Saturday, 11 November 2017

Craft bier in Amsterdam

I have a self-imposed rule when travelling — drink the local beer wherever possible. It just seems sensible. I don’t travel to, say, Denmark in order to drink Belgian beer, and the trends and influences in domestic craft beer are always more interesting.

Arriving in Amsterdam for a few days of exploring, however, I broke that rule with my very first drink. I walked into Craft and Draft to find a cask of Shumacher Alt propped on the bar, pouring from gravity. I couldn’t turn that down — where else, without taking a dedicated trip to Dusseldorf, would I encounter such a thing again? It was a good decision, and I followed it with a delicious Kellerbier from St. Georgen in Franconia. The scope and variety of beer on offer in Amsterdam is huge, and whilst there’s plenty of great beer being brewed in the Netherlands, for me it’s this variety that make it such a great beer city.

But actually, aside from some very classy imports, the most notable feature of my beery survey of Amsterdam was a uniquely Dutch tradition. Bokbier has been brewed in the Netherlands since the 1860s, evolving from German bocks and morphing into a distinct style of their own. Order a bok and you’ll usually find something strong – above 6% ABV – and somewhere on the deep red to dark brown continuum, with a deeply malty flavour. It might be top or bottom-fermented, though originally would have been the latter. Though their appearance recalls a heavy stout, they’re typically quite light-bodied in the way of a Belgian dubbel.

On this autumnal visit, it’s herfstboks that dominate the bars — lenteboks are released in spring. And dominate they do. The Dutch take their bok seriously. The PINT Bokbierfestival has been running for 40 years, and Bockbierkrant van Nederland, a dedicated free newspaper, keeps drinkers up-to-date on the latest releases. Specialist beer bars were all offering multiple boks, and the likes of Heineken, Amstel and Grolsch also put out their own seasonal offerings.

My brother has been living in Amsterdam for a few months, getting to know the local brews well. Sitting down for our first beer in Gollem’s Proeflokaal, he took a sip of Brouwerij de Leckere’s Rode Toren and said, “typically Dutch”. Caramel and straw are the characteristic flavours amongst the autumn boks, he reckons, and they’re definitely in there, along with an earthy, savoury note that even verges towards tomato. I like it a lot. Jopen’s eponymous Bokbier’s treacly malt is similarly soft and comforting, but manages to be refreshing at the same time, with a restrained citrus note in the background. There’ll be plenty more herfstbok on my journey around the city. 

Arendsnest is run by More Beer, a small group of bars that includes the aforementioned Craft and Draft and a couple of others. Its USP is that is serves only Dutch beer, across an astonishing 52 taps. At least ten of these are dedicated to bok but, thirsty after a brisk cycle across the city in the sun, I wanted something pale and refreshing. Mooie Nel IPA, again from Jopen, fulfilled that brief perfectly — squeaky clean and resinous with a gentle citrus bite and substantial bitterness, it was glorious. After that conservative start, I chose a couple of weirdos to follow. First was Lambiek from Toon van den Broek, served from cask through a beer engine. There’s very little information about this beer online, but it appears to be a genuinely spontaneously fermented Dutch beer, and was very good. Sharp and tannic as you’d expect, it’s livened by a faintly sweet peach note which pulled it into balance. To finish, a cute 150ml glass of Burning BBQ, a smoked Belgian-style quadruple brewed at Uiltje in collaboration with Largum Bieren. Predictably bonkers, it combines boiled sweets, milk chocolate, orange oil and spiky booze, with the smoke only revealing itself once I was about halfway down the glass. Somehow, it didn’t taste a foul mess, even if it sounds like one on paper, though the experience of drinking it felt like trying to figure out a puzzle.

From there, we left the city centre and cycled to the Butcher's Tears taproom. As is common for such spaces, it's in an industrial unit with the obligatory folding tables, and white tiling that suggests it might actually once have been a butcher's. I was delighted to find Spiral Scratch on tap — a strong ale based on a 1956 J.W. Lees recipe which I believe the brewery initially made for Ron Pattinson's 60th birthday. Despite its relative strength, it was easy drinking, all honey and golden syrup with a very English tobacco-like hop character. The inevitable bok, Broomrider had the aforementioned caramel and straw, with a treacly burnt bitterness in the finish that livened it up. Pooka-delica was billed as 'brown IPA on acid' and is some kind of variation on their regular brown ale. I'm not sure exactly what the twist was, but it had an intense, sharp sherbety citrus flavour that overwhelmed the warming, toasted malt backbone I had hoped for. I liked the place a lot, and would happily have stayed and tasted some more, but dinner was calling and the bok booze was starting to catch up with me.

