18 August 2023

People first: Trappist brewery Westmalle plans major investment

Belgium | After the Abbey of Achel in Belgium was closed, Stift Engelszell in Austria announced its dissolution, and the St. Joseph's Abbey in the US ceased production, beer connoisseurs began to fear for the future of Trappist breweries.

There have never been more than 13 Trappist breweries in operation around the world at a given time, making their beers very much a niche yet important part of the craft beer world.

But when Philippe Van Assche, the secular Managing Director of the Westmalle brewery, Belgium’s oldest Trappist brewery, admitted in an interview with the UK newspaper, The Guardian, in March, that Trappist breweries face an uncertain future after a decline in people entering monastic life, I expected even more calamitous news. The headline had screamed: “Last orders?” Mr Van Assche reportedly said: “Nowadays, we don’t have a lot of vocations.” He is not confident people will be seeking to become monks in 10 or 20 years’ time: “To be honest, I think there is a kind of caesura ... a kind of break.”

On a recent visit to Westmalle, I was therefore glad to hear that the 135,000 hl brewery, which has a staff of some 50 lay people, is planning to spend upwards of an estimated EUR 20 million on a new bottling plant. More than 90 percent of its output is packaged in bottles.

Putting people first - and meaning it

In case you wonder why Westmalle’s investment is so big compared to its beer output: the monks already decided more than 20 years ago, when they installed the current bottling plant, that it is to run from Monday to Thursday only, with one shift per day. Friday is reserved for cleaning. In other words, the old plant is massively oversized – as will be the new one – but that idea will only cross your mind if you employ mundane operational criteria.

However, the monks are not given to mundane thinking. By choosing a monastic life, they chose to keep their distance to the outside world and that includes how they do business. Although Westmalle brewery is not small by any standards – it ranks second largest Trappist brewery behind Chimay -, the monks categorically put people first: no one is expected to work overtime, night shifts, or, heaven forbid, on weekends. As the monks see it, their staff have the right to a private life.

Staffers for life

Like the monks, who enter the monastery for life, many staff members work at the brewery all their lives. Jan Adriaensens, its production director, only retired in March after 41 years with Westmalle. He was succeeded by Lieven Van Hofstraeten (48), who has worked at the brewery for 26 years already. Both of them joined Westmalle straight after university. Guido Bastiaensen, its sales director, also spent decades at the brewery before he handed the baton to Bart Wellens. There is no need to survey employees for their job satisfaction. Their life-long allegiance shows it.

The abbey’s 23 monks may no longer show up on the factory floor at Westmalle, but what happens at the brewery is ultimately their decision. There is a supervisory board consisting of two monks and four independent directors, who advise the monks on all kinds of business matters. Yet, fundamental decisions will be taken by all the monks. Sometimes it can take years before they arrive at a decision. In the world of the monks with its strict daily routines of prayer, work and rest, there is no rush.

Well-considered decisions

Perhaps this is for the better. When the brewery’s management wanted to buy a new stainless steel brewhouse to replace the old copper one, the monks worried that this might alter the taste of their beers. Only after their fears were assuaged did they eventually consent to the purchase. They also insisted that it only produces two batches per day. Same with their tanks. When the brewery staff suggested that they switch from their horizontal tanks to cylindro-conical ones, years of careful deliberations followed before the monks gave their permission. Perhaps it was the argument that the upright tanks cleaned themselves which swayed them.

The monks may abhor the principles of modern business, with its focus on expedition, efficiency, and cost-cutting, but they are not hostile to change. A few years ago, they added a Westmalle Extra (4.8 percent ABV) to their Dubbel (7.0 percent ABV) and Tripel (9.5 percent ABV) brands. They clearly saw the need for a lower alcohol beer, and agreed that this beer, which was previously only consumed by the monks and their guests during meals, shall be made available to consumers too. “Will Westmalle eventually offer a non-alcoholic beer?” I asked my host. She replied, laughing: “No, the monks drew the line: no 0.0 percent beer. That would be against our tradition.”

Non-commercial strategy

In Belgium, Westmalle beers are ubiquitous thanks to the brewery’s longstanding cooperation with merely nine distributors who share its values. The brewery directly supplies the three major supermarket chains. This has made one publican I spoke to complain that the monks have become too commercial for his likes. When I asked him what he meant by “too commercial”, he added that the beers must make the monastery a nice bit of profit. “What’s wrong with profits?” I retorted. The abbey pays taxes, maintains vast ancient buildings in constant need of repairs and uses its proceeds to do good deeds.

I could have told him that the brewery does not push its beers into the market by running promotions to increase sales. In fact, annual output has risen from 120,000 hl to 135,000 hl in recent decades because this allows the brewery to better manage spikes in demand. If its beers are sold at a fair price, this reflects their quality. However, I fear it was my argument about the monks’ need to fix roofs that made him relent in his criticism.

What I should have said is this: “Westmalle beer represents the values of the monks, there is a message attached to it: We offer quality, we brew humanely [that is caring about our staff] and we ask people to drink in moderation. And the monks share in their abundance, so part of the proceeds go to charities.” This is what Guido Bastiaensen told Dutch media in 2008. It still applies today.


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