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“You know when you walk into Monk’s and you have to walk through the three doors, it’s like entering a vortex,” says Tomme Arthur, co-founder of California’s The Lost Abbey and Port Brewing Company.
Many brewers and beer obsessives know those doors well. You leave the busy streets of Philadelphia—about three blocks from central Rittenhouse Square—through the first door. The street noise quiets and the murmur of talking, laughing, and clinking glassware materializes. The second door opens to a bustling, wood-paneled room that feels of another age. Yellowed walls are obscured by people sipping from chalices or Lambic tumblers on the lower half of the bar, and an eclectic collection of custom and vintage Belgian-branded beer signage on the upper half. To reach the third door, you must squeeze down an aisle of pew-like booths, fragrant with beer-boiled mussels and spilled Abbey Ales, and around a corner, where you cross under a Rochefort sign into the back bar. There is no natural light this deep inside, and the Philadelphia streets are forgotten completely.
Today, as I open the door to the vortex, it’s the first time it’s not brushing against the backs of customers at the bar. There’s no hostess holding up a hand mouthing, “Be right with you!” in my direction. In fact, there’s no one here at all.
Monk’s has been completely closed for service, offering only to-go orders, since November 2020. “It’s bittersweet seeing on the website, ‘Tap list last updated November 11, 2020,’” says beer and spirits contributor at Forbes, Tara Nurin, who has been visiting Monk’s for more than a decade. “The taps are turned off at Monk’s. That’s never happened.”
I’m feeling that now. There’s an unexpected tightness in my chest looking at the Allagash White tap handle, which is literally collecting dust behind newly installed plastic barriers that hang from the bar. The same bar where I splurged on a bottle of Cantillon Saint Lamvinus to celebrate an Eagles win. The bar where legions of Philly natives tried their first sour beer. The bar where countless customers learned that in Belgium, most beers have a corresponding glass. It’s jarring to see a counter where so much was once shared now sealed off, with the exception of a seven-inch gap just tall enough for a glass to slide under.
That newly imposed distance is at once antithetical to the Monk’s philosophy, and at the same time exactly in line with publican Tom Peters’ values. At a bar where the customers are a community and staff is family, he would give up anything to protect even a single person. Which is what I find him doing in the back hall.
“It’s a new HVAC system,” he explains. He tells me that his two new air purifiers have far more capacity than necessary for the space, but he feels better about that. “I think I’m not going to cover up all these tubes. So when people first come in here, they can see it going.”
It’s Peters’ call as to when people will be coming back to his little slice of Belgium in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania has reinstated indoor dining, but he’s not ready to open up just yet. Still, signs of life are returning: Today he’s putting his first kegs back on draft since last year. Six kegs of Double Dry-Hopped Pliny the Elder just arrived from his longtime friend and collaborator Vinnie Cilurzo, of Russian River Brewing Company. “We’re going to be the only place on the East Coast that people can get this,” Peters says.
BUILDING UP BELGIAN Peters’ access to rare releases is one aspect that attracts beer pilgrims around the world to Monk’s. So are his continent-spanning relationships with brewers, which Peters has been fostering since long before his 24-year tenure as the owner of Monk’s began.
It’s tempting to romanticize Peters’ career path. To focus on the chance moment during a layover in Brussels, on the way to Paris, when a bartender poured him a Duvel and showed him how the glass was specially designed so the beer could be consumed while keeping the pillowy mountain of foam intact. One could imagine how his first sip of Orval was enough to carry him back to the States and push him to open his own Belgian beer bar. But it’s all been so much less glamorous than that, and Peters has taken on personal risk, and put in the legwork, to share his passion.
Immediately upon returning from that trip to Europe in 1984, Peters contacted a local distributor in an attempt to source Chimay Grande Réserve, commonly called Chimay Blue. He thought it would pair perfectly with the food served at Cafe Nola, the now-shuttered restaurant where he worked and bartended. “I asked to get a case, but I also asked, ‘Do you have the matching glasses?’” says Peters. “I wanted to put two glasses and the bottle in front of the customer—it was the 750ml bottles.”
