The New York Times:
VLETEREN, Belgium — On the face of it, this quaint Belgian town has few attractions — a charming brick parish church; a tall wooden windmill at the town’s main intersection. But it has the world’s best beer.
In the past few years, several Web sites that ask beer drinkers to rate their favorite brews have accorded that honor to a strong, dark local brew known as Westvleteren 12. In fact, the enthusiastic American Web site RateBeer.com gave the beer the honor two years in a row, dethroning a Swedish dark beer, Närke Kaggen Stormaktsporter.
Yet the people of Vleteren, population 3,700, have mixed feelings. The beer has been brewed for a century and a half by the Trappist monks of a local abbey, St. Sixtus, nestled in farmlands on the edge of town. Clearly, its newfound fame has given a lift to the local economy, benefiting restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and local shops that cater to pilgrims and tourists flocking to the abbey for the rich, brown-hued brew.
“It’s very good for us,” said Stephan Mourisse, 46, a notary who is the town’s part-time mayor. “We don’t need to advertise, our bed-and-breakfasts are always full, full, full because of the beer.”
A dozen years back, he said, if you wanted Westvleteren 12 you just drove out to St. Sixtus and bought some. Now, he said, in nice weather the line of cars waiting to buy the beer can stretch for three miles.
The pick-me-up for the local economy could not come at a better time, with Belgium feeling the recession afflicting all of Europe. Out in Liège, in the east, a major steel works announced in January that it was laying off 1,300 people; a month earlier, Ford said it would close a car plant in nearby Genk, affecting as many as 10,000 jobs.
Yet beer, for the moment, keeps little Vleteren nicely afloat.
In recent years a second microbrewery has sprung up, perhaps inspired by the monks. In 2005, several local people who ran an ostrich farm began producing a dark beer of the strong 12 percent type similar to what the monks brew. Now, demand for their dark strong ales and stouts, branded as De Struise — Dutch for the ostrich — is so great that the company is expanding into a disused school building.
Urbain Coutteau, 51, the fledgling brewery’s brew master, leads a visitor through a warehouse of used oak casks, some from Kentucky that once stored bourbon and others from wine-growing regions of France, that are now used for aging the beer. The monks of St. Sixtus, he says, are not competitors. “I regard them as holy colleagues, that’s just the word,” he said. “If I want to visit them, I just go out there; we have a good relationship, we respect each other.”
Beer, he said, is lifting everyone’s economic boat. “Lots of pilgrims come,” he said. “They have to eat, sleep, they don’t go back the same day.” They visit other breweries, like nearby St. Bernardus, he said, or the war graves that abound in this region, Flanders Fields, where major battles of World War I were fought.
Yet, if De Struise is growing, what lifts the desirability of the monks’ Westvleteren 12 is their strict refusal to increase production beyond the roughly 130,000 gallons they have maintained for more than 60 years, or to supply stores and pubs in the region for sale. Forget exports. Only once, last year, did they have a sales drive abroad, even shipping the beer to the United States, where a six-pack sold for $85. But that was to finance reconstruction of the abbey buildings, completed late last year, which were in sore disrepair.
Westvleteren’s popularity has created jobs, albeit a modest number. Six laymen work in the abbey, including five in the brewery, and another dozen or so in a restaurant and gift shop near the abbey gate. Yet the monks, all 21 of them, insist they are first and foremost men of God, not beer salesmen.
“Many people benefit” from Westvleteren’s success, said Mark Bode, a layman who has worked for the monks for 10 years, and now functions as a kind of spokesman. “It gives the village its profile.”
“But that is not the main goal,” he added, sipping tea in the restaurant, as visitors hauled off six-packs — maximum two to a customer — at $27 each, clutching them like gold ingots.
“The monks are ambiguous,” he went on. “They are proud of their product, yet they don’t want to be associated only with beer. At the moment, they are sticking to that line.”
“One of the biggest things they give to the region is silence,” he said, alluding to the Trappists’ practice of refraining from speech whenever possible.
Beers like Westvleteren and De Struise help make Belgium a beer powerhouse. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s biggest brewer, has headquarters in Leuven, east of the capital, Brussels. Though many of the brewer’s 200 brands, like Bud Light or Beck’s, qualify as valuable brands, few ever enter the best beer ranks on popular Web sites. Still, there is no envy. “The wide variety, styles and sheer number of Belgian beers puts Belgium on the map as a country of reference for quality beers,” Natacha Schepkens, a spokeswoman for the company, wrote in an e-mail. “There is room for all players.”
Economic benefits aside, the people of Vleteren just enjoy their beer. “During the day I’ll have a Fanta,” said Hanne Versaevel, 32, a local police officer and a mother of two young children. “In the evening I’ll have a Westvleteren, because it’s strong.”
“We’re very proud of it,” she added.
But Marianne Soutaer-Boutten, who runs the Cafe De Sterre near the town center, dissents from the general jubilation, lamenting the fact that local restaurants and pubs cannot get the monks to deliver them the brew. In nearby Bruges, you can find a bottle of Westvleteren for almost $35, she said, probably beer that is being resold, a problem the monks wrestle with.
Yet you cannot buy it in Vleteren, aside from at the monastery.
She denounces the hype surrounding Westvleteren, arguing that the St. Bernardus ale she sells is every bit as delicious.
“You can buy a T-shirt with Lacoste on it, or a T-shirt at the supermarket,” she said. “But it’s basically the same T-shirt.”