When you think of The Netherlands, odds are the first thing to pop in your mind is Amsterdam. Followed quickly by decriminalized marijuana use and legalized prostitution. Maybe, like my wife, you think of gouda cheese, but for the most part weed and sex are on the forefront of your brain. With such internationally well-known practices, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the Dutch are both hard working and incredibly industrious. These are a people who have grown the landmass of their country, not through war, but through the process of reclaiming it from the sea. In ye olden times it was the job of countless windmills to turn powerful archimedes screws that would lift water up and over dikes and levies. Now it’s the job of incredibly powerful machines, but the idea is still the same. It is not until you spend time around the Dutch you begin to realize that what many people view as cultural eccentricities are really nothing more than simple practicalities. So why not apply some of these characteristics to beer?
The craft beer scene in The Netherlands, is like that in the rest of the world, rapidly growing and seemingly unstoppable. The breweries around the country and, in particular, those in the city of Amsterdam are doing their very best to make sure that the first beer you think of is not Amstel or Heineken. As in most most major cities, that can be a battle as those bigger brands offer global recognition in a city that thrives on tourism. All is not lost however, as more and more consumers are learning that quality most assuredly triumphs over quantity.
My time in Amsterdam afforded me many opportunities to take part in the diverse range of cultural experiences. From gazing at famous works of art at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum to the delights of a small town in the country celebrating the first cheese festival of the season, The Netherlands is a country rife with opportunities to see and learn. But let’s be honest, to me the best way to experience any culture is to share a drink with them and that’s exactly what I did at every opportunity we could. What follows is a recap of the fun bars, breweries and bottle shops that delighted us on our trip through the land of windmills and canals.
Our hotel was located just adjacent to the Red Light district, which is sort of an international Las Vegas squeezed into several city blocks, it is a non-stop party every day of the week and most assuredly on the weekends. A half block up from where we stayed just so happened to be the first brewery we would check out, Brouwerij De Prael. They have a very nice store where you can purchase not only bottles of their beers but also other beers from the region as well as a nice selection of chocolates and even sausage. The real deal is around the corner in their bar/tasting room. It’s gets pretty lively and with a dozen taps flowing under the names of local folk music legends you are sure to find a beer style to your liking. Of the beers I tasted, I found them all to be enjoyable with perhaps the Johnny, a kolsh, and the Double IPA as perhaps the biggest standouts.
It would be several days before we had the opportunity to visit another brewery, but if there is one thing that Amsterdam is not lacking in, it is excellent beer bars. Our favorite of the trip was hands down, In de Wildeman. Located in a narrow ally off a larger street, this former distillery hosts a rotating selection of 18 drafts from across Europe and a bottle list of over 250 beers from Europe and America. It has an incredible atmosphere and and some of the friendliest bartenders in the land. A can’t miss for a fun night on the town.
If you find yourself in Amsterdam and want to truly experience the Dutch craft beer scene, you would be advised to visit, Proeflokaal Arendsnest, located in the nearby Jordaan district. This bar is home to 30 taps of the finest Dutch beer in the land and very healthy bottle list that features many of the best beers from its most prominent craft brewer, De Molen. The bar is cozy and classy with fun mix of locals and Americans who are looking to get away from the crush of people in the De Wallen (Red Light) District.
If by chance, you are looking for a taste of the U.S. while you are overseas, you’d be hard pressed to do better than The Beer Temple, a sister bar to Proeflokaal Arendsnest, this time the draft menu focuses much of its efforts on beers from the U.S. and England while the bottle list is a healthy mix of America and the best of Europe, be sure to note they will happily sell you an aged vintage bottle of Westvleteren XII, but you will have to pay a pretty penny, or euro, to sample them.
Two other bars that struck a positive cord with us were Cafe Belgique and Cafe Gollem. Belgique is a tiny dive with a modest but impressive selection of 8 draft beers and a very cultivated 50 bottles to choose from. Kwak seemed to be the drink of choice and since it was served in its signature glass and wooden stand that’s how we decided to roll. At Cafe Gollum, one of three locations in the city, we visited the Raamsteeg location, home to 14 drafts and 200 bottles as well as its signature beer Gollum’s Precious IPA. I admit, I’d have gone to visit for the name of that beer alone!
For something completely different and very traditional Dutch we took a brief reprieve from beer to spend some quality time getting to know the liquor of the land, jenever. It’s sort of like gin, but made with juniper berries and it tastes a boatload better. For this experience we decided to try our initial tastes at the oldest tasting room in Amsterdam, dating back to 1650, Proeflokaal De Drie Fleschjes. After being greeted warmly by the locals who seemed to be both amused and impressed that we’d come to try jenever, we got a brief lesson on the three main types of jenever; young, old and corenwyn. The bare bones basics of it are, the older it is, the smoother it goes down, depending on the recipe. I love this experience from the top to the bottom. The bar had a strong sense of localism, its own historical presence and then, the booze itself. While we only scratched the surface of the jenever iceberg, if your palate is more prone to explore liquors you could do a lot worse then swinging by here for a visit and a lesson.
A day or two later we had a chance to visit the Zeeburg district, east of Amsterdam’s Central station. Here we found ourselves at the base of a windmill and the entrance to Brouwerji t’IJ, a dutch brewer I had first encountered a year prior in the heart of Paris, France. I found all the beers I sampled to be well crafted and delicious. This is were we also encountered Will & Janelle, a couple on their honeymoon from Northern California on their way to Belgium. Clearly, this is a couple with which we would have a lot in common with.
One of the last breweries we had the opportunity to vist was located just a short 15 minute train ride away in the town of Haarlem, a smaller yet equally vibrant dutch town that held a lot of charm for me. Here you will find Brouwerji Jopen, based in a closed church, still with stained glass windows. It creates a fun and festive atmosphere especially as the sun filters through the stained glass as dusk arrives. Here I found a wide array of beer styles and found all of them to be quite exemplary especially considering some of the recipes date back as far as 1407. Not to mention the plate of new and old gouda cheese that paired fantastically with their rich, creamy stout.
And finally, if you are anything like me, you waited until you had collected as much information and tasted as many beers as possible before you knew what bottles you would wrap delicately in your used under ware and socks for a safe flight back home. Plan to stop at De Bierkonig, the most impressive bottle shop in the city and possibly the entire country. The owner Jan and his staff are incredibly friendly and knowledgable, as well as being open to making some beer trades if you happened to bring anything fun with you from the states. I may have conducted a small, yet exciting trade as well as picked up a few fun bottles that would surely cost me an arm and a leg back home.
While this trip covered a lot of ground, as far as breweries, beer bars and even bottle shops are concerned, I barely even scratched the surface of what this country has to offer beer drinkers around the globe. I’d have loved more time to plan a visit to De Molen and walk the grounds of the La Trappe Monastery with their rich quadruple ale in my hands, as well as visit several other brewers who are spread around the country side. It is vitally important to remember that this is a country that takes beer seriously, much as their lowland neighbors in Belgium do. Just as it is here, it’s a symbol of independence, self expression and creativity. Also like America, Amsterdam has their own corporate beer juggernaut to contend with in the form of Heineken and their subsidiaries. From what I’ve seen, tasted and experienced, craft beer in The Netherlands is a legitimate a threat to corporate beer much as it is in America. I can only hope I will continue to have the opportunity to help support them as they continue to grow stronger across Europe.