"I do a lot of beer dinners and a lot of Belgian beer festivals," says Luc "Bobo" Van Mechelen, special project and sales manager of Manneken-Brussel Imports. "They send me when they need an authentic Belgian to go [laughs]. It's my favorite part of the job. I'd rather talk to people about the beer than deal with the sales and business."
Van Mechelen has set up a one-month residency in Charleston as part of an elaborate marketing campaign by local company Lee Distributors and authentic Belgian Trappist brewery Chimay with the goal of introducing the ales and cheese of Chimay to as many Charlestonians as possible. A crowd of local restaurateurs and beer enthusiasts congregated at Mercato on Jan. 19 for an official kick-off. A series of special events, tastings, and beer dinners continues through next week.
Situated near the French border, Chimay is one of six authentic Trappist breweries in the region. Thirty years ago, the wonderfully distinctive and sturdy ales of Chimay were virtually unknown outside of Belgium. Nowadays, beer enthusiasts around the world celebrate the monastery's top-fermented, unpasteurized, bottle-conditioned specialties.
Chimay's three main styles include the red-labeled Première (7 percent a.b.v.), the white-labeled Triple (8 percent a.b.v.), and the blue-labeled Grande Réserve (9 percent a.b.v.). All three varieties will be poured at three multi-course beer dinners scheduled around town, including Mellow Mushroom in Mt. Pleasant on Wed. Feb. 3, Wild Wing Café in Mt. Pleasant (in the Oakland Plaza) on Tues. Feb. 9, and Mercato Italian Restaurant on Wed. Feb. 10.
"We wanted to do this in a smaller market and in a historic town," says Van Mechelen. "From here, we go to Boston. It's a little bit of a training ground to see if we got the formula right."
Van Mechelen grew up in the French-speaking Belgian town of Leuven ("a very old, very nice Catholic university town"), but relocated to Austin, Texas, in 1979 to work as a restaurateur and beer importer. He ran a Belgian café and bistro called Gambrinus until 1990, when he started working with Belgian brewer Pierre Celis (of Hoegaarden) on a microbrewery project.
Knowledgeable about the history, ingredients, brewing methods, and business practices at Chimay, Van Mechelen can deliver one colorful story after another about the beers at Chimay and the monks who make them.
"I've not seen the menus yet, but I hear that some are shaping up to be very intense," says Van Mechelen. "Usually, we suggest that the Triple goes great with seafood, the Grande Réserve goes very well with chocolate desserts, and Première goes well with chicken and white meats."
Lee Distributors scheduled several "Keep the Chalice" nights and Chimay cheese tastings in different regions of the Charleston area, too.
The slightly musty Chimay à la Bière cheese has a natural rind washed with Chimay beer. The earthy Chimay Grand Cru cheese implies its own woody flavor. The lighter Vieux Chimay cheese is smooth and slightly fruity.
While he enjoys Chimay's cheese, Van Mechelen is more excited to preach the Chimay beer story. He knows these Trappist ales intimately. He's been helping the brewery import their ales to the U.S. in one way or another for the last 26 years.
"When we try to go to bars in towns, we try to hit the places that already feature some microbreweries," he says. "We explain the Chimay story, that it's brewed by monks in a monastery, with no pesticides, with their own well water, and their own strain of yeast. The monks at Chimay always say that the two main secrets behind the character of the beer is their own well water and the particular type of ale yeasts.
"Another important thing that sets Chimay apart from commercial breweries is that monks give 90 percent of the net proceeds to orphanages," he adds. "They only keep 10 percent of their proceeds for the upkeep of the monastery and to live on."
Look for more details and updates on Chimay-sponsored events in the Cuisine section and events page online at charlestoncitypaper.com.