Bierkraft in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn is the sort of place most beer lovers would step over their mothers to spend time—and money—in regularly. The cozy retailer with exposed brick walls has runs of shelves laden with every imaginable beer, from East Asian curiosities to Western European comforts to offerings from just about all 50 states, no matter how tiny the brewhouse. There are growler taps, and tables for a sample and a nosh; there’s even a Ms. Pac-Man console for a 1980s nostalgia trip alongside your pint.
There are also Trappist ales. Almost all arrive from distributors in cases of 12, and some brands, like Westmalle and Rochefort, the retailer has to order once a week to slake the demand of customers, balancing that against the freshness integral to the Trappists’ charm.
“We have 24 bottles, tops, of any of them in the shop at any time,” said Matt Barclay, who handles purchasing for Bierkraft. “We do have a reasonable amount of business for Chimay when tourists are in, but our hardcore neighborhood customers, they mostly drink Orval and Westmalle; and Rochefort’s always very popular.”
And this insatiability, even with some bottles retailing for over $10 a 12-ounce pop.
Trappist ales are some of the most difficult to find and highly priced in the U.S., though it’s not as simple as supply and demand. The journey from recipe to chalice starts on one end with humble monks in remote villages 3,500 miles away and ends only after different people, as well as history, have their says.
First, the monks.
They are of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: strict adherence to the rules of their sixth-century founder, St. Benedict, that revolve around the ethos of “prayer and work.”
Trappists meet formally for prayer at least eight times daily, and consume largely only what they make, including beer (to carry the appellation “Trappist,” beers have to be brewed within a monastery, though not necessarily by monks; all of the seven breweries that carry the appellation are run by laypeople, though controlled by monks). This aesthetic lifestyle leaves little room for chasing profits by, say, maximizing the production of their breweries.
So the Trappist breweries—Westvleteren, Westmalle, Achel, Chimay, Rochefort, Achel and Koenigshoven—have deliberately limited their production goals to what works for sustaining the monastic community and its efforts.
Still, some are more limited than others: Chimay is the largest at about 170,000 hectoliters produced annually, with Koningshoeven (commonly called La Trappe) second with around 145,000; and Westmalle third with 120,000 hectoliters. Orval is fourth at about 60,000 hectoliters annually, and then there’s a huge drop-off: Westvleteren produces about 4,750 and Achel 3,500.
Second, the importers and distributors.
Joe Lipa was present at the creation. Now the national sales manager for importer Merchant du Vin, he recalled that the firm’s relationship with Trappist ales—and with European craft beer in general—began in the mid-1970s the way a lot of American relationships with the stuff began then: through Michael Jackson.
The redoubtable British beer critic, who died in 2007, made introductions between the European breweries and the American importer that wanted to get to know them. “He didn’t get the contracts for us but he gave us the references for some of those breweries,” Lipa said.
Merchant du Vin now imports, among other top brands, Orval, Westmalle and Rochefort exclusively to the U.S. Its relationship with Orval, in fact, stretches back over 30 years; with Westmalle and Rochefort, about 10 years. Lipa declined to discuss the specific numbers of his clients, citing their privacy concerns. But another source told All About Beer Magazine that about 2 percent each of Westmalle, Rochefort, Achel and Orval’s production makes its way to the U.S. (yes, 2 percent). Robert Hodson, the sales and marketing manager at Union Beer Distributors, which covers 14 counties in and around New York City, said, for example, his firm might get 100 cases of Achel in an entire year—that’s 1,200 bottles for tens of millions of potential consumers.
For Chimay, the largest Trappist producer and most active exporter of the seven, that U.S. percentage, according to sources, might approach 35 percent in a given year. For La Trappe, much less but in the double-digits nonetheless. (The importers for both, and for Achel, did not respond to requests for comment.) Westvleteren exports zero, to here or anywhere, preferring to sell its three beers at one location only—across the street from the brewery.
Once imported, usually by ships that start from the Belgian port of Antwerp, distributors take over. It’s a thankless science—retailers, especially in larger markets, always ask for more Trappist beer than distributors can provide.
“We try to give it to accounts who have been pretty loyal to the category,” Hodson of Union Beer Distributors said. “To try and dictate where it’s going to go and when it’s going to go, inevitably, you’re going to leave an account out to dry. Probably a couple of accounts are going to say, ‘Why can’t I get any?’ So you try to spread it to as many accounts as possible, at the same time, trying to make sure that those accounts who are loyal to the category are given somewhat of a preferential treatment.”
To be clear: none of the Trappist breweries needs the American market. “We have to allocate from each brewery,” Lipa said of Merchant du Vin’s strategy for its three Trappists. “We don’t discriminate—we try to be in all 50 states, and that’s a challenge because we only have so much. Saying that, the consumer knows this; the retailer knows this; the distributor knows this; they’re all just thankful they can get Rochefort, Orval and Westmalle—because, you see, those breweries don’t need the United States market; none of them do.”
Third, the retailers.
So where does that leave retailers like Brooklyn’s Bierkraft? Waiting on distributors, who are waiting on importers, who are waiting on the monks. The only thing that a retailer can really do to get a leg up on the competition for Trappist beers is to treat them with the reverence their scarcity here demands—what Hodson at Union Beer calls “loyalty.”
“They’re the accounts that always carry the beer,” he said. “You don’t have to ask them if they know what beer you’re talking about. They’re savvy; they have a good consumer base of customers who are looking for a great selection of product. They understand how to keep the beer, how to treat the beer, how to store the beer.”
When they get the beer. For now, Chimay and La Trappe (Chimay in particular) will continue to be relatively ubiquitous in the U.S., especially in bigger urban markets and on either coast, while the other four available for export will remain rare and often fleeting presences on your local shelves. “We might have someone drive halfway across the state to buy everything we have,” said Kyle Hefley, a clerk at Sam’s Quik Shop, a Durham, N.C., food and drink emporium envied for its wide beer selection. He was referring to Rochefort 10, probably the store’s briskest Trappist seller.
As All About Beer Magazine learned earlier this year, Rochefort is in the midst of an expansion in its production. In typical Trappist fashion, though, it will be glacial—over 10 years—and will not up production by much more than 30 percent.
Get `em while—and when—you can.