This brewery will take over the world
Saturday 07 May 2022
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I imagine, when we park ourselves in a shady corner of Frontaal’s bar in Breda, that it’s been a while since founder Roel Buckens had the chance to sit down. Things have been so busy for him in recent times that our arrival coincides with his first brew in six months; an imperial stout made with real Canadian maple syrup and high quality cacao nibs, just to flex old muscles. Once we’re seated and settled, Simcoe, the resident labrador, flops down by his side, which just so happens to align nicely with a perfect square of sunshine that cascades from an overhead skylight. The bar is bright, rustic, and teaming with plants. Rectangular dust sheets hang from the ceiling to soften an echo that becomes problematic when musicians play live from the stage we sit on. It’s an incredibly unique place, but one that won’t be here forever.
The lease on the building runs out in April 2023, at which point Frontaal will have moved to a new site in Breda that’s seven times the size and three times as high as their current facility. The plan is to sell everything but the fermenters, fit the new venue out with a bigger, fully automated kit, install a coffee roaster and a distillery that will produce mostly malt whiskies, rum and some form of American Rye, 95% of which will be barrel aged. To support this massive expansion, the team of 30 is rapidly growing, with four people on average being hired per month. Roel leaves for a moment, to check on the beer, and returns assuring us that it’s in good hands, “I actually think they brew better than me… It’s always good to hire people that are better in certain jobs than you are”.
In addition to the new brewery and distillery, Frontaal hopes to open an additional seven bars in the next year, three of which will be based in Breda, and the remaining four in each of the Netherlands’ major cities; Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht, and either The Hague or Eindhoven. Opening bars is a trend among all the breweries we visit in the Netherlands; it seems to be a feature, even a requirement of the market here. Roel tells us that “people here need to see what you’re doing, you have to showcase who you are, it’s not enough to just focus on production”, beer needs to be a destination as much as it is a sensory experience.
It seems to me that the bar we sit in is already an appealing destination, given the beauty and atmosphere of the space, and the fact that it’s a venue for live music, but Roel deeply regrets that no food is served here. The venue they’re working on in Utrecht will actually be a restaurant before it is a bar, and food will be central to all other future sites. With Roel working as a chef for seven years before he started brewing, flavour in all its forms is always at the forefront of his mind, and he’s unafraid to branch out in unexpected and unexplored directions to produce food and drinks that taste fantastic. He hopes that, in the future, Frontaal can make sodas and kombuchas, maybe even mead - he’s barrel ageing honey somewhere in the labyrinthine building we sit in. With its fan base established and funding secured, Roel now has the playground he’s worked so hard for, and can think outside the box about the products it now has the resources to produce.
But, for all the beer world is now at Roel’s fingertips, “I’m a little bit scared” he admits, when asked about how he’s feeling about such massive expansion. “But it’s the same feeling I had when we moved into this place three years ago”. He’s admirably and endearingly humble, given this €2M expansion has been almost entirely crowdfunded, a testament to just how loved this brewery is, and how thoroughly people believe in Roel’s vision for its future. People can buy equity shares in Frontaal, and sell them at any hour of any day, a model that’s open, honourable, respectful of investors, and oddly uncommon among brewery crowfunding schemes.
“I feel kind of blessed,” Roel says, “like I got lucky – I don’t see anything here as a given.” And how could he, given how unique and surprising the brewery has become? Obviously, Roel and team’s devotion, love and hard work has made Frontaal what it is, but wandering between halls and down its many corridors, it strikes me as a gallery of sorts, exhibiting both the beauty of urban, industrial decay and the potential of people to make something wonderful, for and with one another. The long hall in which the Beer52 order lies stacked high against one wall, is otherwise filled with detritus – old tractor wheels, pallets, plywood and scrap bits of steel – and a neat row of bicycles that I imagine carried many of the team to work that day. Many things have been given the space to coexist here, and their amalgamation has created an energy that is distinctly Frontaal.
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