Score another one for Philadelphia, the Belgian beer capital of the United States.
Earlier this month, a few lucky diners attending the annual Book and the Cook dinner at Monk’s Cafe (15th and Spruce, Center City) became the first to taste a glass of the obscure Belgian Trappist Achel on American soil.
Renowned beer expert Michael Jackson marveled upon draining a glass at Monk’s: “This beer has never been seen anywhere outside of Belgium. It’s never even been consumed outside the brewery. ”
The monastery doesn’t bottle its beer. It doesn’t keg it. Instead, like many American brewpubs, it pours its sacred suds straight from large stainless-steel vessels into goblets. You want to taste Achel, you’ve got to travel to the Belgian region of Limburg. “I’ve tried to bring it home,” Jackson said, “but my contacts in Belgium always told me to forget it. ”
Yo, if that Brit wants to drink great Belgians, he should climb on the Concorde and move to Center City. We were the first American city to regularly serve Belgian ale on tap. We guzzle so much gueuze, wit, lambic, saison and other Flemish specialties that nearly every local micro feels obliged to compete with its own version of Belgian ale.
But don’t take it for granted.
Though some of the Belgians (notably, the Interbrew line that includes Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe) are now mass-market imports, most of them are produced by microbreweries that barely advertise and distribute their product at home. A handful of small importers seek them out and bring them across the Atlantic.
Some Belgians, like Cantillon (whose Rose de Gambrinus is made with fresh cherries and raspberries) actually have more accounts in Philly than in Brussels, I’m told.
Then there’s St. Sixtus, the Trappist monastery near the French border that produces the fabled Westvleteren. The abbey is so anti-marketing, it won’t even label its bottles. It has no official U.S. importer. Its monks only sell their brew through a wooden hatch at the front gate. Limit: 10 cases per customer. Yet, it still shows up in our town.
Four weeks ago, I returned from a vacation in Belgium with a half-dozen bottles of Westvleteren Blonde, a brew that is so rarely bottled that even the owner of Brussel’s best beer store told me he’d tasted it only two or three times before. By the time I got home, though, the green-capped Blonde was already on the beer list at a pair of Center City bars.
Even by Philly standards, though, the Achel tasting was a remarkable coup. Some background:
Until four years ago, according to Jackson, Achel was the only one of Belgian’s six Trappist monasteries that did not brew its own beer. Seems the Germans swiped the kettles for munitions during World War I.
“It’s something the Belgians still feel very bitter about,” Jackson said.
Achel restarted beer production in 1997, partly to attract younger brothers, partly to take advantage of the growing interest in authentic Trappist beers.
That’s what drove Monk’s co-owner Tom Peters on his trek to Flanders last month. He was putting together an all-Trappist beer dinner for The Book and the Cook, and hoped to top it off with Achel.
Coincidentally, I ran into Peters and his chef, Adam Glickman, in Brussels the day before their big score. At the time, they were dizzy from a bender at Abbaye du Val-Dieu, an 800-year-old monastery whose recipes are based on ancient, handwritten texts. Peters was still uncertain how he’d be welcomed at Achel.
Over bottles of Rochefort 10° at a near-empty joint called Ultieme Hallucinatie, he and Adam laid out their plan. “We brought a couple of empty mini-kegs from Dock Street, and we’re going to get Brother Thomas to fill them,” he declared.
I’d heard about Thomas before. They say he’s a friendly, old crank with a magic touch who used to brew excellent ales for Westmalle, another monastery. The guy is famous for saying, “No. ”
But Peters has a way of getting his beer. That night, I watched him talk his way past a surly bouncer and into a members-only basement discoteque without breaking a sweat.
If Peters used the same approach with Brother Thomas, he’s not saying. All I know is he returned home with his mini-kegs filled to the brim.
The verdict: Achel is a decent beer that’s not yet in the same league as the other Trappists. But who cares? The bragging rights alone made it one of the tastiest beers of the season.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Orval.