Of all the reclaimed buildings in which a brewery might exist these days, a church is perhaps the least likely. But you’ll find just that in the heart of canal-crossed Haarlem, a Dutch city located 11 miles west of central Amsterdam. There, a former Protestant church replete with stained-glass windows and arched ceilings now houses Jopen, a brewery that has revived not only the building but also the city’s once-thriving beer culture.
Fourteenth-century Haarlem was already famous for its beer, which was transported on the river Spaarne in 30-gallon barrels called jopen. The city was known even in Belgium for styles like koyt, a beer made with an unusually large proportion of oat malt. People liked it so much that in 1487 they rioted in Leeuwarden, a Dutch city 74 miles away, after being prevented from drinking their Haarlem koyt. By the peak of Haarlem’s brewing production, around 1648—in the midst of the Netherlands’ Golden Age of economic and cultural prosperity—the city produced 18 million gallons of beer, with up to 80 breweries working simultaneously.
Haarlem brewers were esteemed members of the community who were immortalized in finery by famous artists like Frans Hals. For example, the central seated figure in his oil painting The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1627, which hangs at the Frans Hal Museum in Haarlem, is Jacob Pietersz Olycan, a magistrate, one-time mayor of the city and, of course, a brouwer.
As the Golden Age came to a close, however, excise taxes increased as the Dutch people shouldered the economic burden of multiple wars. Haarlem’s ale industry tottered toward ruin over the next two centuries. It had just seven breweries around the turn of the 20th century and lost its final brewery, Het Scheepje, in 1916.
Fast forward to 1995, Haarlem’s 750th anniversary. In the years leading up the milestone, the city solicited ideas from residents about how it should be celebrated. Michel Ordeman, then a student, had created a brewery plan as the capstone of his small-business school education. (He notes that, at the time, utch craft breweries were novel, as the concept had just begun to trickle over the border from Germany.) By chance, Ordeman mentioned his business idea at a bottleshop, whose owner suggested that it might be the perfect way to celebrate Haarlem. A beer would do double duty as both cultural homage and party favor.
“If you want to celebrate, beer is always good!” says Ordeman.
He jumped on board, along with the friend who eventually became his wife and co-owner of Jopen, Lydian Zoetman, who had also moved to Haarlem in the late 1980s for small-business school. With the help of a civic planning organization, they unearthed from city archives two old purity laws that dictated which ingredients could be used to make certain types of beer. One was a koyt recipe from 1407, the other a hoppy beer from 1501.
Ordeman and Zoetman chose the latter—considered hop-forward by historical standards, if not by contemporary ones—and brought it to market for the city’s anniversary. The modern Hoppenbier, still available today, hews pretty closely to what it would have tasted like back then, albeit cleaner due to advances in brewing technology (and hygiene).
“That sort of beer probably would have been mixed culture, because getting the top-fermented strains completely separated from wild yeast would have been hard in those days,” explains Ordeman. “Every beer would have had a little funkiness and would have gone sour in a certain time.”
The one-off project created more than a few fans. Now a full-time operation, Jopen has produced as many as 160 different beers in a year. Its catalogue ranges from citrusy New England IPAs like Blurred Lines (Zoetman’s favorite) to a stout inspired by caramel sea salt brownies to its Jopen Non IPA, a low-alcohol beer brewed with solar power. The through line is a focus on unusual grains, a nod to Haarlem’s koyt-brewing heritage.
“We do want to give it our own touch, and usually that's based on different grains,” says Ordeman, referring to beers like the Year of the Dog oatmeal pale ale.
Other than that, anything goes.
“We have one common enemy: boring beer, and breweries making boring beer,” says Ordeman.
“And boring people,” adds Zoetman.
Jopen beer is available on tap and in stores throughout the Netherlands, and it’s exported to 23 countries. Since 2010, it’s also been available straight from the source at Jopenkerk Haarlem, the church brewery. Formerly known as Jacobskerk, or Jacob’s Church in English, the building previously served as a gallery and exhibition space, among other functions. Ordeman and Zoetman left the structure largely the same but added a mezzanine level for fine dining. The restaurant hovers above the copper kettles and more casual brew pub on the main, ground-level floor.
Within a few years of opening Jopenkerk, the beautiful but cramped new brewing space was already straining under growing demand. Jopen had offices and warehouse space in an industrial business park called Haarlemse Waarderpolder. When Jopen’s neighbor there left, Ondeman and Zoetman pounced on the chance to expand their square footage. They eventually opened a tasting room called Jopen Tap Room and launched brewery tours there, where there’s more room to maneuver groups. (Both the tap room and Jopenkerk will be closed until at least April 6 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Despite Jopen’s role as the standard-bearer of Haarlem beer—one of its brewers, Robbert Uyleman, went on to start Haarlem’s other popular craft brewery, Uiltje—Jopen is always looking for the next thing. It works with local businesses like the bakery Bakker van Vessem to enact more sustainable practices. The two companies swapped residual products to make beer and bread, the latter using spent grain for the brewery and the former employing leftover bread for an English pale ale called Our Daily Bread. Similarly, an arrangement with the local fry shop FrietHoes yielded the Jopen Schillen Blond, a blonde beer that utilizes potato residue in the brewing process.
In 2015, Jopen launched yet another endeavor, the distilling branch Gospel Spirits, which produces gin, whiskey, and jenever, or Dutch gin. It’s just a side project, but it reflects the company’s mission of continually advancing the ball.
“We want to do fun stuff,” says Ordeman. “We're not a museum.”