After nearly two decades covering craft beer, there are few things geeks do to secure limited beer that surprise me anymore. They swap it through private Facebook groups and make illicit black market purchases. They wait in interminable overnight lines and sometimes even pay TaskRabbits for the privilege. They’ve even been known to don disguises and chase delivery trucks. But I’m not sure I’ve heard of anyone outsmarting the system quite like Chris Porter.
Since 2013, when he and his then-girlfriend visited the Belgian farmlands of West Flanders, Porter, who is a web developer by day, has been obsessed with Saint-Sixtus Abbey’s Westvleteren XII, long ranked the “best beer in the world.” On that trip he also learned that you cannot simply walk into the brewery to secure a few bottles of the monks’ highly acclaimed dubbels and quadrupels. Instead, you must follow an arduous, byzantine telephone ordering system.
It works like this: For a few hours per day, three days per week (as determined by an always-changing bottle release timetable), the abbey opens their single landline to callers looking to buy beer. If you happen to get a hold of Mark, the only employee responsible for sales, you’ll be able to give him your information and pick up your two wooden crates exactly one week later. Afterwards, the abbey logs each buyer’s telephone and license plate numbers, both of which are locked out of the system for 60 days to prevent any one buyer acquiring more than their share.
Porter initially dismissed the idea of even attempting to purchase Westvleteren; he was based in New York, and even if he managed to place an order successfully, there was no way he’d be able to pick it up. But the following year, when he took a job that had him flying to Paris every other week, he began thinking about ways to hack the system.
With Belgium six hours ahead of New York and the line opening at 8 a.m. local time, Porter would need to start dialing in the dead of night—along with millions of other callers around the world. “I worked out the math,” he explains. “On my iPhone, the fastest I can do a full cycle—dial, call, hit the cell towers, hit their phone line, hear busy signal, hang-up—is eight seconds. The statistical odds of getting in in those eight seconds is impossible.”
In an effort to improve his chances, Porter began researching Voice over IP (internet protocol), or VoIP, essentially a long-winded term for an internet phone provider, like Skype or Google Voice, which would allow him to make faster calls. Eventually, he settled on a business plan from Vonage, which, for $50 per month, could dial two lines at a time, each with a complete time of about three seconds per call, amounting to one call made every one-and-a-half seconds. A third-party softphone allowed him to add even more dialers to his Vonage account for just $5 more. Before long, Porter was using five different phone lines, each dialing simultaneously every second or so, as he lay in bed listening through headphones.
“I hear the audio feed of all of [the calls] at the same time, a symphony of busy signals,” says Porter. But soon enough, there was a voice at the other end of the line. “He starts out in Flemish, then French, then English, saying all the greetings. You say something, then he quickly adjusts to your language.” Porter was finally able to place his first order with Mark.
The next Saturday, after working all week in Paris, Porter went to pick up his beer. He took the morning train out to Poperinge, five miles from the abbey, and found a driver via Google named “Luc”—not his real name—who showed up in what was clearly his personal car. (Taxis, it turns out, are banned in Poperinge.)
But after looping around the horseshoe driveway outside Saint-Sixtus, Porter hit another stumbling block. He was informed that he wouldn’t be able to complete his purchase after all; the abbey bans pickup by taxis or personal drivers out of fear that it might be related to a commercial enterprise. After a lengthy argument with Mark, who relented and sold him just one case, Porter was peeved that he hadn’t gotten his full allotment, and made it a mission to acquire as much Westvleteren as he could. “They broke their contract with me,” he says, “so all bets were off from that point on.”
He also caught a lucky break with Luc. “On the way back to the train station, [Luc’s] feeling bad for how I was treated,” recalls Porter. “He says, ‘Listen, if you ever need me to pick up beers for you, I’ll give you my license plate number and you can use that over the phone. Also, I have five cars.’”
With five different license plates available—and five separate phone lines—Porter was soon able to procure 10 cases, or 240 bottles, approximately every 60 days without being locked out of the system.
Still, he’s quick to point out that he was hardly operating some well-oiled criminal enterprise. Certainly, he bootlegged some—“I became known as the guy with a shitload of Westy,” he says—moving each case for $350 apiece (they retail from the abbey at around $50), mostly to friends in the New York beer scene. But because of weight issues, he could only bring back two cases per flight. While some was stored at his apartment in Alphabet City and his girlfriend’s parents’ basement in Maine, the remainder (often up to 20 cases at a time) was kept inside Luc’s garage in Belgium.
By the summer of 2017, Porter was growing tired of bootlegging beer. He was about to get married to the woman who took him to Saint-Sixtus a half-decade earlier. And, with their wedding coming up in August, he’d finally found a use for all those cases. “This is going to ostentatiously be our wedding beer,” Porter recalls thinking. “Our guests will only drink Westvleteren.”
He figured out all the customs, duty and freight forms he’d need to file and pay; he found a European freighter to ship for him and a customs broker to speed up the process; he even got his own corrugated cardboard boxes custom-designed by a German company. Still, on the afternoon before his wedding, he was sitting in the JFK International cargo lot in his Honda Element, hoping and praying his bottles would actually arrive.
“I wasn’t married yet,” he says, “so I can safely say the happiest moment of my life up to that point was when that forklift pulled out of the warehouse with my crates of Westvleteren shrink-wrapped on the pallet.”