We come over all spiritual at Jopen
Photos: Robyn Gilmour
Saturday 07 May 2022
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I have never been a God-fearing man, but on visiting a little church in the Dutch town of Haarlem, I admit I felt something that was certainly spiritual… perhaps even religious.
This is Jopen church, the former home of a small local group of Reformed Protestants. It was built in 1910, but by 1975 the congregation had dwindled to the point that it was forced to merge with another local church, leaving this wonderful building technically unoccupied for more than three decades. Having operated as a cuckoo brewer since 1994, Jopen brewery bought the property as its first permanent home in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2010 that it was finally able to open.
“The church had been squatted for a long time and was semi derelict,” explains export manager Erwin Klijn. “It was basically scheduled to be demolished and redone with new housing, like the whole area. But then City Hall said ‘if there's somebody that would take the church off our hands, and give it a meaning which suits the city, then that's also a possibility’.”
This is where Jopen stepped in. For the new brewery, a site in the centre of Haarlem – which had been a renowned centre of brewing in the Middle Ages – was the perfect fit. The original idea for the brewery had itself spun out of a project to recreate two municipal ‘city beers’, the recipes for which had been unearthed from the Haarlem city archives, so the historical church had a pleasing symmetry. The brewery acquired the church for €1m, then spent another €4m restoring it.
“The whole church, you won't believe how it looked”, says Erwin. “The roof was broken, windows were cracked, everything was filthy. The slate roof has been redone, this is all new woodwork, even the stained glass was restored to its original state.”
The results though are extraordinary, giving Jopen one of the most beautiful taprooms I’ve seen anywhere in the world. With seating on two levels, the central area of the rectangular church is home to a gorgeous copper-clad brewkit (though the inner vessels are really more functional stainless steel – shhh). Squeezing a full-size, functional brewkit into the narrow space behind the bar was such a technical challenge that the engineering firm that supplied it now uses it as a case study.
Between the gleaming copper vessels of Jopen’s brewhouse, in pride of place above the bar, there is a small, curiously-proportioned wooden cask. This is the ‘jopen’ from which the brewery takes its name, as Erwin explains.
“This is the 112-litre vessel used to transport ‘city beers’ in the Middle Ages. Haarlem had more than 100 breweries at that time, and although they could brew whatever they wanted, if they chose to brew these ‘city’ recipes, they could sell them wherever they wanted, knowing they would sell out because they were such famous and popular recipes. People across Holland in the Baltic states knew the Haarlem city beers, which were easily identifiable because they came in these ‘jopen’ barrels.”
Interestingly, Jopen still brews two of these heritage city recipes, one from 1407, named Koyt, and another from 1501, dubbed Hoppenbier. The latter was brewed for the city’s 750th anniversary in 1994, and has been a staple of Jopen’s lineup ever since.
When the church brewpub opened in 2010, Jopen was producing 3,500 hectolitres of beer each year, and projected a five-year window before it hit its maximum capacity of 15,000 hectolitres. As it turned out, this was a wild underestimation of Jopen’s success, and within three years it had opened a new production brewery, in a former bus garage in an industrial area on the outskirts of Haarlem.
This has not only meant an increase in volume, but also more exciting brewing technology, and the flexibility to try different styles and techniques. Despite its veteran status, and the medieval overtones of its brand, Jopen remains a relentlessly inventive brewery.
“We love giving the public something new, and that’s what they expect from us,” smiles Erwin. “So, for instance, milkshake IPAs; we were one of the first breweries here to do that style, so we did a few different batches and they were very popular, but we’re always looking to move onto other stuff.
“Michel is the biggest beer geek that I know. I consider myself quite a beer geek, but next to him I’m pretty casual! So we started out with just eight beers in our portfolio, then that went to 12, 16, 19… Occasionally someone will say ‘we’re going to stop there’ but we never do. So it went up to 30 then to 50, and now it's around 70.”
In this way, the wonderful old church in the heart of Haarlem has become a place of pilgrimage once again, not only for the extensive tap list itself, but also for the atmosphere, the excellent food emerging from the mezzanine kitchen and the whole experience that Jopen has constructed here.
“People will come here just for the food,” says Erwin. “The six-course surprise menu is just great; the food is different to your usual steak or whatever. You have six courses with good beer, served in small tasting glasses, which is just the right amount so you don’t end up full of gassy beer.
“I’m honestly like a rabbit in a vegetable store here, and all the staff are the same. We love the beer we brew and serve, and I think fundamentally that’s the main thing that draws people in. It’s just a pleasure to be here, and people can feel that”
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