Timeless Business Lessons from Trappist Monks

beer branding agency

How does a small monastery in rural Belgium create the most in-demand beer in the world without any promotion, no labels, no distribution, for zero profit?

Christmas time at PH3 means a busy end to the year, holiday cheer and Christmas Beer. This year we are brewing Dubbel Trouble, an exclusive gift for our clients. Our head brewer Paul Greenwald developed a stellar recipe for this Belgian Dubbel that pays homage to a beer style originally created by Trappist monks in the 1800s. One community of monks, St. Sixtus, have spent the past 200 years brewing a similar Belgian Trappist style of beer and adhering to their vow of silence. Westvleteren, affectionately known as Westys, is widely known among beer enthusiasts across the globe as the #1 brew in the world. Yet the monks have never profited a dime. So, what can modern brands learn from men who go against every convention of a profitable business to achieve legendary success?

The No. 1 Beer in the World 180 Years in the Making

To understand a little about the most coveted beer in the world that inspired PH3’s Christmas ale, it’s helpful to know the origins of the Westlveteren brew. The Westvleteren brewery was founded in 1838 when the recipe and ingredients for the beer that they serve today originated. The sensation surrounding the beer really began after RateBeer released their list of best beers in the mid-2000s, and the Westy brew was ranked #1. Thanks to this exposure, the Westvleteren brew went from an average of only 20 customers to become the most sought-after beer in the world nearly overnight. Despite this demand and growth of devotees, the monks didn’t increase their supply. In fact, they’ve brewed the same amount of beer (60,000 cases per year) since 1946.

The five monks who brew this coveted brew developed global demand for their product while only working roughly four hours a day. For starters, they don’t solve business problems with business thinking. In this way they don’t work to make success happen, they allow it to find them. Mark Bode, a representative of the Westvleteren Brewery, passes this message along from the monks, “We make beer to live, but we do not live for beer.” Their why drives their how, and in turn, they add value to customers through their purpose-driven mission.

Westvleteren has cemented an impenetrable brand identity over the years after the explosion of the craft beer scene, with the help of online communities. It’s a following that’s due in large part to consistency in the way they brew and commitment to their values.

The Quest For Quality

The St. Sixtus Monastery Abbey in Western Belgium is the only place in the world where customers are permitted to buy Westvleteren Beer. But don’t book that flight just yet. The Abbey requires that you call to reserve your order of beer 6 months in advance because of the high demand. To understand how high the demand really is, their reservation phone number receives 85,000 calls an hour making the likelihood of your call even going through almost impossible. Let’s say your call does get through and you’re able to finally place your order for 2 cases (max) successfully—great! Now you have to find your way to the Abbey. Even in the age of technology, it’s still incredibly difficult to find. The brewery is a 1.5-hour drive from Brussels, complete with unmarked dirt roads, and beyond the reach of Google Street View.

The monks at St. Sixtus prove that you can drive traffic no matter where your business is located, or how dated your website is—IF your product is worthy. They succeed with their brew because their attention is focused on the product, not the profits. The Westvleteren brewery employs scarcity on many levels, but scarcity means nothing without the elevated quality delivered with each sip.

Elevated Values That Transcend Business

The real secret of the Westvleteren Brewery’s success? Their operation is rooted in a higher set of values that transcends business. As people, we long to give ourselves and our time to something larger than ourselves, and we look for brands that also align with these altruistic values.

Simply, brands must strive to make sacrifices through selfless service...for themselves, those they serve, and those they serve with. Westvleteren’s “company culture” consists entirely of people who fully believe in what they’re doing and are committed to the work that’s required of them, for the benefit of the community.

Maximizing everything for everyone isn’t a recipe for success—it’s an impossible goal. Pursuing the most only works for those who already have it all. Even though they defy practical business sense, Westvleteren monks have experienced success no matter how you cut it. Nothing they do exists outside their driving values and beliefs when it comes to how they make and sell their beer. It’s entirely “business on their terms”. Because they have a specific process for their production and sale, demand works to meet supply and not the other way around. Devoted followings develop because people qualify themselves as perfect prospects as soon as they understand that your brand is for people like them. The monks’ satisfaction is the service, long before profit. And that transforms their beer from a commodity into a holy grail.