Have you ever wondered whether Dutch beer is better than sex?

Thought not. But some 15 years ago I did.

Not any old sex, either – filthy, depraved, stoned backstreet sex with prostitutes. Perhaps I should explain.

In 1991 I returned from New Zealand to live in London. In my late 20s, with few friends in England and on the rebound from a disastrous relationship, I decided I needed a holiday.

And because my sister worked for British Airways I had the pick of discounted flights across the world. So after a sun-soaked but very quiet week in the Greek islands I decided to go and experience all the delights of Amsterdam.

Young single, free, and very curious, I booked a hotel and headed off for a week of debauchery.

I know, I know. Look, I’m not particularly proud of myself. But I had the opportunity, I thought it would widen my life experience and… well, I couldn’t find the damned red light district.

Honestly. On day one I headed out, couldn’t find a woman in a window to save my life, was too embarrassed to ask someone, and ended up drowning my disappointment in a cool pub not far from where I was staying. And that’s how my love affair with Dutch beer began.

The same thing happened on day two, and when I eventually found drug and sex nirvana I was so intimidated and upset by it that I retreated to what had become my local and got on with the serious business of discovering more Dutch beer.

I’d be a liar if I pretended I could remember what I sampled way back then. But my interest and love for Dutch beer has never gone away. Thus are memories made.

Back in 1991 though, there weren’t many people extolling beer from the Lowlands, and with good reason. For if any country has underperformed in the drinks world, it’s the Netherlands. In soccer terms, it is the Wolverhampton Wanderers of the beer world.

And you have to feel a bit sorry for its beer producers. For while just about anything from neighbouring Belgium is liberally doused in gold, and across the border German lagers are celebrated across the world, the Netherlands is more often embraced by beer lovers in the same way that a thief with body odour might be.

Perhaps with some justification. For much of the beer coming from the Netherlands was guilty of emulating the products made by its neighbours, and doing so badly.

And reputations stick, particularly in these days of the internet, when news reaches us fast but old websites are left to fester years past their sell-by dates.

Surf through the listings for Dutch beer, for instance, and sooner or later you’ll stumble across a five year old website of a beer enthusiast who has taken it upon himself to pass judgement on the world of beer.

And about the beers of the Netherlands he writes the following: “they are dull to positively unpleasant…the witbiers are pretty okay, but most Dutch versions of beers in the Belgian style are disgusting, syrupy muck.” Ouch.

So where does this vitriol come from, and is it justified?

There are two primary reasons for the poor reputation. The first is that more than just about any other serious beer-producing country the Netherlands embraced pale pilsner-style lagers. By the late 70s about 90 per cent of the country’s production was of what could be described as industrialised pilsners.

By the mid 80s and in to the 90s anything beyond standard lager had virtually been driven out of all but the most cosmopolitan bars in and around Amsterdam.

The second reason is often considered by beer lovers to be related to the statistics above.

Since the country’s two beer giants, Amstel and Heineken, merged in 1975 the country has been dominated by a lager company but one of the very biggest in the world, and the figures make sobering reading.

The original brewery was founded in 1863 but now owns more than 130 breweries in 65 countries. It employs more than 60,000 people and because the brewery is best known for its two pale lagers, produced under the names of Heineken and Amstel respectively, the company is dismissed by many ‘serious’ beer fans.

But the traditional dislike of a major global supplier is both predictable and a little unfair.

The company’s mainstream brands are only part of the story and it has continued to support the production of a range of esoteric beers on a smaller level and to fund relatively independent breweries under its wing. It could be argued that while Heineken could be seen as the root cause of the country’s beer image problem, its money has had a direct influence in the country’s beer renaissance.

After Heineken the country’s other best known names are Grolsch, Oranjeboom and Bavaria, but these are to Heineken what the rugby teams of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga are to England.

The Oranjeboom brand has been moved around considerably over the years and is brewed under licence in the Netherlands and at Shepherd Neame in Kent, England, where it is available through its pub estate.

In all, the Netherlands can now boast more than 100 independent breweries, ranging from single pub outlets to sizeable and experimental concerns.

