Wednesday 07 March 2018
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When a brewery takes its name from a mythical Greek king, best known for murdering his dad and then sleeping with his mum (thus fulfilling an ancient prophecy and bringing the wrath of the gods down on his house and country) one can rightfully expect a certain flair for the dramatic. And Amsterdam’s Oedipus Brewing does not disappoint, with its psychedelic packaging, provocative beer names and wonderfully irreverent take on some of Holland’s favourite traditional styles.
Oedipus’s story begins in the late noughties, when founders Alex, Paul, Sander and Rick were already a fixture in the city’s tiny craft beer scene, pulling pints in its handful of good beer bars (most notably the excellent US-centric Beer Temple). Coming from a typical Dutch background of mass-produced pilsners and the occasional Belgian speciality beer, the four friends began to explore the much wider range of flavours offered at these bars and quickly fell in love with craft. By 2011, they’d become part of an enthusiastic homebrew community, and started developing what would become their distinctive approach.
“We looked at what was happening in other countries and other breweries around the world, and wondered why there wasn’t really anything similar happening in Amsterdam,” said Paul. “We saw this growing awareness and interest in understanding where food and drink came from; people were tired of homogenised, mass-produced products with anonymous branding. That meant it was possible to not only sell our beer in beer bars, but also mainstream bars and restaurants. There was actually an appetite for something different.”
“There were a number of breweries that inspired us,” adds Sander Nederveen. “While we were working at Beer Temple, BrewDog came and gave a presentation, which felt like something really new. We also had some Mikkeller beers coming in; we really admire their mix of art and science, so that’s definitely been an influence, and we’ve been on a few really eye-opening trips to Copenhagen. Then in London, breweries like The Kernel and Brew by Numbers showed us that with limited resources you could still change the whole scene; we've tried to do something very similar in Amsterdam.”
It was during these early homebrew experiments that Victor Brangoleau, the French illustrator behind the brewery eye-catching graphics, began hanging out during brewing, creating his own responses to the process in the form of little illustrations and short animations. These psychedelic creations would become a core part of Oedipus’s brand, and perfectly reflect the ‘hand-made’ style the brewery has cultivated in all of its operations.
While the team admits that many of these initial home brews were variations around an IPA or pale ale, the first beer they went out and deliberately sold was a dry saison, with lemongrass, Szechuan pepper and an unusually prominent hit of citusy Sorachi Ace hops. Dubbed Mannenliefde – which translates literally into English as “Man love” – the beer sports a bright pink label and was, the team agrees, a bold way of introducing Oedipus to Amsterdam’s curiously traditional beer scene.
“The first bar we went into to sell was Beer Temple,” says Paul. “There were a few regulars in, and they said ‘it tastes great but you'll never sell it looking like that. Not everyone is as open-minded as we are’. It became a bit of a conversation piece though, breaking through the stereotypes around beer. In Holland, beer has been all about men; all the beer ads feature the successful man, the sporty man, the friendship man. When people drink this beer, I think it's like an antidote to all that.”
We ask whether it wouldn’t have been safer to lead with an IPA than a saison, but Sander explains tastes in The Netherlands are much closer to Belgium or Germany than the UK or US.
In the UK an IPA seems very accessible, but for us it isn't that at all.
Coming from a pilsner tradition, that level of bitterness is already a step too far. Second beer we brewed, a pale ale called Mama is a step in between, and we then followed that with our IPA, Gaia. We’ve now even got a double IPA on the board, but it’s been a journey that we’ve taken people on. Looking back, I don’t think we could have launched with these styles.
The approach clearly worked, as demand for Oedipus’s home brewed beers quickly outstripped the supply, and the team had to make a decision. In 2012 they determined the most sensible way of scaling up quickly would be to have their most popular recipes brewed under contract at Brouwerij de Molen, while they continued to develop new styles on their smaller kit.
This arrangement continued with a number of contract brewing partners through to 2013, when a combination of growth and frustration with the limitations of contract brewing prompted the team to start looking for a place of their own. In early 2013, they thought they’d found the perfect spot: a site just west of the city centre, on the ground floor of a residential development, that seemed ideal for a brewpub.
