The Art of Aging Gracefully: Vintage Beers at Belgium’s Beer Cafés
Aged beer? The very concept of deliberately aging a beer contradicts everything we hear and see in beer ads. One megabrewery touts its “born on date” to encourage people to buy its beer. Local micros stress that fresh beer is the best beer.
With the majority of beer styles, fresher is indeed better. Most of the beer drunk in this country is mass produced lager which has about 4 to 5 percent alcohol by volume (abv). Such beers will indeed suffer with a few months of age. But there are many beer styles which will improve with age, due to a number of factors.
Higher alcohol content is one of these factors. Alcohol is a preservative, so stronger beers will stand the test of time much more gracefully than beers with less alcohol.
Bottle conditioning–the practice of leaving live yeast in the beer when it is bottled–also makes beers good candidates for aging, since the yeast continues to develop the beers over time.
Aging and cellaring beer has grown very popular in the United States in perhaps the past ten years or so. Many good American beer bars now carry a few aged beers. The Map Room in Chicago, Brickskeller in Washington, D.C., Falling Rock Taphouse in Denver, Max’s on Broadway in Baltimore and the Toronado in San Francisco usually have more than a handful, with about 50 or more at last count on the menu at the Brickskeller. There are a number of other places with good vintage selections.
But if you have the taste for aged beer, your destination has to be Belgium.
Belgium has a long tradition of producing bottle conditioned beers, like lambic and gueuze, strong ales, and other beers that will improve with age if cellared properly. And, since breweries dotted all around the country produce world class beers with aging potential, beer lovers can often rely on local beer cafés to have great beers for them. They don’t need to spend time and effort cellaring beer, as it is done for them. With so many specialty beer cafés all around Belgium, there are usually a lot of very good choices to be had.
While many cafés in Belgium do have a cellar with aged beers available, this fact is not always advertised. At such places, inquiring and showing an interest in beer beyond that of a typical tourist will help convince the owner to let you in on what aged treasures may reside in the cellar. (Bringing some good quality beers from home to trade never hurts either, if you really want to make an impression!)
A recent development that will please aged-beer fans is the likely expansion of the Bier Circus menu to include cellared, vintage beer. Bier Circus is highly thought of as the top place to drink special beers in Brussels: adding more beers to the list will only make a very good café even better. Owner Patrick D’Hane has been cellaring beer for a number of years but only recently disclosed this fact, now that his aged beer project is getting near to completion. Cataloging all the beers, setting prices and then creating another beer menu, or expanding the already expansive menu will take some time. Hopefully by the fall of 2002 this will be completed.
The World’s Finest
One of the best Belgian beer cafés that does currently advertise its aged beers is also one of the world’s finest beer pubs. This is the famous Kulminator in Antwerp, owned by Dirk Van Dyck and Leen Boudewijn. With 250 to 300 aged beers on the Kulminator beer list (which currently stretches to 650), the aged menu here is more extensive than any café in Belgium–and, most likely, anywhere in the world.
Interestingly enough, .it seems the support for these aged beers comes primarily from outside Belgium. Belgians who drink here rarely drink aged beers–there are plenty of fresh brews on the menu, and nine beers on tap. Many Belgians seem puzzled by how interested in aged beers travelers from other countries are.
Belgium as a beer destination got very popular in the late 1980s, and boomed in the 1990s. I have suspected for a number of years that the trend in aging beers in the United States was influenced to a certain extent by travelers touring Belgium and sampling aged beers at various cafés, with the Kulminator being number one on the list.
However, the Kulminator is certainly not a “beer tourist only” café. There are many locals who frequent the place, especially on weeknights. They know when a beer festival or event is going on in Antwerp and tend to clear out at those times. The best time to visit is really when nothing is going on. At those times it will likely be very peaceful. I have never seen any disturbance in about 25 visits, save barking dogs!
The Kulminator beer café has been in the same spot since March 1979, serving up great beers from around the world to eager beer lovers. It has probably done as much as any one place in the past few decades for the practice of aging and cellaring beer.
The story of the founding and history of Dirk and Leen’s café is not well known, though it has often been a point of conjecture in beer circles. They graciously agreed to this, their first interview for any English-language beer publication, so that much of their story would be known.
In the Beginning
Dirk and Leen are from the Antwerp suburb of Mortsel, several kilometers to the south/southeast of the city center. They met while living in the same small town and liking the same sporting activities. Dirk studied medicine as a doctoral candidate, beginning in 1970, but even then he was drinking good Belgian beers and developing a taste for them.
Dirk Van Dyck and Leen Boudewijn were married in 1973. They decided the following year to go into business for themselves, and opened Bodega, a wine bar, located in Kiel, 8 km south of the city center, in November of 1974. Fortunately for the beer lovers of the world, the Antwerpers were not very fond of wine and thought it was too expensive.
If wine had been more popular , Leen and Dirk’s café, a true monument to beer, might never have existed.
Dirk, who had never been in the beer business before, decided to change the main theme of Bodega to that of a specialist beer café, nicknamed “Biertempel Van Dyck.” Dirk and Leen’s entrepreneurial spirit has served them well to this day.
