No matter where you’re from, there’s one thing you will find in the Netherlands that’s sure to make you feel at home: beer. Whether you’re drinking a widely-available pilsner or quaffing a small-batch gruitbier, there’s something for everyone in the world of Dutch beer.
Belgium is the self-proclaimed origin of the art of beer making, and Germany is home to the world’s most enthusiastic consumers of beer, so it’s no wonder that, squished between these two beer-swigging bookends, Holland is often overlooked. Truth be known, The Netherlands has as active and proud a beer history (beerstory?) as either of its neighbours. The Dutch brands Heineken, Grolsch and Amstel are among the most famous brews in the world, each with rich histories of their own. While these are the brands that everyone has heard of, there are over 30 other, lesser-known Dutch beers, all of them worth a taste – but we’ll get to that in a bit. First, a little background information.
Where’s the beef?
Beer drinking is a pretty universal phenomenon, but there are a few things they do differently here. For example, a real Dutch bar has only one purpose: to serve alcohol and provide a friendly place for you to enjoy it. Sounds pleasurable enough, and it is, but don’t expect a menu. A few bars offer snacks, but this is usually little more than a token bowl of peanuts and a cheese plate. If you’re looking for food with your drink, you’re better off seeking out a café or an Irish-style pub.
Big head, little glasses
The next thing you’ll notice is the size of the glass in which the beer is served. If it makes you feel at home, feel free to request a “pint” of brew, but understand that you won’t get one. Instead you’ll get your potable of choice in what will appear to you to be a shot glass, although the bar staff will insist otherwise. This is, in fact, how beer is served in Holland.
Admittedly, I am exaggerating a little, but the glasses are definitely small. This isn’t a problem if you back your glass up with a pitcher, but otherwise you may have to order several glasses in succession. Also note that beer here is served with about three centimetres of foam on top, shrinking the already meagre portions nearly down to gulp sized. There is an upside, however. Because the glass is small, there isn’t enough time for the contents to warm up before you get a chance to glug it down.
If you are feeling ambitious, you can specify a large beer (een groot bier), but know that this won’t be a full pint either, and will immediately give you away as a foreigner. If by chance you wander into a bar to find young and strangely dressed patrons drinking out of genuine pint glasses, you’ve wandered into a tourist trap and are advised to go elsewhere, unless you like paying a 50 per cent premium for watered-down booze and ear-splittingly loud alternative rock.
Bar this in mind
Bars in The Netherlands come in a couple of varieties. There’s the Irish pub type, which is a passable approximation of its authentic namesake and often serves a selection of Dutchified pub favourites. There’s nothing wrong with these pubs, but we really don’t see the point, unless you’re particularly attached to that sort of atmosphere.
You’ll find better food in a real restaurant, and just as pleasant an experience, in a bona fide Dutch bar. By this, I’m referring to the “brown bars”, so called because of the earthy hue given to the walls by years of cigarette smoke. These truly Dutch establishments must be seen, or indeed frequented, by those serious about the drink. If you enter, you’ll probably be the only non-Netherlands native there, but the staff and clientele are friendly, and there you’ll see that Heineken, Grolsch and Amstel aren’t the only words in Holland’s beer vocabulary.
Thith ith Heineken!?
Dutch beers tend to be extremely potent. Don’t get cocky just because you’ve downed countless pints of Heineken in the past, because even the internationally known brands are significantly stronger here in the motherland than they are abroad. This partly explains the small servings. Dutch breweries offer a wide selection ranging from dark, ruby red bitters to lighter ales and pilsner-type lagers. Some breweries even offer refreshing blonds that are available only during the summer months, and are specifically tailored for leisurely sunny afternoons on the patio.
Here are a few of the most popular draught offerings:
Heineken: The traditional international favourite, Heineken is pretty popular in the homeland, too. Like traditional blonde Dutch beers, Heineken has a definite bite, which isn’t to everyone’s taste. A bit boring and predictable, but still a good choice.
Grolsch: Generally a love it or hate it proposition. Those who love it swear by its refreshing taste and bitter kick. Those who hate it liken it to the final product of beer consumption rather than the drink itself. Whatever your point of view, Grolsch remains a popular alternative to the more conventional Heineken, and grocery store variants come in a nifty flip-top bottle.
Wieckse Witte: Any beer aficionado coming to the Netherlands must try a classic Dutch “white” beer, and Wieckse Witte is a prime example. For those who have never seen a white beer before, don’t let the dirty dishwater appearance scare you. Light and cloudy, Wieckse Witte has a genuinely sweet and mild taste, without a hint of bitterness. Refreshing and delicious, this one should be on every beer fan’s must-try list.
Speciale Palm: This is a darker, reddish brew. It’s mildly bitter, and very refreshing. Speciale Palm’s clear, clean taste is better suited to lazy days on the patio than cold evenings in the bar. We found the light, somewhat watery taste out of character considering the colour, but it’s a good beer nonetheless.
Columbus: Bitter and strong, Columbus is a slower drink than the others. Generally served in something more akin to a brandy snifter than a beer glass, it’s not the kind of thing you’d want to hurry. For the initiated, Columbus is a sturdy preparation indeed.
De Konincke: Okay, so it’s not Dutch, but De Konincke is pretty standard fare in a Dutch bar, and it’s a good beer, so we thought we’d include it. Brewed in its traditional Antwerp brewery just over the border, De Konincke is an amber beer with a full and wheaty, yet mild taste. Reminiscent of some of North America’s stronger offerings, De Konincke is a perfect compromise between the blonde and bitter tastes of Heineken and Grolsch, and the darker meal-substituting beers of the UK and Canada.