To start at the beginning, and not to create any more confusion than is necessary, there is no country named Holland. There used to be, years ago, but today North and South Holland are provinces in a country named the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Holland was an independent country until the 16th century, when it joined with the northern and southern Netherlands in an unsuccessful fight against the Spanish Empire. The Spanish king became the “Count of Holland.” In 1830 the southern Netherlands, now known as Belgium, became independent. The northern Netherlands and other counties (the present-day provinces of Drente, Groningen, Friesland, Gelderland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Brabant and Limburg) joined to establish the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Of course, the people and the language are referred to—in English, at least—as Dutch.
Now that nomenclature is as clear as a glass of pilsner, we can talk about Dutch beer.
Pilsner Is King
As in most countries in northern Europe—and the world, for that matter—the pilsner style of lager is the beer of choice for most Dutch beer drinkers. Within this small, densely populated area (the highest population density in Europe) live 15,981,472 mostly lager drinkers. The beer style of choice has started to change in the last 20 years or so, but just a little. Pilsner sales make up about 90 percent of all beer sold in the Netherlands. And Dutch brewers brew a lot of beer—just under 25 million hectoliters (21.3 million barrels) in 2001. Although this maritime nation, with a rich and highly successful trading history, exports a great deal of the beer it brews (think Heineken and Grolsch), the Dutch still consume 86.4 liters (22.8 gallons) of beer per capita per year.
Dutch Brewing History
Like all of Europe, until the lager revolution of the mid-1800s, Dutch brewers brewed top-fermented ales. By the end of the 1800s, pilsners had taken over. World War II devastated the Dutch brewing industry. Breweries were dismantled or destroyed by bombs, and there was almost no barley for making malt. By the late 1940s, Dutch brewing was once again on its feet, with most brewers operating in the southern provinces of Limburg and North Brabant. These old family brewers continued to make a few top-fermented ales, but in the 1950s, they either failed to make a go of it or were bought out by Heineken, a brewery uninterested in ales and small brewery operations.
By the 1960s, only a few independent breweries remained in the south. In Limburg, there were Lindeboom, Gulpener, Alfa, Leeuw, Brand and De Ridder (the last two now owned by Heineken). In North Brabant, there were Budelse and Dommelsch (the latter now also owned by Heineken). By the late 1970s about 16 breweries operated in the Netherlands: a few major players such as Heineken, Grolsch and Bavaria, and a few regional independents.
At this point in time, approximately 99 percent of all beer sold in the Netherlands was pilsner. The only exceptions were the traditional strong Dutch version of a bock (often spelled bok) beer produced each autumn and possibly an Oud Bruin (Old Brown). Gulpener Dort (a German-inspired Dortmunder-style beer) was an extremely rare exception.
The time was ripe for some changes in Dutch beer culture. Just as a generation of US Baby Boomers returned from studies and travels abroad (primarily in Europe) in the 1960s and 1970s to shake up American complacency with bland tasting wines, beers, coffees, teas, bread, cheeses and other foods, a generation of young Dutch people in the late 1970s returned from visits to their southern cousins—the Belgians—where they had discovered wonderful-tasting beers. Dutch entrepreneurs who noticed this trend began importing Belgian beers.
The first imports were Duvel, Westmalle Tripel and De Koninck, three beers that to this day remain on the beer lists of cafés throughout the Netherlands. The first Dutch cafés bold enough to stock these Belgian imports were Jan Primus in Utrecht, De Beyerd in Breda, In de Wildeman in Amsterdam, and Locus Publicus in Rotterdam. These four cafés remain in business today and are among the best of the best for beer lovers.
A consumer movement began at this time as well. Just as the Campaign for Real Ale in the United Kingdom formed as a grass-roots organization in the 1970s to save the tradition of cask ale in the British Isles, a group of beer lovers formed in the Netherlands to promote good quality beer. Vereniging Promotie Informatie Traditioneel Bier (PINT) formed in 1980. Now with 3,000 members, PINT is a force to be reckoned with in the Netherlands. Its stated goals are 1) Promoting beer as a cultural heritage in the Netherlands; 2) Informing the beer enthusiast on developments in the world of beer; and 3) Guarding the interest of the beer enthusiast. PINT publishes PINT-nieuws and an Internet site, Nederlandse Bierpagina’s (www.pint.nl), under the artful hand of editor Theo Flissebaalje; produces beers festivals; and sets up visits to breweries for its members.
