Tom Peters: The Belgian Beer Craze
Beer importer Wendy Littlefield remembers in the 1980s giving a bar owner a sample of Rodenbach, a balsamic-y tasting Belgian beer considered to be one of the best in the world, and watching him spit it out. "Don't ever bring me a beer like this again," he told her.
How things have changed. Now nearly 60 percent of all beer made in Belgium is going overseas, a lot of it to the U.S., where Belgian beers can be found at any bar with a decent beer selection. American craft brewers, influenced by Belgian ales, are making challenging, funky beers with sour, barnyard-y flavors. And people are raving about them. You could say we're having a love affair with Belgian beer; and, if you did, you could say that Tom Peters is the beer Cupid.
Peters is the co-owner of Monk's Cafe, a Belgian beer bar and restaurant in Philadelphia that opened in 1997. There are 20 Belgian beers on tap at any one time, over 300 bottles on the beer list, and another 350 aging in the cellar. Then there are the private-label beers Peters has made for Monk's in collaboration with some of the greats, like Dupont and Cantillon. It's all served alongside tasty Belgian food, such as mussels cooked in beer.
Monk's was, literally, the first of its kind: It was the first bar in the entire country to serve Belgian beer on tap (Kwak). Peters rightly believed people were more likely to buy something they could try a sip of first. And that was only one of hundreds of great Belgian beers he's introduced Americans to. Peters goes on several trips to Belgium a year to scope out new breweries, sharing new finds and cool backstories about the breweries with his staff and customers. The impact of his evangelism extends far outside Philadelphia: Monk's is a must-stop for any brewer or drinker passing through; it has achieved temple status. —L.A.
How did you get into Belgian beer?
My first trip to Belgium was in 1984, and I fell in love with the beer. When I got back, I convinced the bar I was working at to order a case of Chimay Grande Réserve, and I sold it all that very first night. The joke was that I sold all 12 and didn't keep one for myself!
How do you turn people on to what are sometimes challenging beers?
The third night we were open, one of my staff told me: "These people hate this beer they ordered." It was a Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus. I went out, described the brewers, how they were fifth generation, what the brewery was all about, and they ended up ordering another bottle. They honestly were shocked that the beer tasted the way it did. But once they knew more about the people behind it, they wanted to keep drinking it.