Asheville is a regional Mecca for Southern beer lovers. There are more than a dozen breweries or brewpubs with an Asheville address, and many more nearby. Highland and French Broad have grown over the years to become major craft beer labels: their beers are widely distributed throughout the region and well known to craft beer enthusiasts in Nashville. New Belgium announced in April that they will build their $115 million East Coast brewery in downtown Asheville, Sierra Nevada will open a $108 million brewery in nearby Mills River, and Oskar Blues most recently announced that their new East Coast facility will be located in Brevard, 35 miles away.
Yet when confronted with a local beer bar that features two taprooms – one for American craft beer and one for Belgian style ales, many from Europe – I took advantage of the opportunity to try some rare Belgians I had never tasted before.
Thirsty Monk is a small local chain with four locations in the area, including the downtown pub we visited. They have won many national awards, including Draft magazine’s 100 Best Beer Bars 2013 and RateBeer.com’s 2012 Best Beer Bar list. The Craft Bar is on the entrance level of the purple building; we descended into the cool basement of the building to the reach the Belgian Bar.
above: Thirsty Monk’s Craft Bar; below: the Belgian Bar
Thirsty Monk’s Belgian Bar features 16 beers on draft and a further 138 on their bottle list. Nine of the draft selections are from Belgium, there are one each from Austria and The Netherlands, and the remaining five are Belgian style ales brewed in the US. Copious tasting notes accompany both the draft and bottle lists – these are posted on the Thirsty Monk website and help provide an immersive experience for the serious beer connoisseur.
I tried four drafts:
Stift Engelszell, Austria: Benno (Saison) 6.9 ABV (9)
De Halve Maan, Belgium: Brugse Zot – Unfiltered (Pale Ale) 6 ABV (8)
Brasserie de Silly, Belgium: La Divine (Tripel) 9.5 ABV (8)
Brasserie Caracole, Belgium: Nostradamus (Brown Ale) 9 ABV (8)
(phirx ratings) are on a scale of 1-10.
Engelszell Abbey was founded in 1293, and is the only Trappist monastery in Austria. Originally a Cistercian monastery, it was dissolved by Emperor Joseph II in 1786 and the buildings put to secular use until 1925, when it was re-occupied by refugee Trappist German monks expelled from Alsace after World War I. Engelszell became the eighth Trappist brewery in the world in 2012, and Benno, a Saison style ale, is their second beer, named after the monastery’s former abbot Benno Stumpf. Benno (the beer) is a bright, slightly tart saison with a delicate nose, not much spice, and an effervescent medium light body. It is unique and refreshing, with the world class character one expects from a Trappist ale.
De Halve Maan “Half Moon” brewery is the only family brewery still active in the center of Bruges. Brugse Zot means “Brugse Fool” and the beer’s legend claims it’s name derived from a visit to Bruges by Maximilian of Austria in the sixteenth century. The townspeople put on a parade of pranksters and fools for the Archduke in hopes of raising money to support a madhouse – he responded by stating that he had seen nothing but fools (Zotten) in Bruges. Serving a keg of unfiltered De Halve Maan’s Brugse Zot is a triumph for Thirsty Monk and was not to be missed. The golden blond ale has a fruity yeast nose, a creamy mouthfeel supported by a subtle bitterness.
Silly is a village in Belgium, and it’s brewery by the same name was founded in 1850. Their Tripel “La Divine” is a complex Abbey style ale brewed with pale, caramel, and aromatic malts, sugar, and Kent (Goldings) and Hallertau hops. La Divine has a smoky, whiskey nose, hints of anise, and a slight bitterness at the back of the soft palate.
Brasserie Caracole is an artisanal brewery in Wallonia (southern Belgium) that has operated under different names since at least the eighteenth century. Nostradamus is their strongest ale. It is dark, complex, and acidic, with many subtle flavors including licorice, pear, and toasted grains.
Thirsty Monk’s food menu is not extensive; the beer has pride of place here. We had a plate of soft pretzel bits with a cheese dip that was quite good and the right thing to sustain us through our tasting. Other offerings on the menu include bratwurst sandwiches and a “pint of bacon”.