I have a firm belief that you can tell a lot about a place by the craft which has gone into the noble art of brewing. The thought came to me as I sat in a square in Amersfoort sipping Gulperner brewery’s Korenwolf for the very first time.
Beer skills and recipes are passed down from generation to generation, enormous care is taken to find the perfect ingredients and pure water. Delicacy is exercised in the roasting, malting, milling, mashing, lautering, boiling, fermenting, conditioning, filtering and pouring. Beer becomes an expression of national identity. Think Guinness.
All of this is done so that someone like me can pull up a chair at an outdoor cafe in The Hague, Rotterdam, Delft or Amsterdam and enjoy a leisurely ale while watching the world go by or reading the paper. Over the years I have sought out or been introduced to the unusual, the delicious and occasionally the diabolical brew just to get a better idea of where I am. While not exactly scientific, I approach this task with scientific rigour.
In Bolivia this quest led me to chicha, the traditional fermented maize drink of Inca royalty, and Lipena, a Potosi beer made from quinoa; in Uganda, and Rwanda cloudy sorghum and millet beers were tested through straws; in Nepal, at a funeral, I drank something unspeakable from a bowl smeared with rancid yak butter. All of this I have done selflessly, so that the next person to pass that way may be better informed, and have time to learn the Nepali for, “Hold the yak butter”.
In that spirit I am delighted that the Dutch and Belgians know a thing or two about brewing. I’d go as far as to say they have probably mastered this finest of arts to a degree that puts most other countries to shame. Of course there are the standard fizzy lagers, typically Heineken or Amstel (hint, they taste virtually identical); but there are also Blondes, Golden, Dubbels, Trippels, Saisons, Witte, Bruin, Rood and Trappist.
Then there are the glasses. Every beer in Belgium and the Netherlands has its own glass. These are as distinctive as the beer, and make the drinking experience that extra bit special. Glass size is also different. No pint glasses here, most beer is served in small measures. Admittedly, this is because a fair number of them are strong enough to stop a bull elephant in its tracks. Still, it’s the thought that counts.
Beer culture is more akin to that of wine in France, giving it a (thin) veneer of respectability. The range of ingredients, variety of flavours and different styles makes every tasting an adventure.
As does the chronic lack of glass hygiene. If the entire Dutch population is wiped out by a mystery disease it will be because glasses are ‘cleaned’ by dunking them in warm soapy water. Not washed, dunked. In soapy water. Soapy water that dozens of other glasses have also been dunked in. It won’t end well.
Since I’ve been here the weather has been good enough to afford plenty of opportunities to find a shady square, or crowded street-side cafe, in which to sample something different. This is normally accompanied by a bowl of the traditional Dutch snack, bitterballen, a deep fried croquette of indeterminate provenance. Very occasionally it is accompanied by an impromptu musical performance, and every now and then a grown man running around dressed as a rabbit.
What more could you want when circumstance can provide beer, music and a man dressed as a rabbit? Actually, the rabbit is probably a sign to order a coffee…