In the 30 years I have written about beer, I have more and more come to agree with the proposition put forward by the radical economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher that “small is beautiful.” This is the title of his seminal work of 1973 and in it he argues the case that companies worship size for size’s sake and succumb to a disease he called giantism.
It is especially true of the brewing industry. Companies swallow one another with the voracity of piranhas. Breweries disappear and their once-loved brands are either axed or are transferred to vast new factories where they bear little or no relationship to the originals. All too often, it is accountants and marketing people who call the shots, not brewers. Brewing skills and tasty beers play second fiddle to the need to maximize profits by producing beer as quickly as possible, regardless of the impact on taste or the preferences of drinkers.
But there are rare cases where breweries have grown organically rather than as the result of merger mania, a growth fuelled by genuine consumer demand. On my travels I have several times visited the Grolsch breweries in the Netherlands and admired the company’s dedication to quality and craftsmanship epitomized by the pilsner beer in its old-fashioned swing-top bottle.
I nevertheless approached Grolsch in January with some trepidation. The company has closed its original breweries in Enschede and Groenlo and built a new site at Boeklo close to the German border. Three-hundred million has been invested at Boeklo, which can produce 3.4 million hectolitres a year.
In the Netherlands, Grolsch is a small brewer compared to mighty Heineken, which includes Amstel. But Grolsch is no slouch and exports to 50 countries, with the U.S. and Britain its most important overseas markets. As well as the pilsner, it also brews an alt-style amber beer and several other brands made by warm fermentation: on a bitterly cold winter day, I was pleased to be greeted with a glass of 6.9% Noaber, a copper-colored ale with rich malt, pear-like fruit and good hop resins. Noaber means “neighbor” and the beer was first brewed only for the eastern part of the country where Grolsch is based, but demand has expanded supplies.
Grolsch in the 21st Century
Grolsch traces its roots back to 1615, though the modern company did not evolve until the 1920s and has only been known as Groslch since 1954. It is now a publicly listed company, but the de Groen family that ran Grolsch in the 20th century still controls a substantial block of shares. To prove the family has not taken a back seat, I was shown round the new site by Andries de Groen, who wore the white coat of a brewmaster rather than an executive pin-striped suit.
The brewhouse is enormous but attractive with stainless vessels built by Huppmann of Germany. The beer produced fills 60,000 bottles and 550 kegs every hour. But no corners have been cut where raw materials are concerned. Water is pumped seven kilometers from Enschede to ensure consistency. Perle hops are sourced from the German Hallertau. The only change to the brewing regime is that the Pils is now an all-malt brew. Grolsch has phased out the use of a small amount of corn. The company is building sales in Germany and is anxious to adhere to the Reinheitsgebot or Beer Purity Law that permits only malted barley or wheat, hops, yeast and water.
“I didn’t want an argument with the Germans,” Andries de Groen said phlegmatically. He added that to balance the loss of corn he has added to the hop character of the beer. The fermentation regime has also been altered. In the old breweries, some unfermented sugar was left at the end of primary fermentation. The beer is now fully fermented out and is followed by a shorter aging or lagering time. The beer is not pasteurized to encourage a fresh and lively taste.
I have expressed concern elsewhere that lagering times are being reduced in many breweries, with a detrimental impact on flavor. But in the case of Grolsch I consider the beer from the new site to be even better, with a new-mown grass aroma, toasted malt, light lemon fruit and hop resins in the mouth, and a finish that is dry, bitter and hoppy but balanced by juicy malt.
Beautiful beer, though no longer small.
Roger Protz is the author of Complete Guide to World Beer and 300 Beers to Try Before You Die. He is a respected beer authority and editor of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.