ONE OF THE world’s greatest breweries never spends a dime on advertising.
It prints up beer coasters and puts its label on glassware. But there are no glossy magazine ads, no billboards, no jingles. And you certainly will never see white-haired Trappist monks from Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy monastery near Rochefort, Belgium, cavorting with buxom starlets in a beer commercial during halftime at the Super Bowl.
“You don’t tell the world you have the world’s best beer,” says Alfons Vandermolen, the man now responsible for sending Rochefort 10 to America. “It’s up to other people to tell you that you’re the best. “
And plenty do.
Beer writer Michael Jackson says it’s one of his favorites. Men’s Journal lists it as one the 50 best beers in the world in its July edition. And the highly critical sippers at BeerAdvocate .Com and RateBeer.Com both place it in their top 10.
Beneath this word-of-mouth marketing approach lies a complex distribution system that ensures only scant supplies make it across the Atlantic, at a steep cost.
Made by Trappist monks and lay workers at a religious site dating to the 13th century, the beer is the Holy Grail of Suds. Mysterious and heavenly, it’s passed down to believers through an odd network of chosen importers and blessed middlemen in a kind of arcane procedure that Dan Brown might be describing in his next best seller.
The monastery has no direct exporting deal with any American suppliers. For years, anyone who wanted to bring it across the Atlantic had to purchase it at a Belgian beer distributor, just like any other customer. (That’s a snap compared to the difficulty of getting your hands on another favorite from a competing Trappist monastery, St. Sixtus. There, the monks dole out their Westvleteren beer, three cases at a time, to individuals who line up at a window. )
Though the monastery has room to brew far more, it limits production of Rochefort 10 and its other two brands, known as 8 and 6, to fewer than 15,000 barrels a year – about the same as Kensington’s tiny Yards Brewing Co.
Vandermolen, a Belgian beer distributor who serves as Rochefort’s export manager, said the distribution arrangement is “because the monks don’t want to be involved with the hard business . . . They don’t want to be present all over the world, just the best places. “
Others note the controls guarantee high prices.
Indeed, Rochefort 10 is such a rare beer in America, some bar owners refuse to sell it to anyone but their best customers. Only those living near big cities have a shot at tasting this dark, brown Belgian ale. Some states actually ban it because its 11.3 percent alcohol is way over their legal limit.
Maybe you’ll find it at a high-end beer distributor, but be prepared to lay out $150 or more for a case. In Center City, you can get a taste at the Foodery, where a single 330ml bottle runs $8.95.
All of that could change starting next month.
Merchant du Vin, the Seattle specialty beer importer that already handles U.S. sales of two other Trappist beers, Westmalle and Orval, this week announced a new deal that it says gives it exclusive rights to Rochefort in America. The firm will import Rochefort through an arrangement with Vandermolen’s company.
It’s not making any promises, but the company says prices might drop and supplies should increase.
No, you won’t see any TV commercials with Brother Pierre, the monastic brewer. “We do have a new metal sign” for barroom walls, said Craig Hartinger of Merchant du Vin. “But it’s such a strong product by itself, it doesn’t need its logo on a NASCAR racer. “
Not surprisingly, the Rochefort deal has an element of intrigue.
The label’s previous importer, D&V International, believes it may still hold a number of rights to Rochefort. It was the company’s owner, Darius Debski, who first cracked the Rochefort network in the late 1990s, establishing an exclusive deal with one of the monastery’s favored distributors to sell the beer in America. (At least one other company, Shelton Brothers of Massachusetts, has also imported Rochefort over the years, but Debski says he has a copy of a letter from the monks blessing his arrangement. )
“I went to all the trouble because nobody else was importing it at the time,” Debski said. He created a “back” label to carry the required U.S. government warnings, and he registered the beer for sale in several states, including Pennsylvania.
Though that registration may continue to give him the right to sell Rochefort here, Debski said he has no intention of making business difficult for Merchant du Vin.
Meanwhile, however, the state’s biggest Rochefort wholesaler – Shangy’s of Emmaus, Pa. – says it wants to continue to buy from Debski.
“Darius is a little guy who works his ass off. Rochefort was never available in America before Darius,” said Nima Hadian of Shangy’s. “I’m not going to stab him. “
So, just before Merchant du Vin cut its deal with the monastery, Hadian said, Shangy’s bought $100,000 worth of Rochefort – about 1,200 cases. “I have enough for about a year,” he said.
As for Debski, he said, “I’m basically stuck with a bunch of cartons and labels, and I can’t use them anymore. I feel hurt, but I have no desire to fight. “
Someone buy this man a Rochefort 10.
Will Smith, Jay-Z and a bunch of thirsty roadies will be sucking down HopDevil, Prima Pils and other favorites from Downingtown’s Victory Brewing at Live 8 next week. Brewery chief Bill Covaleski says the brewery was selected by the backstage caterer as the sole beer provider.
McGillin’s Olde Ale House, celebrating its 145th anniversary this summer, is sponsoring a Kegs & Eggs tour to the Yuengling brewery, hosted by local beer author Lew Bryson. The pub (1310 Drury St., Center City) is giving away raffle tix; 25 winners will be treated to a daylong tour with lunch and drinks on Aug. 6.
Speaking of McGillin’s, the city’s oldest bar is still boycotting Guinness. Owner Chris Mullins, among other local barkeeps, objects to the brewery’s relationship with the Fado Irish bar chain. To keep stout fans happy, he’s now pouring O’Reilly’s Stout from Sly Fox, the brewpub in Phoenixville and Royersford.
Tomorrow: Garden State Craft Brewers Guild annual beer festival, aboard the Battleship New Jersey on the Camden waterfront. Don’t go overboard on Jersey’s finest craft brews, including Heavyweight, JJ Bitting, Harvest Moon and Flying Fish. Taps open 1-5 p.m., $25, 856-966-1652, ext. 220.
Tomorrow: Iron Hill Brewers’ Reserve Night, featuring Magic Hat. Iron Hill’s Montco brewpub (1460 Bethlehem Pike, North Wales) hosts the quirky Vermont brewery, which brings along three of its limited-edition ales, including a sour Flemish ale aged in wine barrels with pomegranate, cherries and blueberries. Not to be outdone, Iron Hill’s brewers will break out their own favorites. Pay as you go, 267-708-2000.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Westvleteren 8.