Discovering Belgian Beer at Brasserie V

Brasserie V
Photo by Eric Tadsen

Listen up, ladies: if you’ve been drinking wine your whole life, thinking beer was just for the boys, Matt and Andrea Van Nest at Brasserie V in Madison are about to change your mind with a small-batch Belgian brew.

Since doubling their restaurant two years ago by expanding into next-door shop space, Matt and Andrea have added a full-length bar to their Monroe Street eatery. The result is a culinary hot spot that’s now a destination for the biggest and best lineup of Belgian beers in Madison.

With 250 brews from around the world, including 100 Belgian beers—many of which are micro-batch and available only via Matt’s established relationships with importers and Belgian brewmasters—the “beer book” at Brasserie V runs 20 pages. And that’s not including 26 beers on tap, several of which might be swapped out weekly, with new tappings occurring daily.

by Eric Tadsen

“We’ve tried to create a space comparable to the typical Belgium beer bar, where drinking a beer or two is about flavor and community,” Matt says. “In Belgium, you’ll often find beer bars with playgrounds because families will come to the bar, the parents will enjoy a beer or two with the neighbors, and the kids will all play out back. It’s a totally different drinking culture than we see in America.”

The key to developing a Belgian-style culture at Brasserie V has been Matt’s dedication to getting to know individual brewmasters and importers. He and Andrea travel to Belgium and American trade shows to meet Belgian beer experts. Developing those relationships results in microbrews not typically available in the United States to find their way to Brasserie V in Madison.

Once at the bar, customers have their choice of enjoying a flight of beers by individually ordering 4.5-ounce pours of any beer on tap. Full pours, ranging in size from 11 to 16 ounces and served in appropriate glass styles, are also an option.

Matt and Andrea say a typical customer might be a couple or small group that includes a wine drinker who doesn’t typically drink beer. That’s when the bartender pours a Flemish red, a light-bodied brew with reddish-brown color. Flemish reds are known for their distinct fruity, sour, and tart flavors created by special yeast strains. Incredibly complex beers, Flemish reds are traditionally produced by aging long-term in oak barrels and blending young and old beers. Matt says a good Flemish red often turns a wine-drinking customer into a Belgian beer fan almost immediately.

by Eric Tadsen

While the term “Belgian beer” encompasses a wide range of beer types, including Trappist, abbey, and lambic beers, most Belgian brews are fermented by carefully cultivated strains of brewer’s yeasts resulting in a completely different flavor profile than the average American craft beer, which tend to focus more on hops, barley, and malt. Belgian beers are also typically sweeter because of higher sugar content, and have higher alcohol content.

Comparable to many Belgian beer bars, where a pint might be served with a wedge of local cheese, Brasserie V offers Wisconsin artisan cheese boards: three or five cheeses served with candied nuts, a baguette from Madison Sourdough, Wisconsin raw honey, and Potter’s Crackers. In the Belgian model, charcuterie may also be added to round out the experience.

Brasserie V’s Chef Casey Trumble and staff prepare all food from scratch using fresh ingredients often purchased at Madison farmers’ markets and direct from producers. Like many Madison restaurants, the folks at Brasserie V are inspired globally but source locally where they can. The name of the restaurant comes from Matt’s love of Belgium and Andrea’s time spent living in France. In France and Belgium, a brasserie is a type of restaurant that serves beer and simple plates of food. The V represents their last name.

At Brasserie V, a seasonal menu changes four times a year and typically features duck, chicken, lamb, and fish entrées all sourced locally, as well as pasta either made in-house or from RP’s Pasta. However, three entrées never exit the menu and are considered Madison mainstays.

First, Steak Frites—a 12-ounce Flat Iron prepared with Cabernet sauce—is a Brasserie V institution, with sides that change with the seasons. Likewise, Moules et Frites—mussels with garlic, shallots, and Chardonnay broth—is a menu classic, while the V Burger—a Fountain Prairie Farm dry-aged beef, beer-battered onion straws, Muenster cheese, spinach, tomato, and classic Aioli—is always served on sourdough bread.

Starters, soup, sandwiches, and salads round out a surprisingly robust seasonal menu. No matter the time of year, the Belgian Salad is always offered. It features frisee, grilled endive, crumbled egg, apple, almond, warm bacon, and apple cider vinaigrette. Duck may be added for an extra charge.

“Offering a seasonal menu is a bit challenging and risky, but it’s a fun way to get customers excited about new dishes and keeps the kitchen super engaged,” Andrea says. “It allows us to offer the best of each season.”

While Matt and Andrea are often approached to open additional restaurants in Madison, the pair says Brasserie V is more than enough to keep them busy. With a young family, dedicated staff, and growing recognition as the premier Belgian beer bar in the Midwest, they have no plans on messing up a good thing.

“The restaurant is an extension of what started out as us enjoying entertaining guests in our home. We want to keep it simple, and we want to keep having fun,” Matt says.

Jeanne Carpente is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.