The Beginnings of Small-Scale Craft Brewing
At the same time that Belgian imports began entering the Netherlands, the first high quality, craftbrewed ales from a non-megabrewer emerged on the market. In 1979 the Trappist Abdij (Abbey) O.B.V. Koningshoeven (King’s Farms) in the village of Berkel Enschot in North Brabant, which had first brewed ales in 1884, resumed commercial brewing after a hiatus of many years. The monks called their brewery Bierbrouwerij De Koningshoeven and issued a line of strong, full-flavored ales under the brand name, La Trappe Trappistenbier, also known as Schaapskooi (Sheep’s Pen). Two years later, there was a revival of top-fermented beers at the re-opened Stoombierbrouwerij (Steam Beer Brewery) De Vriendenkring (Circle of Friends) in Arcen in Limburg. This brewery changed its name to Arcense Bierbrouwerij and is now owned by the Belgian multinational brewing giant, Interbrew.
The next successful Dutch craft brewery to start up was in 1984. The Raaf Bierbrouwerij, located near Nijmegen, Gelderland, was purchased by Allied Carlsberg, sold to Interbrew and shut down in 1993. (The brewer at Raaf, Herm Hegger, emigrated to the United States where he trained some brewers, eventually returning to Nijmegen where he opened a new craft brewery, Stadsbrouwerij (Town Brewery) de Hemel, in 1996.) Next in the nascent Dutch craft beer revolution were Brouwerij ‘t IJ (Amsterdam, North Holland) and De Friese Bierbrouwerij (Bolsward, Friesland) in 1985 and Bierbrouwerij St. Christoffel (Roermond, Limburg) in 1986.
During the 1990s, many small breweries opened in the Netherlands. Some survived, some didn’t. All of them looked south for inspiration, brewing Belgian-style ales rather than experimenting with German lagers or British ales. In the meantime, the Big Four Dutch brewers—Heineken, Interbrew (which at this point owned a number of Dutch breweries), Grolsch and Bavaria—didn’t like what they were seeing in the marketplace. Pilsner sales declined as the new small breweries succeeded with Belgian-style ales and imports continued to sell briskly.
The response of the Big Four was to make special beers in the Belgian style. All of a sudden, these large pilsner brewers began releasing wit beers, amber ales and strong beers for every season of the year: Nieuwjaars Bier/New Year’s, Paasbier/Easter, Lentebock/Spring, Meibock/May, Zomerbock/Summer, Herfstbock/Autumn, Winterbier/Winter, Kerstbier/Christmas and, like all Dutch breweries large or small, a straight-up bock beer for the PINT Bokbierfestival held in Amsterdam each November. Wieckse Witte from Brouwerij de Ridder (Maastricht, Limburg; owned by Heineken) was brewed to bump the Belgian wit beer, Hoegaarden, off the market. De Ridder’s Vos, a Belgian-style amber ale, targeted De Koninck without success. The other large brewers came out with similar products, such as Moreeke (a De Koninck clone) from Bavaria and Witte Raaf (no longer produced) from Arcense (owned by Interbrew, which, oddly enough, also owns Hoegaarden).
The big brewers figured that was that. They had met the challenge and would triumph. Well, they may still control over 90 percent of the market in the Netherlands, but today close to 50 small, independent breweries exist throughout the country, many of them completely new players. The Dutch beer revolution is in full swing.
The Big Four
As in any country, distribution is the key to survival in the beer business, and the Big Four in the Netherlands control most of the distribution outlets—and the retail outlets. Dutch and European Union laws permit breweries to own cafés and pubs if the brewery has less than a 30 percent market share in its home market. Three of the Big Four fall into this category, owning about 90 percent of the cafés and pubs in the country. In terms of individual market share of beer sales, the breakdown is roughly as follows:
Heineken owns the former Amstel Brouwerij (whose brewery was closed and the beers are now brewed at Heineken), Brouwerij de Ridder (closed at the end of 2002) in Maastricht, Limburg and Brand Bierbrouwerij in Wijlre, Limburg: 45 to 50 percentof the total beer market.
Interbrew owns Oranjeboom Bierbrouwerij (but recently announced that Oranjeboom will close) in Breda, North Brabant, Dommelsch Bierbrouwerij in Dommelen, North Brabant and Arcense Bierbrouwerij in Arcen, Limburg: 25 to 30 percent of the market.
