‘Bucket Lists’. Inherently morbid, Gothic things, Bucket Lists. I managed to exorcise them from my thoughts for many a good year but alas, they kept on scritting and scratting away, finally breaking through and floppily landing, like a dark, flappy-winged and rather sadly pathetic Angel of Doom into my Grey Cells. Must be age. They’re pervasive too, especially, and strangely I find, in the world of beer. If ‘The Good Beer Guide’ is a Penguin Classic, ‘100 Beers to Try Before You Die A Mournful And Slow And Agonising Death’ is the Necronomicon.
But there we go, sometimes you have to swim with the tide and Bucket Lists have broken through. I’ve started to mentally compile them. Six weeks in New Zealand. Return to Iceland. Circumnavigate the coast of Britain. Explore Australia. Ride around the North Sea*.
Yet there’s a more persistent – and seemingly banal – one: to explore The Netherlands. Oh, I grant you, it’s hardly one of Eight Wonders of the World. And that’s rather the point. Holland, if I may call it that for brevity’s sake, really shouldn’t be. It is one of the most civilized societies hewn from the least promising beginnings. Most of it lies below sea level, swampy river deltas and the crushing weight of the North Sea held back by some earthen ditches, a few industrial-scale pumps and a little lad with a fatigued finger. To the north, Friesland, was once a collection of islands; around Amsterdam, enormous lands and new cities sprang out from the sea bed of the Zuider Zee. All through damming and pumping.
And whilst it’s a country I have travelled to frequently, it has invariably been on business and the stereotypes persist: laid-back urbanites with their perfect English, sit-up-and-beg bikes and relaxed attitudes to prostitution and soft drugs; outside the cities, rural cheese-makers, wearing wooden clogs and growing tulips under glasshouses you can see from space. Their Belgian neighbours complain that whilst the Belgians have the flair, slightly barking creativity and variety, the Dutch have focus and effectiveness. Take cheese: two sorts, Edam & Gouda, sold the world over. And take beer: Heineken and Grolsch, pale lager beers, sold the world over.
Of course, the truth is different. Just as the Dutch also make wonderful Ewe and Goat milk cheeses (or even smoked Gouda with caraway seeds), so too do Dutch brewers make a wider range of beers. When I worked for Grolsch a few years back, they brewed a range of seasonal beers – de Vierjaargetijdten – which proved that there was more to them as a brewer than pilsner and swingtop bottles. The main variant was Herfst Bok – Autumn beers being a popular category in Holland. Grolsch’s was sweet and malty. Gulpener’s was more hoppy with a green hop-leaf character. Brand’s was dry. There was a winter warmer, Winter Vorst, a citrusy, grassy summer beer, Zomer Goud and my favourite was the well balanced and only marginally more pronounceable, Lente Bok, a spring beer with a strong malt backbone, a lemony freshness and a warming alcoholic kick.
Today, the truth is even more different. Today, craft beers in Holland are blossoming and the craft brewery Grand Daddies, Brouwerij ‘T Ij and Brouwerij de Molen are making an impact outside of their home country. I recently got hold of a couple of de Molen beers and another, a collaboration between the two. T’Ij is based in Amsterdam, a ferry hop across the water from the main train station. If you go to Amsterdam, ignore the ‘delights’ of the Red Light district and get over to their beer garden, it’s fantastic. I’ve not been for a few years, but their beers were always characterful and packed some oomph – their website today reveals a wider range – but all looking as beautiful as I remember. De Molen is south of Amsterdam, in Bodegraven, in the cheese-wielding, tulip-waving farmlands at the centre of the triangle formed by Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam. And to stereotypical form, the brewery is both named after and is situated in, a windmill.
Here is the evidence that Dutch brewers are now doing variety as well as efficiency, nettle clad yarg not just industrial pseudo-Cheddar. The collaboration between ‘T Ij and de Molen is a Double IPA; a deep, caramel brown beer with a cream-tan head, persistent if not profuse. On breaking the crown, a crisp, malty biscuitiness is foremost, then layers of hop, leafy, green, grapefruity. And if the Dutch deserve their reputation for thriftiness, it was not in evidence here, with four hops – Simcoe, Amarillo, Columbus and Cascade – but not overplayed at all, a well balanced beer working off a dark malt base. A double IPA by name but done with the best of new world hoppy swagger and old world drinkability (and at 9% too – you’d probably not guess). Vuur en Vlaam is not only a great beer – not only, in fact, a terrific beer – but it also enjoys a name to make it famous. Fire and Flame. Sturm und Drang. Cagney and Lacey. Four hops aren’t enough here; it is intensely hopped with six varieties yet, again, retains a quality so often missing in new wave IPAs, a satisfying moreishness. I wish I’d bought more. And finally Zwaart en Wit, black and white. An 8.4% dark IPA. This is not just a dark beer, but jet black with an oil spill head; a head that was effusive with a loose bubble, with roast aromatics leaping up from it. This was perhaps more fire and brimstone than the previous beer. But no: it is handled dexterously: with only a light roastiness to smell, and whole hops bursting through not subdued and not overbearing, and even a juicy citrusiness evident as well. To taste: a happy bitterness, not overdone with a roasty dryness. Three wonderful Dutch beers.
Going back many years, Grolsch had a ground breaking TV campaign. ‘Vakmanschap is meesterschap’ it pronounced: ‘craftsmanship is mastery’. Now it seems, that mantle has moved on.
*This is not as wet as it sounds. You basically follow the east coast of the UK, through the Orkney’s and Shetland, down Norway and Jutland and back around through Germany & Belgium. Ferries for the moist bits, clearly.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014