BEER WITH A (BELGIAN) SOCIALIST: Thanks for the Abbaye des Rocs Triple Imperiale vintage one-off. Now can I please have St. Bernardus Tripel on tap?


It should come as no surprise that I’ve had to learn the beer programming game all over again since my return to the biz at Pints&union.

Ten years ago when the wholesale supply chain was starting to be told that establishments intended to rotate draft beers as much as humanly possible, the middlemen gazed back at us in baffled “who is this space alien?” amazement.

Now it’s the same reaction when I tell them I just want to keep the same beer on tap all (or most) of the time, and never mind this was the default standard operating procedure for something like 70 years following the end of Prohibition.

Right now, at this precise moment, if I could snap my fingers and make it so, there’d be a draft line at Pints&union pouring Spezial’s elegant smoked amber lager from Bamberg, flown over monthly just for us at an eminently reasonable price point.

Okay, so that’s utterly impossible.

Restricting my wish to the attainable, this draft line would function as such:

Pour two sixth-barrels of St. Bernardus Tripel in a row, followed by one sixth-barrel of a kindred rotating traditional Belgian ale style; rinse, and repeat — and if the Tripel maintains popularity, skip the rotating slot every now and then.

In fact, this is so very possible that for a few months at the end of 2018, it actually was occurring. Our customers enjoyed St. Bernardus Tripel, as I knew they would. Then one day I ordered more and the wholesaler was out of stock. This kept happening, and I kept asking. As usual, it took a while to get to the bottom of it, but eventually it was conveyed to me that the inventory was depleted because there were no plans to order any more.

Turns out we were the only account in the whole damn state of Indiana selling sixth-barrels of St. Bernardus Tripel, and in case you’re wondering, this brand is my preference because (a) I’m a huge fan of St. Bernardus, and (b) I know what the hell I’m doing when it comes to making intelligent classicist choices like this.

My natural response: “But maybe both the wholesaler and the importer would be delighted to know that I intend to sell St. Bernardus Tripel on draft for roughly 2/3 of each year, and since the St Bernardus ABT 12 is still coming to Indiana in kegs, how hard could it be to accommodate me?”

The wholesaler duly inquired, and came up with this: the importer will ship only full pallets of St. Bernardus Tripel, not split pallets, and this would mean bringing in 20 kegs at once, and despite the very long shelf life, the wholesaler views this as far too many for a brand it apparently hasn’t been pushing anywhere else, anywhere, apart from the bizarre new account directed by one hellaciously obstinate contrarian in New Albany.

Silly me. I was expecting to hear importer and wholesaler reply in unison: “GREAT. Now all we need to do is sell a handful of kegs elsewhere in the ENTIRE STATE OF INDIANA to make this work.”

Mind you, I like this wholesaler. It’s a company chock full of good, helpful people; if not, I wouldn’t have gotten the lowdown prompting this rant. Credit them for answering my questions, even if there’s a disconnect somewhere higher up, because what I really needed to hear, and still do, is this: “We’ll get on this and figure it out.”

I sent a detailed e-mail to the importer asking if they’d reconsider the “no split pallet” decision and received … absolutely no reply in return.

St. Bernardus remains a great personal favorite. I can’t say much for their representation in America, at least yet, although I fully expect at some future point someone will call me and say “wait — I get it! You want to sell one of our products most of the time and will do so, though only if we send it to the wholesaler first!”

Um, yep. That’s the size of it.

At this point the story gets even more weird.

The wholesaler carries a serviceable substitute brand, Abbaye du Val-Dieu Tripel, albeit at a higher price point than St. Bernardus, so I asked to be sent a keg of that one. It arrived looking a bit battered, but okay; that’s not unusual for imports. It sat for a week in the cooler, then it was time to tap it.

Out came liquid that did not look or taste like a classic Belgian Tripel, and did not match on-line descriptions or my own memories of the brand. To be truthful, it tasted wonderful; dark and strong, though turbid and with some brown-sugary oxidized character. To be truthful, it tasted like some of the vintage Belgians we used to drink at ‘t Brugs Beertje when Daisy would haul up examples of the cellar stock.

I reported all this to the wholesaler and took a close look at the keg label, which revealed a completely different brewery.

It wasn’t Val-Dieu at all, but Brasserie des Rocs, a wonderful artisanal brewer. The words “Triple Imperiale” were plainly visible. I might have looked closer when it arrived. It seemed as though an honest mistake might have been made in the warehouse.

Now the fun began in earnest and a conversation commenced. The wholesaler could not find any record of such an ale in its inventory. Shortly thereafter, the importer was contacted — the same one that brings us (or more accurately, doesn’t bring us) St. Bernardus draft — and they asked the wholesaler how on earth it had a keg of Abbaye des Rocs Triple Imperiale in stock when the brand no longer was being imported, and hadn’t been for at least three years.

Well, here’s how: our wholesaler acquired the rights to St. Bernardus from another wholesaler roughly six months ago. When the deal was done and the stock was transferred, this orphaned keg hopped a ride from the storage area where it long ago had slipped under the radar.

This answered one question, because if the previous wholesaler didn’t even know what it had in stock, perhaps the same caliber of neglect had allowed St. Bernardus Tripel to go to seed in terms of statewide sales.

So, did I want to pour Abbaye des Rocs Triple Imperiale at Pints&union or send it back?

To reiterate, to me it tasted good. Obviously it was vintage, which would not have sufficed for a Carlsberg, but this one was big enough when fresh to have developed nicely as it aged.

It made me think of a sunny fall afternoon in 1995 in Antwerp, Belgium.

We’d started drinking early at the Elfde Gebod (Eleventh Commandment) café, where religious statuary both sacred and creatively profane lined the walls. The eccentric tableau was just creepy enough to be inspirational, and viewing “Jesus with the head of a dog” while sipping Westmalle Tripel made Elfde Gebod my kind of place.

Borrowed image. My photos are somewhere.

Later that afternoon, my pot of North Sea mussels steamed in dry white wine was superb. Endless, graceful “bollekes” of locally brewed De Koninck amber ale were equally fabulous, and later we found Rodenbach on tap somewhere at a bar upstairs on the other side of the cathedral.

Belgium’s diamond capital was a city filled with food, drink and nightlife, and the conclusion of our lengthy Antwerp session came at the famous beer bar called the Kulminator, where Dirk was featuring ten-year-old vintage dark ale called Breughel, brewed by a long defunct brewery and supposedly salvaged from a forgotten stash hidden in a friend’s garage (since then it has been revived as a going concern).

Miraculously, the process of aging had been quite friendly to the Breughel. Oxidization offered a velvety patina of sherry-like nuttiness to concentrated fruitiness, on the order of plums, pecans and toffee. I drank one, ordered another, and lit an authentic Havana: The Romeo y Julieta Churchill, purchased a few days earlier at a tobacconist’s in Brussels.

I decided we’d serve the Abbaye des Rocs Triple Imperiale, and I hope at least some of you have enjoyed a glass of it by now. As of Sunday it was pouring, so those of you interested might wish to stop by early in the week.

I’ll make every effort to convey this nostalgic essay to the wholesaler and importer in the hope we’ll be allowed to do what we’d like to do, which is:

Pour two sixth-barrels of St. Bernardus Tripel in a row, followed by one sixth-barrel of a kindred rotating traditional Belgian ale style; rinse, and repeat — and if the Tripel maintains popularity, skip the rotating slot every now and then.

As always, I’m strangely optimistic rationality will prevail.