Grolsch: 10 to 15 percent
Bavaria owns Bierbrouwerij De Koningshoeven in Berkel Enschot, North Brabant and De Kroon’s Bierbrouwerij, formerly of Oirschot, North Brabant, but now closed with the beers brewed at Koningshoeven: 5 to 8 percent.
The Big Four also have a near monopoly on buying the standard 30-cl bottle that the four largest Dutch grocery store chains demand. That’s covering all the bases.
An interesting generalization about the Big Four prevails among craft beer and imported beer enthusiasts in the Netherlands. Heineken is thought to be the beer of the “Regular Joes.” Grolsch drinkers have the reputation of being a bit more refined and educated. Interbrew is, well, an interloper. And Bavaria concentrates on the discount supermarket trade.
A Few of the Older Independent and Newer Dutch Craft Breweries…
Besides being known for its many wonderful cafés, Amsterdam was home to Amsterdams Brouwhuis Maximiliaan, which opened in 1992 as the first Dutch brewpub and, unfortunately, closed this past November. Happily, the city boasts another brewpub, Brouwerij ’t IJ, a quirky micro and café that opened in 1985. Brewer Kasper Peterson, a former popular musician, brews ale that are roughly in the Belgian-style, but completely unique. Eggs, ostriches and desert scenes dominate ’t IJ’s beer labels because: 1) In Dutch, the word for egg, “ei,” sounds like IJ (the local waterway); 2) the ostrich is one of Peterson’s favorite animals; and 3) when ’t IJ opened, the Dutch special beer scene was a desert. Beer names at ’t IJ are equally playful: IJ Wit (Egg White), Natte (Wet One), Zatte (Drunken One).
Just south of the Amsterdam suburbs, in the town of Uithoorn on the Amstel River, ex-IBM man Guus Roijen opened Brouwerij De Schans in 1997. Roijen brews several beers under the De Schans label and many more under contract and as private labels in a tidy, fastidiously efficient brewery. Some of his beers are Belgian inspired, some German inspired, and others take their cue from Britain. Roijen likes to experiment with beers such as Canadian Goose Pale Ale, Edelbier, Schans Bier Tarwe and Schans Bier Tripel.
Up north in the flatter-than-flat province of Friesland, Limburg-born brewer Aart van der Linde opened De Friese Bierbrouwerij in 1985—“the biggest brewery in Friesland, the only brewery in Friesland.” Van der Linde brews organic beers, many of which are Belgian-inspired, under the label, “Us Heit,” which means “Our Father” in Friesian. The term refers to a famous figure in Friesian history, Willem Lodewijk, the first stadhouder (town keeper) from 1584 to 1620. Some of the Us Heit beers are Frysk (Friesian) Bier, Buorren (Neighborhood) Bier and Dubbel Tarwe (Wheat) Bier.
The southern province of Limburg, not to be confused with the Belgian province or German city of the same name, is home to many of the Dutch breweries that have survived from the 1800s. Most of these are now owned by Heineken or Interbrew. One of the remaining independents is in the town of Neer in north Limburg. Founded in 1870 by Willem Geenen, Lindeboom (Lime Tree) Bierbrouwerij is today managed by the fourth generation of the founding family, Ben Geenen. A lime tree remains standing in the brewery courtyard. Lindeboom brews both ales and lagers, including Venloosch Alt (named after the small town of Venlo) and a new line of ales brewed with rye malt called Gouverneur Bier, Gouverneur Brune and Gouverneur Blonde.
In the city of Oss, Maasland Brouwerij opened in 1989. It remains one of the oldest and most interesting of the new Dutch craft breweries, producing its own Belgian-inspired ales and many contract and private label beers (over 600). Oss derives from the word, “osch,” which means “place where the ox crosses the river.” The town is located on the River Maas, from which the brewery takes its name. Some of Schamp’s beers are D’n Schele (Dizzy/Cross-eyed Ox) Amber, Blond, Amber, Dubbel and Tripel.
Homebrewer-turned-pro, Sjef Groothuis opened Bierbrouwerij De 3 Horne, located in the small town of Kaatsheuvel, in 1991. In his small, streamlined brewery designed for efficiency (“Others think too complicated”), Groothuis claims to be the fastest brewer in the Netherlands, getting his beer in shops within three weeks of being brewed. As do the other new, small brewers, Groothuis brews a small number of house beers and a larger number of contract and private label beers, specializing in ever-so-slightly-fruit-flavored ales. Some of the 3 Horne beers are Dobbelaer, Trippelaer and Kaat’s Witje (Litttle Wit Beer from Kaatsheuvel).
