Before Kulminator, There Was Bodega

by: ChuckCook on 07-11-2006
Bierhuis Kulminator, located in Antwerp, Belgium, has long been known as a mecca for aged brews, thanks to husband and wife team Dirk van Dyck and Leen Boudewijn. They’ve created what’s arguably the most famous specialty café in the world for “Oud” beers, with a telephone book-sized menu that lists hundreds of choices and vintages as early as 1974.

But how did Dirk and Leen create such a place? Where did they begin? These were questions that intrigued me on my many visits to the Kulminator since 1996.

Café Bodega (aka Biertempel Van Dyck)

During my first interview with Leen and Dirk in 2001, they told me about their first café, simply named Bodega, which opened in November 1974. But why that name for a specialty beer café? After all, the name Bodega is more often associated with wine than beer. “We opened Bodega as a wine bar,” Leen explained. "We wanted to have a successful wine pub, but the reaction of the local people was not so good to our new café. They were not very fond of wine. So, Dirk knew we had to change the focus of Bodega, and in December of that year, we did, to that of a café specializing in offering many different beers."

 Dirk van Dyck retrieving some beers from the cellarWell, thank the beer gods for that! One less wine bar versus one more world-class beer emporium? I’ll take that trade anytime—and somehow, I suspect most BAs would agree with me.

Bodega, sometimes referred to as “Biertempel Van Dyck”, was located a few miles from the center of old Antwerp in Kiel. It offered not just local beers from the region, which was common at the time, but beers from all over Belgium and other countries. There were Abbey and Trappist beers, Christmas brews, Gueuze, Kriek, Oud Bruin, and Saisons from Belgium. From Germany, strong lagers like EKU 28, often called Kulminator 28, and other bocks like Weihenstephaner Korbinian. There were Danish Porters, as well as the strongest Guinness Stout, called Special Export, which was brewed (and still is) for the Belgian and Dutch markets.

How did Dirk and Leen obtain all these special brews in the days when most beers in Belgium stayed local? "Thursday was the closing day for Bodega. On that day, we drove to breweries around Belgium, and tasted beers. The ones we liked, we would buy a few crates of, along with the glassware that went with the beer, to bring back and sell at Bodega," Leen explained. In fact, if you look above the bar at the Kulminator, as well as the display case near the stairs, you’ll see many of these old glasses. And if you’re lucky, you might able to drink from one of them if you order an aged beer!

Aging vintage beers in the cellarThere was also a business relationship with a local bottle shop, called “Boemelaar,” which is an affectionate Flemish term for a man who enjoys drinking—and the owner apparently did, and the name of his shop and his nickname were one in the same. Dirk and Leen often purchased beer for re-sale from this shop.

A Visit to Bodega

Dirk took me on an historic tour of the Bodega café and its cellar in October 2005. Reminiscing about the café’s history, Dirk told me before entering: “This is where the Belgian beer culture began, in 1974.” He also pointed out a street sign where Bodega is located: Pierenbergstraat. “I often thought about changing the ‘P’ to a ‘B,’ so it would be Bierenbergstraat!” he half-joked.

I then noticed the cross street nearest “Biertempel van Dyck”: Abdijstraat. Yes, Abbey street. Dirk mentioned there used to be an abbey brewery nearby. The monks and abbey were long gone, but secular brewers used the name up until the brewery closed in 1950. “When I was young, I did not think of coincidences like that. But now, I think about the irony of it, about all the Abbey and Trappist beers I served at Bodega,” Dirk said, retrospectively.

The public area of Bodega was not a big place. Perhaps a dozen people could sit at the bar, and 10-20 more, standing. Size and location would be its eventual undoing, as business was so good that, after a few years, Dirk and Leen felt they needed to expand.

A Classic Cellar Full of Aged Treasures

Dirk and Leen got the idea for aging beers when they visited Abbaye Notre Dame de Scourmont (Chimay) in 1974 or 1975. Father Noel let them taste a Chimay Blue, which was about ten years old. Impressed with the beer's flavor, they decided to experiment with aging various brews themselves.

Aging vintage beers in the cellarThe cellar of the Bodega café was the perfect locale for such experiments, as it could accommodate about 1,000 cases of beer when full—even so, it’s a fairly small place. Dirk estimated cellar temps to vary between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the time of year, which is nearly ideal storage conditions for aging beer.

The great news for the lovers of aged beer is that these beers now all reside in the new, third cellar at the Kulminator. Dirk and Leen had been renting Bodega as storage space since they closed the café in 1979. The owners sold the building in 2005, so everything had to be moved out by the end of December. This move included about 500 cases of beer, all of which dated back to 1974-79!