Thursdays were closing days for Bodega. On that day, Leen and Dirk would drive to small breweries to taste beers and buy them to sell in their café. When Dirk liked a certain beer and thought it would sell well, he would buy several cases. He would also purchase beer glasses from the brewery, if available. It has always been a great tradition in Belgium to serve beer in a glass with the brewery logo, often in a shape that has been especially suited to the beer.
Dirk and Leen also had a business relationship with the owner of a bottle shop in the area, nicknamed “Boemelaar” (this is an affectionate Flemish name for a man who enjoys drinking). It was also was the name of his shop. “Boemelaar” often carried a number of special beers Dirk and Leen were not familiar with, which they bought for resale in the Bodega café.
The beer specialist café concept worked very well as it was not as easy as it is today to find special beers outside of their local regions. Dirk and Leen would have beers available that often would not be seen outside the small towns where they were brewed and could serve them in their correct glassware to boot. Bodega was Antwerp’s first such café.
The only drawback, if success can be termed a drawback, was that business was so good Leen and Dirk felt they needed to expand. The building in Kiel, which Leen said “has a very nice cellar” was too small.
In March 1978, Dirk found the present Kulminator site at 32 Vleminckveld. It was a bigger building, with a bigger cellar, and also close to the Grote Markt and center of old Antwerp.
Dirk did not want just to move to the new site: he also wanted to have a new draw to go with the specialist café theme. He had tasted EKU 28 from Bavaria –also known as Kulminator (the brewery was called Erste Kulmbacher Actienbraureri) and liked it. He decided he would like to sell the beer in his new café and went to the brewery to offer a deal to the German owners. He was successful and was the sole importer of EKU 28 in Belgium for ten years, from 1979 to 1989.
The café was named for both the EKU 28 beer and also as a place where one could experience the culmination of the brewing arts and beer presentation at its highest form.
Dirk’s idea to both sell the EKU 28 beer and also to use the name Kulminator for his new beer café worked fabulously well. The name raised the curiosity of the locals about the place and they came to drink there. Dirk told me “I sold millions and millions of the EKU 28 beers in my café.” From 1979 to about 1985, Leen said “Everyone in Antwerp came here to drink the EKU beer.” In 1985, she continued, “the Antwerpers left the Kulminator to the tourists.”
Dirk and Leen still stock EKU 28, though it is not nearly the seller it once was. But if you ask nicely, Dirk might show you some of the old EKU bottles that have his name on them as Belgian importer.
A Tale of Two Cellars
I have both good news and bad news for the lovers of vintage beers. Leen and Dirk still own the former Bodega site in Kiel. There is no longer a café there: it is used only for storage. When the Kulminator opened in 1979, most of the beer in the cellar at “Biertempel Van Dyck” was not moved: There is a cellar full of beer from the 1974-1979 period still there!
A few cases of the excellent 1975 vintage Rochefort 10 ( now, sadly, totally sold out) were brought up from the cellar of Bodega in 1999. The occassion was a reception at the Kulminator for the 25th anniversary of Bodega/Biertempel Van Dyck, the 20th anniversary of the Kulminator, and 15th anniversary of the founding of the Objectieve Bierproevers (the society that promotes traditional Belgian beers and beer culture).
The wooden stairs into the Bodega cellar have collapsed so work is needed before more beer can be brought up safely from that cellar, without resorting to using a ladder, as was needed in 1999. What vintage beer treasures must reside there!
There are no pictures of either the old or the new cellar, and no one but Dirk Van Dyck may enter (“It is only for Dirk” Leen said). Those of us who have conjectured about what wonderful places these must be shall have to continue using our imagination!
At the Kulminator, cellar temperature varies from about 7 to 10 degrees Celsius (45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit) from winter to summer. While Leen didn’t know how many bottles there might be in the cellar at the Kulminator, she did tell me that the beer cooler, when full, holds 20,000 bottles.
Leen could not recall any other cafés who were advertising aged beer for sale at the time the Kulminator opened. The idea for aging and cellaring beers first arose when Father Noel of Chimay invited Dirk and Leen to taste an aged Chimay Blue in 1974 or 1975. At the time, the beer was at least ten years old. Leen tells me that she and Dirk enjoyed it very much, and were convinced of the potential for aging and cellaring beer for later consumption. Hence, a 1965 Chimay Blue and a Trappist father may deserve much credit for the advent of aging and cellaring beer.
Vintage beer trends?
I asked Leen if she thought there had been a marked increase in beer tourism to the Kulminator in the past five years or so. “Yes,” she said, “due to the internet.” The consumption of vintage beers has also increased dramatically. Beers such as the 1986 Chimay Blue 500th Anniversary beer, which were rarely ordered until about two years ago, are going fast. “It flows away,” Leen said.
Americans tend to drink a larger proportion of vintage beers than people from other countries: “They always want special beers.”
The busiest night of the year for the Kulminator is the Friday night before the 24 Hours beer festival (24-Uur Van Het Belgische Speciaal Bier) begins. One of the busiest ever was the last one, on November 2, 2001, when surely as much vintage beer was consumed in one night as normally would be in a couple of weeks!
