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Tom Peters: The Belgian Beer Whisperer of Philadelphia

February 23, 2018

By Kevin Koczwara, February 23, 2018

To find one the most important bars in America, look for a small neon sign that reads “Beer Emporium.” It’s down a dark street in Philadelphia, barely out of the reach of the sports bars with thumping music that echos down the street. Above that sign is a black awning adorned with letters that look like they belong in Bruges. The only way to know you’ve really made it is to push open the large red door and walk down a dark hallway, until you reach the Holy Grail that is Monk’s Cafe.

Inside, Monk’s has an Old World feel. Space is tight and the overhead light creates a subtle and soft mystique. In the back, there’s in a smaller room with a few tables, no windows and a bar made from an old choir loft. Monk’s has a fully-stocked bar, but that’s not important. People come here because Tom Peters has created an environment where great beer rules.

Peters and Fergus Carey opened Monk’s in 1997, with three beers on tap and a line out the door. Before then, Peters had been bartending for 12 years around Philadelphia. He had a following. At the time, craft beer was barely a fraction of what it is today. Instead, Belgian beer was craft beer. And Peters was the local expert. Monk’s quickly became one of the most ambitious bars in the country, when it came to importing beer and promoting American brewers. As a result, Peters’ experience and taste has influenced countless brewers and beer drinkers.

The bar itself exists in the historical contingency of American beer.”

When Shaun Hill, the man behind Hill Farmstead, graduated from college in May 2001, he visited Monk’s. By early December, he had moved to Philadelphia in search of a career. During the search, he applied for a barback job at Monk’s. He never heard back. That didn’t preventing him from becoming a regular. The bar and it’s “Beer Bible”—a list of bottled beers and information about history, styles and glassware—stuck with him.

“The bar itself exists in the historical contingency of American beer,” Hill said. “It should be in the vaults. But then, at the same time, I feel like Monk’s is still able to provide an insight for any level of craft beer consumer as to the actual individual historical contingency of beer.”

The first beer Peters ordered when he landed in Belgium in 1984 was a Heineken. He was on his way to Paris with a girlfriend, but flew to Brussels because the plane ticket and a train ride were cheaper than a direct flight. As a bartender in Philadelphia at the time, Peters had tried Heineken before and been unimpressed. Rumor had it that it tasted better in Europe, closer to its Amsterdam brewery. He took a sip and turned to his girlfriend and said, “Man, this sucks just as bad as it does in America.” The bartender laughed and told him Heineken's “piss” and asked Peters if he wanted to try a “real beer.”

“I was like, ‘Well, yeah, I am always up for a challenge,’” Peters recalls from one of Monk’s booths. He grins under a gray mustache. His gray hair is cropped short. He wears black rimmed glasses that his eyes seem to pop out from when he laughs, which is often.

The bartender popped open a bottle of Duvel, the famous Belgian strong golden pale ale served in a traditional tulip glass. When the glass arrived, he sat and waited for the head to dissipate. “It's like, ‘Jesus Christ, when am I going to drink this beer?’” Peters remembers. The bartender walked over and asked if he was going to drink it. Peters told him he was waiting for the head to settle. The bartender tilted the tulip shaped glass and showed him how to drink the Duvel, the head sliding out of the way thanks to glass design.

“I drank it like it was a Heineken,” Peters says.

That night, Peters got his first lesson in Belgian beer. He scribbled notes on coasters as he drank Chimay Grand Reserve and Orval. His mind raced and his mouth lit up with new flavors. At the time, beer in the United States was in a dark age and the craft beer movement was years away. Authentic European beer had begun to find its way to market. There was no mainstream equivalent to the Belgian beers Peters drank that night. Peters kept the coasters with the notes on them when he left

“Then, I was going to go catch a train to Paris and I was like, ‘Fuck, somebody stole my legs.’ I did not know the beers were that strong,” Peters says. His plan for two weeks in Paris became less than a week, because he wanted to spend more time in Belgium. He needed to know more about the beer. He returned on a train earlier than planned and became enamored with their complexity and history. He has returned Belgian almost every year since.

Back home, Peters contacted every importer he could to get his hands on as much Belgian beer as possible. He started ordering it by the pallet. At first, he had to convince drinkers to try the beers.

“I would sell the beer and show them the glasses,” Peters says. “Back then I'd say, ‘If you don't like it, I'll take it off your check and I'll drink it.’ But I would talk about how I visited the monastery, the history of it. All the profits they generate is donated to charity for orphans, so it's a really good cause. When Cantillon came in, that was a harder sell.”

It's hard to imagine looking back at a time when Chimay and Cantillon were tough sells, but, back then, they were strange imports, as foreign to the American beer drinker as curling was to the average sports fan. Peters had to educate people and take them on a journey. He was laying the groundwork for the craft beer market before "craft beer" became a buzzword.

What is Monk's Cafe? It's the manifestation of Tom Peters’ ideology and pallet.”

Twelve years later, when the space that is now Monk’s became available, he was approached to take it over. In partnership with Carey, he opened Monk's seven days after signing the lease. Peters ran the kitchen and created the menu, which included mussels in Cantillon-laced broth. Today, they’re made with Allagash White. Monk’s became a launching pad for craft beer in America, paving the way one tulip glass at a time. Eventually, the “Beer Bible” became one of the most comprehensive lists of beer styles and history ever created.

Today, Peters stays out of the kitchen—he has a trusted staff that’s been with him for years. Instead, his goal for this year is to brew beer with ten of his favorite brewers. He’s already accomplished that with Hill. It’s all part of his never-ending personal education—an education he shares with anyone who pulls up a seat at the bar.

“What is Monk's Cafe?” Hill asked. "It's the manifestation of Tom Peters’ ideology and pallet.”

When I arrived at Monk’s on a Thursday night after 10 p.m., the place was still busy. The hostess took me to a small table in the back and I sat down next to three excited young men in business-casual attire. I picked up the two-sided draft list and, while I waited for the bartender, one of them leaned over to talk to me. “They have Pliney the Elder,” he said, referencing the rare and widely sought after Russian River IPA. The beer is rarely seen outside of California, if ever. But Peters is a close friend of Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo and they ship kegs across the country just for Monk’s.

For many, Pliney is a bucket-list beer. Tonight, my new friends were at Monk’s to try it. They were new to craft beer and chasing IPAs. On the draft menu were beers from some of the best breweries across the country, alongside classics such as Saison Dupont. It was catered to the curious newbie and seasoned hop-head, and yet it still felt like a local watering hole.

But mostly, it was like any other night at Monk’s and that’s remarkable enough.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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