Sunday, 27 November 2016

Going Dutch

I realised after writing my last post about Jopen Bier that in spite of spending five days in Amsterdam I hadn’t written that much about Dutch beer or the brewing scene in the Netherlands.

I came back from my trip in a reflective and slightly melancholy mood, made worse by the realisation that because of a reckless and unnecessary political gamble, followed by a misleading and at times completely untruthful campaign, the country I am proud to call home will be divorcing itself from a European ideal which offers far more than it takes, in pure monetary terms. Also, by cutting ourselves adrift from our friends in Europe we will lose far more than we will ever gain from a rather outdated nationalistic ideal of “controlling our own sovereignty.”

The fact that this year’s European Beer Bloggers Conference will be the last such event in its current form only served to increase my feelings of melancholia and isolation, but such is life and at east the latter  decision was one based on pure financial and logistical considerations, rather than highly charged and emotionally unsound ones. Such is life, and if these sorts of decisions do nothing else, they serve to remind us that there are no certainties in life.

However, angst over the direction the country is taking should not be allowed to detract from the thriving and rather interesting beer scene just the other side of the North Sea so here, somewhat belatedly, are some facts, observations, thoughts and comments about beer and brewing in the Netherlands.

Like us British, the Dutch were a great sea-faring and trading nation who established links and eventually possessions in the Far East; in particular with what is now modern day Indonesia. Following a hard-won independence from Spanish rule in 1648, Holland as the new country became known, entered a Golden Age during which trade, industry, the arts and sciences all flourished. For a time, Holland was the most economically powerful nation in Europe, although it was eventually eclipsed by Britain.

The story of beer in the country goes back much further than the 17th Century. I mentioned the Old Dutch beer style, known as Gruit in my previous post. In this medieval brew, herbs and spices provided the flavouring, rather than hops, but given the country’s position on the North Sea coast, and also the fact that Europe’s largest river, the Rhine, enters the sea via the Netherlands, it is not surprising that hops began to be used in brewing much earlier than they did in England.

The various cities of the powerful Hanseatic League played key role in the introduction of hops, and as early as 1325 many Dutch brewers had switched to producing hopped beers. The city of Haarlem, mentioned in my previous post, played a pivotal role here, but for centuries there were many indigenous and local styles of beer peculiar to the country. Beers such as Oud Bruin, Beiersch (a Munich-style dark lager), Licht and Gerstebier, were once common; as were local interpretations of British-style ales and porters; but it was the increase in the popularity of paler, bottom-fermented, beers which led to the dominance of Pils in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands remained neutral during the First World War, thereby avoiding the whole scale slaughter experienced by the warring parties, but neutrality came at a price, as the war virtually cut the country off from its normal trading partners. Brewing experienced a gradual decline, as did the number of different beer styles. Takeovers and mergers took their toll, leading to s situation where one company in particular came to dominate the Dutch brewing industry, eventually becoming the world’s third largest brewing corporation.

I am talking about Heineken of course, and it must be said that some clever marketing played an important role in this meteoric rise, which made Heineken one of the most recognised brands on the planet.

Dutch hopes of remaining neutral in the next conflict were dashed in May 1940 when German forces invaded the country. Five years of occupation did further damage to the country’s brewing industry, especially towards the end of the war, when the northern Dutch provinces were cut off from the advancing Allied forces, and many people died due to mass starvation. It is hardly surprising that beer consumption in the country nose-dived during the 1940’s, and took several decades to recover.

The Netherlands ended up being dominated by Pils, with just the occasional Bock-style beers being produced for consumption during the winter months. By the mid 1980’s only 17 breweries remained in the entire country, with the industry dominated by four large players; Heineken, Skol (remember the name?), Grolsch and Bavaria.

Slowly, inspired by the growing interest in beer observed in other countries and in particular the influence of close neighbour Belgium, things began to look up, and by 2001 the number of breweries had risen to 61. Many of the new-style breweries were dismissed at the time as “copy-cat” breweries inspired by neighbouring Belgium, and it took the arrival of American inspired “craft beers” before things really began to improve.

During the last decade, the Dutch brewing scene has really started to take off, and by the time Tim Skelton’s excellent “Beer in the Netherlands” appeared in 2014, the number of breweries in the country had risen to 200, producing in excess of 1,000 regular beers. This number has certainly been surpassed over the course of the last two years.

There is still much work to be done in order to educate Dutch beer drinkers and wean them off their addiction to Pils. Part of the problem is said to be the indifferent way in which many Dutch bars serve their beers. It is little wonder then that many Dutch people prefer to drink beer at home, rather than in a pub. However, drinking quality, locally-produced beer at home is not that easy, as the products of 9 out of 10 small Dutch breweries are reportedly never seen on supermarket shelves.

