Owner Paul Kopchinski first announced his plans to open a Belgian beer bar in the spring of 2010, but over time and for various reasons, he watched his first two locations fall through. But at the end of last year, De Kleine Duivel (meaning "The Little Devil" in Flemish) finally materialized in the former Hampden lodge of a fraternal social club.
We often hope the wait is worth it, but also know there are no guarantees for new Baltimore bars. In the case of the excellent De Kleine Duivel, Kopchinski can rest knowing his longer-than-expected journey was not made in vain.
De Kleine Duivel succeeds because of its clearly defined reason for existing: Belgian beers. There may be small plates of food offered and a projection screen occasionally showing European cycling, but it is the wide assortment of Belgian beers that define this bar.
Specificity matters here, as you will fail to find any Belgian "style" or "inspired" brews served. Kopchinski, a Baltimore native with family in Belgium, is doing a service to the city's beer-drinking community by providing a singular experience no other bar in the city currently offers, at least to this extent. Instead of waiting for a Belgian beer festival to occur each year, we now have a brick-and-mortar location for enthusiasts and the curious alike.
On a recent Sunday night, a handful of patrons sat at the 40-foot-long bar in the spacious room while a party of six chatted at a table nearby. We took seats at the end of the bar to meet the bartender, smiling and well dressed, for the night. Of the eight types on tap, I chose the Brasserie à Vapeur's Saison de Pipaix ($7), an intoxicatingly tart beer brewed in the region of Wallonia. Its balance of sour, sweet and spicy underlined the difference between a Belgian-inspired ale and the real thing.
Last week, a post on the bar's Facebook page stated De Kleine Duivel had 116 types of Belgian beers in stock. So yes, the vast selection — ranging from sours and lambics to ales and porters, to only name some — can be as daunting as it is impressive. As good barkeeps do and too many around here forget, our bartender guided us and answered any questions we had throughout the night. A friend said she liked India pale ales, so he recommended the Chouffe Houblon ($8), a bold brew that teetered the line between bitter and sweet. He did his job and she was happy with the results; it was a simple win-win.
Another important aspect the bar gets right is glassware. Belgian beer culture places a premium on the glasses its nectar is served in, and De Kleine Duivel smartly follows suit. Glasses with varying heights, thickness and design details lined the top of the beer coolers behind the bar. It was another detail Kopchinski did not miss.
The one aspect that could use Kopchinski's attention is interior design. On Sunday night, the space — which would be large for a sports bar and is absolutely massive for a specialized beer bar — felt incomplete with mostly mirrors lining its otherwise blank white walls. But the low lighting and relaxed soundtrack (at one point, the song "Sour Times" by Portishead came on, I kid you not) made De Kleine Duivel still seem comfortable for adults looking for a quiet space to converse.
There is plenty of time to add art to the walls. Foremost, De Kleine Duivel is a Belgian beer destination, and a great one at that. It knows exactly what it is, and executes its vision with confidence. It also enlightens through example: For years, I considered any Baltimore bar not serving National Bohemian borderline treasonous, but a place such as this confounds those types of expectations. That can only be a good thing.
Back story: Years in the making, the Belgian beer bar De Kleine Duivel finally found its home in Hampden, near The Avenue, in December. The emphasis is placed almost wholly on the wide assortment of Belgian beers. Wine and small plates of food are offered as well.
Parking: Free on the street
Signature drink: Try a Saison de Pipaix ($7), one of the eight kinds of Belgian beer on tap during a recent visit. Drafts rotate frequently.