MAKING SUCCESS A HABIT

A nine-year old Philadelphia watering hole has become a destination pub for fans of Belgian ales from around the world. JACK CURTIN talked with co-owner Tom Peters

(Published in Beers of the World, June 2006)

Ask Tom Peters if it's fair to term him the man most responsible for the emergent popularity of Belgian beers across the United States in recent years and he pauses. The argument can be made, but should one lay claim to such a grand achievement? On the other hand, could one merely shrug it off if accurate? "I've heard some people say that," he finally responds diplomatically.

Monk's Café in downtown Philadelphia was founded in 1997 by good friends Peters, then a bar manager, and Fergus Carey, a Dublin expatriate who'd opened his own Irish pub about year earlier. Famed for its extensive draught and bottle selection and its series of extraordinary beer dinners, Monk's has become recognized as one of the finest Belgian bars anywhere in the world. The tripartite premises consist of a six-tap bar and dining area up front, a narrow central dining room just in front of the kitchen and--down a long, dark hallway--a back bar and additional dining area. That back room, which a myopic beer writer told Peters prior to opening would never work out "because people won't traipse back here," has become the place in the city to quaff a pint, or, more cautiously, sip from a somewhat smaller glass, given the strength of many of the specialty beers pouring from 14 taps.

The duo's Philadelphia enterprise has today grown to include partnerships in Nodding Head, a center city brewpub, and Grace, a small neighborhood tavern. They are also half-owners of a UK hotel/restaurant, The Anderson, located in Fortrose on the Black Isle near Inverness.

Peters became infatuated with Belgian brews in the 1980s after a visit there. He then convinced the owners where he was bartending to add Chimay to their bottle list, with great success. In 1995, now bar manager at another tavern, he introduced Kwak as the first Belgian draught beer in the U.S. The following spring, he ran 14 draught Belgian ales on a single Saturday afternoon, several making their first ever appearance ever in America. Monk's opened its doors roughly a year later, in March 1997.

Monk's beer dinners are the stuff of legend (Rochefort, St. Feuillien and Urthel were among breweries featured in 2005). Two of them, each hosted by Michael Jackson, who comes in each March, might reasonably be called historic. The first, in 2000, was an all-lambic event featuring nine Cantillon styles on tap and a total of 12 lambics in all, leading Jackson to comment "I don't think there's ever been a beer dinner like this before." It was followed in 2001 by an evening serving beers from all six Trappist breweries…and therein lays a story.

"Michael put down the gauntlet," recalls Peters. "He wanted to do an all-Trappist dinner but claimed it wasn't possible because there were beers he didn't think we could get, specifically Westvleteren, which wasn't a problem because I had contacts there, and Achel, which I didn't even know had become a recognized Trappist brewery. I flew over with Adam Glickman, our chef, and they were very reluctant, but eventually agreed to let us fill our two five-liter cans directly from the taps. We carried it back and I cellared it for a month. When we poured it that night, it was the first time Achel had ever been served outside the monastery, much less outside Belgium."

Monk's also does periodic dinners showcasing brewers and beers from microbreweries in other parts of the country. Prior to one of those in January featuring California's Pizza Port and Russian River breweries, an early-arriving beer journalist, the very same one who once said the back bar would never work, walked down the hallway and became, by happenstance, the first to have a glass of La Gnomette, an experimental beer created by Les Trois Fourquets, a tiny brewpub owned by Brasserie d'Achouffe. Only nine kegs of this latest in a series of periodic one-offs done at the brewpub came into the U.S. and Monk's got four of them.

That particular beer turned out to be distressingly sweet, but the opportunity to sample a bit of the brewers' art which few people will ever experience was not at all an untypical experience at Monk's Café. And the responsibility for that can most definitely and fairly be claimed by Tom Peters.

Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin


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