BRUSSELS ON THE SCHUYLKILL
By Jack Curtin
The emergence of Philadelphia as the leading city for sale and consumption of
Belgian beer in the United States-and arguably the world, given that word from Brussels these days is that the natives are favoring sweeter brews and, heaven help us, American imports over stronger and more traditional ales-is surely a product of desire (influenced by the steady growth of craft brewing locally and the popularity of Belgian styles among several microbrewers, Stoudt's Abbey Double an Abbey Triple being perhaps the most obvious examples) and availability (through national distributors such as Vanberg & DeWulf or local purveyors such as Edward I. Friedland, the company which made possible the recent U.S. debuts of draft De Koninck and De Koninck Cuvee).
These days, you're as likely to find Rodenbach Red as Pete's Wicked on draft at local bars with pride in their taps, or see more and more diners enjoying a Chimay Reserve with dinner rather than wine. And that's true not just in the city itself, but out into the suburbs and beyond. People want Belgians and Belgians are more and more often there for the drinking. Desire. Availability. That's what this whole Belgian explosion is all about.
And let's be honest, it may just have something to do with the efforts of Tom Peters and Michael Notredame.
These two affable publicans have a passion for Belgian ales. One American, one Belgian, each spent several years working for the cause in other establishments before creating his own popular and distinctive place. Monk's Café, a partnership between Peters and Fergus Carey, is a classic pub with a large front window looking out on the downtown city street. There's a small front bar, a middle room with dark pew-like booths on one wall and a back room, decorated with tapestries and other continental touches, featuring a larger bar and additional seating. Since its opening a year and a half ago, Monk's has rapidly become one of the city's hippest spots, recognized locally and nationally for its excellent food and great beer. Cuvee Notredame is equally respected and perhaps slightly more European in style and location, set on a pleasant corner in the city's Art Museum neighborhood. Umbrella covered tables brighten the outdoor dining area by the front door. Large windows line the longest wall of the restaurant, brightening the already attractive interior. A small front bar and one of similar size in a downstairs room each have six taps connected by a T-line. French, German, Spanish and other languages can be heard as often as English among the cosmopolitan clientele.
These men, these places, are the face of Philadelphia's Belgian Beer Scene.
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Tom Peters enjoys being first, likes pushing the envelope and introducing customers and friends to new beer experiences. His fascination with Belgian brews began with a European trip in 1984, during which he was befriended by a Belgian family. "They wanted me to try the beers, of course," he recalls, "and the first one I ever had was a Duvel. I couldn't believe how good it was. I really was amazed. So I began tasting another beer and then another, more than a dozen in all. And I took copious notes in the back of coasters or whatever was available." When he came home, he went to his boss at the old Café Nola on South Street, where he was a bartender, and suggested ordering Chimay for the beer list. "He said it was too expensive, that we'd never sell it, but I promised to buy the case myself if that turned out to be true. I think it took less than an hour to sell the whole thing," he laughs now.
In 1987, Peters moved on to become manager at center city's Copa, Too! and dove headfirst into serious beers, including whatever Belgians he could lay his hands on. He managed to acquire 14 kegs of Kwak in the summer of 1995, marking the first time a Belgian was offered on draft in the U.S. and he did a Sunday afternoon Belgian tasting in April 1996 which featured, among other things, the American draft debut of Lindeman's Gueuze. Draft Belgians became a staple at Copa, Too! Peters also became friendly with Carey, then a bartender at next door McGlinchey's, who was about to open his own place, Fergie's Pub. The two decided they could work well together if the opportunity ever arose. And arise it did, in early 1997, when a site became available on South 16th Street and they opened Monk's.
"I had a couple of different concepts in mind," Peters recalls, "but as soon as I saw this place, I knew we had to be Belgian. Which was nice, because they are my favorite beers in the world, specifically the great Trappist ales. But there is also no better strong golden ale than Duvel, for example, no better saison than Saison Dupont, and so forth. Certainly our customers seem to agree with me on that. I would say that today we have a larger selection of Belgian beers than 98 percent of the bars in Belgium itself."
