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Going Dutch; Drinking my way through Amsterdam.

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.2015-03-27 21.04.56

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.2015-03-30 19.23.22

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.2015-03-31 16.09.36

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.2015-04-01 17.18.38

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.

Prost,

Tom

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Belgium Beer Tour pt. 5 – Sleep at a brewery without getting arrested.

2014-01-22 11.36.01When the plan for our trip to Belgium started to come together, one of the most exciting pieces of information I discovered was a cute little Bed & Breakfast in the charming countryside. It just so happened that this B&B was owned, operated and conveniently located right next to St. Bernardus Brewing. So yes, staying there for two nights was a no-brainer.

St. Bernardus has a fascinating history in its rise to being a heralded name in the Belgium Beer community. For instance, did you know that for nearly 50 years, these were the guys that actually brewed the legendary Westvleteren XII? Back in 1934 St. Bernardus wasn’t a brewery, it wasn’t even a monastery any longer. The Monks had headed back to France and sold their cheese making operation to Evarist Deconinck. Shorty after World War II, the monks of nearby Sint Sixtus (the monks who originated Westvleteren XII) decided they no longer wanted to produce and sell beers outside of what is consumed for the monks. Deconinck stepped in and essentially became a contract brewer for Sint Sixtus while also selling off the cheese business to focus exclusively on beer. The partnership ended in 1992 when the International Trappist Association declared that Sint Sixtus would no longer be able to be called an authentic trappist beer brewer unless all production was moved back within the walls of the abbey. Sint Sixtus went back to making their beers in the monastery but that left the brewers at St. Bernardus in a bit of a pickle. They decided that they would strike out on their own and the monks of Sint Sixtus, being the amicable guys that they are, let the brewers at St. Bernardus keep the original recipes. The only thing that would change is the strain of yeast used in the beers.2014-01-20 16.39.58-2

St. Bernardus is located just outside the small town of Watou, Belgium, about sixty minutes south of Bruges. It’s lush, beautiful countryside with hops farms in many of the surrounding fields. We arrived at the brewery towards the end of the day just after they had stopped brewing, but the smell of hot grains was all around and provided some nice ambiance to our tour of the facilities. I found the tour conducted by the brewery to be very informative and our tour guide to be quite knowledgeable. The tasting area for the tours is also very nice and had a lovely Bavarian style to it. There are a lot of similarities when visiting most breweries, and that is also true when visiting one overseas, however there are some subtle differences that I truly enjoyed being able to talk about with our guide. I would consider it a must do if in the region and a requirement if you are staying at the Bed & Breakfast.

"You can bring these up to my room"

“You can bring these up to my room”

The Beers in their impressive lineup include

Watou Tripel, 7.0%ABV, Grottebier 6.5%ABV, Christmas Ale, this seasonal beer is 10%ABV and is perfectly suitable for aging, Wit, a 5.5%ABV that is easily one of the best whites I’ve ever had, St. Bernardus Tripel 8.0%ABV more of a floral aroma in this tripel and much easier to find here in the U.S. The next three I’m going to mention are the three beers based on the original recipes of the monks of Sint Sixtus, these are the beers that made St. Bernardus what they are and they are all insanely tasty and excellent representations of their respective styles.

  • Bernardus Pater 6, 6.7%ABV – A traditional abbey dubbel with dark fruit flavors and a wonderful nose to it. A nice introduction to the style
  • Bernardus Prior 8, 8%ABV – A bigger version of an abbey dubbel, the color is a little richer and the flavors a little bigger with a smoothness that makes this beer go down far too easily.
  • Bernardus Abt 12, 10%ABV – This is the big one. If you have heard people rave about Westvleteren XII, this is just as good if not slightly better. This quad ale is rich with color, pervasive dark fruit flavors and a super creamy head on top. This is a prime example of the traditional quadruple ale done correctly and to perfection.

Staying at the Bed & Breakfast, known as the Brouwershuis, was a delight. The house itself is a large estate with ample sized rooms and a great deal of comfort to offer travelers from around the world. The Brouwershuis is designed so that multiple guests can easily be accommodated and given as much attention as they require for their stay. Jackie is the main caretaker of the house and she is simply a marvelous person to spend time with. She also does the cooking for your breakfasts and she certainly knows her way around a kitchen with skill. Our breakfasts were the perfect way to start each day while we were there. Jackie was also more than happy to make two excellent suggestions for local restaurants for our dinners, which turned out to be two of the best meals we had in all of Europe (Een Huis Tussen Dag en Morgan & my favorite: ‘t Sparhof). There is also a tennis court on the land and you are able to borrow bikes to go for rides around the countryside or to trek over to the legendary Sint Sixtus and try your hand at acquiring their beers from their café, In De Vrede, although if you plan on bringing some beers back with you I would suggest taking your car instead.  2014-01-20 19.59.48

