Cheers to the monks and representatives of Chimay. The Belgium-based abbey brewery successfully made a splash in the Charleston market this month during an elaborate and personalized marketing campaign.
The cheerful Luc "Bobo" Van Mechelen, a special project and sales manager of Manneken-Brussel Imports, took up residence in a downtown flat on Society Street for the four-week push. He and Tampa-based sales manager James Williams worked diligently in all corners of the local scene — from James Island to Daniel Island, from the Market to Summerville.
Van Mechelen served as the main presenter and host at many of the special events, including beer and cheese tastings, and three elegant beer dinners at the Mellow Mushroom in Mt. Pleasant, the north-side Wild Wing Café in Mt. Pleasant, and Mercato Italian Restaurant in the Market. Van Mechelen was never short on colorful stories about his childhood in Belgium, his travels across North America and Europe, and the specific details about the monks at Chimay, their history, and the painstaking brewing process employed. He entertained, educated, and inspired.
City Paper attended two of the recent Chimay beer dinners, sampling small goblets of the brewery's red-labeled Première (7 percent a.b.v.), blue-labeled Grande Réserve (9 percent a.b.v.), and bottle and draft versions of the white-labeled Triple (8 percent a.b.v.). There's one more on the horizon — the recently-booked Chimay Beer Dinner at Farringdon Bistropub tonight (Mon. Feb. 15).
Last week, on Wed. Feb. 3, Van Mechelen had to address a full house at the Mt. Pleasant Mellow Mushroom by microphone as he presented the ales and cheese. Over 50 diners and beer enthusiasts crammed into the booths and long tables in the roadside dining area. Marketing manager Katrina Buff and owner Walt Harrus made the rounds from course to course, welcoming patrons and discussing the food and beer. Young chef and co-manager Paul Cawn kept the menu simple, emphasizing fresh flavors and consistent technique across four courses. The staff served small glasses of the Triple with an appetizer of crispy, grilled bread and light Chimay à la Bière cheese (with a natural rind washed with Chimay beer).
Things started on a mild note. A crisp endive salad with a mild-flavored, mustard-accented champagne vinaigrette and pecans accompanied the draft Triple, one of the drier ales of the bunch. Course two brought a more zesty Lowcountry-style treat — barbecued shrimp over a stone-ground cheese grit cake, served with the malty, fruity red-labeled Première, sometimes referred to as the "Dubbel" (think raisins, plums, and pumpernickel). If the rendition of shrimp 'n' grits was a nice step up in flavor and texture, the massive pizza pie that arrived in course three stood out as a massive leap forward. Chef Cawn prepared it as a sage oil-based white pizza with Chimay cheese, red bell pepper, red onion, and a rich, meaty duck confit. The rich, savory flavors of the pie paired nicely with the strong but balanced dark malt character of the Chimay Grande Réserve. It was a heavy but delicious course.
Cawn ended with a light and refreshing dessert, featuring a slightly tart cheesecake made with Chimay cheese on a cinnamon graham cracker crust and delicately drizzled caramel sauce. The velvety carbonation and bitterness of bottle-conditioned version of the Triple actually cleansed the palette between bites. Any of the Chimay ales would have complemented the simple but enjoyably sweet creaminess of the cheesecake.
The first few beer dinners hosted by the East Cooper Mellow Mushroom team seemed a bit more casual and basic compared to the Chimay dinner. Everyone on hand seemed more intense, attentive, and excited during the service. The venue may specialize in casual dining, but they handled this event with as much care and spirt as any other nice beer dinner in town.
On Wed. Feb. 10, the folks from Lee Distributors gathered upstairs at Mercato for an exquisite four-course meal prepared by Chef Eddie Moran. General manager Troy Imler and his staff seated 20 diners at long dinning room table. Moran aimed for a blend of coastal Carolina and Mediterranean themes and flavors, starting with a briny appetizer of a single May River Oyster (harvested near Bluffton), served chilled on a small bed of sea salt, topped with a bittersweet hazelnut-ale foam. The Chimay draft Triple came with the start and the first course of soup. Moran's Veloute (a creamy white sauce-styled cheese soup) involved a three-step preparation in which the servers poured the stock over a bowl containing a tiny salad of Belgian endive and shredded apples with a crispy side of fried speck. The diners then crumbled the speck like bacon bits into the hot mixture. It was an excellent balance of savory flavors. The rich, smoky flavor finished with hint of lemon, which bridged to the lighter malt/grainy flavor of the beer.
Van Mechelen walked the room, introducing each beer between courses with a handful of quick quips and stories about Chimay. He and James Williams continually discussed and debated the aromas, flavors, and pairings at their seats at the head of the table (it was fun to listen in).
A "Land and Sea" course with octopus and pork arrived with a chalice of the hearty Chimay Première. Moran braised the octopus in Chimay beer (and a little bit of cork for tenderness) before char-grilling it to a nice blackness and texture. The Berkshire Pork Belly must have been smoked at low temperature for a good, long while as it melted tenderly from bite to bite. The side of bacon-braised savoy cabbage enhanced the smoke character. While the delicate octopus offered nice flavor, the robust, caramelized piece of pork dominated the plate and worked best with the red labeled Première.
A more Italian-inspired pork dish came next, with a handsomely-plated short rib with crushed potatoes and a dollop of not-too-spicy horseradish gremolata — an appropriately rich and strong-flavored accompaniment with the similarly strong Chimay Grande Réserve.
Mercato's dinner came to a beautiful end with a final course featuring three varieties of Chimay cheese — Chimay à la Bière, Chimay Grand Cru, and Vieux Chimay. Sips of the white-labeled, bottle-conditioned Triple cut some of the heaviness of the cheeses, but the its crisp flavor refreshed and never distracted or clashed. Moran garnished the plate with a fruit mustard, an apricot sauce, and a sparkling miniature tower of honeycomb, topped with a glazed hazelnut — the secret dessert of within the final course!
This week, the Chimay team announced several additional events to wrap up their Charleston residency, including a few more Keep the Chalice nights and a final Chimay Beer Dinner at Farringdon Bistropub in Summerville (214 N. Cedar St.) at 7 p.m. tonight (Mon. Feb. 15). The beer dinner will be a five-course beer 'n' cheese affair prepared by Chef Vincent.
Look for more details and updates on beer-related events in the Cuisine section and events page online at charlestoncitypaper.com.