Demand for Belgian Trappist Ale Soars After Coronavirus Lockdown

(Bloomberg) -- The Roman Catholic order that created the Saint-Sixtus abbey in West Flanders has overcome two world wars and other hardships, but it wasn’t prepared for the flood of interest from beer buyers as coronavirus lockdowns ease.

Like many businesses in Belgium -- site of the world’s highest per-capita death rate from the coronavirus -- the abbey had to shut down sales of its fabled Trappist Westvleteren 12 ale, ranked one of the all-time best on the ratebeer.com website.

When the monks reopened last week -- for just four hours -- pent-up demand drove nearly four times the average number of shoppers to the website, crashing the online store.

“We were confronted by a tsunami of visitors,” the monks wrote in an emailed statement. “Unfortunately, the computer servers could not handle the massive visitor flow.”

Even in good times, cases of Westvleteren are nearly impossible to get. First, you need to create an account on the abbey’s website, which requires having a license plate number. If you successfully place an order, your plates will be checked to confirm your identity. The maximum purchase allowed is three cases.

On average, the abbey will get about 3,000 visitors to its online shop when it puts an alotment on the market. But when they reopened from 8 p.m. to midnight with 6,000 cases on offer, they had more than 11,000 people log on at one point.

The relative scarcity of Westvleteren adds to the mystique of the brand and stems from the “radical” decision by abbot Dom Gerardus Deleye in 1945 to reduce the amount of beer produced, according to the abbey’s website. Now, they brew about 6,000 hectoliters every year, or 5,113 barrels.

The rarity of Westvleteren allows illegal resellers in downtown Brussels to hock the beer for as much as 20 euros ($21.61) per bottle.

The monks are taking steps to improve their reservation practices and expand the capacity of the computer system to avoid any glitches when they conduct another sale next week.

“We hope that everything will go a little smoother next time,” they said, while managing expectations. “Can we guarantee that everyone who is logged in during a sales session can actually buy beer? No.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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