Drinking with the brewer: Julián Álvarez Zárate
Wednesday 07 March 2018
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So great was Eymert and Pieter’s love for the otherwise for the original Van Vollenhoven brewery, that in the early 1990s the pair went on a global hunt for the giant bronze falcon that once guarded its gates. They eventually found it in 1993, in South Africa, decorating the garden of the Van Vollenhoven’s last director. Now returned to Amsterdam, it sits atop a grand column where the brewery’s entrance would once have stood.
Originally hailing from Madrid, with a sharp, quick-fire wit and laid-back demeanour, Julián Álvarez Zárate is virtually impossible to dislike.
Julián arrived in Amsterdam nine years ago, to work on his PhD in immunology, based out of Amsterdam blood bank. While writing his thesis (which he now describes as “a book about boring shit”) he decided his home brewing hobby could help sustain him through his studies, so he wrote to the city’s largest craft brewer, Brewery 't IJ, asking for a job. His timing turned out to be excellent, as the brewery happened to be looking for someone to help set up a new lab, to support it ambitious expansion plans. Over the following five years, the venerable Brewery 't IJ, under new management, experienced a radical transformation, going from an output of 4,000 to 30,000 litres. For Julián, who had vaguely hoped to learn more about commercial brewing, it was a truly formative experience.
“I lived through all the expansion, all the problems, the changes in the way the company worked and how it brewed its beer, so it was really great in that respect,” he recalls. “But in the end I got fed up because we were so focused on production, and I was lucky to get one day a week to do all those things to be creative.
“So when I was offered the chance to start a new brewery, Posiat and Kater, with another five guys, it was exactly what I needed. Something new, the chance to be creative and also this spirit of entrepreneurship. I didn’t hesitate.”
Led by industry veterans Eymert van Manen and Pieter Teepe, the new business sought to revive one of The Netherlands’ great historical breweries, Van Vollenhoven, whose demise, shortly after World War II, had long been lamented by the pair. In particular, they were keen to bring back its famous Extra Stout, a truly unique brew that was once the country’s most popular beer, before the arrival of pilsners and the decline of Holland’s colonial customers wiped it out.
Taking up the Von Vollenhoven name for its line of traditional beers, the brewery itself was christened Poesiat & Kater, named for a local master carpenter Bart Poesiat and master bricklayer Klaas Kater, whose faces would eventually adorn the taproom wall.
The first challenge facing Julián and his partners was finding a suitable location for their brewpub in Amsterdam; it’s a crowded market, and licenses for new pubs and bars are extremely rare. Fortunately though, there was an area in the east of the city that was still in the process of being regenerated. Formerly the site of a major gas field, it had declined and eventually become partially derelict when a much larger deposit had been discovered elsewhere in the country in the early 20th century.
The building where the brewery now sits had once been an ammonium factory, before being used as the city’s animal sanctuary for many decades, and eventually being abandoned in the 1990s, along with the whole complex of which is was part. It was still in this state when Julián first experienced it several decades later, when he would go to parties in the illegal squat that would eventually become his workplace.
“The local municipality was obviously keen to see this great old building put to better use, so they granted a license for a grand café – which means we could stay open until 3am – and sold the place for a Euro, on condition that it was restored to its original state. That was a lot of work, because it was badly contaminated with cyanide, mercury and asbestos from when it was a factory, and it hadn’t been taken care of, but it also meant we got to decide where every pipe, wire, socket and staircase went.”
Although the brewpub is now up and running, its output simply supplies the taproom, with a small proportion (about 30%) kegged and sold to local bars and restaurants. The site is too small for a bottling line or additional fermentation vessels, so the majority of Poesiat & Kater’s brewing is done by a contract brewer carefully selected and managed by Julián.
Julián has many superb beers on tap, and we spend a great (if slightly early in the day) 30 minutes enthusiastically sampling everything he offers. The beers released under the Poesiat & Kater brand are definitely more the kind of styles we would associate with ‘craft’, with juicy American-style IPAs rubbing shoulders with sours and even more experimental brews. Van Vollenhoven beers are much more traditional, and include (of course) the famous Extra Stout that so inspired Eymert and Pieter.
“Eymert got the recipe from the widow of the last brewing director in 1991. She was 90 at the time. When Heineken took over Van Vollenhoven after the second world war, the family was so angry they never gave the recipe to Heineken, but she gave it to us! We studied that recipe very hard and used the same ingredients – though not the same method – for our own Extra Stout.
“However, we also have on tap The Original, which follows that same process from almost 100 years ago. It’s a complex, 14-hour brew with six hours cooking time. Things we know now make no sense really! It’s a thick beer, with lots of residual sugar; more of a meal really, a dark, bitter meal.”
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