Wednesday 07 March 2018
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In a popular tourist area just south of the old town, Helst is first up a beautiful bar; artful black and white photographs of local sites adorn the brickwork walls, hundreds of bottles gleam enticingly behind the long granite bar and a cool soundtrack plays just loud enough to add to the atmosphere. It’s doing good business, even on a Tuesday afternoon, with people sitting on high stools and even outside on the covered terrace. And, aside from the general ambience, it’s not hard to see why; a large screen of 30 beers sits proudly above the barkeeper’s head, announcing beers from across the world, ready for your enjoyment.
And there are some truly impressive names on this list – names I’ve not seen in any other bar in Amsterdam – from Spain, Russia, the Czech Republic, the UK, US, Estonia and many even more exotic locales. As bar manager Kristian explains, the business that owns Helst and Bierbaum also runs its own import/export business, giving the bar and bottleshop access to an uncommonly wide range of brews, all in the freshest possible condition.
“Freshness is really important to us, so it makes a big difference that we control almost the entire chain,” Kristian says. “There’s a big walk-in fridge at bierbaum around the corner where we keep everything waiting to be tapped, so we just don’t have kegs sitting around at ambient temperate.”
As well as keeping the beer fresh, this policy of not holding a massive amount of stock sitting around also creates a palpable sense of excitement around the bar. Even in the short time I sit in Helst, several people come in asking for a beer they’d had the night before, only to be told it had sold out, but then trying something different, recommended by the enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable staff. The kegs on the board turn over rapidly, and as each new barrel is tapped, I’m brought a small sample by the grinning bartender. One could lose hours here.
Again, this is a deliberate and crucial part of the experience, says Kristian.
“My background is in the cocktail business, which is partly why you see so many spirits behind the bar here. But it also means hospitality is really important to me – it’s as important as the beers we’re serving, to be honest. If people can come here, have a great time, try some new beers and feel like we’re glad they stopped by, they’ll come back. That’s why people come to bars; it’s an experience.”
The final part of my Helst experience was its excellent kitchen, and the magnificent steak and chips it served up. It has a great reputation for food (many of the drinkers that day were also diners) and from what I tasted it’s well-deserved. Rare, well-seared, rich steak served with a glass of Pohjala’s CocoaBanger – a favourite of mine – and I happily lost another hour chatting with the locals.
Its illuminated sign glowing softly like that of an old apothecary, Bierbaum is an Aladdin’s cave for the curious beer adventurer. It’s not a huge shop in terms of square feet, but it doesn’t need to be; everything here has been carefully curated and presented to represent the very best breweries and beers from around the world. A row of fridges dominates one wall, and contains the majority of the shops stock, divided into easy-to-follow categories including “dark”, “light” and “weird”. Around the corner, tucked away from the light and the casual browser, a further section (simply labelled “fancy shit”) is a trove of champagne-style bottles, dusty Trappist treasures and spidery Germanic script.
A growler station sits behind the small serving counter, where the expert staff will fill your bottle with whatever they happen to have tapped from their extensive refrigerated storage in the cellar. There are even whispers of an in-house barrel-ageing programme in the offing.
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