Hoppy birds

This unpronounceable Dutch brewery blew us away in the Beer52 tasting panel, so Richard Croasdale caught up with Uiltje, to get the inside track on its punchy, hop-forward ales


Uiltje has been brewing in its current swanky brewery since 2016, but before this, like many Dutch breweries, it contract brewed its beers for the first four years of its life, at Jopen brewery. Uiltje’s founder Robert started his journey working behind the bar at Jopen, but as his homebrew hobby became more serious, the owners spotted his talent and moved him onto the brewery floor. It was a natural progression for him to move from his garage onto the commercial kit he was using in his day job, and Uiltje was born.

With his background in the precise and technical world of contract brewing, it’s no surprise that, when Robert made the decision to strike out on his own in 2015, he invested heavily in kit, with the support of a highly successful crowdfunding scheme. His four-vessel brewkit and large fermentation hall were arguably over-specified for what he needed at the time, but they’ve allowed Uiltje to produce excellent beers in technically challenging styles from day one, as well as scaling up production to meet growing demand.

All of which sounds rather sterile and joyless, yet the brewery and the beers it produces are anything but. With a reputation for being hop-forward, in a market still dominated by lagers and Belgian influenced craft beers, Uiltje’s IPAs and pale ales are like hoppy liquid sunshine, as good as anything you’d find in more hop-centric beer markets.

“There’s still a lot of influence from our southern neighbours when it comes to beers and beer styles,” says the brewery’s Bart van Kleef. “When I started working professionally in this industry about, let’s say, 15 years ago, nobody here ever heard of an IPA. I remember the first American IPA I ever had, which was Humming Ale, by Anchor, I was blown away. How can you call this a beer? This is something completely different.”

Trying not to sound like too much of a fanboy, I remark that tasting Uiltje’s flagship IPA, Bird of Prey for the first time reminded me of those lucky occasions visiting the US, when I’ve been able to grab a can right off a brewery’s packaging line.

“That’s great to hear – it’s such an emotional response! My two dearest memories when it comes to beer is years ago in Ellon, at Brewdog, grabbing a can of Punk IPA from their canning line, then again at the St. Arnold brewery in Texas. I’ve been to hundreds of breweries, but those are the times I remember being really blown away by a beer.”

This makes complete sense, given Uiltje’s borderline obsessive pursuit of freshness. One of the key reasons for its success has been its focus on freshness, perhaps best demonstrated by its innovative ‘Fresh & Fast’ service, in which beers are transported cold to subscribers’ doorsteps within 48 hours of having been packaged. It’s also why – aside from a few supermarkets that still demand bottles – Uiltje insists on canning all of its beers, even though this is far from the norm in the Netherlands. “It’s what the beer would choose if it would talk,” says Bart.

Uiltje insists on canning all of its beers, even though this is far from the norm in The Netherlands

“There’s a growing understanding here that cans really are best,” he continues. “Bird of Prey, is now being served in a famous three-star Michelin restaurant. There’s a video on YouTube explaining why they chose an IPA for a food pairing and why it’s in a can. And they’ll serve the can at the table; they’ll put it on ice, with a wine glass, and pour it at the table. We’re so, so proud of that.”

But it’s not all about the hop-bomb IPAs; Robert also has a serious soft spot for big barrel-aged beauties, as is clear from Uiltje’s impressively diverse barrel collection. While they’re aimed more at the beer geek end of the market, Bart says many customers will pick up a can (yes, even the sticky imperial stouts are canned) along with a summer six-pack of Bird of Prey.

“We’ve brewed 245 beers in total, and a lot of those have been small batches of dark beers and other specials. Probably the most commercially successful though has been a barrel-aged imperial stout flavoured with Stroopwafel – that caramel sandwich biscuit that everyone buys at Schiphol Airport. That one flew off the shelves, people couldn’t get enough of it!

“Before I started working here, I visited the brewery and they took me to the barrel room and it was completely dark and just had a glitter ball, with a small spot on it changing colours, and Johnny Cash playing in the background. They felt the beer would come out better if it listened to Johnny Cash!”

It isn’t until we’re nearing the end of the interview that I summon the courage to address the elephant in the room – how the hell do you pronounce Uiltje?

“Yes, it’s a very Dutch word – lots of vowels in all the wrong places!” says Bart. “We actually set up a video camera behind a bar one time, and gave tourists a free pint in exchange for trying to pronounce the name. There were some great ones!

“It’s pronounced ‘el-tyur’ and means ‘little owl’. It’s a typical Dutch thing to make objects sound smaller than they are. So, for example, if we go to a restaurant, we would ask if they had a small table. Right? I wouldn’t mean an actual small table – that’s just the way we say it. Likewise, we may ask for a small beer rather than a beer, even though we don’t actually want a small beer! Other countries make fun of us drinking from small glasses.”

Just as there’s nothing small about Uiltje’s beers, its titular owl seems rather fierce, judging by the eye-popping, cartoonish label art, on which he stars in guises ranging from superhero to mad scientist to gun-toting sniper. We’re certainly hugely impressed by its beers, which embody the idea that, if a brewery can nail the essentials of quality and technical attention to detail, the possibilities for fun are practically endless.

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