I've wanted to visit Brouwerij 't IJ for years, and the next day I was happily able to make the tick. Cycling from the fast-paced heart of the city, it was pleasant to move into the more relaxed and residential district that houses the brewery. The place is popular with tourists, perhaps because the original brewery is housed in a postcard-perfect windmill, and I'd been advised to get there in time for 2pm opening to avoid the crowds. Sure enough, I was far from the only punter waiting outside for the doors to open, but it never got particularly busy during our stay. It's popular for good reason; bright and airy or shadowy and bohemian, depending on where you choose to sit, with welcoming staff and a wide range of 't IJ's diverse beers on offer.

Bok is a big deal here; 't IJ brew not one but five of them, variously incorporating smoked malt, rye, orange peel and other intriguing ingredients. I plumped for Amarillobok. Though appropriately malt-driven, it also had a beautiful marmalade spice about it, along with some stone fruit and gentle marzipan in the background. To follow, we split a bottle of Struis, an English-style barley wine which was bursting with treacle, demerara sugar, espresso roast and hedgerow fruit. The booziness is deftly judged; enough to let you know its there and to gently warm the cockles, as a barley wine should, but not enough to become hard work.

Back in the middle of town is In de Wildeman. Housed in an ex-distillery, it's a beautifully worn-in old pub, all vintage breweriana and varnished wood. The fact that the bland-verging-on-hellish central shopping zone has grown around it only improves its appeal — it's an oasis in a desert of boring shops and oblivious tourists with no spatial awareness. I again relaxed my local beer rule here, because the offering is a superbly diverse representation the best of European beer. From Bamberg, Mahr's Ungespundet was just as wonderful as I remembered, with an enormous depth of malt flavour, a touch of honey and a poke of herbal noble hops in the finish. Cantillon Lambic (presumably it was Grand Cru Bruocsella?) was similarly brilliant, in a totally different way — intense where the Mahr's is subtle, it's full of tart green apple and woody tannins, but had a tiny hit of weed about it that I wasn't expecting. You'd be extremely lucky to find these beers in the UK, let alone both on the same tap list at the same time.

Refreshed, we were back on our bikes headed for the ferry that runs from Centraal Station to Amsterdam Noord. Though the ferry is free, regular and takes no more than a few minutes to cross the water, this area still feels a little cut off from the centre of the city. As a result, though, it seems greener, quieter and a little more relaxed, with an attractive waterfront area full of hip cafés and the beautiful Eye Filmmuseum. Our destination was Oedipus, a brewery and tap room surrounded by what seemed to be re-purposed warehouses housing organic supermarkets and fancy restaurants.

The potentially cavernous, industrial feel of the place is softened by the homely decor — all potplants and well-worn sofas — and colourful murals, and it has the same kind of approachable, artsy, gently hippie-ish vibe I've found in squatted and state-subsidised music venues in the Netherlands. I started with Swing Lolita Swing, a collaboration with Austrian brewery Bevog. This was a gose with added passion fruit and raspberry and I loved it. It gets the sweet/sour balance spot on, threatening sweetness at first but ending with a puckering, quenching tartness and a gentle kiss of salt. Chateau Akkerman, Oedipus' take on bok, is much more ale-like than the other examples I'd encountered, and the malt had more stouty roasted and chocolate character. It's dry hopped, which must be unusual for the style, and added an intensely floral note that came off like rosewater. I was perhaps more interested in it than I actually enjoyed it.

Back on the other side of the water, we went for an after-dinner nightcap at the Raamsteeg branch of Café Gollem. Small, cosy, well worn in and just back from the canal, this felt like a real Amsterdam experience, and I'd highly recommend settling in and enjoying the ambience of this place for a while. Even better if it's cold and dark outside. Sharing bottles of Rodenbach Alexander and Achel Extra Bruin kept us busy.

Think of Europe's dream beer destinations and some obvious capitals leap out — Bamberg, Prague, Munich, Brussels, and so on. Amsterdam might not seem an obvious addition to that list, but I think it's a worthy contender. And of course, the experiences noted here barely scratch the surface. I'm already considering a return visit — perhaps to coincide with the emergence of the lentebok.