Saturday 20 August 2016

Does Dutch beer define itself?

Waiting for the bus into Amsterdam this morning, for the second day of the 2016 European Beer Writers & Bloggers Conference, I was thinking about the Dutch craft brewers – both new and old – that we’ve met so far. The first question that came to my mind was whether there was some common thread that could hint at a "Dutch identity" for craft beer – and the second was whether that first question was actually redundant...

Yesterday we had an informative session about the history of Dutch brewing. One of the presenters, Michel Ordeman, is “Head of Church” at Jopenkerk, a brewery-restaurant in Haarlem created by microbrewer Jopen, but is also co-founder of the Campaign for Netherlands Beer Styles. The other, Rick Kempen, is a long-time Untappd friend of mine who works for beer distributor (and conference co-sponsor) Bier & Co.

Jasper gets animated
Among other things, they brought up the story of how the late-mediaeval towns collected ingredient lists from brewers to ensure only permitted things were used and that tax was paid. Sadly the tax rolls don’t record the actual brewing processes, but Jopen has still used them to recreate versions of those herbed and spiced beers, such as Koyt and Gruit.

Among the other brewers we met, styles such as Witbier and Saison were much in evidence, alongside the inevitable (and often very well executed) IPAs, Porters and barrel-aged Stouts. Some half-dismiss the former as Belgian, and yet all these beers – Gruit ales, spiced wheat beers, farmhouse ales – are part of a shared tradition right across northern Europe. Today’s national borders are still relatively new in this part of the world.

An interesting aside was that we also met two or three craft Pilsners. Craft brewers have tended to ignore Pils in the past, says Jasper Langbroek of Kompaan in The Hague, because Pils was what the industrial brewers called their yellow lager. Now though, Dutch microbrewers have rediscovered the real thing (or at least the real thing as it exists today, because all beer styles evolve!) on visits to Bavaria and the Czech Republic.

“Four years ago we said we wouldn’t brew Pils, then we were on holiday in Germany and tasted the local beer, so the next time a customer asked us for Pils we decided to do this,” explains Focke Hettinga of the Zwolse Pils that he brews with his wife as – the beer is named for their home town of Zwolle. The anti-industrial thread is still visible in both Kompaan Pils and Zwolse though – both are notably fuller-bodied than the megabrews, with Kompaan adding a percentage of wheat malt and Zwolse’s extra malt and hops making it remarkably rich and warming for the style.

Both brewers had wheat beers too – Hettinga Bier was pouring its Ijssel Wit, a very nice zesty and spicy example of the style, while Kompaan had gone instead for an American Wheat Ale, using US ale yeast and more hops for a lighter more bitter body and less Hefe fruitiness. Add the hoppy Wits we met elsewhere and it’s clear this is a style with a lot of room to play.

We also met a couple of excellent Farmhouse Ales (Saisons to many, but that really confuses American tourists in Germany, where Saisonbier simply means the current seasonal beer) during the live beer-blogging session – this is beer-tasting as speed-dating, with each brewer given 5 minutes to introduce themselves and their beer.

Saison5 from Utrecht’s Brouwerij Maximus was a nice example – dry, hoppy-bitter, lightly funky and refreshing – but the star of the show here was the Brettalicious from Oersop in Nijmegen. It’s a hybrid Bretted Saison, matured in their foudres (wooden vats) with a mix of brettanomyces and lactobacillus bacteria – the former add complex funky flavours and the latter a light tartness, as of Berliner Weisse for example.  Not to everyone’s taste for sure, but I found it quite delicious.

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