Bierbrouwerij De Koningshoeven (a.k.a. La Trappe Trappistenbier and Koningshoeven Trappist Ale) is located in the Dutch Trappist monastery, Trappist Abdij (Abbey) O.B.V. Koningshoeven (King’s Farms) in the village of Berkel Enschot. As mentioned earlier, the monks resumed brewing in 1979 after a many-year hiatus. The brands continue to be owned by the monks and brewed at the monastery, but Bavaria (one of the Big Four) conducts the brewing, marketing and selling of the four Trappist ales: Blond, Double, Tripel and Quadrupel.. These beers are sold under the Koningshoeven Trappist Ale label in the United States and the La Trappe label in the rest of the world.
Another holdover from the 1800s is the independent brewery, Budelse Brouwerij, located smack dab in the center of the small town of Budel close to the Belgian border. Founded in 1870 by Gerard Arts as the Brouwerij de Hoop (Hope), Budelse changed its name in 1960. The fourth generation of the family, Gerhard, Carine and Harry Arts, now run the brewery, which brews both top- and bottom-fermented beers. Budelse is renowned for lagering its pilsners for six to eight weeks, a pleasant rarity in these times. Some of the brewery’s beers include Batavier (named after a pre-Roman people from the area), Alt, Parel (Pearl) and Capucijn (as in the monastic order).
Many of the older Limburg and North Brabant breweries, such as Lindeboom and Budelse, brew a beer called Oud Bruin (Old Brown). This dark, sweet lager of low alcohol (usually 3.5 to 3.8 percent) is traditionally considered a woman’s beer. Because in the old days many Dutch women didn’t like the bitter hoppiness of most breweries’ standard pilsner, they would usually drink a pilsner “met sjoes” (with a shot) of Oud Bruin. The shot might be a small shot, or it might be a 50/50 mix. Some breweries make a pre-mixed beer called Sjoes.
The large city of Utrecht, in the province of the same name, is home to Utrechtse Stoombierbrouwerij, located in the renovated Stadskasteel (Town Castle) Oudæn (built in the 1300s) on the Oude Gracht (Old Canal) in Utrecht. The Netherlands’ only female brewer, Annelies Fleerakkers, brews a wonderfully clean, crisp Belgian-style wit beer, Ouwe Dæn, as well as bocks and other beers.
In the historic harbor-side district of Delfshaven in Rotterdam, South Holland, entrepreneur Harry A. van de Wiel opened Stadsbrouwerij (Town Brewery) de Pelgrim (Pilgrim) in 1996 in a building that dates to 1580. Several doors down from De Pelgrim is Vaderskerke, the church where the Pilgrims last worshiped in 1620 before they set sail on the Mayflower to pick up their brethren in Plymouth, England, en route to America. Several of De Pelgrim’s beers are Belgian inspired, such as Speciaal, Stoombier (Steam Beer), Witbier and Mayflower Tripel. The brewpub also makes chocolates, mustard, syrup, butter and cheese with beer.
Haagse Brewery, located in Den Haag (The Hague), South Holland, is home to a relatively new version of an English brewpub, The Fiddler & Firkin, opened in 1995 by Carlsberg Tetley Brewers and Allied Domecq Retailing International. Allied Breweries eventually closed all 50-plus Fiddlers in the United Kingdom, Paris and The Hague, but in 2001 former computer software engineer Anton Schults re-opened the brewery under the Haagse name. Schults brews authentic British-style cask-conditioned ales, as well as a few Dutch specialties such as bock beers. His beers include Fiddler Ale (Best Bitter), Stout and Mild and Ukelele Pale Ale (an IPA).
The Netherlands is a beer café lovers’ paradise. There are thousands of them, many quite excellent, throughout the country, in cities, town and villages. An excellent guide to Amsterdam cafés, which also serves well for café culture throughout the country, is a small booklet written by Hugh Shipman, an Englishman who imports Dutch and Belgian beers to the United Kingdom under the trade name, Bierlijn. The book, The Serious Drinker’s Amsterdam Beer Café Guide, is available at bookshops at Amsterdam’s international airport, Schipol, as well as at the city’s main train station and many cafés and bookstores in the city. It’s also available online via Bierlijn’s website (www.bierlijn.co.uk). Shipman points out that Amsterdam’s cafés fall into seven categories:
Brown Cafés. These are the old-style Dutch cafés, dark brown from years (centuries, in some cases) of cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke that have darkened the bare wood walls and ceilings. Some of Amsterdam’s brown cafés date to the country’s Golden Age of the mid-1600s when the Netherlands (or was it just Holland then?) was a major international power and great wealth poured into the city. Some so-called brown cafés, however, have stained their walls to hasten the aging process. Shipman points out that although brown cafés are lovely and evoke wonderful feelings of nostalgia, many of them serve nothing but standard big-brewer pilsner.
