I recently heard it straight from the brewer’s mouth: “You need a good story nowadays if you want to sell beer.” This may go some way in explaining the hype around Belgian Trappist beer. Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle or Westvleteren; they are often impossible to track down, and when they do make it to a store, they fly off the shelves. A clever marketing ploy? Yes, it has all the hallmarks.
Make sure you offer an excellent product that is very hard to find, feed the rumour mill and all of us will pay over the odds to acquire such a rarity. But this is too much of a simplification of the success of Trappist beers.
First and foremost, every Trappist abbey and brewery is in a different position. Achel is the latest Belgian Trappist; its production volume (300,000 litres) can be compared with that of Westvleteren (475,000 l).
Achel is primarily found in its own region, Limburg, and demand for this lesser-known Trappist remains limited. Chimay heads the production table with approximately 16,500,000 litres-a-year and is very active in the export business. Chimay is a real and global brand name, that is even promoted through advertising. Is this not contrary to the Trappist order’s founder St. Benedict’s rules advocating modesty? No, as the end justifies the means.
Chimay aims to be a significant employer in a poor region and in that case, growth is allowed and even encouraged. It is no coincidence that the brewery has recently made investments to expand its capacity. They want to fulfil their promises.
Orval (7,000,000 l) is another story altogether. Behind the scenes, investment has poured into the brewery for years. At Orval they are at full capacity and within their abbey walls they cannot produce any more beer, they say. However, delivering a quality product is paramount. Orval has never been a big player in the export market.
“First of all, we’ll see if we can deliver to Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands”, was the abbey’s initial vision. But they did not take into account the rising popularity of abbey beers on the international stage. Demand is huge and the abbey beers fly off the shelves in no time.
I overheard an Orval representative telling the press that they would prefer to remain below the radar as publicity would only increase demand. Rochefort (3,500,000 l) has also joined the race.
This Trappist abbey excels through its modesty. You cannot visit the brewery – by the way, this applies to all Trappist breweries – but this one does not even have a tavern where you can taste the beers (!). Rochefort made the news recently when quarying works endangered the water source of the Tridène and, last year, part of the roof went up in flames. Now silence reigns once again in the abbey of Saint-Rémy, and, admittedley, Rochefort can still be found.
The same applies to Westmalle (12,000,000 l), a Trappist found primarily in the Benelux region. This number two among Belgian Trappists is hugely popular in its own region, the Antwerp Kempen area.
For Westmalle as well, ambition was never top of the agenda. They prefer to stick to current volumes so they can deliver quality. Also, they work to live and not the other way around.
One simple anecdote shows how marketing is viewed in the Trappist world. When there was a great stack of Westmalle Tripel, the marketing department was quick to propose a lovely bottle of ‘spéciale réserve’. The marketeer designed the label and proudly presented it to the Abbott.
His first question was: “Will you be filling these bottles with our usual tripel?” Whereupon the marketeer could only nod in agreement. Whereupon the Abbot said: “Just use our usual bottles.” Back to square one for the marketeer.
Out of the Shadows
Westvleteren has become iconic. In the ‘grey’ market you pay well over the odds for a crate of the stuff. This trappist is impossible to track down unless you know your way around. Cafés don’t serve it and shops don’t stock it (officially). To add to the mystery, shopkeepers risk a fine if they sell Westvleteren. How, then, can you get hold of a bottle? You call a special number and await your turn.
When Westvleteren was crowned ‘best beer in the world’ on the ratebeer.com site, demand became unstoppable with traffic jams on the road to the Abbey.
Nowadays everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and the message is patience, patience, patience. In the meantime prices on eBay and on the grey market go through the roof. Westvleteren has turned into a good investment, just like line-caught tuna. Is this really the monks’ dream? Perhaps not.
The St-Sixtus Abbey has been brewing from the early 90s. The ‘authentic Trappist beer’ label means that the beer has been brewed within the abbey walls. This is how Trappist beers set themselves apart from the 27 Belgian abbey beers brewed ‘outside the abbey walls’ (the abbey will outsource the brewing and receives a revenue from granting the licence).
The volume produced has remained unchanged for dozens of years. So, why is it that you used to be able to order a Westvleteren in your local café but not any more? It’s because the beer was consumed within its own region and was not very well known outside the area. Emerging out of the shadows does have its consequences. A product that is unique, with a story that is unique, will sell no matter what.