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The Westvleteren Project

December 4, 2012
Sint Sixtus

Sint Sixtus

We didn’t know what to expect when we received a message to our general email account purporting to be from the Abdij Sint-Sixtus, offering a chance to help distribute their famous beer for a special, one-time project, but we were curious.  It turned out that the Abbey needed to build a new wing, which would mostly consist of the monks’ cells.  They decided that a special gift pack of their most famous beer, the 12°, would be sold outside the monastery walls for the first time (at least the first time with their explicit authorization).  They selected over a dozen countries to participate in this special one-time project.  Despite the fairly ubiquitous availability of some Trappist beers (many of which are brewed and marketed by other companies hired by the monasteries), Trappist monks themselves are decidedly non-commercial.

The order is one of contemplation.  Work is part of the Rule of St. Benedict, which Trappist monks follow.  Monasteries also strive to be self-sustaining, which has led several to brew beer.  Achel produces the least beer of all the Trappist breweries, followed closely by Westvleteren.  Both of these breweries’ production is a tiny fraction of the other Trappist beers commonly found in the US.  There are other Trappist monasteries that produce wine, jam, bread, and crafts of various sorts which help to maintain their respective cloisters.

Initial plans from the Abbey were for two US importers to handle this one-time shipment of specially produced gift packs.  The gift packs (or Bricks) would consist of six 33cl bottles of the famous 12° beer and two specially designed tasting glasses.  The Abbey wanted the gift packs sold as such: gift packs.  They were not to be broken up to be sold as individual bottles.  There was a strong desire to follow the pattern established in Belgium as much as possible with concerns about minimizing consumer price variation and “gray market” profiteering as well as a strong desire for consumers to know where they should turn to find the Bricks.  In Belgium, there was a single special release done exclusively through the Colruyt grocery store chain.  The theory was that it would be easy for consumers to know where to look for these special packs.  Colruyt also agreed to work without profits on this project.  93,000 gift boxes were sold in Belgium (a country with a population similar to the State of Maryland) in just a few days.

Plans change.  Delays have occurred.  The other importer backed off after initially agreeing to handle half the US and half of the total of 15,000 bricks (3750 “master cases” each with 4 bricks) destined for this blessed country.  We decided to accept the unenviable task of spreading this small amount of an extremely sought-after beer around the country.  We had already committed to half, figuring that we’d have a colleague to absorb some of the brunt.   We believe that our approach has always been in-line with the Abbey’s conception: this was a one-time special project, not an attempt to establish continued distribution or score marketing points.  We have sought an approach that would dovetail with the Abbey’s wishes and intent and one that the Abbey has approved.

We have known from early on that there would be no possible way to undertake this special one-time project in a way that would satisfy every enthusiast, seeker, retailer, zealot, proselytizer, salesperson, marketer, consumer, truck driver or distributor.  This is, in many ways, a “no-win situation”: quite the opposite of the coveted “win-win” that business-types so often espouse.  To parlay the inferences a bit further, we’ll readily admit that we aren’t perfect, but we think we’ve done as much as we could have been expected to do to make this very small amount of an extremely sought after beer as available as possible.  If we’ve upset you, no matter what your station in life, we ask your forgiveness.

The Abbey did not view this as a something that our company had earned nor as a reward of any kind.  Similarly, we have not viewed this special one-time project as a reward for any given distributor or retailer.  There also isn’t much profit involved here, as most everybody working on this has agreed to either donate back or forgo profits to help maximize the money going to the Abbey.  No store that gets this beer is cashing in on it; at least we hope they aren’t   Our mission is simplicity and charity.  It would do no good to divide the tiny number of packs we were to receive across every store selling our beer.  Consumers would be sent on a scavenger hunt.  Prices would vary wildly.  Our hope is that these packs are selling for the same $85 in each location and that in as many places as possible sales begin on 12/12/12.

Now, here we are, almost a year and a half after that original email about the project, on the eve of the first legal and widespread sale of Westvleteren 12 in the US.   We are happy to have been able to help bring this beer to the United States.   We hope the beer finds its way into your happy homes.

If you would like to learn more about Trappist monks, please consult the Trappist website: http://www.trappists.org/

It could be a beer calling you…but maybe it could be something else…

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