The picture I have painted so far is just a very brief snapshot of beer and brewing in the Netherlands, and doesn’t really do justice to a scene which is still very much up and coming. I would recommend visitors to do their homework, and to travel around away from the obvious tourist attractions of Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague.

To my own detriment, I did very little research, prior to my visit back in August, primarily because I arrogantly thought that having visited Amsterdam once, I knew sufficient about the country. This was despite having bought “Beer in the Netherlands”, and a "DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Amsterdam".

My complacency was shattered as soon as I jumped on the train heading south from Schiphol Airport to the charming town of Den Bosch in the province of North Brabant. The day which fellow bloggers and I spent in this unspoilt and attractive part of the country, proved a real eye-opener to what the Netherlands has to offer, and I’m equally certain that a trip to some of the Northern provinces would also pay dividends.

It is worth mentioning the religious divide between the Catholic south and the Protestant north of the Netherlands; a situation which has plagued much of Europe for centuries. The Maas and the Rhine rivers provide a natural boundary between these two halves of the country, and the influence of religion is reflected in the numbers of breweries in each region. Given the Protestant association between alcohol and sin, it is perhaps hardly surprising that historically there were far less breweries in the Northern provinces, than the more easy-going Catholic south, and to a certain extent, this situation still prevails today.

A visit though to some of the more isolated Northern provinces such as Friesland and Groningen certainly looks appealing, and is something I intend to do on my next visit to the Netherlands.

Like my brief look at the country as a whole, I only scratched the surface of what is available beer-wise in the Netherlands. Like other attendees at the EBBC, I was fortunate to have sampled some of the best beers the country has to offer; particularly with regard to those produced by Jopen and De Molen. Visiting the respective breweries of these two legendary producers was also a huge bonus, as was visiting the monastic La Trappe Brewery at Koningshoeven, during our stay in Brabant.

Other beers of note were those from the small Brouwerij Vandeeoirspung, in the village of Oirschot – which we cycled to from Koningshoeven,  Kompaan (based in Den Haag, who also provided me with a rather nice glass), and Amsterdam’s Brouwerij De Prael, whose 6.5% ABV, true to style India Pale Ale was, without doubt it was the best beer of my entire visit.

Well I trust I’ve now whetted your appetite, so the next time you’re looking you’re your next suitably beery adventure, why not hop over to the Netherlands and explore some of these places, and try some of these beers. Easy Jet operates several flights a day to from Gatwick to Amsterdam and, as I discovered after chatting to a couple from Essex on my last day, they also fly from Southend.

If you prefer to travel by train, take the Eurostar to Brussels, from where you can get a train to either Rotterdam or Amsterdam. For the real romantics amongst you, the night ferry still operates between Harwich and Hook of Holland, from where you can get a rail connection to many parts of the Netherlands. Anglia Rail will sell you a return “through ticket” from Liverpool Street to Hook of Holland, although you will need to book a birth on board the ferry. With this option, you arrive in the country awake and refreshed with the whole day ahead of you and with plenty of time for sight-seeing and beer drinking!


John Clarke said...

At the current count there are (when I last looked) 447 breweries and beer firms in the Netherlands (split almost 50:50 between those who have breweries and those who don't). Over half of those have set up since the start of 2014.

In Amsterdam at least local beers are starting to gain traction across the board - many bars and cafes will now have a local Amsterdam beer on tap or in bottle (increasingly on tap) - Brouwerij Oedipus seems to be doing particularly well in this respect.

Paul Bailey said...

That’s an impressive increase in breweries, John. I’ve got the update to Tim’s guide, somewhere at home, but couldn’t lay my hands on it when I was composing my post.

It’s good news to learn that local beers are becoming more widely available in Amsterdam. My trip back in August wetted my appetite for a return visit. As mentioned, I would like to spend some time in the Northern provinces, next time.

Stanley Blenkinsop said...

I think you're being unnecessarily pessimistic about the Brexit vote Paul.Far from cutting ourselves adrift from the European ideal it's that ideal which is floundering because the experiment clearly isn't working,particularly if you live in Southern Europe.

And on my most recent trip to Amsterdam I found large numbers of local people who share the antipathy towards what the EU has become.

I'm actually hugely optimistic about this country's future and its contribution towards Europe from outside the confines of the EU.

However,glad to see you've mined so much good material from your recent trip.

Paul Bailey said...

You may be right Stanley, although we will have to wait and see. I think that many people recognise that the Euro was a step too far, and this is what is adversely affecting the countries of southern Europe.

As a free-trade area and customs union though, the EU has been a great success and the harmonisation of technical standards and cross-border cooperation, particularly in the areas of science and research (my current field of employment), have also been of great benefit. The CE mark is also viewed as a worldwide standard of excellence.

Perhaps the biggest point in the organisation’s favour is its contribution to peace within the European continent, and this, of course, is the purpose it was originally set up for.