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!