DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is a big day for beer lovers. Westvleteren 12, a beer that's often been called the best in the world, hits U.S. shelves for the first and possibly only time in history. This beer inspires such frenzy, fans won't even blink at the price tag - about $85 for six bottles. For today's Bottom Line in Business, we sent Teri Schultz deep into the Belgian countryside to find out what all this hype is about.
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TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Today the 12th day of the 12th month of 2012, not a day of deliverance but delivery for devout American fans of Westvleteren 12, brewed by reclusive Belgian monks at St. Sixtus Abbey. The abbey happened to need an expensive renovation recently, a blessing for beer lovers.
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SCHULTZ: Purposely lacking cash reserves by virtue of their austere lifestyle, the 21 monks reluctantly made the decision to export small amounts of the precious nectar overseas for the first time. And...
MARK BODE: I think it will be the last.
SCHULTZ: That's Mark Bode, longtime spokesman for the Westvleteren Brewery and one of very few people privy to the views of the monks - as no visitors are allowed inside the abbey.
BODE: They say we are monks; we don't want to be too commercial. We needed some money to help us buy the new abbey and that's it - back to normal again.
SCHULTZ: Normal being a life entirely focused on prayer, for which they rise at 3 A.M. to start the first of seven sessions per day. In between...
BODE: Kitchen, garden, painting, brewing.
SCHULTZ: Brewing the same amount of beer every year since 1945, about 3800 U.S. barrels, just the amount needed to sustain the abbey through sales that are incredibly tightly controlled. That scarcity created demand on a regional scale even before beer websites started the international craze, by giving it the stellar taste rating.
Beer connoisseur Andrew Stroehlein, who's blogged his way through an estimated 500 Belgian varieties, says he went through, well, hell and high water to get some Westvleteren.
ANDREW STROEHLEIN: You call the number over a series of days, weeks, months and nobody answers. Then finally somebody does answer. They tell you when you can come. They tell you what beer you can buy. They tell you how much you're going to pay. And, you know, if you don't like it, well, God be with you.
SCHULTZ: Nevertheless, Stroehlein's eagerly made a second trip today to get a taste of the Trappist treat.
STROEHLEIN: This is the goal. I mean it's the holy grail of so many beer connoisseurs. This is where they want to reach because this is it.
SCHULTZ: Sitting nearby in the brewery cafe are two patrons who came by train from the Netherlands. John Stienen...
JOHN STIENEN: Because of the whole story it's worth traveling for and it's a legend.
SCHULTZ: And Theijs van Welij.
THEIJS VAN WELIJ: But even without the whole story, if you take your time and you pay attention to it, then you notice the difference. And you really think like, OK, this is really one of the few quality beers that you should have tried in your life.
SCHULTZ: Back in Brussels, Stroehlein delivers a bottle to Christine Frazer, who's been anticipating this first sip for a long time.
CHRISTINE FRAZER: That's lovely. It's like a sweetie, like a bonbon. Oh, yes.
SCHULTZ: When there is criticism of Westvleteren's taste, it tends to be that it's too sweet. Jean Hummler owns one of the most successful lambic pubs in Brussels. The acidic lambic beers require more complex brewing processes and, Hummler suggests, more sophisticated palates than Trappist ales, such as Westvleteren.
JEAN HUMMLER: It doesn't contain any special malt, use a lot of candy sugar. So, as professional, we consider Westvleteren as a heavy, dark, sweet beer. So it's easy to be famous and popular when you're working on the mild and the sweet side.
SCHULTZ: That criticism wouldn't bother the modest monks. Mark Bode says while they're proud of their product, the hype makes it more difficult to live a life of silence and seclusion.
BODE: They don't want the publicity. They don't need it and no.
SCHULTZ: It comes in useful when you need a new roof.
BODE: Then some - one times in a lifetime, yes.
SCHULTZ: For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels.
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