When a group of Belgian monks puts cases of beer on its website, they usually get about 3,000 customers in their online shop–all hoping to buy some of the rare, delectable ale the abbey has been producing since the 1830s.
After lockdown, when they were able to start reselling, visitor numbers surged and crashed the system. Over a four hour period, they had as many as 11,000 visitors trying to access the site, to buy the current consignment of just 6,000 cases.
The Saint-Sixtus Abbey in West Flanders, Belgium is situated near the French border, very close to Dunkirk and Lille. It was founded in 1831 when five monks went to join a hermit, who had been living in the woods of Westvleteren since 1814.
They began to make beer and cheese–to support themselves and their charitable work–and were granted an official brewery license from king Leopold I on April 19, 1839. It is a Roman Catholic abbey for Cistercians of Strict Observance, or Trappists. In their own words, “we brew to live. We do not live to brew.”
Over the 19th century, brewery buildings were added. Later, in the 1920s, they modernised by adding steam to the production process, and in the 1970s, they added a lab and a bottling line–with the ability to produce 12,000 bottles per hour. Recently, the abbey added photovoltaics to its roof to provide its own energy.
Belgium has had one of the highest per capita death rates during the COVID-19 pandemic (57 fatalities per 100,000) and the brewery was forced to close, along with other businesses.
Whilst it is incredibly modern and could scale up to become more commercial, it only sells to individuals, aiming to give everyone a fair chance to buy its beer at fair prices. As reported by Bloomberg, you can only buy in the online shop and only if you are registered with a valid car number plate. The maximum number of crates you can buy is three.
Since 1945, the abbey has limited the number of beer it produces to keep demand high. It sells 6,000 hectoliters every year, or 5,113 barrels annually.