Think of a once-proud brewing nation that not so long ago had become a virtual desert for discerning beer drinkers, where a handful of huge commercial brewers dominated the market, offering little choice but gassy, characterless international brand lager. Then think of a nation that within a couple of decades rediscovered its abilities to brew and drink good beer, partly through inspiration from abroad, partly through a flourishing homebrewing movement that reared a new generation of dynamic and innovative professionals. No, I’m not talking about the United States of America, but the Netherlands.

The Kingdom of the Netherlands is in the heart of Europe’s historic beer belt and for millennia shared a beer culture with neighbouring regions like England, Flanders and Germany. That began to change with the rise of industrialisation which, for a tiny nation with a limited domestic market, was inevitably linked to foreign trade, with brewing dynasties such as Heineken looking across the borders and the sea to realise their ambitions.

The impact of Heineken on Dutch brewing can’t be underestimated, especially following its rapid post-war expansion under the leadership of industry giant Freddy Heineken. The brewery’s dominance was confirmed in 1968 when it swallowed its main competitor and fellow Amsterdammer, Amstel. Clever marketing helped make these two brands synonymous in the world’s eyes with Dutch beer, and the ‘pintje’ of golden pils with its two fingers of foam ritualistically decapitated with a spatula became as much a symbol of the Dutch capital for the millions of tourists that flocked there as the Rijksmuseum and the Red Light District.

By the late 1970s only 14 breweries still operated, producing almost entirely cold fermented, pasteurised and carbonated beer, 99 per cent of it generic Dutch-style ‘pils’. Only the Trappist fathers at the Koningshoeven monastery still brewed bottle conditioned ales, and even they succumbed for a while, producing ‘Trappist pils’ in partnership with Stella Artois. There were a bare handful of alternatives: most brewers offered an ‘oud bruin’ (old brown), actually a low gravity, caramel-sweetened dark lager not to be confused with the Belgian style of the same name. There were some ‘dorts,’ pale lagers inspired by but usually stronger than Dortmunder Export, a cold-fermented stout or two, and some strong autumn seasonals known as “bokbier.” Discerning drinkers disappointed with this limited choice also found themselves looking across the borders.

Flanders, just to the south, was a popular visitor destination where the locals spoke the same language but drank a much more exciting range of beer. Some of the bigger Belgian brewers seized the opportunity, and brands like De Koninck, Palm and Leffe began appearing in Dutch pubs.

The success of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in the United Kingdom also provided inspiration: in 1980 some Dutch CAMRA members used a £50 donation from CAMRA to set up the Dutch national beer consumers’ organisation PINT (Promotion and Information Traditional Beer).

The initial rallying point of the new organisation was defending the tradition of seasonal bokbier.

Bok (or bock) is a descendant of the German style of strong brown lager associated with Einbeck, Lower Saxony – the name is said to derive from the town but also means ‘billy goat’ in both Dutch and German.

The style took root in the Netherlands in the 1870s when German beers and brewing techniques were revolutionising the local industry, and by the late 20th century had evolved into a distinct Dutch variant, a nutty ruby-brown lager of around 6.5-7% ABV, its flavour balanced more by roasted malt notes than by hops, brewed as an autumn seasonal with its release date set by the brewers’ association. In 1978, Café Gollem in Selected breweries and beers BRAND AT WIJLRE, in the beer heartland of Limburg, is the oldest Dutch brewery with records going back to 1340.

Heineken bought it in 1989 but has wisely granted it considerable autonomy to continue to produce quality traditional lagers, most notably an outstanding authentic Czech-style pilsner, Urtyp and draught-only year-round pale bok Imperator BUDELS, an independent family brewery at Budel in the southern province of North Brabant, has a range of German-inspired specialities including the Kölschstyle Parel and an Alt GROLSCH ended four centuries of independence last year when it became a subsidiary of SAB-Miller.

Hopefully the character of its classic grassy Premium Pils in its famous flip-top bottle won’t be undermined. The seasonal pale Lentebok (spring) and ruby Herfstbok (autumn) are worth trying GULPENER OF LIMBURG, one of the few surviving regional family brewers and now dedicated to environmentally friendly production, offer the benchmark Dort, plus a distinctive grainy wheat beer, Korenwolf and the Gerardus Belgian-style abbey beers HEINEKEN’S historic brewery in central Amsterdam was closed in 1988 and now houses visitor attraction The Heineken Experience (Stadthouderskade 78,

Most of the multinational’s Dutch production is now centred on its site in Zoeterwoude, South Holland. More interesting than its standard pils are domestic specialities like a seasonal strong wheat beer Tarwebock DE HEMEL (Heaven), based in an historic part-12th century building in Nijmegen, produces the outstanding 12% ABV wax-sealed and cellar-friendly sweetish barley wine Nieuw Ligt Grand Cru, highlight of an inventive range that also includes genevers and ‘beer brandy’ HERTOG JAN was a pioneer of Dutch speciality brewing in the early 1980s but is now a widely available InBev brand: its flagship strong dark ale Grand Prestige is still worth a try ’T IJ OF AMSTERDAM is one of the longest running new micros, revered for distinctive unpasteurised specialities, including abbey-style dark ale Zatte, hazily hoppy blond Plzen and an outstanding organic Biobock, perhaps best sampled at the brewery’s own tasting room in an old public baths under a windmill (Funenkade 7). To pronounce the name say ‘uht eye,’ not ‘tidge’! JOPEN was set up in 1992 to revive the brewing tradition of historic Haarlem. Since then all the beer has been contract brewed, notably at Koningshoeven, but should move to a big brewpub in a converted city church in 2009-10. Sweetish, complex Koyt, flavoured with the mediaeval herbal blend ‘gruit,’ and delicate, refreshing Haarlems Hoppenbier are highlights KONINGSHOEVEN at Berkel Enschot, North Brabant, is a longstanding stalwart of speciality brewing and the only Trappist brewery outside Belgium.