Then there’s the Bokbier festival, held at the end of October and now firmly established as it approaches its 30th year, making it one of Europe’s oldest beer festivals.

Dutch bokbier differs from the German beer with the same name in that many are top-fermented ales.

Indeed, many producers have left the lager styles to the big boys and are focusing on sweeter, stronger ales with a typical strength of about 6.5%.

So if you’ve dismissed the Netherlands as a beer desert then now’s the time to rediscover it. And head for Amsterdam for a beer, not a brothel.

In the Limburg region and established as a family concern in 1870. Strictly follows the German Reinheitsgebot, which limits the ingredients of the beer to the purest and most essential ingredients, and using water from a pure spring that requires no processing.

The brewery’s beers are all clean and tasty and include a relatively weak Oud Bruin (2.5%) and seasonal bok biers.

But if you can try the bottomfermented Super Dortmunder (7.5%) made with Czech and German hops and stored for two months.

You’ll see this in many supermarkets and many own label Dutch lagers come from here. In total it produces about four million litres and sells in nearly 100 countries. It was this brewery that caused a fuss in this year’s World Cup by encouraging Dutch supporters to wear its orange branded clothing, thereby upsetting the official sponsor Budweiser and resulting in the denuding of thousands of Dutch football fans.

The oldest brewery in the Netherlands dating back to 1340 and developed by the Brand family in Wijlre, Gulpen-Wittem. It is now owned by Heineken but is a good example of a brewery that has been allowed to develop autonomously.

Brand Pils is sold in the United States as Royal Brand beer but the company’s jewel is Brand Cuvee, which uses both top and bottom fermenting yeast strains. The beers are unpasteurised and have long lagering periods.

Brand UP (Urtyp Pilsner) is one of the 300 beers that Roger Protz suggests you try before you die and is an all-malt brew using the German hop varieties known as ‘noble’ hops. It is aged for 56 days.

Founded in 1744 and now owned by Inbev. Best known beer is Dommelsch Pilsner.

Best known for its quality mainstream lager that came in a distinctive green bottle with flip top. You can still buy it that way in the Netherlands and if you can, do so. The brewery also produces a range of other styles from alcohol-free to a weighty 11.6% beer.

Grolsch is brewed under licence in Burton on Trent in England by its owners, Coors, and in its native country, where it is unpasteurised.

Respectable range of beers covering a large variety of Dutch styles including unusual beers such as Chateau Neubourg and Gerardus Wittens Klotskerbier.

From the Haarlem district, which was once the centre of Dutch beer production and has a brewing history stretching back some 700 years. At one time it had more than 100 breweries. By the 1990s it had none.

Jopen brewery was set up in the 90s by a group of somewhat eccentric beer lovers to make strange and wonderful beers and Jopen Koyt Gruitbier is among them. It is a strong 8.5% and Gruit refers to the traditional mixture of herbs and flavourings at its heart. The finished beer made from this style was known as Koyt. Weird and wonderful, it provides all the proof you need to see that the Netherlands really can have an identity all its own.

The only Trappist brewery in the Netherlands and once more able to brand itself as such having fallen out with its Belgian brothers for many years over commercial agreements it made. The whole story was recounted in issue five of Beers of the World and so won’t be repeated here but suffice to say that the brewery was founded at the abbey in 1884 and produces a range of excellent beers including the world’s only Trappist witbier. Most of its products are bottle-conditioned.

Oranjeboom Brewery closed in 1990 and it was moved first to Breda and then to Dommelsch. It is brewed under licence at 4.1% in the United Kingdom, may be found in the off-trade at 5%, and comes in a gold can version in some markets at 4.7%.

Every rule has an exception and St Christoffel Brewery’s blonde beer is proof that pilsner can be outstanding.

The brewery was set up by Leo Brand, of the famous Brand family, in 1986. He had studied in Germany and set out to produce beer made to the strictest German Reinheitsgebot standards. He has retired now but the people in charge of his legacy are not letting him down.

Categories: International