The Nightcap: Sipping Belgian beers at The Trappist
on September 16, 2011
Wine lovers, those who have never had a beer before, even people who hate the taste of beer – Aaron Porter, an owner of The Trappist, located on 8th Street at Broadway, believes he can help anyone can find a Belgian brew they’ll enjoy.
“It’s generally not too hard to get someone something they like,” Porter says as he sits at a round wooden table in the back of the bar on a weekday afternoon. “As long as they’re open to it.”
The Trappist is a European-style pub with a menu stacked with Belgian beers. The place is u-shaped, with two bars with white taps and Belgium beer glasses, which look a lot like chubbier wine glasses, hanging behind the bars. Signs for Belgium and other European beers adorn the walls. Last month, an outdoor patio opened as well, with wood benches on an elevated platform.
The beer taps at The Trappist are all white, without any familiar beer logos. The names of the beers written on the black chalkboard behind the taps are likely unknown by an unsophisticated beer drinker as well. There are 120-150 different bottles to choose from and 28 taps, but no other alcohol is served, so bartenders at The Trappist are often approached by interested beer customers who have no idea what to order.
Fortunately for those who don’t know what “De Struise Pannepot” is (it’s “old fisherman’s ale), or have never tried “St. Bernardus Abt 12” (a brown ale), The Trappist’s bartenders are all trained to know just about everything there is to know about the beer being served. They even know what to recommend to people who don’t like beer.
“They think they know what beer is because they’ve only had that one very light, very flavorless thing, so they think they don’t like beer,” says bartender Mike Brinkman. “I guess it is pretty easy to change their mind quickly and let them know there are good beers out there, especially with these at hand.”
The Trappist is owned by Porter and Chuck Stilphen, two friends who cooked up the idea of opening a bar together after a beer vacation to Belgium and Holland. Porter and Stilphen had taken yearly trips to Europe to drink beer and learn about the beer-making process. Most of the trips, they explored the Trappist beers (beer brewed by Trappist monks, a Roman Catholic order) that are only brewed at monasteries in Belgium and Holland.
While they couldn’t gain access to see how the monks conduct their secretive brewing process, they were able to visit some of the grounds and pubs, and through the course of their travels were able to pick up enough useful information, and inspiration, to start their own place. Porter said he and Stilphen fell in love with the beer culture, and the allure of monks in robes brewing beer for centuries with the same techniques.
“Belgium is known as the motherland of beer, and the fact that there’s half a dozen monasteries in Belgium that devote much of their daily effort to brewing beer, and the association with spirituality gives it this mystique that’s very interesting,” Porter says. “And the beer happens to be excellent.”
But it was in the bars of Belgium that the real inspiration for The Trappist came. The two went to bars that were almost 500 years old, and they loved the old, worn-in feel to those places that served beer you couldn’t find anywhere else. “We just really wanted to bring all that back home and do something what we were experiencing over there,” Porter says, “and share it with other people.”
When they returned to the states and began looking around for a good place to open a Belgian-style pub, they found an ideal location on 8th Street. The building wasn’t in use, but is located next door to Tamarindo Antojeria, a popular Mexican restaurant, and close to BART and the freeway. Porter, who worked as an architect, loved the aesthetics of the old brick-and-column interior Victorian building, which was built in 1874. They the partners tried to match their place to the pubs they’d seen in Europe, adding taps from Belgium and France, and modeling the woodworking in the interior to match those pubs.
“All this stuff is found primarily in Europe, but also is fairly Victorian in era as well,” Porter says. “We just tried to figure it all out so it worked together.”
The beer glasses at The Trappist are also a staple of Belgian beer. Each beer has a “brewer’s glass” – a particular glass for a particular beer that is designed by the brewer. “The story goes that the specific shape of the glass lent itself best to the quality of beer,” Porter says. “So a brewer would come up with a glass that he thought best represented his beer in terms of the aroma and flavor, and also just the aesthetics of his particular brand.”
The Trappist bartenders are trained to know which beer goes with each glass – dozens hang behind each bar and most look like giant wine glasses, some with the name of the beer stenciled on one side. The staff is also trained to follow the “more sophisticated service” someone may find in Europe, especially with slightly obsessive regard to the cleanliness of glasses. After a glass is cleaned with soap and water, bartenders clean each glass with a rinser that shoots chilled water into the glass, which cools it and cleans out any debris that might alter the flavor of the beer, or affect the head of the beer. The beer is also poured with a significant head, which is great for the aroma and the appearance of the beer, Porter said, and the foam at the top of a glass is swiped off with a knife by the bartenders, who serve the beer with the label facing the customer.
While there’s no wine or soda on the menu, there is food. The Trappist also has a small kitchen, and serves sandwiches and homemade sausages for lunch, and a dinner menu that features a chicken and barley stew.
It all goes to trying to capture the authenticity of a pub in Belgium. Porter says. The Trappist has been more popular, and more of a success, than he ever thought when he and Stilphen opened the place in December 2007.
“When we went in to this, we didn’t have any sense of what the beer community wanted or was like,” he says. “We figured we’d open up a small place and do things we liked to do and drink beer that we liked to drink and if it worked out, great, and if not, at least we’d have a place to hang out ourselves and drink beer we wanted to drink.”
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