‘IN THE spirit of the monks,” Tom Peters, the devout co-owner of Center City’s Monk’s Cafe, was saying the other night, “I offer a toast to a vow of silence and celibacy…May none of you ever practice either.”
With that, Peters, his business partner Fergus Carey, and about 30 local beer-lovers downed America’s first glasses of Chimay on draft.
“Firsts” are nothing new for Peters. As one of the city’s most avid beer-hunters, he’s landed a fridge-full of trophies over the years. Kwak, La Chouffe, Corsendonk, Achel and other hard-to-find Belgians made their debut in his pubs over the years.
Chimay on tap, though, may be among the most special.
The label is probably the best-known among the Belgians (if you don’t count Stella Artois, the Budweiser of Flanders). Brewed at one of Belgium’s six trappist monasteries, it comes in three basic flavors known as red, white and blue. Together, their U.S. sales almost certainly total more than all the other trappists’ combined.
Until recent months, though, it was available only in corked bottles.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. Bottling and proper storage allows the ale to age, with its yeast continuing the fermentation for months. The result is a sparkling, robust flavor that is unlike any other beer you’ve ever tasted.
“It’s always been our most popular bottled beer,” said Peters, who estimates Monk’s goes through about 18 cases of the three varieties each week. “I first started selling it when I was manager at Cafe Nola in 1984. People just loved the special glassware and the champagne cork.”
Then, last year, rumors started circulating that the monastery was experimenting with a draft version Chimay Cinq Cents, the spicy white version. Kegs would show up at obscure beer festivals. A cafe at the monastery added a tap.
“Every time you tasted it, it would be a little different,” Peters said. “They were tweaking the recipe, trying to come up with the best taste on draft. But they weren’t ready, yet, to distribute it.”
Peters wanted it, and he wanted it first. In February, he and Carey headed over to Belgium to twist some arms. They spent four hours over lunch (“They served us veal brain,” Peters laughed.) with the brewery’s export manager, trying to convince him to part with the draft brew.
“Let’s just say there was some reticence,” he said. “They were worried we’d serve it too cold. They were worried about cleanliness. They were worried about the gas we’d use to push it.”
They left empty-handed, told not to expect the draft till next year.
Back home, Peters asked import distributor Ed Friedland to keep up the pressure. Lots of pleading phone calls and promises were exchanged. “Eddie did a great job for us,” Peters said. “He really hustled.”
Then, last month, word came from Belgium that 300 20-liter kegs (about five gallons apiece) were headed to the United States. Only problem: they were being loaded in Antwerp on a ship bound for New York City, and Brooklyn Brewing’s distributorship had first dibs, which meant some Big Apple bar would steal the thunder.
Friedland got back on the phone. It was Monk’s, he reminded the brewery’s export manager, who went to the trouble of traveling to Belgium. It was Peters and Carey who swallowed the sweetbreads.
Something clicked and, as Peters politely describes it, “80 kegs were co-opted and shipped to Baltimore instead.”
The kegs arrived two weeks ahead of the New York-bound Chimay. Friedland trucked it up from Baltimore and had it at Monk’s at 3 in the afternoon on Tuesday. That night, the cafe hosted its annual “Tom’s Favorite Beers” dinner, and the rest is history.
So, why go to all the trouble just for bragging rights?
“The ability to drink it,” said Peters. “Most of it is done because I like to drink special beer and share it with my friends.”
Indeed, word spread quickly about Monk’s coup. Though the dinner was limited to just a few dozen lucky beer-lovers jammed in a back room, the cafe’s front bar was packed by 10 p.m. as overflow patrons waited to get a taste, too.
How was it?
In a bottle, Cinq Cents is the hoppiest of Chimay’s ales. Its yeast bites the side of your tongue with a tang. On draft, the raisin-like spiciness is mellowed, mostly because the suds are pushed by nitrogen gas, like Guinness Stout. That gives it a lush, creamy head and fills the mouth with a softer grapefruit-like flavor.
This is a beer to be savored, and not just because of its taste. A mini-keg costs $155 – the equivalent of $465 for a standard half-keg. A glass at Monk’s goes for 6 bucks, but that’ll probably jump to $7 in a few weeks.
Is it worth it?
Well, unlike silence and celibacy, the virtues of Chimay are far more apparent.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Affligem Blonde.