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.