Since our stay at the Brouwershuis was in the middle of the week in late January we had the entire house to ourselves at night, which made for a very relaxing time, but when we go back it will be at a busier time of year because I’d love to be able to sit in the spacious living room to engage and drink beers with the wide variety of beer lovers that make their way to St. Bernardus on their beer adventures. This brings me to my favorite part – the Brouwershuis beer fridge…actually fridges. You have unfettered access to fully stocked refrigerators with wall to wall St. Bernardus beers! It’s true what Belinda Carlisle says, heaven is a place on earth… it’s Watou, Belgium.

This does it for recapping my trip to Europe, I hope you’ve enjoyed it and perhaps inspired a few ideas for your own beer adventure.

Here is the website for St. Bernardus & here is the Brouwershuis.

Cheers,

Tom2014-01-20 22.21.43


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Belgium Beer Tour pt. 3 – When In Bruges…

A must see movie!

A must see movie!

Until the year 2009 I don’t think I had even heard of the city of Bruges. Then I watched Martin McDonagh’s outstanding movie “In Bruges” starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two hitmen hiding out in the city after a hit gone wrong. It’s a great film with excellent performances and lots of dark comedy which I always enjoy. The film also does a fantastic job of showcasing the beauty of the city. I’ve been intrigued with going to the city ever since.

Fast forward to 2014 and the time has finally come to see this historic city and all it has to offer. Perhaps more importantly, this city happens to be in Belgium. That means an opportunity to find more bars and beers to check out as we make our way around the country. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, when I’m traveling with the wife, sightseeing comes first and beer drinking comes in second. Normally I’m able to make this concession work to the best of my ability but with limited time in Bruges, I wasn’t able to check every box off the list that I had in mind. 2014-01-21 13.37.45

So let me get the disappointing part of the trip out of the way first: I didn’t make it to De Halve Maan, the only family owned brewery in the city, before it closed for the day. They close early during the winter months so if you travel during the spring and summer I don’t think you’ll have the same issue. But I was able to drink several of their beers at other establishments around the city and I have concluded that it is worth a visit if you have the chance, especially the tripel. Here is the address for any who want to visit – Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan 26 Walplein 8000 Bruges.

Two other local bars really caught my attention, first up is…

 ‘t Brugs Beertje – 5 Kemelstraat, Bruges 8000.

Classy glass

Classy glass

This is a small bar populated mostly by locals and they are very serious about the beers they serve. How serious? Well, when I asked for the bottle list I was handed a one-inch thick binder. Holy cow they have a lot of beers here. The draft list was pretty impressive as well, but if you take the time to pour through the pages of the binder you can find some true gems. Including Orval aged 6 months, 9 months or 12 months if you feel like conducting some research. They open late in the afternoon but happily pour beers till midnight allowing you plenty of opportunity to dive into the immense offerings. The folks working the bar are very friendly, especially after ordering the Orval which I think impressed them a little bit. Small, cozy and not touristy in the least, this is a top bar in Bruges.

 Le Trappiste – 33 Kuipersstraat, Bruges 8000

Laying bricks!

Laying bricks!

From what I leaned at the bar, Le Trappiste is something of a franchise type bar. The original location is in the U.K. with the purpose of bringing the great beers of Belgium to the people of England. Normally franchise bars are not my favorite thing, but the Le Trappiste in Bruges is one of the most impressive bars I’ve been to in just about any country. Set in an 800 year old brick cellar, this bar not only features the best of traditional and long running brewers of Belgium, they are also pouring the some of the best beer from all the up and coming brewers of Europe. The brick cellar is one of the coolest and most unique locations for a bar I’ve ever seen. Sitting inside surrounded by impressive brick work arches and knowing this building has existed for almost a century was something I’ve never experienced before. When you add in a delicious beer, I’m in heaven. The place just oozes with atmosphere and ambiance. This bar is also the second in Belgium, but first in Bruges, that I was able to find that carried the super rare Westvleteren XII. The staff there is super nice and very knowledgeable on all the beers they happen to be pouring, and in the case of our bartender, very knowledgeable of the beer industry in Europe in general. It’s a great spot that I can’t recommend enough.

These are three spots I recommend, I also recommend checking out the film, but please try to be a better tourist than Colin Farrell’s Ray character from the film.

bad tourist

bad tourist

Cheers,

Tom

Respect.

Respect.

the Binder

the Binder

Big Board

Big Board