The restaurant owners thought the price was absurd—they were convinced no one would pay $10 for a beer—but Peters personally guaranteed the case. If the beer didn’t sell, he would buy it back, leaving the owners with no risk. The cases sold the first night. “All I could think was, ‘Damn, I didn’t save one for myself,’” Peters says.
From Cafe Nola, he went on to revamp another restaurant owned by the same hospitality group, located on 15th Street, just steps from where Monk’s stands today. “Tom’s career precedes Monk’s,” says Craig LaBan, restaurant critic and drinks columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He was already pouring Duvel and Chimay at this little corner bar, Copa, Too!”
“He had to convince Belgian brewers that it was worth it to spend the money, to send one pallet to America. We’re talking about small family breweries, Trappist breweries. Who is asking for that in the ’80s and ’90s? No one.”
— Tara Nurin, ForbesPeters pulled strings wherever he could to get the best Belgian beers to that little corner bar. In 2015, northern Pennsylvania distributor Shangy’s took out a full-page ad dedicated to him. “It all started some 20 years ago when one very eager, forward thinking bar manager from the Copa Too!, by the name of Tom Peters, called us,” the ad read. It went on to describe how Peters had asked Shangy’s to expand distribution to his bar, to which they responded, “Deliver to Philadelphia??? Are you crazy?”
I can only imagine how many similar calls Peters had to make during that era, and how many people told him he was off his rocker to try to get the people of Philadelphia to drink these expensive, niche beers. In the early days of Peters’ career, the city’s beer drinking was mostly centered on Yuengling and Schmidt’s.
“He had to convince Belgian brewers that it was worth it to spend the money, to send one pallet to America,” says Nurin. “We’re talking about small family breweries, Trappist breweries. Who is asking for that in the ’80s and ’90s? No one.”
Well, there was just one. Shangy’s goes on to credit Peters for 20 years and 10 million cases “of truly craft and specialty beers” sold in Philadelphia.
Copa, Too! is also where Peters stepped into the role of beer educator, in addition to beer procurer. His idea for the sell-out beer dinners he holds at Monk’s was first formed at the venue. In 1994, he started serving meals that were paired with beer, were cooked with beer, and even featured special ingredients like “Tom’s Home Grown Lettuce and Tomatoes.” It seems if you want to make the perfect salad to pair with Corsendonk Pater, you must grow it yourself.
By the time Peters left Copa, Too! in 1996, it was known as the premier beer bar in the country, regularly featuring between eight and 10 Belgian beers on draft with another 50 or so in bottles. More broadly, people were starting to catch on to what Peters knew to be true: Few accompaniments are better with food than Belgian beer. The concept got a two-page write-up in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Peters is featured in every picture in the spread. He also has the final word in the story: “Blanche de Bruges just came into the country, great beer, first time, 18 kegs. I bought all of them.”
MONK'S CAFE AND BEER EMPORIUM In 1997, Peters and business partner Fergus “Fergie” Carey opened Monk’s in the building that formerly held Steve Poses’ Frog, a restaurant that was integral to galvanizing the 1970s restaurant renaissance in the city. With his new venue, Peters wanted to spark another revolution in Philadelphia’s dining scene, one that would emphasize food-and-beer pairings full time. From the outset, Monk’s had a fixed-price themed beer dinner on the second Tuesday of each month.
With restaurants, budget is always tight, and Monk’s was no different. The booths in the main room were pre-existing, so Peters constructed the European feel of the bar around them. The walls are adorned with windows that he found in his sister’s barn, which have been there since opening. In the back bar, there’s a single light fixture with the bronzed faces of four monks at the center of the room.
“That was the lighting budget for the whole restaurant,” says Peters. The wall sconces that line the rest of the room cost $25 for the whole set. Luckily, it turns out you don’t need a big budget to transform the atmosphere of a place. “Walking into Monk’s is like being transported into a small Belgian café,” says Jean Van Roy, brewmaster at Brasserie Cantillon.
Peters did as much as he could himself during those early years. He visited the fish and produce markets in the morning to select ingredients, then drove everything back to Monk’s in his pick-up truck. “The gates to the market opened at 4 a.m., but I would go at 5, so I could get my three hours of sleep,” he remembers. “I’d taste the mussels, then get to the restaurant and start all the prep so the mother sauces could be done before the staff got there in the morning.”
