If you think about it, a lot could go wrong with The Trappist. Founded by a pair of beer nuts with a passion for Belgians, the bar wears its earnestness on its sleeve and isn’t ashamed to be dogmatic (its web site declares, in a not-so-thinly-veiled dig at less serious bars, that The Trappist serves its beer “at the correct temperature and in the correct glass by a knowledgeable and well-trained staff”). What’s more, it specializes in what may be the single most fetishized kind of beer in the world — the Trappist style, born of an obscure order of monks in Belgium and the Netherlands. Visually, the bar hits nearly every obnoxious/ubiquitous design trend— taxidermy! exposed brick! — right on the head. Put it together and you could have the perfect storm of pomp and pretense, the kind of place discerning Oaklanders take pride in hating.
Actually, though, it’s all but impossible to hate The Trappist. For starters, there’s the space itself. Opened in late-2007 on what’s easily the most picturesque block in all of downtown Oakland, it adopts an unaccountably charming 1870s-saloon-by-way-of-Northern-Europe aesthetic; were it not for the soundtrack — Sublime’s Stand By Your Van played end-to-end — and the high concentration of bail bondsmen stationed nearby, this could be a neighborhood bar in Europe. The layout is indisputably weird — a narrow horseshoe-shaped space with two separate doors to the street and an unfortunate propensity for bottlenecks — but beyond that, it’s a great space, aforementioned taxidermy notwithstanding: image-conscious without feeling too overdesigned, well-appointed but not without a sense of whimsy (exhibit A: the clock in the front bar is perma-stuck at 4:20 — cute). Early in the evening, it’s filled with besuited business types talking shop over small plates and big beers, but later on, when the bartenders swap the Sublime for something softer and light little oil candles on each table, it quickly becomes a brilliant place for a first date. (In two or three weeks they’ll open the brick patio out back, so it’ll be a brilliant place for daytime-drinking, too.)
But the beer, obviously, is the main event. The Trappist offers hundreds of bottles, plus 25 or so beers on rotating taps — many of which you’ve likely never heard of, and about three-quarters of which bear umlauted names you can’t even pronounce. Which is fine, because The Trappist’s bartenders are some of the best in Oakland, and quite possibly the world: Black-clad, seemingly uniformly bearded, endlessly knowledgeable, and above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty attentive, these are the kind of bartenders who will remember your name after a single visit and generously humor you when you come to them with even the strangest, most abstract requests. At a place that could so easily feel snobby, these people are anything but.
With the help of said bartenders, we tried several beers, all of which were damn near perfect. The St. Feuillen Blonde was citrusy, dry, and drinkable, and the North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stout was nearly black and relentlessly bitter, in the best way possible. But the best of the bunch was the St. Bernardus ABT 12 — the color of cherrywood, with a thick head and a complex, malty flavor. And just like that, all is right at a place that could go so wrong.
Update: a previous version of this article incorrectly described Trappist monks as working “high in the mountains of Belgium and the Netherlands.” Those countries are in fact roughly as mountainous as Tilden Park, and our writer needs a geography lesson.