Here's a Lesson in Belgian Beer From the New Belgian Beer Cafe
Finding a beer brewed in Belgium at your local watering hole isn't that hard these days, but finding a bar that can teach you how to pair your pint -- or how to pour that pint correctly -- is a bit less common. The recently opened Belgian Beer Cafe Nomad (220 Fifth Avenue, 212-575-2337) aims to help curious customers find the answers to those questions by serving as a classroom for Belgian beer.
All photos courtesy Belgian Beer Cafe Master Beer Sommelier Marc Stroobrandt
Marc Stroobrandt is the professor here; he first started working in a bar to help pay his tuition for law school. He soon gave up the books and set out on a path to become a beer sommelier. When we stopped by, he gave us a few pointers on enjoying our beer.
His first lesson: every Belgian beer has a specific glass it should be served in. The right glass is crucial because it helps accentuate the flavor, so much so that in Belgium, if the restaurant doesn't have the right glass, they might refuse to sell you the beer. The more aromatic the beer, the more round shape of the glass -- 60 to 80 percent of your taste is determined by your nose, says Stroobrandt. Straight glasses are typically used for the less aromatic beers. The philosophy surrounding glassware is so important to the process that all glasses are washed by hand.
Glassware varies because Belgian beer varies greatly. "We'll use whatever we can find to make beer," says Stroobrandt. Unlike Germany, which adheres to a strict purity law that defines what can and cannot be used to make beer, a Belgian brewery is more like the Muppet Laboratory of Bunsen and Beeker. Malted and unmalted grain, herbs, spices, and even chocolate are fair game when it comes to acceptable brewing ingredients. The results range from sour strawberry flavored lambics to hearty Chimay ales, not to mention the first-of-its-kind Belgian lager, Stella Artois.
Enjoying those beers is also predicated on a good pour, says Stoobrandt. "With bottled beers, what you do is start straight...pour straight, and release the carbonation straight ahead, then tilt the bottle," he advises. If you find your glass full of foam, don't freak. Foam is not the enemy in Belgium, as it serves as a preliminary test of what awaits inside. Two inches is the preferred length, and as you drink the beer down, a trail known as Belgian lace should stick against the glass if you're drinking a good beer.
Food is also essential at Belgian Beer Cafe -- Stroobrandt trained as a chef as part of his training -- and should be part of your drinking experience. Cheese is the preferred bar snack of Belgium, mostly because it coats and cleanses the palate. And if you want to experience the full taste effect of the pours here, you should alternate "beer, food, beer," says Stroobrandt. In addition to cheese -- which you can dip in sriracha -- the restaurant is serving a full menu of mussels, scallops, and frites courtesy of chef Bill Peet. Each bite comes recommended by a server depending on what you're drinking.
The restaurant is expected to begin lunch service September 8, with a brunch menu to follow in a few weeks. Head to the next page for a look at Manhattan's latest beer paradise.