Yes, mother sauces, at a beer bar. Peters has never cut corners on what he considers important. After Monk’s opened, Peters spent a month staging in kitchens in Belgium. He returned to Philly with the knowledge that bintje potatoes were the secret to the country’s iconic frites. But no American farm grew them. Not to be deterred, Peters hired a farmer to grow the variety, only to find out there were no bintje seeds available in the U.S. Instead, Peters bought some straight from the source in the Netherlands. The crop never did well on American soil, and after a few years and “too much money,” he gave up on the project, but only after giving it the real Tom Peters try.
“Back in the quote-unquote old days, it was an intimate group of believers who invested a lot early on in getting the [Belgian beer] movement going.”
— Rob Tod, Allagash Brewing CompanyPeters put the same effort into curating his beer offerings. Whenever he encountered a beer that he considered excellent, he would start the importer, distributor, or brewer relationship he needed to pour it at Monk’s.
There was the time he was in the brewers’ lounge at the Real Ale Festival in Chicago. It was in this small, upstairs room that he met Todd Ashman—the award-winning brewer at Flossmoor Station, who specialized in big beers like Barleywine and Belgian-style Tripels. Ashman would go down to Monk’s to do a beer dinner months after the two first met. Peters was feeling pretty happy about this new relationship, and casually walked around the rest of the room, sampling beers.
He tasted one and immediately shouted, “Who makes this?!” Tomme Arthur, the head brewer of San Diego’s Pizza Port Brewing Company at the time, stepped forward and said, “I do; there’s only one barrel of it.”
“I’ll take it!” answered Peters.
It wasn’t that easy, though. Arthur outlined the extended timeline required for his special project, Cuvée de Tomme, and the difficulty of getting it to Philadelphia from San Diego. But Peters decided he had to pour it at Monk’s, even if doing so would require months of pursuit.
“I remember one time, I was on the phone with Tomme trying to figure out when and if I would get the beer, and he goes, ‘I gotta go man, the waves are breaking,’” says Peters. “And I thought, ‘He’s surfing! Am I ever going to get this beer?’”
Not only did Peters eventually get the Cuvée de Tomme, but Arthur has visited Monk’s almost every year since. “I think it was our very first dinner,” says Arthur. “I felt so much pride because Tom made these duck confit spring rolls for Cuvée de Tomme.” He says the cherry dipping sauce and rich duck were a remarkable pair for the bourbon-barrel-aged Wild Brown Ale with sour cherries. “It was beautiful.”
EDUCATING THE PUBLIC Once Peters had managed to procure rare beers like Cuvée de Tomme, it was up to him and his tight-knit staff to educate a public more accustomed to drinking whatever was on happy hour special, plus the occasional Victory Brewing Company Hop Devil.
“Back in the quote-unquote old days, it was an intimate group of believers who invested a lot early on in getting the [Belgian beer] movement going,” says Rob Tod, founder of Maine’s Allagash Brewing Company. Without places like Monk’s, Belgian-style brewing in the United States would never have taken off, Tod says. In that era, most customers didn’t flock to brewery taprooms to buy a pint for $9. Every sale needed a little convincing, a little cajoling and explaining, to set the drinker up to try something new. Believers like Peters and his staff were essential to selling through each keg, and more broadly, to advancing the cause of traditional European beer and craft beer stateside.
“Tom and his whole team, they do such a good job at presenting beer,” says Cilurzo. “And Tom was an early advocate of Supplication.” Russian River’s Supplication, a Brown Ale aged in wine barrels with sour cherries, was “a turning point for our sour program and in a way kind of put us on the map,” Cilurzo explains. Without places like Monk’s, he says, he’s not sure if beers of that intensity and caliber would have been propelled to such popularity.
