New York Goes BELGIAN
Small beer poised to make big noise in Big Apple
By Jack Robertiello
Despite the insistent murmuring among beer cognoscenti, acquiring a taste for (or even a taste of) the distinctive, heady beers of Belgium takes some doing in the US, since most of the 500 or so brews from the tiny country are difficult, if not impossible, to find.
Still, the highly varied selections and reverential attention brewing receives in Belgium have made trying a wide range of brews from the tiny country a must for beer lovers, yet the American market remains underdeveloped.
There’s lots of room for growth; no Belgian beer broke into the top 50 international brands sold in the US in 1998, according to Adams Business Media’s 1999 Beer Handbook. But international giant Interbrew has reintroduced the big-selling Belgian lager Stella Artois into the New York market and, combined with wider availability of leading Belgian brands Chimay, Hoegaarden and Duvel, and the response to New York brewer Ommegang’s two brews (Ommegang and Hennepin), shows there is plenty of interest among American beer drinkers.
And a sudden fancy for Belgian food and drink in New York City may signal a national change. Frite shops have proliferated here recently, Belgian-style bakeries are starting to open, and, most importantly, two widely heralded new Belgian style restaurants have opened in the past year, with one (Belgo) poised to continue its beer-centric international expansion to other US cities.
The Belgo concept got its start in London about eight years ago, where, despite a reputation as a beer-friendly country, Belgian beers were mostly unknown to consumers, according to Belgo Nieuw York general manager Bruce Leggett-Flynn.
Belgo’s communal setting brings together New Yorkers closer together when they’re quaffing their Trappist ales.
Legget-Flynn, who ran London’s 440-seat monster Belgo Centraal, oversees the more modest New York operation, a cavernous, building-within-a-building space with touches of a railyard, a monastery dining hall and an
underground cafe. Design consultant and Belgo founder Denis Blais describes it as “a Belgian space ship crash-landed in New York,” but it’s more like a poured concrete dance hall with long tables that encourage group-mixing and communal partying.
When the first Belgo opened about eight years ago in London, customers were put off by the concept–not only the mussels, french fries and the fragrant and tasty range of Belgian beers, but also what’s called cuisine a la biere and the decor, says Leggett-Flynn.
“Belgian beers were not big in England,” says Legget-Flynn. “They were hard to find and people at first didn’t get the concept of Belgo. You still don’t after only one visit.” But after getting an opportunity to sample some of the beers, the idea took off, and Belgo Centraal opened.
Belgo Nieuw York stocks 101 Belgian beers, including six drafts which get special attention, and the beer menu is broken down into nine other sections: 22 trappist ales, brewed legally only by Trappist monks, four white beers (unfiltered and seasoned wheat beers, 21 fruit and herbal beers), 4 lambic (spontaneously brewed beers), geuze (mixes of refermented old and young lambics) and faro (lambics sweetened with candy sugar), 19 abbey ales, or Trappist-style beers brewed commercially, 7 golden ales, 4 saisons, or seasonal brews, 14 regional specialties, and 6 wine beers and old bruns.
Rolling out the concept internationally–the company currently is looking at Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and would love to try other markets–has been a bit thorny. The arcane state alcohol laws which determine the ABV strength, bottle-size and other details have put up potential roadblocks that need to be cleared in Georgia and Florida, for instance, and the Belgo operators will find few states where sourcing the 100 brews available in New York is easy. Perhaps some lobbying campaigns in certain states are in order, and Leggett-Flynn says he has spoken with the leader of the Global Beer Network about how to ease the hurdles to entry for Belgian beers.
But they have plenty of US help in other matters. After making an agreement with Avado (formerly Apple South) to introduce the concept here (Avado supplies help in purveying, accounting, economies of scale and other BOH tasks, but has kept hands off at the operational level, says Leggett-Flynn), the Belgo concept landed in New York early this year, and so far, they’re pleased.
Simply sourcing the beers was the first hurdle, though; hiring and educating the staff which would be essentially ambassadors for an entire nation’s brew output was another matter. But the results have been satisfying, says Leggett-Flynn; there’s been no turnover at the bar staff and waitstaff turnover in the notoriously fickle New York market has been low, about 30%.
“I deliberately didn’t hire the tall, dark and drop-dead gorgeous; if I was bored after talking to them for two minutes, I moved onto the next person. I wanted people with personality, and this batch tends to be open to new things and into what we’re doing here. And they all can taste what they want, and sell at the table by making suggestions about what beers go with which dishes and assuring the customer that if they don’t like the beer we recommend, we’ll take it back, no questions asked.” It’s an important capacity in New York, where the unfamiliarity of the food and beer combined with the demanding and New York customer could create havoc for a staff.
“People know Chimay and some others, but we needed to educate the staff on all the beers.” Leggett-Flynn took the new hires to the Brooklyn Brewery (which is brewing the house white beer) where they were taught over four days to distinguish a triple from a double, a white from a gueuze, and learned how to properly pour the bottled beers at tables and draw the keg beers, and which glass goes with which beer. Belgo uses 45 different glasses for the 100 brews, and would uses more if they were available, says Leggett-Flynn.
While Belgian beers have a reputation as powerful, the ABV ranges from 3% for fruit beers to 11% to 12% for some regional specialties and quadrupels, with most falling in the 4.5% to 7.5% range. Food/beverage sales are currently running about 60/40 now, and they are only now considering some marketing efforts, having let word of mouth and some public relations do the work up to now, says Legget-Flynn. And with other cities panting for a chance to taste a few Belgian beers side by side with frites and moules, Belgo’s performance in New York is being closely watched.