“We were about a year into the planning, to the point of finding builders to do the outfitting for us, but in the end it fell through because we discovered the other tenants had an agreement that there wouldn’t be a brewery there. It was frustrating, of course, but over the course of that year the business had developed a lot and – looking back – the brewpub model wouldn’t have been right for us. There’s wasn’t space for a packaging line, and selling our beer to shops, restaurants and bars had become very important.”
The day in 2014 that the city centre deal fell through also happened to be the first day on the job for Oedipus’s new fifth partner Elant Wijtman, and arguably marked an important change of direction for the brewery. Luckily, the owner of the residential building – which was part of a housing association – felt bad about what had happened and set to work looking for alternatives. The solution was a great, flexible warehouse space with good transport links, just a little further out than the original location. It would mean a dramatically different (and larger) brewery setup but, as Elant recalls, “I think we could all visualise the potential of the space – it was a very exciting moment.”
With its new home confirmed, Oedipus went looking for a suitable Brewhouse and, as luck would have it, discovered the UK’s Magic Rock was selling its six-hectolitre kit, complete with two fermentation vessels. With the addition of a few extra fermentation vessels, Oedipus was ready to begin moving production of its beers gradually in-house and brewing under its own steam.
Brewing for ourselves has made a world of difference,
says Sander. “It’s made us more interesting and credible, as well as giving us total control over quality and allowing us tweak things in the way we want. And of course economically, it just makes sense.
“You see that nowadays quite a lot of breweries in the Netherlands have gone down the contract route. When we started, there were 160 registered breweries and now there are over 500. But most of them are contract brewers, one-man bands. You can feel there's a ceiling to what you can do as a contract brewer, so it was definitely the right time for us to go it alone.”
This is counter to the experience in the UK, where contract brewing is a relatively new phenomenon and even the youngest and most poorly-resourced breweries tend to do everything in-house. “Yes I think in the UK small brewers tend to go from the bath tub to the mash tun and sell it out the back door. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t,” quips Sander.
While Oedipus’s home has the light-industrial look and feel of a working brewery, inside it still accommodates a welcoming and atmospheric taproom, with Victor’s distinctive artwork on every surface, lush potted plants and an assortment of other tastefully garish decorative touches. Like the beer itself, the taproom’s busy schedule reflects the eclectic and adventurous tastes of the brewery staff. From family days to punk nights, regular samba dances and even live classical chamber music, it’s a free-for-all that feels both egalitarian and very personal. This slightly dizzying lineup also reflects a serious point about Oedipus; a principle that its founders have attempted to inject into everything they’ve done.
Beer can be a bit of a monoculture, and definitely elitist,
says Paul. “From the start, we’ve wanted to give people in Amsterdam a way into better beer, like we were given during our time at Beer Temple. It's easy to sell a new beer to beer geeks, but really not to everyone else. We want to be the gateway between this obscure beer geek world and people who just want a tasty drink. We do that by including traditional elements. So they have a foot on the ground, but there's also a surprising element.
“The Thai Tripel is a good example,” chimes in Elant. “People recognise the tripel part, because most will at least have tried one; they understand it’s part of our tradition. Yet it still surprises them. People open up to our beers and often say ‘I never tasted this before’ but part of the beer they do know, and that's why they can make the connection.”
In terms of innovation, Sander says drinkers in The Netherlands don’t have the expectation of a constant stream of new beers that is typical in the UK. This has allowed him to gradually refine and perfect the recipes for his core beers, while continuing to innovate with specials, and experiment with techniques like barrel ageing and mixed fermentation.
“It's conceptual in the way of an artist being conceptual,” he says of the recipe creation process. “It’s about having an idea, a vision of how something should be, but not necessarily as a business concept. That hasn't changed at all since our homebrew days. As we grow, we try and preserve that moment where beer is made from a real artistic way.
“But I think we’ve also got better at defining what makes our beers unmistakably Oedipus. Most importantly, it should be something we like to drink ourselves. Also, they tend to be a bit lower in abv, on the dry side, with some interesting but not too aggressive hop compounds, quite yeast-forward. Those are the characters I'm most excited by.”
Oedipus truly seem to have struck Oedipus truly seem to have struck the perfect balance between technical brewing expertise, creativity, branding and the ability to project a genuine sense of fun into everything they do. None of this feels affected or artificially tacked on either – this is a team simply being itself, making honest beers that reflect their passions, and are all the more delicious for it.
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