Beers from Bodega

Some of the brews formerly at Bodega will be familiar to many, while others are just distant memories from a bygone era. There were Trappist brews such as Chimay White, Premier (Red) and Blue, in both 33 cl and 75 cl bottles; La Trappe Dubbel; Rochefort 8 from '77, and Westmalle Tripel from 77-78; Abbey and other strong ales like Abbaye de Aulne; Cuvee de ‘l Ermitage; Floreffe Biere de l’ Abbaye; Het Anker Gouden Carolus (called Classic or Brown now) St-Bernardus Pater 6 and Prior 8; Het Kapittel Prior from Van Eecke; Maredsous 8; and pre-Interbrew Leffe beers. These included the 6.5° Bière de l'Abbaye, Vieille Cuvée bière de l'Abbaye, Leffe Christmas, and Leffe 8° Grande Reserve.

Emerging from the cellar with vintage treasuresJoris Pattyn, a former resident of Antwerp and regular at the Kulminator for many years, had this to say: “These beers were what the current Inbev products are not: characterful and interesting!” Joris should know, as he was an early member of the beer promotion group, the Objectieve Bierproevers (OBP), and has also been a judge at the Great American Beer Festival and Great British Beer Festival.

As we talked about some of the other beers, I showed him photos of from the Bodega cellar. Joris commented: “The Brugse Tripel from Brouwerij ‘t Hamerken (before it became the now defunct De Gouden Boom) was a dark, nearly black, beer. Tripels from West Flanders used to be so. It was only with the popularity of Westmalle that all Belgian Tripels eventually became blond beers.”

Speaking of strong blond ales, Joris continued: “One of the best-selling beers at Bodega was Diplomat from the Demedts brewery, also known as De Zwaan. This beer was similar to Duvel, perhaps better. Demedts Oud Bruin, called Oud Jan, was also a good brew.” The Saisons in the Bodega cellar included Dupont Moinette; The Saison de Pipaix from Brasserie Bisset-Cuvelier (pre-Vapeur); Saison and Special Enghien from Silly; and more.

Oud Bruins which I could identify included the Oude Jan from Demedts brewery; Liefmans Goudenband, in 75 cl and 1.5 liter Magnums; and Roman Dobbelen Bruinen in 75 cl.

Most of the Gueuze and Kriek in the Bodega cellar was either unlabeled or the labels were too worn to read –
assumedly Dirk knows what is what. Note that in the old days before labels were routinely used, a white slash signified a Gueuze, and a red slash, a Kriek.

A few of the beers from the cellarI did see a few bottles of Gueuze de Neve from Schepdaal. Also, there were a few dozen 75 cl bottles of Liefmans Kriek and Felix Kriek Speciaal from Clarysse.

There were also over a dozen different Christmas beers in the Bodega cellar, from Belgium and the UK.

There’s one caveat that should be mentioned about these aged brews, particularly with the big bottles: the corks used in the 1970’s were typically inferior to those used today. If the cork fails on a bottle, the beer would likely either become undrinkable due to oxidation, or evaporate. The small, crown capped beers often have a better chance of still being good.

Evidence of this was the beers which Dirk brought back to the Kulminator to taste during my last visit: 33 cl bottles of 1974 Chimay Blue; 1977 or ‘78 Rochefort 8; 1977 or ‘78 Westmalle Tripel; and a Het Anker Gouden Carolus from the same period. Dirk and I were happy to hear the pop of carbonation when each bottle was opened. The dark Trappist brews and the Gouden Carolus had developed very Port and Sherry-like characters, while the Westmalle Tripel was very mellow and smooth, with a pleasing alcohol note. All had what seemed very limited levels of oxidation for 30 year-old brews, and were very good.

The Legacy of Bodega

Perhaps the most important and lasting legacy of the Bodega café is the concept of the specialty beer bar:

Dirk van Dyck and Leen Boudewijn enjoy some vintage beers at Kulminator1) A place where dedicated owners offer their patrons a selection of many different beers to choose from, served in special glassware. A place where specialty brews are given the respect and reverence they deserve.

2) A place where beer lovers can return repeatedly and always taste something new.

3) And a place where like-minded people can meet and taste brews they had never heard of, and share in the camaraderie which bonds the aficionados of fine beers together.

And this concept has gracefully carried over to the Kulminator, which serves libations with expert presentation in a refined atmosphere. Soothing classical music is the norm at the "K," joined by scores of cellaring bottles in view and walls covered with vintage breweriana, all of which sets the mood for some great conversation and drinking sessions.

As for beers from the Bodega cellar, there are many that I’ve not mentioned, and many more that I couldn’t identify. Thankfully Dirk is now working on a new menu that will include these beers, but until then we’ll just have to wait!

Cheers!

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