Monk's has 18 taps, most featuring Belgians with local micros such as Yards, Red Bell and Dogfish Head added to the mix. There are 200 beers available overall, Peters says, including certain vintage offerings (he's brought out an extraordinary 1991 Chimay Reserve for sipping during our interview, which draws a goodly number of folks to wander over and stand about wistfully until offered a taste), "We go through 13 to 18 cases of Chimay a week, combining all three styles, and two cases or so of Orval, which is pretty impressive for such an esoteric product. Rodenbach on draft literally flies out of here, and if I left Corsendonk Pale on all the time, I'd bet we could sell eight or ten kegs a week."
Peters hopes that the steady, and apparently, increasing demand for Belgian products locally will lead to more favorable prices in the future. "I can get a Rochefort in a restaurant in Brussels for half the price I have to pay for it wholesale over here," he notes. "If the prices drop to where more people will have an opportunity to experience some of these beers, I think the market will really explode."
For all the emphasis on quality beers, Monk's business is "about 60 percent food," Peters says, "and that's surprised me a bit." He laughs and pats his stomach. "Then again, I like both good beer and good food, and I don't often deprive myself of either."
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Michael Notredame says he's on vacation. "I came to Philadelphia 17 years ago on vacation to visit friends and I've never left," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm still on vacation." Some vacation. Notredame worked at 19 different places in the city before opening Cuvee Notredame. The last of these is something of a sore spot; he believed he was working toward owning the popular Brigid's, only to find himself abruptly dismissed as manager in 1995, four months before he opened Cuvee.
"I put in a Belgian menu and added Belgian beers and the place became very popular," he says ruefully. "I guess I should have read my contract a lot more carefully." However badly it all might have ended, it's clear that Notredame's emphasis on things Belgian at Brigid's at the same time that Peters was stressing Belgian brews at Copa, Too! helped set the stage for the current scene.
"People forget how few Belgian were available even a decade or so ago," remembers Notredame. "Chimay, occasionally Duvel, that was about it. The first Belgian I ever had in Philadelphia was a Duvel at the old Khyber Pass. It was old and not very good. Still, the Khyber was the only place around in those days with any serious selection of beers at all."
Notredame's story is interrupted by a query from a passing luncheon customer. A lengthy conversation in French ensues. A bottle of Westvleteren, the difficult-to-get Trappist ale (which I have never tasted before) appears on the table before me, my host's selection after I respond affirmatively (how else?) to the offer of a beer and suggest that he make the choice. I sip away happily, unfazed by the delay.
Notredame demurs politely to the suggestion that he and Peters played any significant role in Philadelphia's fascination with Belgians ("I wouldn't say that, but you can, of course"), and has some further thoughts on the matter. "I believe that the great interesting homebrewing in this country in recent years contributed greatly to the demand. When you start homebrewing, you quite naturally begin to read more and more about beer and the person to read, obviously, is Michael Jackson, who is a great Belgian beer fan. Someone reads what Jackson has to say and he wants to try his hand at making the style. In order to copy the original, you must taste the original, so those people began searching out Belgian beers."
Like Peters, Notredame believes that his selection of anywhere from 60 to 120 Belgian brews is probably greater than that found in most bars in Belgium. "We have beers here regularly that they hardly ever sell back home," he says. "In fact, we probably sell more Cantillion Rose de Gambrinus at Cuvee than they sell in all of Belgium. The market caters more and more to the young over there. I go back home and see them drinking Budweiser out of bottles or drinking Stella Artois and other pilsners. I want to ask them what in the world they are thinking of. But I also know that their choices have made the breweries more willing to send the good stuff over here to us."
It's not surprising that Notredame ended up with his own café in Philadelphia or perhaps even that it features six beers on tap. He had just sold his restaurant in Belgium before coming here in 1981. "I owned a little place and I was the first one to put in six taps," he recalls. "I had Westmalle, Rodenbach, a gueuze, Pilsner Urquell, Cristal Alken or some other pilsner and one rotating tap. Just recently I was back over, traveling with my good friends, Ed and Carol Stoudt, and a local brewer came up and said he knew me from someplace, but we couldn't figure it out. Finally he realized 'You are the man who had those six taps.' "
He still does.
Copyright (c) 1998 Jack Curtin
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