Certain beers on the vintage list have always been exceptionally good buys. One of these is the 1983 Courage Imperial Stout, at about $2 US. Leen told me the John Martin Co. of Antwerp, which bottled the beer (it was brewed in London and sent to Antwerp for bottling especially for the continent), had put a three year best-by date on it and was going to throw it all out as the three years were then up! For an Imperial Stout of 9.5% abv, a three year best-by date was hardly appropriate. “When Dirk found out about this, he asked if he could purchase the beer,” Leen said. Dirk was able to buy about 50 cases at half the normal price, and has been passing on the savings to his customers for about 15 years now.
Due to the time it takes to revise the Kulminator beer menu, this only occurs every few years. The last revision was around November 1999, so one may occasionally ask for beers that are no longer available. Dirk hopes to have a new menu finished by the time of the next 24 Hours festival this year (November 2-3, 2002); in the meantime, there is a small menu of the new beers available.
While at the Kulminator, you can fill out a card with your name, birthdate and address and you will be entered into the guest book. You then receive a birthday card each year. Return with this card within six months and you will be given a draft beer of your choice. Your birthday card will then be stamped and you can take it back home with you as a souvenir.
The Founding of the Objectieve Bierproevers
Dirk’s good friend Peter Crombecq was an early promoter and researcher of Belgium’s many incredible beer styles and rich beer culture. In 1983, Peter and Dirk first discussed the idea of a Belgian beer society, similar to CAMRA in Britain.
The first Objectieve Bierproevers (OBP) meeting was held at the Kulminator in December 1984, with 40 to 45 people attending. They organized a beer festival, held in early 1985, at the Frank Boon brewery in Lembeek. Each year, the festival continued to grow until it moved to Antwerp’s Stadfeestzaal, at Meir 76, in 1988, the first “24 Hours” beer festival.
The Stadfeestzaal (City Festival Hall) burned down during a Christmas presents exposition in December 2000. The OBP had to scramble to find a replacement venue, and did very well with the Oude Beurs (old commodities exchange) located not far away, just off the Meir at Twaalfmaandenstraat. Concerns about the beautiful old building being too small and loose boards in the floor proved unjustified: the event was judged a success and there seemed to be more room to move around.
The OBP is happy with the festival turnout and the “new” hall. Leen told me “We sold more tokens than the previous year.” Most people I’ve talked to who attended the 24 Hours at both sites prefer the new site to the old one.
An American Beer Tour?
Being the owner of one of the world’s great beer cafés, Dirk often receives gifts of beer from around the world, many from the U.S. He has been impressed by the quality of a number of the American beers he has sampled and would like to do an American beer tour at some point, “Probably during a beer festival” he said. The Great American Beer festival is a possibility as Dirk commented that the late September-early October time frame would be a good time for a vacation. It may be a few years before this occurs as there are many other places Leen and Dirk would like to visit as well.
Dirk does appreciate receiving beer magazines and brewspapers so he can study the American beer scene, brewing in America and American-brewed Belgian-style beers. He showed me a copy of one of Ben Myers’ books on U.S. and Canadian beer and said he liked it.
You might wonder what style of beer is the favorite of the owners of this café. Leen told me “Well, we drink and like all styles of beer, of course. My favorites are beers like Bornem Tripel, on draft, and also gueuze and sour beers. Dirk likes dark, sweet beers like Kasteel Bruin the most, and he prefers Biere du Boucanier on draft.” Not surprisingly, Bornem Tripel and Kasteel Bruin were available on tap while I was there. And I have seen Biere du Boucanier on draft there on other trips.
A similar beer to the Bornem Tripel, the Vieille Villers Tripel, also 8% abv, was beer of the month during November . When you buy the beer of the month–normally a draft beer– you receive two bierglasbons which can be redeemed for beer glasses on display in a wooden cabinet . Forty is the minimum for a glass, but the number increases according to how old or rare the glass is. There are some very nice ones offered, so keep the bierglasbons if you go to the Kulminator often.
As this interview occurred just before Christmas, I was interested in what beer the owners of a café with 600 beers available choose to celebrate that occasion. “Probably Avec les Bons Voeux (Brasserie Dupont). It’s a good beer.” Dirk said.
The Future of the Kulminator
Rumors of an imminent close of the Kulminator are, fortunately, completely unfounded. Leen told me that “We will work until we feel we are too old and then retire.” I commented that I hoped it would be at least another five or ten years before that happened. Leen said “We could work until we are 70 or 80!” Being that Dirk is no older than his early 50’s and Leen several years younger, this could indeed be many more years.
Unfortunately, neither of Dirk and Leen’s sons will follow in their parents’ footsteps when they retire. Both have other career plans.
Despite that, beer lovers probably have a couple of decades to savor the unique ambiance that makes the Kulminator such an institution. Here’s a toast to many more nights of sampling great beers at the Kulminator!
Charles D. Cook
Charles D. (Chuck) Cook lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. He can often be found in the Kulminator when on a beer tour of Belgium, continuing his ongoing research project into the huge beer menu there.