Meet the family brewer that's all about quality
Photos: Adele Juraža
Saturday 07 May 2022
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In craft terms, Swinckels Family Brewers feels huge. We check in at a separate reception building, where we’re issued with visitor passes, and told to drive across the road to meet our hosts. Grain stores loom over the main brewhouse, and an articulated lorry bearing the brewery’s largest brand – Bavaria – rolls past us in the carpark.
But, for all its size, this is still very much a family-run brewery, whose values are evident both in its people and its beer. This doesn’t only extend to its home-grown brands, but is clear in the way it works with the well-known breweries that have joined the family over the years, including La Trappe, De Mollen and, most recently Uiltje.
Emiel Hendrikx, the brewery’s R&D manager, is waiting to meet us outside a traditional, redbrick building, emblazoned with the legend ‘Brouwhuis 1’. Although this isn’t quite where Swinckels’ story began, it’s certainly an important slice of the brewery’s history, complete with traditional, pot-bellied copper vessels and beautiful tiled walls. In the rush for progress, this was almost torn out and sold for scrap many decades ago; today, it feels like an important part of Swinkels soul, and an appropriate place to start our tour.
Bavaria beer is pretty ubiquitous in the Netherlands, though still respected – a good UK analogue might be family-owned Theakston. Having recently celebrated its 300th birthday, Swinckels Family Brewers is still fully owned and run by the family, now in its seventh generation. The decision to launch a craft brand was driven by the latest generation moving into management and – particularly as it bears the family’s own name – it was not taken lightly.
A big part of this move was the appointment in 2014 of Emiel as R&D manager, after he’d spent 13 years as brewmaster. He’s now tasked day-to-day with supporting the creation of new recipes, as well as constantly improving the existing portfolio. It’s his focus on innovation and quality that has been instrumental in making Swinckels such a respected brand in its own right.
“We have this amazing brewery with a lot of expertise and fantastic technology, that’s geared up to brew lager styles, so that was an obvious place to start,” he says. “But we knew we wanted to make something quite different to Bavaria; the Swinckels pils is really a lot higher in alcohol and original gravity, darker in colour, stronger in bitterness and unpasteurised. So, a lot of extra attributes to show up that is a different beer to Bavaria pils.”
The recipe has been refined and improved in the intervening years, and today lives up to its promise of being a “superior pilsner”; dry and refreshing, with Cascade hops adding a modern fruitiness that doesn’t detract from the clean, snappy lager bitterness.
Although it’s not in the box, we’re also intrigued to sample the Swinckels 0.0% alcohol-free pilsner, which the brewery has been pushing hard in recent times. Bavaria has a long history with alcohol-free, being one of the very first brands in the world to treat this category with the attention it deserves. Having travelled around the world in search of the best alcohol-free brewing solutions, Emiel eventually settled on a high-end system that could be used across Swinckels’ brands; it essentially splits to alcohol out from other volatile, flavour-imparting compounds, which can then be added back in. This allows Swinckles to tackle alcohol-free versions of tricky styles, like La Trappe’s ester-laden Trappist ales.
I’m honestly blown away by the standard of Swinckels 0.0%, having taken a keen interest in the development of the ‘low and no’ category over recent years. Although the absence of alcohol is obviously detectable, this is one of the very few completely alcohol-free beers where you won’t feel that something is missing. It’s balanced, with malt character that doesn’t bring unwanted sweetness, and floral hop bitterness that doesn’t turn harsh and metallic at the back of the mouth.
“As a long-standing, independent family business, I think we do have a slightly different perspective,” continue Emiel. “We want the company to be successful today, of course, but we also want to improve it for the next generation, who will bring their own interests and priorities. We’re all just custodians. So when we invest in infrastructure, or take the business in new directions, we’re always planning one or more generations ahead, rather than selling to a big brewer or a public listing.”
Having watched several traditional UK breweries try and fail to launch their own ‘craft’ brands, there are definitely lessons to be learned from Swinckels’ success. The focus here has always been on creating high quality beer that serves changing tastes, rather than chasing a particular demographic. Again, the comparison with Theakston’s may be apt; that family brewery’s scion Jo Theakston struck out on his own, but likewise created a brewery – Black Sheep – that builds on tradition while embracing the possibilities presented by the craft movement.
“The family name is on the brand, so they’ve always been very hands-on, of course,” concludes Emiel. “There are 25 or 26 members of the family involved in running the company, and they were all involved when we were iterating the recipe, asking for tweaks and making observations. It’s all part of the story of how this beer came into existence, and you can really taste the final result of all this working together; a beer we’re all truly proud of.”
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