One of the tools in the Monk’s beer-evangelizing kit is the “Beer Bible.” It’s a list of more than 300 bottled beers with context about brewery history, specific beer styles, and glassware that now has a reputation of its own. You can buy a personal copy for $3 (cash only) because it’s more like a textbook than a beer list. It feels like something that’s always been a part of the gently educational ethos of Monk’s, but it was born out of necessity. “At first, I just had a [beer] list, but was getting called out of the kitchen too many times,” says Peters. “I had maybe 80 beers, and servers couldn’t keep all that in their heads right away.”
Maybe he didn’t expect his staff to know 80 beers right away, but he did expect them to know the range eventually. “I really wanted to be a bartender,” says Felicia D’Ambrosio, who has been with Monk’s since 2007, “and Tom said, ‘If you want to bartend here, you’re going to have to get competent really fast.’” She said he gave her books to read and told her to take notes on each beer she tasted at the bar, and reference the sections on beer styles in the Monk’s Beer Bible as she went.
Staff education at Monk’s extends beyond tasting beers, taking notes, and learning about food pairing, however. Peters rarely visits Belgium alone. He regularly brings long-term employees to experience the region for themselves, from tiny corner bars in Bruges to blending days at Cantillon. “Tom has done so much for Belgian beer in America,” says LaBan, who visited Brasserie Dupont with Peters in 2012. “He is truly royalty in Belgium.” Upon seeing Peters, restaurant and bar owners would sweep the group down into their cellars and storerooms, LaBan says, where one-of-a-kind bottles were cracked open. The occasion felt like the king coming to town.
That said, these trips weren’t just decadent joy rides through the cities and villages of Belgium—they were also about putting in the work.
On one trip, Peters was collaborating with Menno Olivier, the brewmaster of Brouwerij De Molen in the Netherlands. The idea was to brew a huge, malt-forward Imperial Porter, and then to barrel age it with Brettanomyces. Instead of a typical collaboration brew day, when the host brewery takes care of the beer making and the collaborators hang around and maybe throw a handful of hops into the kettle, the Monk’s team got fully involved. Peters and D’Ambrosio were tasked with opening the bags of European malt required for the beer’s special grist. If you’re familiar with these bags, you’ll know they’re sewn shut and must be opened delicately to keep the string from breaking.
“So me and Tom are like Lucy and Ethel trying to open and dump these 50-pound grain bags,” laughs D’Ambrosio, “because you can’t let the mill get empty.”
PHILLY BEER WEEK It isn’t just his own staff who Peters brings to Belgium, but his whole city—figuratively, but sometimes literally, too. For almost a decade, Peters has invited one local Pennsylvania brewer to collaborate with a Belgian brewer every year, to make a special beer for Philly Beer Week, an event he helped found. The last collaboration in 2019 was at Duvel Moortgat.
“Philly Beer Week filled a void on the public event calendar in Philadelphia that was left there when The Book and The Cook died,” says LaBan.
The Book and The Cook was a major, two-week festival that saw celebrity chefs and authors hold events and tastings promoting their books across the city. One of those authors was legendary beer writer Michael Jackson. He was a fixture of the annual event, always appearing at the Penn Museum for a “Tutored Beer Tasting,” followed by a beer dinner held at Monk’s the next evening.
“He [Michael Jackson] used to love to throw down the gauntlet for me,” says Peters. In 2002, Jackson mentioned that it would be great to have a dinner at Monk’s featuring all of the Trappist breweries. Secretly, Jackson thought that that would be impossible, as Achel had just become a Trappist brewery in 2001, and the beer was still only served on draft near the abbey.
Impossible? For Tom Peters?
“I flew to Belgium with a bunch of swing-top bottles and those small homebrewing kegs,” Peters says. “I didn’t tell him [Jackson] I had the Achel, until he looked at the menu. He was blown away—he thought it was a misprint.”
When The Book and The Cook started to wind down in the mid-2000s, Peters met with the two organizers behind the annual Michael Jackson tastings. Bruce Nichols, who ran catering at the Penn Museum, and Don Russell, a Philadelphia Daily News columnist better known as “Joe Sixpack,” came on as co-founders of what would become Philly Beer Week, helping with logistics and promotion of the city-wide event. For the first planning meeting, Peters gathered his contacts from near and far. He invited the city tourism board, the owners of hotels and high-end restaurants, local brewers and bar owners—everyone he could think of who could put a spin on serving and promoting beer.
