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Dutch independent & craft breweries: in the shadow of Heineken and Grolsch, small Dutch brewers thrive.

As in most countries in northern Europe--and the world, for that matter--the pilsner style of lager is the beer of choice for most Dutch beer drinkers. The Netherlands is a small country, only 25,746 square-miles in size, with the greatest distance from north to south being 186 miles and from west to east 124 miles. Within this densely populated area (the highest population density in Europe) live 15,981,472 mostly lager drinkers. This has started to change in the last twenty years or so, but just a little. Pilsner sales make up about 90 percent of all beer sold in the Netherlands. And Dutch brewers brew a lot of beer--just under 21.3 million barrels in 2001. Although this maritime nation with a rich and highly successful trading history exports a great deal of the beer it brews (think Heineken and Grolsch), the Dutch still consume 22.8 gallons of beer per capita each year.

Dutch Brewing History

Like all of Europe, until the lager revolution of the mid-1800s, Dutch brewers brewed top-fermented ales. By the end of the 1800s, pilsners had taken over. After World War II, the Dutch brewing industry was devastated. Breweries had been destroyed by bombs or dismantled, and there was almost no barley for making malt. By the late 1940s, Dutch brewing was once again on its feet, with most brewers operating in the southern provinces of Limburg and North Brabant. These old family brewers continued to make a few top-fermented ales, but in the 1950s they either failed to make a go of it or were bought up by Heineken, a brewery uninterested in ales and small brewery operations.

By the 1960s, only a few independent breweries remained left in the south. In Limburg there were Lindeboom, Gulpener, Alfa, Leeuw, Brand and De Ridder (the last two now owned by Heineken). In North Brabant there were Budelse and Dommelsch (the latter now also owned by Heineken). By the late 1970s there were about sixteen breweries left in the Netherlands: a few major players such as Heineken, Grolsch and Bavaria and a few regional independents. At this point in time, approximately 99 percent of all beer sold in the Netherlands was pilsner. The only exceptions were the old traditions of each brewery producing a strong Dutch version of a bock (often spelled bok) beer each autumn and possibly an Oud Bruin (Old Brown). Gulpener Dort (a German-inspired Dortmunder-style beer) was an extremely rare exception.

Modern Changes

The time was ripe for some changes in Dutch beer culture, and sure enough, change began to occur. Just as a generation of Baby Boomers in the U.S. returned from studies and travels abroad (primarily in Europe) in the 1960s and 1970s to shake up American complacency with bland tasting wines, beers, coffees, teas, bread, cheeses and other foods, a generation of young Dutch people in the late 1970s returned from travels to their southern cousins--the Belgians--where they had discovered wonderful tasting beers. Dutch entrepreneurs who noticed this trend and were beer enthusiasts themselves began importing Belgian beers to the Netherlands. The first imports were Duvel, Westmalle Tripel and De Koninck, three beers that to this day remain on the beer lists of cafes throughout the Netherlands. The first Dutch cafes bold enough to stock these Belgian imports were Jan Primus in Utrecht, De Beyerd in Breda, In de Wildeman in Amsterdam and Locus Publicus in Rotterdam. These four cafes remain in business today and are among the best of the best for beer lovers.

A consumer movement began at this time as well. Just as the Campaign for Real Ale in the U.K. formed as a grass-roots organization in the 1970s to save the tradition of cask ale in the British Isles, a group of beer lovers formed in the Netherlands to promote good quality beer. The year was 1980 when Vereniging Promotie Informatie Traditioneel Bier (PINT) formed. Now with 3,000 members, PINT is a force to be reckoned with in the Netherlands.

The Beginnings of Small-Scale Craft Brewing

At the same time that Belgian imports began entering the Netherlands, the first high quality, craft-brewed ales from a non-megabrewer emerged on the market. In 1979 the Trappist Abbey O.B.V. Koningshoeven (King's Farms) in the village of Berkel Enschot in North Brabant, which had first brewed ales in 1884, resumed commercial brewing after a hiatus of many years. The monks called their brewery Bierbrouwerij De Koningshoeven and issued a line of strong, full-flavored ales under the brand name La Trappe Trappistenbier, also known as Schaapskooi (Sheep's Pen). Two years later there was a revival of top-fermented beers at the re-opened Stoombierbrouwerij (Steam Beer Brewery) De Vriendenkring (Circle of Friends) in Arcen in Limburg. This brewery changed its name to Arcense Bierbrouwerij and is now owned by the Belgian multinational brewing giant Interbrew. The next successful Dutch craft brewery to start up was in 1984. The Raaf Bierbrouwerij, located near Nijmegen, Gelderland, was purchased by Allied Carlsberg, sold to Interbrew and shut down in 1993. (The brewer at Raaf, Herm Hegger, emigrated to the U.S. where he trained some brewers, eventually returning to Nijmegen and to open a new craft brewery, Stadsbrouwerij (Town Brewery) de Hemel, in 1996.) The next breweries to open in the nascent Dutch craft beer revolution were Brouwerij 't IJ (Amsterdam, North Holland) and (Bolsward, Friesland) in 1985 and Bierbrouwerij St. Christoffel (Roermond, Limburg) in 1986.

During the 1990s many small breweries opened in the Netherlands. Some survived, some didn't. All of them looked south for inspiration, brewing Belgian-style ales rather than experimenting with German lagers or British ales. In the meantime, the Big Four Dutch brewers--Heineken, Interbrew (which at this point owned a number of Dutch breweries), Grolsch and Bavaria--didn't like what they were seeing in the marketplace. Pilsner sales declined as the new small breweries succeeded with Belgian-style ales and as imports continued to sell briskly. The response of the Big Four was to make special beers in the Belgian style. All of a sudden these large pilsner brewers began releasing wit beers, amber ales and strong beers for every season of the year. Wieckse Witte from Brouwerij de Ridder (Maastricht, Limburg; owned by Heineken) was brewed to bump the Belgian wit beer Hoegaarden off the market. De Ridder's Vos, a Belgian-style amber ale, targeted De Koninck without success. The other large brewers came out with similar products, such as Moreeke (a De Koninck clone) from Bavaria and Witte Raaf (no longer produced) from Arcense (owned by Interbrew, who oddly enough also owns Hoegaarden). The big brewers figured that was that. They had met the challenge and would triumph. Well, they may still control over 90 percent of the market in the Netherlands, but today there are close to 50 small, independent breweries in the country, many of them completely new players. The Dutch beer revolution is in full swing.

It's only been a little over 20 years since the Dutch beer revolution took hold, thanks mainly to a revival of the Belgian tradition with imports and new craft brewers and hard, persistent work by PINT. New breweries, brewpubs and special beer cafes continue to open. The few independents and the craft breweries opened since 1985 are doing well, with Dutch beer drinkers warming up to their different beers. Beers different, that is, from the standard pilsner that remains the mainstay of Dutch beer drinkers. Perhaps that 90 percent market share will drop a little in the years to come.
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Title Annotation:Beer Notes
Author:Glaser, Gregg
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Article Type:Industry Overview
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Jul 21, 2003
Previous Article:Calendar.
Next Article:Beer from abroad: new & noteworthy imported beers.

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