Special Beer Cafés. These are cafés that offer pilsners, but go one step beyond with the addition of Belgian imports or big-brewer Belgian-style beers. Here it’s almost always possible to find Hoegaarden, De Koninck or one of their clones, plus Duvel and one or more sweetened Belgian fruit lambics.
ABT Cafés. The Alliantie van Bier Tapperijen (Alliance of Beer Tappers [Pubs] or ABT) is a trade association of café owners established in 1986 to promote good beer cafés and the proper storage, serving (the correct glass for each beer, which is such a lovely European tradition), and pouring of special beers. The Bier van de Maand (Beer of the Month) is a special program in which each of the current 59 ABT cafés serves the same special beer during the month. A pamphlet published by the ABT lists descriptions (with opening and closing times, the name of the owner, the number of taps and bottled beers, addresses, a brief description of the café, other pertinent information and a high-quality color photo of each café) for each of its members, plus a listing of 11 beer shops in the Netherlands (such as De Bierkoning in Amsterdam and De Man van Drank in Rotterdam) where it’s possible to buy a great assortment of beers. This pamphlet, titled Bijzondere (Special) Biercafés in Nederland, is available from the ABT website: www.alliantie-van-biertapperijen.nl.
Kraak (Squat) Cafés. These cafés are run by squatters, both current and past, who are fervently anti-capitalist, anti-globalist and anti-multinational breweries. The beers here all come from independent breweries and are priced as low as possible. The décor in these cafés is also low-maintenance.
Grand Cafés. These are large—grand, one supposes, is the operative word—cafés with waiters and a restaurant-style atmosphere.
Eet Cafés. Cafés that offer food.
Proeflokalen. Places to concentrate on tasting special beers.
One of the best cafés in Amsterdam has to be Nederlands Biercafé ’t Arendsnest (Eagle’s Nest), located in the wonderfully quiet and beautiful Jordaan district west of the city center, across from the Herengracht (Gentleman’s Canal). Owner Peter van der Arend specializes in serving over 120 beers from every Dutch brewery—and Dutch breweries only. His is the only café to do this in the Netherlands. Late last year Arend and his barman, a homebrewer named Marcel Snater (both 33), began brewing their own beers on a contract basis. The new brewery is called De Snaterende Arend (The Clucking Eagle—Snater means clucking and Arend means eagle). They describe it as a “flying brewery’’ because they will fly from Dutch micro to Dutch micro to brew their beers. Their first two beers, brewed at De 3 Horne, are Nestvlieder (5 percent, a Belgian-style pale ale) and ’t Swarte Schaep (7 percent, a German-style helles bock).
The other outstanding Amsterdam beer café is Bierproeflokaal In de Wildeman, located in the center of the city. In de Wildeman, housed in a former gin distillery, is a must-stop café for any serious beer lover in Amsterdam, with 18 taps and over 200 bottled beers. The atmosphere is perfect for tasting special beers.
Some Additional Background Material
For anyone with a knowledge of Dutch, a good, fact-filled book about Dutch breweries is Biercultuur in Nederland by IJdo Bosma (2000, www.cambrinus.nl/brw/BIERLIT.HTM).
For English readers, the fourth edition of The Good Beer Guide to Belgium & Holland by Tim Webb (2002, CAMRA Books/Storey Books, www.storey.com) cannot be too highly recommended.
Dutch Beer and Beer Drinkers Today
It’s been only a little over 20 years since the Dutch beer revolution took hold, thanks mainly to a revival of the Belgian tradition with imports, new craft brewers, and hard, persistent work by PINT. New breweries, brewpubs and special beer cafés continue to open. The few independents and the craft breweries opened since 1985 are doing well, with Dutch beer drinkers warming up to their different beers. Beers different, that is, from the standard pilsner that remains the mainstay. Perhaps that 90 percent market share will drop a little in the years to come.