Straight talk, tidy ship, massive beer
Saturday 07 May 2022
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Kees Bubberman runs a tight ship – this much is clear from the moment we step into his immaculately organised warehouse, with its rows of palletised cans waiting for dispatch, arranged with the uniformity of well-drilled soldiers in a parade ground.
“This is the tidiest brewery I’ve seen in my life,” observes my colleague Paul.
“Well, I’m a great believer that you can be creative in your ideas while still being efficient in your brewing,” responds Kees, the affable brewing veteran who founded his eponymously named brewery back in 2015. “A lot of people are surprised when they find out there are still only three of us working here – two brewers and me – but that’s really all we need. You go to some breweries and it’s like a kindergarten, with loud music and the brewers are just standing around making fun. That’s why they need so many people!”
Such comments are really indicative of Kees’s refreshingly direct and upfront style (even by Dutch standards). He’s proudly old-school, having been a leading light in Dutch craft – alongside De Molen’s Menno Olivier – since the scene’s earliest days, and his words carry real weight. Many of us will have encountered the brewery’s Caramel Fudge stout, the beer which really put it on the map, and perhaps its moreishly bitter DIPAs or pastry stouts, a style it helped pioneer and popularise.
But Kees’s brewing journey started with a much broader interest in flavour, during his previous life as a kitchen chef.
“It was actually a friend of mine who suggested we have a go at brewing some beer,” he recalls. “He brewed one beer, at home, and now I have a brewery!” Going pro only came after seven years of homebrewing though, during which he became a key figure in the vibrant Dutch homebrew community, picking up multiple prizes and even being named the country’s homebrewing champion.
Kees’ first professional gig came from the Emelisse brewery, where he was able to offer not only his skills as a brewer, but also his services as an experienced chef.
“The day after Christmas, I told my wife I was quitting my job in the kitchen to become a brewer,” he says with a smile. “She said ‘please don’t do that’! So, of course, I did. It was much better hours than working as a chef, and meant I could take holidays off, plus I was just ready for a new chapter.
“I started at Emelisse on 1st May that year. It was a very traditional brewery – which was normal for that time of course – just brewing a pilsner, a tripel and a dubbel, so I started with that. When we got back around to winter and we were not so busy, I said I wanted to brew an imperial stout; my boss thought I was crazy but said ‘okay, go do your thing’.”
Right out of the gate, that first beer scooped a major award, in a category where nobody had even come close to challenging the undisputed king of stouts, Menno Olivier himself. Once he’d got over his shock, the story goes that Menno congratulated Kees, and the two discussed how to drive the notoriously conservative Dutch beer market forward.
Kees says: “I started making the kind of big, super hoppy beers that were all over America but nowhere in The Netherlands. They were bitter, bitter, bitter and, with De Molen, we really created the scene here. But the brewery itself wasn’t making the kind of money its investors wanted, so after seven years I was told to start making sweet cherry beers, because that’s what people wanted.
“I felt we were one of the best breweries out there, and wanted to build on that, not start going backwards. So I started looking for money, and the money was no problem. And I started looking for customers, and the customers were no problem. So finally I said to my wife ‘I’m thinking about starting my own brewery’. This time, she had no problem with it.”
Brouwerij Kees finally opened its doors in 2015, in its founder’s home town of Middelburg, and has gone from strength to strength, building on the reputation for uncompromising excellence earned at Emelisse, and broadening its portfolio across a range of Belgian, Dutch and punchy international styles.
Despite his success, Kees remains gruffly pragmatic, dismissing for example the idea that brewers can brew only what they enjoy drinking and still be successful, a claim so common that it has become cliché; “We brew a New England IPA, yes – I don’t like the style, but it sells, so we just make sure we brew a good one,” he says with a shrug. He’s also wary of putting too much faith in export growth, pointing out that Verdant can sell fresh IPA in the UK for less than he would need to charge. “Sure, we’d have novelty value, but that’s a limited market,” he observes.
Instead, Kees will continue developing the platform that has made his beers so beloved across Denmark; giving the nation’s rapidly maturing market what it demands, while dishing up big, punchy, creative brews for the fans. Three guys, doing what they do, with total commitment and zero bullshit. It’s hard not to respect that.
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