at Monk's Café
If Tom Peters’ first Heineken in Europe had tasted any better to him, American craft beer lovers may not be buying Belgian brews like Chimay, Saison Dupont, or Stella Artois today, while Belgian-style producers in the U.S. such as Allagash, Ommegang and heck, even Coors Blue Moon might not have found nearly as receptive a market. Mercifully, the man who opened the most famous Belgian bar/restaurant in North America sixteen years ago found the corporate Dutch lager to be as distasteful in Brussels as he did back home in Philadelphia. So his bartender handed him a Duvel. And the rest, as they say, is beer history.
The year was 1984 and barman Tom Peters and his girlfriend were killing a few hours in Brussels before taking the last leg of a transatlantic journey to Paris. Testing out the rumor that Heineken tasted better closer to the source, he ordered one. Finding it not to his liking, he accepted the bartender’s offer of a Duvel strong golden ale. He’d never seen nor tasted anything like it.
“When he poured the beer for me I thought, ‘That guy does not know how to pour beer!’ I was waiting for the head to go down,” he chuckles.
Noticing the American’s confusion, the bartender explained that Belgian ales typically pour with a thick, long-lasting head and showed him how to properly extract liquid from vessel. (Fun fact: The Moortgat family, whose fourth brewing generation still owns the Flemish brewery, invented the tulip glass specifically to showcase this beer.) Fascinated, Peters started scribbling down notes on a series of coasters.
“Massive head, black peppercorn, dry finish,” he wrote of the ale brewed from the same Scottish yeast culture used to first ferment it in 1923.
When he was done, he ordered more Belgians. First Orval, which he names as his enduring favorite, then Chimay. In the years that followed, he made trip after trip to Belgium, befriending brewers and tasting everything he could get his lips on. If he liked it, he tried to introduce it to his patrons and countrymen, who at the time didn’t have commercial access to it themselves.
“It was his thing and he made it other people’s thing out of his own enthusiasm,” Philly beer bar pioneer William Reed told the Billy Penn online newspaper in 2015.
But convincing small Belgian brewery owners to ship to America … in the beer-bereft days of the 80s and 90s … for just one account … proved as difficult as it sounds.
“In Belgium (they) believed we were Bud and Miller drinkers,” Peters says in the same article. “They didn’t get that we were on the edge of what we are now.”
In 1994, he famously paid for 16 non-returnable kegs of Kwak out of his own pocket so that he could pour it as the first draft Belgian beer in the U.S. He later served the first draft Chimay outside Belgium and the first iteration of draft Duvel in the states. He’s credited with bringing sour beer to the states and, as the second American restaurateur inducted into Belgium’s exclusive Knighthood of the Brewer’s Mash Staff, says “I was, and possibly still am, the only person from the U.S. to blend Cantillon for a private bottling. We’ve made three versions of Gueuze, two versions of Kriek and the latest — our 20th-anniversary beer called “20 Ans d’Amitié” (or “20 Years of Friendship”).
In fact, the three-time James Beard Award nominee’s CV reads with so many firsts that Philly often receives the inaugural shipments of Belgian brews to our shores, and that’s thanks to his personal reputation and relationships, not merely because Monk’s consistently receives media accolades for being one of the “Top 5 Places in the World To Have A Beer,” and so on.
But if it weren’t for that Duvel, he may not have tried those that followed, he may not have started importing all those previously unfamiliar Belgian beers and he may never have opened Monk’s Café.
“It’s a classic, world-class beer,” he says while sipping one in the dark bar’s back room, admiring the way it looks in the goblet. “It’s accessible enough – not a fruity Belgian, not sour, not so hoppy to put people off – but it has enough depth of flavor and a really good balance. Every bar in Belgium you go into you see it.”
And every Belgian bar in America you go into you see it.
I remember when beer-curious Philadelphians started drinking Duvel and other Belgian beers on the regular. This happened in the mid-to-late aughts and I found myself amusedly watching as Duvel, Stella and Chimay started showing up at some of the more mainstream bars I frequented. I was even more amused watching my newbie friends getting much drunker than expected after drinking one or two and wondering why. The newfound phenomenon of high alcohol beers – Duvel clocks an 8.5% alcohol by volume – led me to my first big beer writing assignment. The headline in the Philly Weekly alt-paper read something like: “Brewing up Controversy, or, Why You’re Not Lying When You Tell Your Girlfriend You’re Drunk by Accident.”
From there, I started writing beer articles for bigger and perhaps better publications. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.