Congress Avenue beer bar Mort Subite brings Belgian pub vibe to Austin

Updated Nov 10, 2016

One local bar that recently opened in the heart of downtown wants to foster renewed appreciation for the Belgian beers that helped inspire the craft beer movement in the U.S.

Mort Subite — named after a bar and restaurant in Brussels that has inspired the Austin project — primarily serves Trappist beers, lambics and other Belgian-made brews in the appropriate glassware for each style. Entrepreneur James Leach came up with the concept after the encouragement of beer-loving friends.

His bar on Congress Avenue is only two doors down from where Austin’s first Belgian beer bar, Gambrinus, once stood for more than 10 years starting in 1979. Leach and Mort Subite’s general manager, Nancy Palma, believe that preserving the legacy of Belgian brews and the culture surrounding them is important.

They’ve got big help in carrying out that mission: Leach knows Luc “Bobo” Van Mechelen, the Gambrinus founder and a Belgian expat, 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 through a mutual friend — he was on the hunt for a right-hand, and she wanted to drastically change careers and was studying for her cicerone certification to become an expert in beer.

Thirty-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 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 pub in Belgium. Both he and Palma have been to that country.

“The design took inspiration from Belgian bars, with this 40-foot mahogany bench, the brick wall, our Euro-style long-tipped faucets. Old World inspiration,” Leach said.

There’s another key design element that helps keep Mort Subite authentic: four flags of the Belgian provinces that Van Mechelen gave the bar before it officially opened. He’d hung them at Gambrinus, and now they serve as colorful decorations above the tables.

Most important to Leach and Palma, however, is the glassware that sparkles upside down over the bar. Many U.S. bars and breweries follow a serving etiquette — a tall pilsner glass for lager styles or 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. In Belgium, differently shaped glasses exist not only for the styles but for bottled brews and draft options as well.

If the right glassware isn’t available for the beer you requested at a Belgian bar overseas, the bartenders might well tell you to wait, Palma said.

“You get a much fuller, richer experience in the authentic Belgian glasses,” she said. “The beers get poured with a thick cap of foam, which enhances the whole sensory experience by preserving the aroma and the carbonation level and giving the beer a creamier mouthfeel. Smelling, tasting and seeing — the glasses help you hit all the sensory notes.”

She and Leach, along with the bar staff, have cultivated a menu of draft and bottled beers, everything from the De Ranke XX Bitter, a Belgian IPA, to the St. Bernardus Abt 12, a boozy Belgian quadrupel. The bar also has a small selection of wine and Belgian spirits, such as genever and other rarer liquors that “we begged the distributors for,” Palma said.

The bottle list at Mort Subite is far more extensive than the 20 or so beers available on tap, but they haven’t been ordered as much in the weeks since the bar quietly opened at the end of September. Palma is hoping to change that by having a Monday happy hour special of half-off all bottles and, during the remainder of the week, offering a happy hour deal of $1.50 off all products. Happy hour on Monday is from 5 to 7 p.m. and from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. other days.

“We’ve had people come in and talk about their time at Belgian bars when they were overseas,” she said. “They relive those experiences here.”