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Burp Castle

First published in the November-December 2008 edition of Edible Manhattan

Comment | November 5, 2008 | By

A house of worship for Belgian Brews.

There are countless beer bars in this sliver of a burg, but only one provides joy at the mere mention of its name: Burp Castle.

burp1.jpgThere’s that moniker, for starters: The onomatopoeic silliness of the that beery word; the regality of the term castle—which, in fact, this 15-year-old East Village bar makes a passable attempt to resemble, dressed with a painted façade of battlements and draped with dark murals of the Middle Ages.

“People either love it or hate it,” shrugs owner Gary Gillis, who bought the name, the bar and the building from a guy named Jerry back in 2005, “but they certainly remember it.”

Standing out, of course, was the whole point when it opened on East Seventh Street nearly 16 years ago. The small space—no bigger than a living room, really—took its cue from the Belgian monks living in the dark monasteries of the Middle Ages. Evidently, in between scripture study sessions those monks mastered crafting great eats, like intensely flavored aged cheeses and sweeter, darker, high-alcohol beers. (The vow of poverty, it seems, doesn’t apply when you make it yourself.)

Burp Castle made an effort to set itself apart with its menu of brews, too: more 100 international bottles and a dozen taps focused on Belgian and Belgian-style beers—like creamy, high-octane Duvel and Chimay, or sweet, fruity lambic beers like Lindeman’s raspberry, which Gillis says tastes almost like a wine.

(Today there are many styles of Belgian beers—some still made in monasteries and known as “Trappist” brews—most are crafted with natural yeasts and bottle-conditioned, meaning they’re allowed further fermentation in the bottle, providing the characteristic complexity of flavor.)

That beer goes beyond Bud might be common knowledge in today’s city beer scene, where gastropubs open each week and Whole Foods has its own beer room. But beers like those Belgians, says Gillis, weren’t really seen in most bars in 1992. “Back in the day when Burp Castle opened,” he says, “very, very few bars even in Manhattan served beer that was nonstandard.”

Gillis should know—he’d hung out at the Castle before he bought it and has been a partner in several bars over the past few years, like Harrington’s Tavern on Amsterdam Avenue. Even though Gillis was cultivating his own appreciation for better beer, he says, most of what they served at Harrington’s back then was the same old Coors and Miller seen citywide.

“It was a novelty,” Gillis says of Burp Castle’s far-reaching beer list, which he’s since updated, excommunicating most bottles that didn’t sell and expanding the taps to include American craft beers like Captain Lawrence Smoked Porter and Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence, both from New York State. “Of course,” he adds, “the atmosphere is still a novelty.”

burp2.jpgBurp Castle, he means, has plenty of charms beyond the quality of its brews. Despite a few renovations over the years—a full castle façade with two arched windows has given way to a tiny, fenced-in patio—it’s still a near-perfect hideout for thirsty friars and feudal fiefs lost in the big city. (Or anyone who seeks a semi-quiet spot in the maddeningly loud midst of the East Village on a Friday night.) Bartenders can be spotted sporting Friar Tuckian monastic robes and obeying the placard behind the bar: NO LOUD TALKING—WHISPERING ONLY—By order of The Brewist Monks. Several times a night (and more often on weekends) they loudly shush the crowd when things get too hedonistic.

“People get a big kick out of the ‘shhhhhh,’” says Gillis, who kept the bar’s long-standing inside-voices vibe while loosening the ties on mandatory robes (bartenders can choose to don one if they like) and relaxing the rule of an all-Gregorian-chant soundtrack. And for hungry monks, he’s also started serving free Belgian fries from the Pomme Frites around the corner during Monday, Wednesday and Sunday happy hours.

Meanwhile a garden gargoyle guards the tiny front porch, dim hanging fixtures provide ancient amber light and a few fake casks jut from beneath the eaves. The wrap-around murals show scenes of rotund Middle Age monks—and of course, partially clothed, pink-cheeked ladies of the Medieval era, though certainly not Middle Aged—drinking, sailing and dining in dusty 11th century-appropriate shades of gold, blue and green, all painted by a local artist when Burp Castle first opened.

Scholars might still sniff at the heresy of historically inaccurate lace curtains and the front door’s welcoming sign: “Burp Castle: House of Beer Worship. Operated by the Brewist Monks since 1022 a.d.” Last we checked, castles weren’t houses of worship, and monks lived in abbeys. No matter: After a few high-alcohol, Belgian-style beers you, like the monks, will soon forgive such sins.

Plus, Burp Abbey wouldn’t sound nearly as cool.

Burp Castle; 41 East 7th Street; (212) 982-4576.

About Rachel Wharton

Rachel Wharton is a deputy editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn magazines with a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, where she focused her research on sustainable agriculture and food culture (with a minor in tacos). She has 15 years of experience as a writer, starting her career with fisheries, water issues, coastal life (and fried oysters) in North Carolina, where she grew up. Before joining the Edibles, she spent four-and-half years working as a features food reporter at the New York Daily News. She also won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award for stories in Edible Brooklyn, while her profile of Russ & Daughters in this magazine will be included in the book 2010 Best Food Writing. P.S., she will eat street meat with abandon, no matter its sustainability.

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