Join us, on our virtual return to the Netherlands
Saturday 04 July 2020
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It’s great to be back in the Netherlands, even if the ongoing lockdown has made this more a of virtual tour than we’d like. It’s such a creative market, where brewers feel liberated to pick their favourite traditions from all over the world and run with them in creative ways.
It wasn’t always like this though. Bart van Kleef from Uiltje brewery trains would-be beer sommeliers in the history of Dutch brewing, and has studied its decline and the corresponding rise in German and Belgian styles in his home market.
“At the end of the 19th century, the Netherlands were known for some distinct regional styles; lots of little regions here would bring out their own type of beer. But that all fell apart after the introduction of Bavarian-style lagers. By the time we’d been through the First and Second World Wars, with the shortages of ingredients they brought, pretty much our whole brewing heritage was gone. That left the field wide open for brewers with capital to step in with mass-produced lagers that spoke to everybody.
“That remained the case until the 1980s, when a handful of smaller breweries popped up in response to the dominance of lager and started making top-fermenting beers in the Belgian tradition. At the high point of that decade, we had around 25 breweries in the country, but most on a very small scale.”
This all changed between 2005 and 2010 though, with an explosion of new brewers inspired by what they saw in other nations and by the home-grown success of De Molen, which led the charge in 2004. Today, there are over 700 breweries in The Netherlands, which, considering its relatively small population, makes it one of the most brewery-dense countries in the world.
As the scene has grown, of course, it’s also continued to evolve, as Pim Zomerdijk from De Moersleutel brewery observes: “Dutch drinkers have really come round to exploring other styles over the past few years. When everyone just drank pilsners or the easy Belgian styles, craft breweries were under a lot of pressure to do the same. But tastes really are changing, and with better routes to export markets you can build a good business on more ‘craft’ styles these days.”
Menno Olivier, founder of De Molen, agrees. And he should know, having watched this transformation play out in his own business.
“Especially when you’re the first one pushing at that door with unfamiliar beer styles, you really see the change. A lot of people made a turn to craft, but it’s still less than 5% of the total market, so there are still a lot of people still to turn, because they’re still larger boys.
“A lot of the time it’s just about opportunity though; I’m rebuilding a house, and the guys here after work, they all get a beer. It’s my beer, because Heineken doesn’t come into my house. So, they have a choice. One of the oldest guys is 61, and he loves our New England IPA! People try it, they love it, they tell their friends; that’s how you start a fire.”
While we in the UK may have a slightly blinkered view that the Netherlands consists almost solely of Amsterdam, the breweries in this month’s box are testament to the fact that it pays to widen your net. There’s a real sense of camaraderie and respect among the better craft brewers across the nation. “We’ll regularly get together and talk about trends, even though there’s obviously some competition between us; we’re all still pushing to make craft beer a greater proportion of the total Dutch market,” says Pim.
We’re all still pushing to make craft beer a greater proportion of the total Dutch market
Yet there’s also a hint of unease that the market may be oversaturated in terms of the sheer number of breweries, and that a good many may not be strong enough – either commercially or in terms of their quality – to survive the current difficulties.
“We have so many breweries here now,” says Menno. “Even with export, it’s too many for a population of our size, all fighting for the same draft points. We’ll manage, because we have some flesh on our bones, but I think some of them won’t survive the drop in sales from this corona thing.”
This danger could be exacerbated by the fact that, in recent years, many Dutch craft brewers have moved away from contract brewing – which has been almost the norm in this part of the world – in favour of their own bricks and mortar.
Menno continues: “When you rent a brewery, you’re in less danger than if you just invested in a lot of kit. Some of them opened just a couple of weeks before we got the lockdown, so I don’t how it’s looking for them. We’ll all just have to wait and see how things look after this is all over, but I’m sure it will reshape things, yes.”
There is undoubtedly still room for the best breweries to steal market share from the macro players though, and as the Dutch craft scene grows in confidence and world standing, excellent new brewers will inevitably rise up to join the ranks, with their own fresh ideas. As they forge a new brewing heritage for the Netherlands, I’m curious as to whether it will simply be an evolution of global trends, or whether we might see a resurgence in those traditional regional styles that were killed off more than a century ago. I asked Uiltje’s Bart.
“You can go to the archives in cities that were historically known as brew cities, and find clues of these older recipes,” he says. “People have been recreating ghost beers! For example, Kuit is now recognised as a style by the Brewer’s Association, though that’s pretty much the only traditional style being brewed now. So, sure, we all brew IPAs and barley wines because that’s what the market wants today, but these things come and go, so why not traditional Dutch styles?”
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