Bound by Belgium and Germany, there are at least two good reasons why you’ve heard so little about Holland’s craft beer scene. It’s not for lack of trying. The Dutch have been brewing for hundreds of years and—thanks to a certain Amsterdam-based lager-maker—are one of the world’s largest exporters of the liquid. But smaller producers in the country continue to be overshadowed by their neighboring countries, and the Netherlands is sick of playing second fiddle. A recent surge of craft brewers across Holland suggests that this region is ready to rise as Europe’s next great beer destination.
Throughout the 15th and 16th Century, when the Netherlands was the global hub of international commerce, Haarlem, located just outside of Amsterdam, existed as the country’s brewing capital. At its height, It was home to more than 75 breweries. Amsterdam, by comparison, held just ten. Jopenkerk brewery paid tribute to that legacy when it opened in 1992, with beers based off of old recipes found in the city’s archives. The oldest dates back to 1407—a gruit-style beer known as Koyt.
Jopenkerk set up its operations inside a former church, where it now offers dozens of house-brewed selections on draft. Jopen Hoppen is a recreation of a recipe from 1501, one of the first hopped beers to appear in the historical record. The brewery is harnessing its intimate connection to the past to chart an innovative approach into the future. Seasonal releases here include autumn’s 4 Granen Bok—a ruby-red combination of rye, oats, wheat and barley—and a hopped blonde Lentebier for spring, brewed with coriander seeds.
Back in Amsterdam, brewers are still combating the stigma that it is a city built on macro-producers. “When we started in 1985, the city was a total waste in terms of craft beer,” recalls Leon van de Reep from Brouwerij ’t IJ, one of Amsterdam’s first official microbreweries. “The last independent brewery competing with Heineken and Amstel had closed down a couple of decades before due to stiff competition, and a preference for pilsner by the beer drinking audience at large.”
To shift palates towards more flavorful offerings, craft beer pioneers began brewing Belgian varieties. “Our first two beers—a tripel and a dubbel—had to be given Flemish sounding names—Zatte and Natte, respectively—in order to indicate these weren’t your regular Amsterdam pilsners,” says van de Reep. An English-style barleywine and a Belgian style wit rounded out the menu. “For almost two decades that was all the Amsterdam-brewed beer you could get around town.”
What really changed the game was the development of craft beer cafes in the early 2010s. Determined to inspire a fermented following, entrepreneur Peter van der Arend opened a series of small venues across the city. Branded with on-the-nose names, such as American BeerBar Temple and ‘Cause Beer Loves Food, the outposts quickly became bustling destinations. And they weren’t just shaping a new generation of drinkers, but also a new generation of brewers. “Some of the people working in his bars started home brewing and this resulted in two breweries that operate today,” van de Reep says.
One of those breweries, Pontus, maintains a relatively low profile—distribution is kept local—but remains a favorite. Before opening in 2012, co-owners Timothy Wareman and Nando Servais plumbed Europe for inspiration, sampling beers from Scotland to Italy to inform their eventual repertoire. They opened with intriguing ales referencing Holland’s maritime lore. Siren’s Song, for example, is a 5.5% blonde brewed with juniper berries. Lighthouse is a fruity saison with a golden hue and strong effervescence.
On the other side of town, Oedipus is notorious as perhaps the epitome of Holland’s modern approach to beer-making. Beers here reimagine classic styles with unexpected adjuncts. Thai Thai, for example, is a spicy tripel brewed with Southeast Asian flavors—red chili peppers, lemongrass and galangal root all make appearances in an exotic brew. Eight flagship offerings are bottled in loudly colorful packaging, which is emblematic of the breweries experimental artfulness. The facility has also helped kickstart a fledgling taproom scene in Amsterdam, with its own warehouse-like taproom becoming a hotspot in the hip, Noord neighborhood. An open space with planters dangling from vaulted ceilings and picnic tables lining the walls, it hosts hundreds of thirsty revelers on weekend afternoons.
Amsterdam's craft beer boom has extended beyond just drinking, and is beginning to influence the city’s food offerings. Two Chefs Brewing, as you might suspect, was founded by a pair of professional cooks eager to work funkier flavors into beer. Its beers, such as pale ales and helles, are punched up with high-intensity adjuncts, such as Dirty Katarina, a Russian Imperial brewed with licorice.
These beers take center stage at Bar Alt, the team’s elegant chef-inspired restaurant, where mismatch velvet chairs fill a minimalist space. Here, each course comes paired with its own beer selection on a 45 Euro tasting menu, which changes daily. A recent dinner combined mackerel sashimi with their own Tropical Ralphie—a crisp, refreshing weizen. Barbequed Octopus was marinated in and served with a local pilsener. A sirloin steak with crushed hazelnuts met flawlessly with a malt-forward pale ale.
Amsterdam may be the epicenter for this modern movement, but excitement is bubbling outward beyond the bounds of Holland’s capital city. To the south, in Uithoorn, De Schans is pouring exciting takes on wheat beers, including a slightly spicy variation known as Tarwe and an immensely approachable stout brewed according to a 70-year-old recipe. In the port town of Nieuw Vennep, Brouwerij Poort makes Bietenbrug, a speciality style brewed from sugar beets that is designed to pair against the local specialty of pickled herring.
“There is a growing audience for all those formerly unknown styles,” observes van de Reep. “Still, the influence of Germany and Belgium are strong, as most [Dutch drinkers] opt for a Weizen or a tripel once they decide to have something special.”
On a recent weekend afternoon, Gollem—one of Amsterdam’s premiere craft cafes—is flowing out the door with an excited crowd of young beer enthusiasts. They contemplate the bars extensive list of Trappist ales, Belgian lambics and German lagers, many of them landing instead on something local. “For now, things seem pretty rosy,” says van de Reep. “The new generation seems to look at beer the way previous ones looked at wine.” And the days of overlooking Holland are a thing of the past.