Monks of Westvleteren sign up 80,000 customers in one year
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    Monks of Westvleteren sign up 80,000 customers in one year

    In its first year as an internet marketplace for what is perhaps the world’s most sought-after beer, the abbey of Westvleteren signed up no fewer than 80,000 prospective customers – twice as many as the number of crates of beer produced.

    One year ago, before the coronavirus was even dreamed of, the Sint-Sixtus abbey in Westvleteren, as it is officially known, switched from its practice of customers making an appointment to pick up a maximum of two creates of 24 bottles of their beer. Instead, customers would make their order online at the website.

    Sint-Sixtus is a Trappist abbey, whose Benedictine order carries the motto Ora et Labora – prayer and work – which means that the monks have to subsist on their labours. In some cases, like the six official Trappist beers produced in Belgium, that involves brewing.

    But Westvleteren – the name of the nearby village in the depths of that part of West Flanders known as the Westhoek or western corner – is more rigorous than most. While some Trappist abbeys, like Chimay or Westmalle, have turned into industrial powerhouses, Westvleteren restricts itself to producing only as much beer as required to finance its religious and pastoral duties.

    That amounts, spokesperson Brother Godfried explained, to about 40,000 crates of 24 bottles each of 33cl, or 320 hectolitres of beer in a year.

    If you think that a customer buys two crates on average, that means nearly 19,000 customers, or about a quarter of all registered, have been able to place an order. So if you want a crate, you sometimes have to be patient.”

    However since moving online, the site has registered more than twice as many potential customers. Not everyone is there to buy beer – which can only be picked up in person according to the official rules, although there does exist a vibrant secondary market where unscrupulous real-life customers sell beer on to traders who then charge buyers exorbitant rates.

    Because of that stricture, not surprisingly 81% of orders come from customers in Belgium, with 11% from the Netherlands, 3% from France and 2% from Germany. Of the remaining 3%, most are from other European countries, but also from the US, Canada, Brazil and elsewhere.

    The new website has what the monks refer to as a ‘smart waiting-room’ which means that customers who recently placed an order give precedence to those who have not so recently done so.

    That too is part of the fight against the secondary market.

    Account holders who do not follow the rules and abuse the system will no longer be able to access the webshop,” said Brother Godfried.

    The new system allows us to detect rogue prospective buyers faster. Whoever enters incorrect or false personal data or registers multiple accounts, commits an infringement of our sales conditions and may no longer purchase our products. Several hundred accounts have already been blocked because of irregularities in the past year.”

    According to the abbey, each sales session – always announced in advance on the website – invariably attracts more buyers than there are crates of beer to sell.

    And the abbey is still making up for the two-month down time of the lockdown, when no sales took place. Customers, however, were standing by.

    The session of May 14, when sales resumed, saw 6,000 crates up for sale – many more than usual – while the number of customers who signed up reached a record 52,000, causing the site to crash.

    Alan Hope
    The Brussels Times