When planning a trip to Belgium, we always try to include a little venture to the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren, the home of the holy grail beer to so many beer geeks around the world and this recent trip was no different.
We had friends in tow this time around for whom the experience was new and it is an experience without a doubt. Again we were lucky with the weather and arrived in the beer garden of In De Vrede on the most glorious sunny day, and sat down to enjoy the three beers on offer with some Abbey cheese in various forms and had a great time, a new experience for some, a most welcome repeat for myself.
However I left feeling a little bemused at how they are choosing to sell take away beers to visitors. First off, if you are not familiar with how difficult it is to buy this beer in any quantity read here.
I only know of one person to manage this feat of telecommunication able to get a full quota, but for the rest of us, on previous visits you were allowed to buy six bottles of your choice per person.
Now the only option you have is to buy a gift pack at around €24, this includes two Westy blondes, an eight, a twelve and a glass. Not bad you may say, but the blonde is recognised as being the weaker (in style) of the range and I already have a glass which makes this little lot a bit pricey and not something I’d repeat again, not very often anyway.
Clearly this is an effort to reclaim the Westvleteren beer exclusivity, but I think it can only serve to reduce the flow of visitors to the site, be they be either genuine or black marketeer. The Abbey is not close to, well anything really. It’s a proper backwoods operation deep in the Belgian countryside, transport links are absolutely awful and the only way to access is by car or cycling from nearby towns with the obvious alcohol related limitations. I always thought it worth the journey for my few tasters and a six-pack to take away, but with the new regime will I bother to make that trip again, I’m not sure.
The annoying thing is you can get the beer quite openly in many of the bars and shops of Bruges and Brussels if you are prepared to pay upwards of €10 a bottle for it. In The Beer Temple (I think) I even saw the hideously packaged promotional Westvleteren Building Blocks packs for sale at around €85.
It seems obvious to me at least, that the folks supplying the black market aren’t likely to be your average day visitors.
On my last visit we saw one guy make a couple of trips to the Westvleteren beer shop for six bottles and back to his van and you are not telling me that everyone in country who manages to get through to the beer hotline is buying “for personal use”.
Maybe this time around those clever Marketing Monks have out-hyped themselves and drinkers will just stop bothering..