When entrepreneur James Leach was itching for a new project to take on, it didn’t take long for him to settle on the concept of a Belgian beer bar that would primarily serve Trappist beers, lambics and other Belgian-made brews.
On Congress Avenue only two doors down from where Gambrinus, Austin’s first Belgian beer bar, once stood for more than 10 years starting in 1979, Leach’s Mort Subite plans to open in mid-September with 80 Belgian beers and the appropriate glassware that goes with each style. He and Mort Subite’s general manager, Nancy Palma, have worked nonstop to make it as authentic to a Belgian bar as possible. As they see it, preserving the legacy of Belgian brews and the culture surrounding them is important.
And they’ve got a lot of good help in carrying out that mission: Leach knows Luc “Bobo” Van Mechelen, the Gambrinus founder and a Belgian ex-pat, as well as a group of Americans who began importing Belgian beer starting in the 1970s through Manneken Brussel Imports and a couple of other Austin-based companies. Manneken Brussel brings Chimay Trappist Ales to the U.S.
The importers “introduced America’s palates to a greater diversity of flavors,” Palma said. “I think craft beer wouldn’t be what it is today without them importing all these beers from Belgium.”
She and Leach met last year when he was on the hunt for a right-hand and she was looking to drastically change careers, after too long working in finance at a solar energy company. Studying for her cicerone certification to make her an expert in beer, she was introduced to Leach through a mutual friend. For his part, 30-year-old native Austinite Leach was fresh off helping to open the brick-and-mortar version of Lucky’s Puccias, a West Fifth restaurant run by Italian native Luciano Sibilla.
“Once that project finalized, (my importer friends) were asking me what was next,” Leach said. “They were like, ‘Well, what if you opened a Belgian bar?’ It was time for Austin to have a Belgian bar again.”
Mort Subite took over a long, narrow space previously occupied by wine bar Cork & Co., just down the street from La Traviata Italian Bistro (which is in the old Gambrinus spot). When Leach secured a seven-year lease from the landlord — the same guy who once took rent from Van Mechelen — he gutted the bar so that it could more accurately reflect the look and feel of a bar in Belgium.
“The design took inspiration from Belgian bars, with this 40 ft. mahogany bench, the brick wall, our Euro-style long-tipped faucets. Old World inspiration,” Leach said. “The most important thing is that our beers will be consumed out of very specific glassware, just like it is over there.”
That’s an etiquette many U.S. bars and drinkers already follow — a tall pilsner glass for lager styles; a snifter for bold, dark beers like braggots and imperial stouts, for example — but we don’t adhere to it to the extent that Belgians do, Leach said. Mort Subite will bring that tradition here using “a term that I came up with called ‘glassphemy’: the sacrilegious act of drinking the wrong beer out of the wrong glass.”
“There are actually bars in Belgium where if there isn’t a particular glass available for the beer you requested, they’d say, ‘Sorry, you have to wait until people are done drinking out of it,'” Palma said. Although Mort Subite, named after one of those bars, might not be quite so strict, Palma said they are stocking up on glassware to keep up the authenticity.
Both she and Leach have been to Belgium before — Palma as a grad student in the Netherlands — and they understand why Van Mechelen and his friends want to replicate the culture locally. In addition to 80 Belgian beers and a few local ones, Mort Subite will have a small selection of wine and spirits, such as genever, the juniper-flavored liquor of the Netherlands and Belgium. Plus, parked outside in the small courtyard will be a food truck called the Wafel Guys to serve up a mix of savory and sweet Belgian waffles.
“It’ll be an interesting sort of rebirth of the appreciation for Belgian beer; that’s the hope,” Palma said of Mort Subite’s launch in a very locally focused city. “There really hasn’t been a place to showcase Belgian beers here and to showcase how wonderful and nuanced and expressive they can be. And how they can really stand up to some of the cool stuff that American brewers are doing. It’s our homage to the classics and the centuries of brewing Europe has done.”
Mort Subite is located at 308 Congress Ave. and aims to have hours of 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily once it opens softly in September, with a grand opening most likely in early October. For more information, visit facebook.com/MortSubiteAustin.