A veritable holy grail... photo by Mark Lampert for NPR
It ain't design, but a monastic lesson, of sorts, for modern artisans: any beer connoisseur worth his or her salt—or hops, as it were—knows that the trappist brew Westvleteren (pronounced as it's spelled: WEST-v'letter'n) is widely considered to be the rarest beer in the world. As the coveted product of one of six Trappist breweries—legally sanctioned abbeys in Belgium—Westvleteren is considerably more obscure than widely available bottles from Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort and Westmalle, mostly because the monks at St. Sixtus Abbey don't distribute their ambrosial libation at all.
Instead, intrepid beer drinkers must make the pilgrimage to the Belgian hinterlands and schedule a visit via phone. The reclusive monks are notoriously difficult to contact, and availability remains limited to what is available at the time (there are three styles, a blonde and two bottle-conditioned ales numbered 8 and 12); rumor has it that they'll give you a time and date and ask for a license plate number to coordinate pickup.
So yes, American seasonal one-offs notwithstanding, Westvleteren is indeed the rarest beer in the world, and while you can find similar flavors in Rochefort's formidable brews, Westvleteren's sheer unattainability is part of its appeal: lucky drinkers are sure to savor every last drop. The current generation of microbreweries can come up with marketing gimmicks as they please, but (as the story goes), the monks at St. Sixtus have been at it since 1838, and even though they didn't start selling the beer until nearly a century later, their business model still predates the dawn of American craft brewing by about half a century.
Of course, it's also worth mentioning that the production is limited to what the monks need to sell to support the Abbey and nothing more, roughly 3,800 U.S. barrels per year. While it goes without saying that scarcity is part of the myth, the supply-side restrictions have not obviated a secondary market for the premium brew. On the contrary, your humble editor was able to track it down—years ago, while studying abroad in Europe—at a beer store in Amsterdam for the altogether reasonable price of 10€ for a Westvleteren 12. It's as delicious as you might expect, definitely worth the money if not a journey to the Low Countries (not one to squander the opportunity, I picked up several bottles at the time, and I have no intention of drinking the remaining Westies, which are currently aging in an undisclosed cellar, any time soon).
But here's the kicker: in what might be the limited-time-only special offer to end all holiday deals, the Trappist monks have made the beer available Stateside for one day only... 12/12/12. NPR reports that the abbey needed to raise funds for a recent renovation—spokesman Mark Bode says it will likely be the last public sale of the beer—and I highly recommend listening to the story, which aired on Morning Edition today.
Unfortunately, I imagine that the entire shipment has been long sold out as of press time; the Whole Foods on Bowery reported that many customers wound up emptyhanded, as they only had 24 of the gift packs in stock. The six-packs were priced at $85 (I expect that individual bottles might resell for upwards of half that) at select retailers nationwide.
So it's not quite a teachable moment: Etsy sellers and Kickstarter aspirants have nothing on the ascetic artisans of St. Sixtus... which just goes to show that a little storytelling can go a long way. That and 174 years of heritage.