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.