Brian Mercer spent Wednesday morning driving to Huntington Beach, Tustin, Laguna Hills and Brea wine superstores to buy one six-pack of Belgian beer for $85 apiece at each location.
But his quest wasn't just for any beer. This brew is rated as one of the world's best by knowledgable aficionados and came with two glasses in a gift pack limited to one per customer.
Mercer, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident, was eager to get his hands on a rare and elusive Trappist ale called Westvleteren XII.
Made in extremely limited quantities by Belgian monks, about 15,000 of the gift packs went on sale Wednesday for the first time ever - but for one day only - in stores in 23 states. The beer is usually available only through the brewery, which can't keep up with demand - the monks have other priorities - and consequently severely limits sales.
"They make the greatest gifts because you can't get them," said Mercer, who planned to share his liquid treasure with friends and family. "It's no fun to hoard anything."
Indeed, there was very little hoarding going on by any purchasers judging by the brisk bidding going on at eBay for gift packs (reselling is frowned upon by the monks, incidentally).
By day's end, the buy-it-now asking price by one eBay seller had escalated to $700 for a single gift pack. Another had received 27 bids reaching $401.01.
"This really for me is the pinnacle of beer," said San Pedro homeowner Dan Patten, who snagged some of the beer via Mercer. "For some people it's a very strong, I would say almost religious experience. This whole thing is just wild. It's a frenzy."
How much of a frenzy?
A Total Wine store in Redondo Beach sold all 120 gift packs it received within four hours of its 8 a.
"We were sold out before noon," he said, adding that 20 people were waiting in line when the store opened its doors. "Some people were lined up as early as 6:30 a.m."
The unusual one-day sale was prompted by the monks' need to renovate their 160-year-old monastery in Flanders, Belgium.
"I think it will be the last (time)," Westvleteren Brewery spokesman Mark Bode told National Public Radio. "They say, `We are monks, we don't want to be too commercial. We needed some money to help us buy the new abbey and that's it,' back to normal again."
The monastery will receive about $800,000 from U.S. sales, estimated Dan Shelton, whose Massachusetts beer distribution company imported the precious brew.
The ale sale proved a mixed blessing for him.
To ensure potential customers didn't run around from store to store chasing what would amount to a couple of cases at each location, the company limited sales to larger amounts at chains like Total Wine, which agreed to sell it at a certain price.
But the move backfired in part after angry stores deluged his company with complaints.
One distributor tried to jack up the price, earning a $50 profit on each gift pack despite Shelton's attempts to stop price gouging.
Another jumped the gun by a day, racking up huge profits.
Still another threatened to sue him, contending he favored some retailers over others. One store attempted to intimidate him by saying it would never buy beer from him again. And yet another said it would file a complaint with their state's liquor commission.
A weary Shelton, who flew back from London into the morass at 1 a.m. Wednesday, was fed up with "stupid, selfish and egotistical distributors" by the time he spoke with a Los Angeles News Group reporter late Wednesday afternoon.
"There was no other way to do it," he said. "We had a certain amount of beer with a certain cachet - almost immeasurable - and at the same time we had to get it out to as many states as we could and as many people as we could."
Not everyone is a raving fan, however, of the elixir, which offers 10.2 percent alcohol by volume.
Wes Jacobs, co-owner of the Redondo Beach Select Beer Store, received one case of four six-packs.
"I've had it before," he shrugged. "There are other Trappists that are as good or better and at a much better price point.
"I still hold it in very, very high regard," he added. "The fact we even got one case was pretty good, I thought."
One of those gift packs was destined for Henry Nguyen, co-owner of Torrance's Monkish Brewing Co., which specializes in Belgian beer.
"For a monastic beer, its one of the best beers out there: dark, hints of roastiness, dark fruits, chocolaty, malty sweetness," he said. "It is a very inspirational beer for many brewers."
And drinkers, who will apparently go to great lengths to snag a bottle of the beer, which is difficult to obtain even at the monks' brewery.
For Shelton, despite the hostility he encountered from some stores and distributors, that made the ordeal worthwhile.
"It's all because they didn't think about this from the perspective of the consumer and monastery," he said. "But, overall, there must be more happy people than unhappy people today. And that makes me feel more than all right."
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