Since 1999 it has been operated by Bavaria, one of the smaller Dutch nationals, but has successfully argued to reclaim the Authentic Trappist Product logo as the monks still supervise the brewing of its monastic beers.

These are marketed under the La Trappe brand and including classic 10% ABV Quadrupel DE LECKERE has been through several owners since being founded as a dedicated organic brewery in Utrecht in 1997, and now belongs to an organic group of companies. It makes a decent dubbel and has recently added a golden ‘Utrecht abbey beer,’ Paulus, based on a historic recipe Selected breweries and beers BDE PRAEL delivers other benefits as well as good beer: it’s dedicated to helping people with long-term mental health problems get back into work.

Products include a tasty wheat beer, Heintje, and Nelis, one of the best new-style warm-fermented boks ST CHRISTOFFEL, near the German border at Roermond, Limburg, was set up by a member of the Brand family in 1986. It’s now one of the most respected small Dutch breweries, particularly renowned for Reinheitsgebot-friendly Christoffel Blond, a deliciously hoppy unfiltered lager that deliberately avoids calling itself a pils DE SCHANS is the new home of the legendary Van Vollenhoven’s Stout, originally from an Amsterdam brewery long since closed by Heineken. In its last days at Heineken the beer was brewed by cold fermentation but the revived version is an unpasteurised ale following a 1949 recipe SCHELDEBROUWERIJ, one of the most reliable and interesting of new micros, originated in Zeeland but is in the process of moving to a bigger site at Meer in Belgium.

It’ll continue to brew Dutch recipes such as the excellent strong dark brew Merck toch hoe sterck (named after a local folk song), Mug Bitter and blackcurrant-flavoured Schoenlappertje SNAB (The North Holland Alternative Brewers’ Foundation) doesn’t brew but commissions from others, often Proef at Lochristi, Belgium. PINT accepts these and other beers brewed under contract as Dutch if they’re Dutch owned. The arrangement has produced some outstanding beers, most notably Imperial stout Pyotr I and one of the best new-generation boks, Ezelenbok US HEIT (Our Father), at Bolsward in Friesland, founded in 1985, makes a tasty wheat beer, Dubbel Tarwe, in a paper-wrapped Champagne bottle, and a decent Twels Bok. Drinkers more than usually confused by the labels should note they’re written in the local language, Frisian, historically the closest language to English ’T VØLEN (The Foal) in Volendam, North Holland, is a micro set up by former home brewers now producing some consistently good beers, notably complex, tasty pale bock Zeebonck and a decent wheat beer, Witvoetje More information The most comprehensive online guide to Dutch brewers is at – select ‘Bier in Nederland’, then ‘Brouwerijen’.

The pages are in Dutch but links and contact details are obvious The best places to find a wide selection of Dutch beer in Amsterdam are speciality pub ’t Arendsnest (Herengracht 90, and shop De Bierkoning (Paleisstraat 125, Most specialist pubs are members of ABT (Alliance of Beer Tappers), which publishes a free annual guide to its members, available from the pubs themselves. It’s mainly in Dutch but has an English glossary and the listing format is easy to follow. There’s an online version at www.alliantie-vanbiertapperijen.

nl The long running PINT Bokbierfestival is a busy and boisterous event at Amsterdam’s Beurs van Berlage at the end of October: this year the 24-26.

There are also numerous local festivals. See under Agenda Amsterdam, the country’s first speciality beer café, began an annual bokbier festival which in 1980 was taken over by PINT as the organisation’s flagship event and has grown year by year since, with warmfermented and unpasteurised interpretations now also appearing.

This is a happy reflection of the rise of microbrewing, much of it originating from a healthy homebrewing scene. Early 1980s pioneers such as Hertog Jan, ’t IJ and Friese have since been joined by many others, with around 80 Dutch breweries in operation today – although some are in reality beer marketing companies that contract out the actual brewing, sometimes across the border.

Like their American colleagues, the new brewers have had to rebuild a beer culture almost from scratch and are an innovative bunch, fusing eclectic influences from neighbouring countries with revived native traditions and new ideas. This, combined with the country’s openness to a wide range of imported beer, has made some of the bigger Dutch cities very exciting places to drink. “We’ve got more variety on sale than in Belgium, for example,” says beer expert, author and pub owner Peter van der Arend. “But you have to go to the smaller brewers to be surprised.” However the overwhelming bulk of production is still in the hands of eight old-established companies (Heineken, Grolsch, InBev and five independents) and the newcomers struggle for market share. Belgian imports dominate the speciality beer scene, squeezing the space for domestic producers still further. Schelde, one of the leading Dutch micros, is currently in the process of moving across the border – mainly because this is the nearest suitable site for a planned expansion, but the brewery also expects sales at home to rise once the magic words ‘Belgisch Bier’ appear on the label. Some of the micros also struggle with quality control: “We look to the small breweries for variety and unusual tastes,” says Erwin de Cock, editor of PINT’s member magazine PINT Nieuws. “But for reliable quality we often have to look more to the bigger companies.” Despite these problems, there’s no denying the Dutch beer scene has made massive strides in recent years, and the country well deserves a place on the list of beer destinations alongside its many other attractions.

Asked if he has a single message for visiting English-speaking beer lovers, Erwin de Cock doesn’t hesitate: “Dutch beer,” he says, “is much, much more than just Grolsch and Heineken.” Proost!

Categories: International