On the eve of Philly Beer Week, a talk with Tom Peters of Monk's.
The Heineken that Tom Peters ordered on his maiden voyage to Brussels (en route to Paris) in 1984 was as ho-hum as the ones he'd had back home in Philadelphia.
Would he like to try a "real beer"? the bartender asked. He would indeed. Which is how it came to pass that he had his first Duvel, golden and effervescent, the head so tall and creamy that he had to be instructed to tilt the glass and sip from under it.
The Earth moved. He tried Orval next. Then Chimay Blue. Then delayed the train ride to France.
The rest is beer history. Peters, 56 now, would go on, 25 years ago, to open Monk's Belgian Cafe, the hallowed beer emporium at 16th and Spruce. (Later, he opened Grace Tavern and the Belgian Cafe with Fergus Carey.)
These days he is generally conceded to be the founding father of the city's stunning revival of beer culture - from a scrapyard of once-proud German breweries to a lively gastropub scene that, beginning next week, will celebrate itself with the robust toast that is the third annual Philly Beer Week.
The list of venues numbers in the hundreds; check them out at www.phillybeerweek.org. Or drop by the dim-lit bar at Monk's, and ask Tom Peters his voluble self.
While you're at it, grab a real beer.
You'll have 275 to choose from.
Rick Nichols: OK, we know about your Belgian conversion on the road to Paris. But what was the drink of choice in Easton, Pa., where you grew up?
Tom Peters: When I was about 14 we lived about 10, 12 blocks from my grandparents, and I'd walk over with my reel lawnmower and cut the grass. My grandfather had a fridge on the back porch for his beer: That's where I helped myself to my first DAB [a lager from Dortmund, Germany], and, I think, he had Carling.
R.N.: And that was that?
T.P.: Well, no, he taught me how to make sauerbraten with beer. We still use his recipe at Monk's every fall. By a year later or so I was growing a mustache and my voice changed. I could buy beer across the bridge in Phillipsburg, N.J., where the drinking age was 18. I was buying for high school seniors, even.
R.N.: So after your stint in the Army at Fort Knox, what then?
T.P.: I worked at Bill Curry's Cafe Nola on South Street. On Saturday and Sunday, I was a brunch waiter. I baked Irish soda bread at Downey's. I tended bar briefly at Quincy's Pub. Eventually, I ended up managing Curry's second Copa . . . Copa II, for 11 years on 15th Street.
R.N.: Is that where you started serving the Belgian brews?
T.P.: No, that was in the '80s, still at Cafe Nola. I said I wanted to bring in a case of Chimay Grand Reserve. It was going for $8 for the tall bottles. Bill said, "Nobody's gonna buy it."
R.N.: So, did anybody?
T.P.: The first night, a guy tried it. The guy next to him said, "What's he having? I'll have one of those." Pretty soon it was pop, pop, pop. We sold the case in three hours. The sad part is I didn't save one for myself.
R.N.: Nowadays you sell a whole menu of American craft beers, too. But "no mass-produced, yellow, fizzy, highly advertised crap," as you call it in your Monk's Beer Bible (his beer list and primer). Still, Belgian classics are about half your inventory. How is that different from Brussels?
T.P.: At this point, we've got more good Belgian beer bars in Philly than they do in Belgium. I've heard it called "Brussels on the Schuylkill," not that I call it that. But you can get great Belgian beer at Marc Vetri's Amis now, at the steakhouses, at R2L in Liberty Two. . . .
R.N.: How'd Philly Beer Week come about?
T.P.: When the city's Book and the Cook [cookbook/chef dining festival] seemed like it was on its last legs, I got together with Bruce Nichols, who was the head of catering at the University Museum at Penn. That's where we'd had these hugely successful beer events with [the late beer guru] Michael Jackson. Bruce suggested continuing them as a beer celebration. So we called Don Russell [a.k.a. "Joe Sixpack"] and started hammering things out.
R.N.: Was it a tough sell?
T.P.: You know Jackson had a soft spot for Philly. He said Philly was the best beer town in the country. We thought we might get 30 or 40 events and dinners on our first go-round; we'd call that a success. We ended up with 300 plus. I