Windmills of your mind
There is no dispute where the Netherlands craft beer revolution began. Richard Croasdale meets Menno Olivier, the man behind De Molen
Saturday 04 July 2020
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With its iconic windmill home on the banks of the ‘Oude Rijn’ river, in the village of Bodegraven, Brouwerij de Molen (meaning ‘the mill’) is one of the world’s most instantly recognisable breweries, and has been a driving force behind Dutch craft beer since the day it opened its doors in 2004.
With a hugely varied roster of beers, ranging from strong English barley wines to stouts, lagers and saisons, it has over the years managed to achieve the magic combination of consistently nailing everything it’s turned its hand to, yet remaining as experimental and ground-breaking as it ever was.
At the centre of De Molen’s story is its founder, the gruff but charming Menno Olivier. After 12 years of brewing experience, Menno decided the time was right to start his own brewery, initially in the slightly less glamorous setting of his garage. Luckily for everyone, just as he was thinking about his next steps in 2004, the local windmill ‘De Arkduif’ became available, and he saw it was a perfect fit.
The brewery was renamed Brouwerij de Molen, for obvious reasons, and joined by the Brouwcafé de Molen, a beer-focused restaurant, tasting room and beer shop. Five years later, in 2009 John Brus arrived on the scene as Menno’s partner in crime and, together, the pair planned their path through what they already identified as The Netherland’s nascent craft beer scene.
A key part of this plan was a serious bump in capacity, which meant moving De Molen’s production brewing in 2011 to a new brewhouse just 60 metres down the road, while keeping DeArkduif on for the Brouwcafé and as the brewery’s spiritual home.
“When I started, I was doing crazy things and people thought I was some sort of Neanderthal or something, because there was nothing else like this,” says Menno. “It took me a couple of years to get known, but then, especially when we could have people come to the brewery and see all the shiny stainless steel, we finally began to get some acceptance.”
These early years weren’t easy though, in a market dominated by imported lager, says Menno; there was simply no domestic demand for the kind of quality, flavoursome beers that were already gouging big lager’s hegemony in America and other parts of Europe.
“It was either lager at that time, or Belgian beer. Some of those Belgian guys still think they make the best beer in the world!” he says with a laugh. “So initially we hardly sold anything at home, to be honest, because that door was shut. At one time, around 80% of our sales were export, but gradually people here began to discover what was happening in the rest of the world, and found they already had an experimental brewery in The Netherlands; that’s when things started to take off here.”
Fast forward to 2020, and export is down to around 25%, overtaken by surging domestic demand, though it’s still an important part of the business, with beers going to markets including Japan, Brazil, Norway, Spain, India, Canada, the US, Denmark, Poland and, yes, even to Belgium. The brewhouse is now home to a team of 18, including Menno and John, working hard to meet demand for the old favourites while still pushing in exciting new directions.
Menno’s view of this continuing evolution is interesting; I put it to him that there’s a restlessness in many creative brewers – a constant rolling excitement for the next brew – but this doesn’t quite ring true.
“Restlessness is I think not the right word for me,” he says. “I’m not impatient like that. We’re driven more by wanting to always get better at brewing, even now. When we’re developing a new recipe, it will often be because of something we’ve tried before, but feel we can improve upon.
“I used to believe you could only make great beer in a small brewery, but I’ve changed my mind about that. If you can put in the equipment you need and invest in a proper lab, you have so much more control; you can get a core range that’s completely consistent, which then allows you to experiment with the other hand. Sure, we could just say our beers are as good as they can possibly be and probably still grow the business, but that’s not why we do this. The day I stop thinking of new recipes I think will be the day I die.”
This approach sees Menno and John release a new, unique beer every six weeks or so, alongside the steady range of around 20 year-round beers and a programme of prolific collaborations with international breweries.
De Molen is such a global ambassador for Dutch brewing that I’m curious whether Menno feels any kind of pressure or responsibility for setting the direction and pace for the hundreds of breweries that have followed directly in its wake.
“Nope,” he answers, candidly. “I mean, everybody’s responsible for their own brewing and is entitled to their own opinion. It’s enough to feel responsible for what I’m doing, without worrying about anyone else. Well… okay, I can be rude to another brewery if I think their beer is not okay, but that’s only because if people start saying Dutch beer is crap that will hurt my sales too!”
Brouwerij de Molen has an internal workshop for mentally disabled people. In close cooperation with the Philadelphia foundation and accompanied by their own monitor, they support the production process of Molenbeers. An average of about 14 of these colleagues assist with labelling the bottles, folding the boxes, cleaning up and other useful work.
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