and then I could get a burger, I would totally do that too.
Roman: Anyway back to Westvleteren.
Audio Voice Recording: [foreign language]
Cyrus: If you’re lucky enough to talk to a monk, and yes, you do 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 are 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. Oh, and you agree not to resell the beer as well.
Audio Voice Recording: For information, please see our website www…
Roman: You got that? There’s a list of several seemingly arbitrary hoops that you have to jump through if you want to buy this beer. This sort of thing is not unheard of. Velvet ropes and random reward have long been imposed to create artificial scarcity and to heighten demand, but the mainstream trended seems to be more geared towards greater access and accommodation for customers. The new ideal is that everything is available at all times no matter where you live. This is the digital age, but clearly this is not the case for the Westvletern Trappists. They’re trying to make it as difficult as possible.
Jef: No, no, no. They don’t make it difficult. You make it difficult. [laughter] Too much people want this beer.
Cyrus: This is Jef Van den Steen. He’s the author of the book called Trappist: The Seven Heavenly Beers. He’s even a brewer himself.
Jef: Until 10 years ago, you could go to the abbey except on Sunday because then they don’t work, and except on Friday because Friday they don’t work because they don’t eat on Friday. But Saturday they are open so you went there and without problems, you could buy beer. Not as much as you want, but normally three crates, or two crates. So it’s always possible. But then the Americans, it’s all your fault.
Cyrus: I’m sorry.
Jef: No. The Americans said Westvleteren is the best beer of the world. And because English is the world language not only in the US, England, but also in Scandinavian countries, so everywhere where they speak or understand English they could read BeerAdvocate and all those websites and suddenly, the demand of this beer was 10 times bigger. That’s the problem. It’s not their problem. They brew now the same amount as they did before.
Cyrus: Keep in mind this was basically the first thing that Jef said to me when I sat down with him, and I sort of felt guilty to be honest because he was right. I had heard about this beer for years, and now that I was living within striking distance just over the border in Germany, there was no way I was going to pass it up. Jef’s an older guy with a full, bushy grey beard and he seems to know just about everything about beer. And having written about the Trappist monks, he was the closest I was going to get to an actual monk.
Roman: But Jef is sort of Trappist monk by proxy, outlaying the main reason for putting up these obstacles to getting Westvleteren.
Jef: They decided, “We brew the same amount as the last 40, 50 years.” And they have enough with that and why must they brew more because you want? And they live between the walls of the abbeys. So for them, it’s not a problem.
Cyrus: So with that in mind, and after spending about 90 minutes at Jef’s brewery, De Glazen Toren, and of course we bought some bottles to take with us, my three friends and I headed out to visit the famed monks of Westvleteren.
Roman: Now, as we mentioned earlier, you have to order ahead if you want to buy a case of beer. Unfortunately, Cyrus didn’t have any luck ordering crates, but he knew he could at least sample some when he got there.
Cyrus: But what I realized as soon as my friends and I got to the abbey is that Jef was totally right. The abbey is in the middle of nowhere. It’s surrounded by fields and small houses and it’s way out in the western edge of Belgium, very close to the French border. It’s totally understandable why the monks decided to institute this new ordering system. If hundreds of cars descended on these tiny roads all of a sudden, it would be disastrous.
Roman: In other words, designing this whole process to make access difficult: The calling, the vehicle registration, all of it…. A lot of it comes down to roads, to infrastructure. And there are ways to solve the problem, one is bigger roads. But they can also choose to ship the beer out to distributor and have no one visit the abbey at all. There are solutions, but it’s clearly not a problem the monks want to solve.
Cyrus: I did finally get to sit down and have a beer at the cafe across the street.
Roman: Which until this year was the only place that was allowed to resell it, although there has been a thriving, blackish gray market for quite some time.
Cyrus: I wish I could say that the experience was heavenly. Don’t get me wrong, this beer really is fantastic. It’s got a complex flavor and it’s obviously crafted with a lot of care and thoughtfulness, but the flip-side of having no label, of having this mythology that brings people from around the world like me to this monastery, is that the relationship between customer and brewery feels almost anonymous or generic. It’s like my friends and I could have just bought this beer off eBay and enjoyed it almost anywhere, and it would have been basically the same experience, just a lot more expensive.
Roman: And this is the symptom of the exact same credo that makes the beer rare and exclusive. Clearly, the Westvleteren Trappist take pride in creating something great that the people enjoy but you, the consumers of beer are not the real customer, God is.
Cyrus: The head of the abbey says on their website, “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.” This beer is not about you and me. They’re not creating a purest mystique and challenging us to come to the monastery and experience their beer in a certain way. I am totally ready to capitulate to the monks just like that Connecticut hamburger place. I will do whatever they want me to do. I want them to know that I am on board, that I speak their language. But it turns out they’re not even talking to me.
Roman: As we mentioned earlier the limited supply of Westvleteren has created a pricy black market. As I’m recording a search for a case of 24 bottles of Westvleteren on eBay, the current bid is $550 plus $50 shipping. 23 minutes left. The original price paid at the abbey was just under 50 bucks. To the delight of beer aficionados worldwide in spring 2012, Westvleteren beer was finally exported in limited edition packages of 4 bottles to various countries, including the U.S. They are called building boxes because the proceeds are slated to go to the expansion and renovation of the aging abbey.
Roman: And if you’re wondering if I did an episode about rare beer and Trappist monks partially as an extended metaphor about bizarre customer service, media piracy and why I can’t legally download new episodes of Game of Thrones every Sunday night, well you wouldn’t exactly be wrong.
Come on HBO, even the 17th-century monks are sending their beer out in little boxes on demand. There isn’t like a little button I can click and download something? I want to pay you, Please! A Lannister always pays his debts!
Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Cyrus Farivar and me Roman Mars. With special thanks to Sean Seneca We are a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Support for 99% Invisible is provided in part by TinyLetter, email for people with something to say. My boy, Carver, always has something to say. What do you have to say, Carver?
Carver: Daddy long legs look like [inaudible] they have 8 legs [inaudible] It looks like they are not spiders.
Roman: They are arachnids but they are not spiders. That’s a load off my mind. It’s free, easy, minimal, powerful, the simplest way to write an email newsletter. Online at tinyletter.com. This program is distributed by PRX The Public Radio Exchange making public radio more public. Online at prx.org. You can find the show and like the show on Facebook. I tweet @romanmars but you can always just find the show online and even talk about beer if you want to. All these beer over here in the corner. I’ll sip on a soda. I’ll drive. Don’t worry. 99percentinvisible.org.