What Price the Best Beer in the World?

In a previous article, about last month’s cruise and the all too brief stop-over we had in Amsterdam, I mentioned a rather good bottle shop, called Bierkonig. It is located in the heart of Amsterdam, close to Dam Square, and just a short hop from the Dutch Royal Palace. According to most guide books, and online review sites, it is consistently regarded as the best bottle shop in Amsterdam and has achieved legendary status among craft beer fans.

It must be doing something right, as it has been serving a huge range of international beers since 1985, so as I was in the area, it would have been rude not to have paid a visit to Bierkonig.The business occupies a rather unassuming shop, just a short distance from Dam Square – a location that seems to be a popular meeting place. It was quite easy to find, and not as far from the cruise terminal as I first thought. This quite often happens when I'm exploring new places, but it's better when it’s this way around then finding one has under estimated the distance, and the time taken to reach a place I was looking for.

I arrived at Bierkonig, with a completely open mind as to what I would buy, basically because I had absolutely no idea what I would find there. I had already read that this small store boasts an impressive, and somewhat overwhelming selection of bottles, so with this in mind I decided to take a look and see what took my fancy. Apart from two members of staff, one of whom was busy re-stocking, there was just a couple of customers in the shop.  I hadn't been there long before they’d finished their browsing and were ready to pay for their goods, so I then had the store to myself.

The shelves, which extend around most internal walls, were well-stocked, and there is also a raised area at the rear of the premises, with a section below. I thought that I’d taken more photos that I actually did, but you will get the picture from those posted below. 

There were quite a few strong Winter and Christmas Bock beers from Germany, but as I was in the Low Countries, I stuck to mainly Dutch varieties, with the occasional Belgian offering for good measure. I was also mindful that I would have to carry my purchases back to the cruise ship, and whilst I came equipped with a sturdy and reasonably sized rucksack, I didn’t want to overdo it.

I had thought of going for some of the more obscure Trappist Beers, and I did pick up a few of these, including Achel Bruin, Zundert 8, and Orval - not that obscure I know, but equally not that common in the UK either. I also found a beer with a pale blue label, from Westmalle, that I had never seen before, called “Extra.” With a strength of just 4.8%, this golden beer is one of the weakest Trappist beers I have come across, but apparently this is the table beer served to the monks and their guests, at the Belgian abbey of the same name.

In addition, and because I'd already seen it advertised on shop’s website, I was determined to buy a bottle or maybe two of Westvleteren 12, the beer ranked by the site RateBeer.com, as the best in the world, and therefore, because of limited production, one of the most sought-after beers as well.  I had already decided that no matter how expensive was beer was, I would still buy at least one bottle, due to its rarity value. After all, it’s not that often the one gets the opportunity to purchase the “Best Beer in the World.”

However, more or less as soon as I walked into Bierkonig, I noticed a prominent display of Westvleteren beers, on sale for 17.50 per bottle – yes, that’s seventeen Euros and fifty cents, for a 330 ml bottle!Now it’s said that every man has his price, and those bottles of Westvleteren were just too expensive, despite my earlier decision, but before going back on it, there was one final arbiter - more about that in a minute.

I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t shocked, although a wise-man would say I should have done my homework first. Looking back, there are plenty of pointers on line which would have told me that 17.50 was not unreasonable under the circumstances, but whilst I was quite prepared to fork out 10.00,an extra 75% on top of that was just too expensive. I resolved to ask Bierkonig’s proprietor what his thoughts were on the matter, so I began by asking him whether in his opinion a bottle of Westvleteren 12, a beer touted as the best in the world, was worth that exorbitant price.

His answer, that it wasn’t, told me what I already knew in my heart of hearts, because whilst owner Jelle Hultinkstated that Westvleteren 12 was an extremely good beer, he said there were plenty of others, equally as good. He told me that he had to charge that amount, because of the price he has to pay, but he also qualified that statement by saying there are plenty of buyers out there, willing to pay considerably more than what he is charging. My mention of the RateBeer ranking brought a wry smile to his face which prompted the admission that the majority of these cash rich buyers were American.

As he totalled up my purchases at the till, he said for the price of just one Westvleteren, there were five or six bottles amongst my selection, so in terms of variety and quantity, I obviously had the better deal. I thanked him for his honest and frankness, which went a long way in reinforcing my preconceptions about that particular beer, as well as raising a lot of questions about the marketing of these hard to get hold of Trappist beers, so I want to end by linking to an article I wrote seven years ago, which basically asked the same thing.

Back in August 2015, whilst in Belgium for the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference, I was fortunate to visit Westvleteren.I didn’t get to see the brewery; no-one ever does as St Sixtus is the Willy Wonka chocolate factory of breweries. But if you think the monks occasionally hide "golden tickets" in amongst their packs of beer, then think again, as the closest anyone gets is to either visit the modern and spacious In de Vrede café, located just across from the abbey in the Donkerstraat 13, or to try their luck at the drive-thru pick-up gate.

So, what is it about Westvleteren beer which makes it so hard to get hold of, and why are supplies so limited? The situation dates back to 2005 when the beer-information website RateBeer.com rated Westvleteren 12° as the best beer in the world. The monks at Saint Sixtus who brew this dark, quadrupel-style beer were not at all pleased by the ensuing publicity, despite this award being an achievement that most brewers can only dream of. The problem is they are not in the business of brewing beer in order to win awards; neither are they in it for the money. They brew beer only in sufficient quantities to support themselves and their abbey.

You can read the rest of the article here, but when I arrived back at the cruise ship, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps I had missed a golden opportunity. A work colleague certainly thought I had, and it wasn’t as though I couldn’t afford the price asked at Bierkonig. So, was it a case of buyers regret, or did I make the right choice. I’m sure there will be other opportunities to try Westvleteren 12°, including a return visit to the In de Vrede café, located just across from the abbey of St Sixtus, as mentioned above. We shall see!!


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