The nuttiest archetype in all of craft brewing is the potbellied, tonsured Belgian monk. Presented as equal parts mad scientist, gifted seer and spiritual loon, this mythical fellow has spawned intense devotion amongst serious beer drinkers. Indeed, his reputation as a jolly helter-skelter genius is so revered that it’s not uncommon for slumping imbibers at Barry Bialik’s new Belgian-beer bar in downtown Asheville to become transfixed by the kitschy clock-cum-tippling monk figurine atop the beer cooler. “I’ll give you $500 for him,” they growl.
Bialik’s not selling. The time-telling eBay find encapsulates the weird dichotomy that defines Belgian beer and The Thirsty Monk, Bialik’s endearing ale grotto: precision married with unbridled cheer.
“I’m like a devil for the details,” Bialik says. “We really wanted to do flights, but the biggest thing is to serve them in proper glassware. We were hunting all over for Belgian tasting glassware.”
Trappist monks, who have an obvious penchant for piety, are unwavering on the subject of glassware: Like most brewers working in the Belgian style, they believe a beer’s flavor and aroma are accentuated by its container’s size and shape. Belgian brewmasters’ version of the chicken-and-egg conundrum is the ale and its glass: The most fanatical insist on designing a signature glass’ crooks and crescents before devising the recipe for the beer to be showcased by it. According to those who know, putting a decent dubbel in a plain-Jane pint glass is the equivalent of dressing Adriana Lima in a muumuu.
So Bialik posted one of his employees on Internet patrol, ordering her to keep Googling till she found the miniature versions of the tumblers, chalices, snifters, goblets and tulip glasses needed to properly present half-pours of Belgian beers. “I’d sit her down for days,” Bialik admits.
Her search finally led to a hapless public-relations firm that had unsuccessfully tried to market the very product Bialik wanted. He immediately bought most of the company’s dusty inventory, stocking his bar with thousands of shrunken glasses matched to his wares.
“The whole concept of this place is mixing the casualness of a beer joint with the elegance of a wine bar,” Bialik says.
Depending on its brand, a beer at The Thirsty Monk may be served in a pint that looks like a test tube, King Arthur’s cup or a tall ice-cream-soda glass into which Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney might have stuck their straws. There’s even a glass paired with its own wooden holder, a goofy contraption that rattled its way to instant popularity with Bialik’s regulars, for whom the spotty availability of certain brews is one of the watering hole’s many charms.
“There are always beers on back order,” sighs Bialik, who strives to keep upward of a dozen beers on tap and another 150 styles in bottles. “We’ve had some beers on order since we’ve been open.”
As the only purely Belgian-beer bar in the Southeast outside Atlanta, Bialik has had to prove a constituency to skeptical distributors who wondered whether North Carolinians could have developed a taste for Belgium’s high-gravity ales in the three short years since the Legislature lifted the state’s restrictive alcohol-by-volume cap. Seems they did. So, too, did their neighbors in South Carolina, who were freed from similar vestigial post-Prohibition restrictions in 2007. “We’re becoming kind of a destination bar,” Bialik says. “It’s a very beer-savvy population.”
Securing the beer menu has also been complicated by the legendary whims of Belgian brewers, who aren’t shy about indulging their idiosyncrasies. Bialik points to the brewer who draws his own label’s artwork and has appointed his 90-year-old mother as brewery tour guide (he honored her selfless contributions with a beer he named “Mad Bitch”). And then there’s Dany Prignon at Fantome, who never brews the same batch twice. “He’s insane,” Bialik says. “His Christmas beer didn’t even come in until February.”
Still, Bialik manages to maintain a beer list that runs 19 single-spaced pages, which even the helpful one-sentence tasting notes don’t render any less intimidating to the Belgian-beer newbie. Thirsty Monk bartenders are trained in the nuanced art of Belgian-beer translation. “Say you come in and you like Budwesier,” Bialik said, warming up for a demonstration of his beer-parlor trick. “We’ve got the Bavik pilsner! You like IPAs? We’ll steer you toward the La Chouffe Houblon!”
But the bar’s popularity and the time needed to correctly pull a Belgian draft sometimes conspire to make it hard to nab a high-alcohol ale sherpa. So Bialik agreed to outline the basics of Belgian beer for me and the many Xpress readers who—like me—wouldn’t know whether to pack a St. Bernardus Grottenbier or a Dupont Bier De Miel for their next picnic.
The Thirsty Monk menu categorizes its offerings in four distinct ways: Each beer is listed by name (helpful for Flemish speakers), price (pints start at $4, although a few of the finest 750-ml bottles cost more than $30) and alcohol percentage. “We had to list that because some of these beers are like mixed drinks,” Bialik explained. A few hearty drinkers have read Bialik’s caution as a challenge, running their fingers down the list till they find the stiffest brew.
But the most important descriptor on the menu is the style: Bialik sorts Belgians into Monk beers, strong ales, refreshers, wild beers and specialties, which is a catch-all category for the beers that belong only by virtue of geography. Although Belgians are sticklers for glassware, they’re boldly experimental with their recipes. “German beer is the scientist. Belgian beer is the wild artist,” Bialik says. “There’s no set point where they say ‘It’s done now’.”
Monk beers, which include the classic Trappist beers from one of six surviving abbey breweries (the seventh doesn’t export), are the strongest in flavor and not likely to be a big hit with the Bud guy who saunters up to the bar. The monk with which most folks are familiar is Chimay, the beer that first hooked Bialik on Belgians. The monks I sampled had equal hits of perfume and smooth malt. Like most Belgians, monks are notably lively despite their delicateness.
“One of the advantages we have that other bars—which might have one Belgian on their tap line—don’t, is we can actually leave our gas off,” Bialik says. “You don’t need gas to pour a Belgian.”
Strong ales are offshoots of monk beers, and often taste much like the collision of a monk with a spice box. Duvel is the most famous of these fruity, golden brews, although I liked a hoppy Von Steenberge Piraat with a gentle sweetness that made for easy drinking. The Thirsty Monk also keeps a clove-scented Delirium Tremens on tap.
Refreshers are the beachgoing beer of the Belgian line-up. The brothy Saison Dupont is a classic example of the genre: super-smooth, crisp and perhaps slightly raunchier in flavor than the American-conditioned pale-ale drinker might suspect.
Bialik recommends wild beers for wine drinkers: Indeed, the average beer drinker would be hard-pressed to identify many of the lambics, browns and reds as belonging to the beer family tree. Among the Thirsty Monk’s most popular offerings in the genre are the Kasteel Rouge, a fantasia of cranberries and currants, and a Liefmans Kriek that tastes like sour-cherry pie.
Bialik urges all his customers to find their favorites by ordering flights, served on a slate tray in the tasting glasses he labored to get. “Whatever your style is, there’s a better version of it from Belgium,” he promises.