Lager than life — Dutch beer explained
There's more to Dutch beer than Heineken, as we reveal.
Think beer, think Dutch and the chances are you'll think Heineken. Think Heineken and almost certainly you'll think lager.
Heineken is the second-biggest brewer in the world and has more than half the Dutch beer market, but there are many more breweries in the Netherlands than those in the Heineken group.
Lager is a foreign drink. So don't say lager, say pils. And while some nine of every ten glasses of beer drunk is pils there is much more on offer than that.
So what is Dutch beer? Pils would seem to fit the bill, and with its overwhelming domination of the beer market this can't be denied. But strictly speaking pils cannot be called an original Dutch beer, coming as it does from the pilsner beers that started being brewed in the mid-19th century in Pilzen (hence the name).
As with much of the rest of the world, pils took over the Dutch beer market, so much so that as it developed its own style and characteristics gradually other beer styles where pushed out of existence or, at best, into a niche market.
Before pils there were top fermented beers and a brewing tradition going back to the Middle Ages and earlier. The first brewers' guild dates from 1367 in Dordrecht. At this time hops weren't even used but Gruit, a mixture of herbs added to the beer both for taste and to conserve it. Hops came from Germany via the Hansiatic League, and everyone, including children, was drinking a litre or more a day. Well, it was safer than water!
By 1870, as more pils was being brewed, there were 559 breweries in the Netherlands. Fifty years later the number was still in three figures but a 100 years after that it was down to 22 - and this would decrease to just a handful. Luckily 20 years ago saw the revival of interest in beer and, following the example in England, micro-breweries started to open. Currently there are about 50 in the country.
With this has come the brewing of other classic beer styles of the world as well as the revival of some forgotten Dutch beers. Bokbier was one of the first to benefit. A style adapted from, and taking its name from, Einbeck in Germany, this was traditionally the first brew of the new season after the summer closedown. A darker and stronger brew, it was a seasonal beer available from the beginning of October. Bit by the 1980s many breweries had given up on it and the few that did often made it available only in bottle.
Now every brewery is proudly producing its own Bokbier again, often draught as well as bottled and frequently top fermented. The best chance to sample them alongside each other is at the annual Bokbier festival in Amsterdam in October each year.
The other Dutch beer style that can be said to have survived is Oud Bruin. Typically Dutch, it is derived from pils. Sweetened and coloured with caramel it is relatively low in alcohol (2½ to 3½ percent) and particularly popular in Limburg and among the elderly.
Then there is Van Vollenhoven's Stout. It is a moot point if one beer can qualify as a style but this rather individual stout with a characteristic roasted malt and well hopped flavour has survived many years despite being part of Heineken (the name is from a brewery they took over). It's well worth seeking out.
Not to be forgotten is De Koningshoeven, also known as De Schaapskooi, the one and only Dutch Trappist brewery. People often think of the Trappist breweries as being Belgian - indeed, six of them are - but the seventh is most definitely Dutch. It's in Brabant, close to Tilburg.
La Trappe Blond (replacing the enkel), Dubbel, Tripel and the seasonal Quadrupel are all worth trying. It's now part of the larger Bavaria brewery, but this change in ownership should not affect the traditional Trappist beers. It's worth keeping a close watch on what happens, however.
Then there are the large variety of new beer styles being brewed, Witbiers, Blonds, Dubbels, Tripels, Meibocks, a variety of seasonal beers, revived styles such as Mestreechs Aajt from the Gulpener Brewery and Jopen in Haarlem, which is bringing back a variety beers formerly brewed there such as Hoppenbier, Koyt and Adriaan.
But those will have to wait until the second round.
Where to go
In the meantime, you can always go out and start sampling for yourself. There are plenty of places, and the two micro-breweries in Amsterdam both incorporate cafés.
Brouwhuis Maximiliaan is at Klovenierburgwal 6-8, open daily except Tuesdays from 12pm, and Brouwerij 't IJ is under the windmill in the old bathhouse at Funenkade 9. The Proeflokaal is open Wednesday to Sunday, 3pm to 8pm.
However, if you want to be find beers from all Dutch breweries in one spot, then try 't Arendsnest at Herengracht 90. It's the first special beer cafe with only Dutch beers and at least one from every brewery it is open daily, except Monday, from 3pm.
And should you want to take some home to sample try De Bierkoning at Paleisstraat 125.
Guy Thornton is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers, Belgium Association of Journalists and the North American Beer Writers Guild.
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