The place is remote and hard to get to. Public transportation from the nearest major city can take up to 9 hours. Even if you drive yourself, you’re forced to navigate unmarked and unpaved roads. When you arrive, you may find long lines of anxious and tired travelers who are known to sometimes break out into fist fights.
Nonetheless, “once you’re there,” wrote one person who braved the trip, “it’s like arriving at some mythical place.”
What is this special location? It’s none other than the Trappist Abbey of St. Sixtus in Vleteren, Belgium. And most of those who make the difficult pilgrimage aren’t looking for spiritual guidance, but to seek a taste of an elusive drink: Westvleteren 12, the world’s most sought-after beer.
[See also: Behold, the Official Catholic Blessing for Beer]
The story of this incredible beer, and the small band of Trappist monks who make it, dates back to the early 19th century. A few Trappist monks from France started the Abbey of St. Sixtus in 1831. Just a few years later in 1838, they started brewing small amounts of beer, but they served it only to themselves and guests.
That all changed in 1931 when they started selling their beer to the public. They updated their brewing equipment in 1992, but otherwise their recipe has remained largely unchanged since then.
Business was small but steady until they had a sudden breakthrough in the early 2000s: one of their beers, the Westvleteren 12, was named the best beer in the world by RateBeer.com. Overnight, they became an international sensation.
“One day, 20 people were there drinking the beer,” the executive director of RateBeer.com said. “The next, there’s a huge line of cars waiting to buy it.”
The monks were actually upset at RateBeer.com initially. They were inundated with more orders for beer than they could ever fill with their small operation. Of course, given their newfound fame, they could have expanded their brewing operations, jacked up their prices, and made a fortune.
But they weren’t interested in that.
“We are no brewers,” a statement on their website used to say. “We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford to be monks.” They aren’t interested in more money, just supporting their monastic community and prayer.
To this day, despite all the popularity, only five monks handle the brewing, and they brew only 70 days a year. Five additional monks help them with bottling. That’s it. Every year, this small operation produces only 4,000 barrels, or 126,000 gallons – which, for the most sought-after beer in the world, is hardly anything.
Interested in getting your hands on some? Good luck! You won’t find it at your local liquor store or even online. You can only buy the beer at their visitor’s center, or at their abbey by appointment. To make an appointment, you have to call a special number – but the number receives as many as 85,000 calls an hour, so even getting through is a challenge. Once you get a chance to buy some, they only allow each person to buy one or two cases every two months. And yes, they keep track.
But then again, given the Church’s long history of brewing, is it any surprise that the best, most-sought after beer in the world is made by Trappist monks?
Is there another great product made by monks or nuns you’d recommend? Share it in the comments!
[See also: 11 Awesome Things You Can Buy from Monks]