The first edition of the festival, now the biggest of its kind in the country, was hosted in 2008 as a 10-day series of beer events. Brewers and experts came in from as far afield as California, Germany, Belgium, and England to attend. As Russell said in his Philadelphia Daily News column, “Unlike other festivals that focus on beer and the craft of brewing, this one is about the enjoyment of great beer in a great city.”
This idea behind the event—that it wasn’t necessarily celebrating the beer that was brewed in Philadelphia, but the beer that was available in Philadelphia—sat well with some, and not so comfortably with others. Christina Dowd, executive director of Philly Beer Week, says things have since been done to ensure local brewers get their time to shine. For example, at the annual Opening Tap—a massive kick-off event that involves a celebrity cask-tapper opening the first beer of the festival—only Pennsylvania beers are served.
The focus of the festival could be debated, but its success could not be. It was so influential that tourism boards and organizations from other cities, including the organizers of festivals like San Diego Beer Week, came to visit Philly Beer Week to inspire their own events. Now, beer weeks are held in dozens of cities around the country, all thanks to Peters’ influence.
At least they were. Last year’s Philly Beer Week would have kicked off on May 29, 2020, during the height of the pandemic, and was instead completely canceled. According to Dowd, the future of the 2021 event remains unclear, with news of vaccines and case numbers shifting the discourse almost daily.
“It’s a very impractical space for people to be standing around and drinking and doing stuff, it’s just super tight. You know, low, low ceilings, the bathrooms are elevated. It’s, it’s just a funky little layout, but it works because it’s Monk’s.”
— Tomme Arthur, The Lost Abbey and Port Brewing CompanyWhen it comes back, beer dinners, tastings, and meet-and-greets at Monk’s will once again become central to the schedule of Philly Beer Week. In the past, the venue has hosted brewers like Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Jef Janssens of Belgium’s Hof ten Dormaal, and John Kimmich of The Alchemist. And although Peters is no longer as involved with the planning of Philly Beer Week, his influence is still evident.
“The 2020 collaboration brew was going to be [with] Russian River. This was going to be our first United States collaboration,” says Dowd. “Which is kind of funny when you think about it.” The planned beer was also going to be another festival first: The first IPA to be Philly Beer Week’s signature beer. “We’ve always made Belgian beers, or some kind of heavy beer,” Dowd says. Until more is certain about what’s next for the festival, drinkers can only hope that that planned collaboration will be revisited in the future.
THE MONK'S OF YESTERDAY AND TODAY You don’t have to be a beer geek to go to Monk’s on a random weekday and have a good time, though you might leave a bit geekier for it. Jen Devor, a Philadelphia area resident, remembers holding her office holiday party at Monk’s. “I remember there was beer, but I don’t remember the specific ones I had,” she says. What she does remember: lots of steaming hot mussels and that the team let them use a karaoke-style microphone speaker to play some games. “They were so cool about letting us have a good time.”
Where a bar like Monk’s could have a snobby or standoffish atmosphere, instead the team has a different philosophy. “At Monk’s, strangers are friends you haven’t met yet,” says D’Ambrosio.
The size and layout of Monk’s means a group enjoying their holiday party could literally be brushing elbows with some of the most innovative brewers in the world, who are in turn standing next to influential spirits writers or top-tier distributors. Each customer is approached the same way, with the goal of giving them the best beer for the moment, or for the dish in front of them.
“It’s a very impractical space for people to be standing around and drinking and doing stuff, it’s just super tight. You know, low, low ceilings, the bathrooms are elevated,” says Arthur. “It’s, it’s just a funky little layout, but it works because it’s Monk’s.” To give you an idea of just how tight the main room at Monk’s is, the pandemic’s six-foot margins mean that Peters will only be able to fit one row of tables in the main room when it does reopen.
“Social media has given us a lot of hope over the past year. 99% of people were like, ‘Thanks for prioritizing the health of your staff and your guests. We appreciate you. We’ll see you in the spring.’”
