Frontaal’s Jaap van Pruijssen takes Rich on a virtual tour of its facility in Breda.
Saturday 04 July 2020
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One of the things I’ve really missed during lockdown is the opportunity to actually visit the breweries going into the box – it really helps get a feel for what makes them tick (and I usually get a wee taster from the tanks, which certainly doesn’t hurt). So I was delighted when Frontaal’s Jaap van Pruijssen suggested a Facetime virtual tour of its facility in Breda, close to the border with Belgium.
“This site we’re in right now is a former candy factory,” explains Jaap, wandering between rows of gleaming fermentation vessels. “They moved in 2014 to Eastern Europe, and our plan was to start brewing here in 2016, but it took a long time to get all the licenses and other admin in order. So in 2015 we did a crowdfunding round and set up initially on a very small 100 litre kit, just to get going.
“Then we switched to 200 litres, then to 650 litres, and then around April 2017, we switched to doing gypsy brewing to get enough volume to start saving for this brewery. Summer 2018, we did another round of crowdfunding – each of our investors holds real equity in the brewery through something called a C Certificate – and we finally opened in March last year.”
Frontaal is the brainchild of founder Roel Buckens, and is the result of his personal odyssey through different beer styles and cultures in search of unfamiliar flavours. Over a number of years, before he’d even considered opening a brewery of his own, Roel soaked up as much knowledge as he could lay his hands on, through brewery visits and a mountain of brewing literature. This journey is reflected in the ethos of the brewery and the style of the beers it produces; its mantra is “beer for thought” and it seeks to “create tastes, colours and smells in the beer which stimulates the drinker to wonder about what those elements are caused by.”
In top-line terms, Frontaal’s focus is on hoppy beers, which makes sense given Roel’s international craft education. It’s what the brewers drink and enjoy, and what gives the brewery an edge among Dutch craft aficionados. Of its four core beers though, two are brewed for a more general market that still demands Belgian styles: a wheat beer and a blonde.
“The beers that are probably closest to our DNA are Bulldog, our IPA and Rhodesian, which is our barley wine,” continues Jaap. “The wheat and the blonde are there because the Dutch market is really into those kind of beers – if you’re not selling those beers, you’re just stupid, like a British brewer not making a pale ale. So that’s how we built up our core range grade; one half is because the mass market wants it, and the other half it’s because that’s who we are.”
Recipe creation is very much a team effort, with the sales guys feeding back to the brewers on what is working well in the market, while the four brewers inject their own creativity and invention. The result is beers – particularly the brewery’s many specials – that are supremely drinkable, on-track with current trends, and also distinctively flavoured. In short, the best of all worlds.
Frontaal’s sophisticated label art is a cut above the usual craft fare, and I’m not surprised to hear the artist Jenna is a highly regarded illustrator in the Netherlands, working for national newspapers and magazines.
“We’ve worked with Jenna from the beginning, so she’s a huge part of the brand and we’re very lucky to have her. For the core range, we try to build in a line so people can see the black and white labels. Then we have a certain setup for one offs, and another for collaborations and our barrel-aged beers. I know this is something that divides opinion in the craft world, but we really believe the label artwork is very important, because like it or not you are competing for attention.”
At the same time as Frontaal made its long-awaited move to the candy factory, it also took the opportunity to open a particularly good looking taproom, with 31 taps of its own and curated guest beers. I watch jealously from my spare room, as Jaap lounges at the bar.
“When we first started brewing, it was out of an old shipping container; now, as you can see, that container forms the structure of our bar here, with 31 taps including some guest beers. Business picked up in a very nice, natural way, but unfortunately of course we’ve had to close the bar because of Coronavirus,” says Jaap.
We really believe that there is no brewery who can survive without their own taproom
“But this is an important place. It’s important from a cash flow perspective, because we can sell our beers in our own bar, but also from an experience perspective. We believe in the end to end experience; people come here to the brewery because they want to see the brewers and they want to taste fresh beer. And we really believe that there is no brewery who can survive without their own taproom.
“So, our regular customers are more locals of course. But the train station is 500 metres away, which is one of the reasons we wanted to move here. It’s very easy to travel to here and get home at the end of the night, so our ‘local’ area is effectively much bigger than it would be otherwise. We get a lot of beer geeks coming over all around The Netherlands and even across the border from Belgium. That said, we’re not a central location, so we still have to give people a reason to make the journey, with events and special releases.”
Even over the sometimes unreliable video call, Frontaal looks better than any real candy factory I’ve visited, so I’m confident that by the time you read this, and the Dutch lockdown has hopefully ended, beer geeks and regulars alike will be flocking to the brewery in their droves.
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