— Felicia D’Ambrosio, Monk’s CafeBut being in a crowd here feels like being packed in next to your neighbors, not forced into the presence of unwanted company. “I feel like I’m walking into my family room with extended family,” says Allagash’s Tod. He visits the bar whenever he’s in town for an event, and usually knows whoever is working behind the bar, because most members of Monk’s staff have been with Peters for at least 10 years. And among the customer base, he says he usually runs into another brewer or an Allagash customer he knows, too. “I don’t think I’ve ever walked in there and not known people.”
Which makes the dust accumulating on the back bar in 2021 all the more poignant to see. It means it’s been more than a year since people could gather within this community. “I haven’t been drinking any beer during the pandemic,” says Peters. “I’ve had to stay focused, every day I’m focused on this place.”
The back bar is filled with treasures from Peters’ cellar. The collection is as impressive as you might imagine—as Van Roy says, “Tom’s been a long-time supporter of the brewery [Cantillon], so his stash may even be better than mine.”
When I visit, there’s a whole table covered with Cantillon bottles. A dusty Dogfish Head bottle sporting a handwritten “#77” label sits next to a Russian Imperial Stout that was bottled in 1993. Peters has been selling off beers from his private collection to help Monk’s stay afloat over the last year.
These are beers he thought he would share with friends old and new in the wee hours of Philly Beer Week, or at the 25th anniversary of Monk’s, which he will celebrate next year. But after spending more than a decade working next to most of his staff members, there was no way Peters was going to put their health at risk, or the wellbeing of their families.
“Social media has given us a lot of hope over the past year,” says D’Ambrosio, who manages Monk’s social media accounts. “99% of people were like, ‘Thanks for prioritizing the health of your staff and your guests. We appreciate you. We’ll see you in the spring.’”
THE MONK'S OF TOMORROW In the late ’90s and early 2000s, beer geeks were obsessed with the brews that Peters loves most. Sour Lambic-style ales, big Abbey Ales, Belgian Golden Strongs and Saisons. Since then, tastes have changed, though there is still clamoring for his friend Vinnie’s IPAs and Belgian Ales. When I mention Pastry Stouts, Peters visibly shudders.
But he’s not against what is next and new in beer—in fact, he wants to foster the brewers making innovative twists on classic styles.
“I only carry what I think are the best versions of any style,” says Peters. “We were the first place in Philly where you could get The Alchemist.” He says John Kimmich set out to brew a beer with a specific flavor and aroma, yielding a softer, rounder IPA. Kimmich achieved the goal, and the result just so happened to be hazy, but he wasn’t copying another brewer or tinkering with the beer’s appearance for market value.
Today, The Alchemist, Hill Farmstead Brewery, and the nearby Tired Hands Brewing Company (headquartered less than a dozen miles west of Center City) get their New England IPAs featured on the tap list right next to West Coast options like Pliny the Elder and Monk’s Mosaic Garden (a collaboration beer made with Lost Abbey, brewed to sell during the pandemic shutdown). But the core of Monk’s offerings will always harken back to that first case of Chimay Blue, and the idea that beer is the ultimate partner for a meal.
“Monk’s has that Belgian sense of gastronomy,” says Arthur. “You actually can go sit at the front bar or the back bar and just have beers. But it’s always harder to snag a table than it is to get a barstool.”
Among everyone I talked to about Monk’s, there’s a consensus: Monk’s will survive. The tap list may morph with what is drawing beer lovers’ attention in the present day. The layout may change to enable social distancing—Monk’s has just opened outside cafe tables to customers. Heck, the bar’s even doing to-go beers now. But the enthusiasm and genuine courtesy of the Monk’s crew is reflected right back to them from the city.
“Monk’s is singular in its makeup,” adds Arthur. “I certainly think there’s a lot of great bars and publicans that share similar philosophies and ethos. But Tom’s passion for Belgian beer is pretty legendary.”
Even when the bar is closed, the fact remains: If you’ve sipped a Rodenbach stateside, attended an event at your local beer week, or ordered an Orval off the beer menu at a fancy restaurant, that privilege was hard won after more than three decades of work. You can thank Tom Peters for that.
Words by Mandy Naglich
Photos by Daniel Knoll