Beer is a collectors’ dream. One bottle can give you a lot. The actual bottle can be special, and most breweries have stylish bottle caps and labels. Breweries have many forms of advertising like glasses, coasters, doilies or newspaper ads. Best of all there are the signs to hang on the walls.
Today’s article is about a man who has been collecting labels of beer bottles for over 30 years. Way up in the north in my hometown Groningen, Harry Pinkster now has over 10.000 labels and this collection can be found online on his excellent website. If you are at least a bit interested in Dutch beer changes are you have been on his site already. Besides scans of all the labels he also provides a very current map of the country with all the breweries.
His website has been online since the last millennium. The first mention in a local newspaper is in 1998. I have not yet found any real evidence, but my guess is his website must be one of the oldest continuing personal websites in the country. The newspaper article shows that at the paper the internet was still a very new invention. Where they want to mention the website URL they give his email address. 2 years later the evidence shows that his site is already a repository of beer knowledge for many beerlovers. To put it in perspective, extension .nl was first used in 1996. A search for Dutch websites in 1997 lists less than a 1000, and only 67 in Groningen.
The collection: Nuclear and Chemical Warfare.
The number of labels stands at 10,225 at the moment we had the e-mail conversation that led to this post. That in itself is an impressive figure and it is even more impressive if you realize the rule he set himself: only a label from a bottle he has himself emptied counts.
As a label collector myself I have run into my fair share of problems. Most labels soak off easily after putting them in water for a little while. But sometimes brewers use different stickers or different glue. Glue so good that it won’t come off in water or that tear when you pry them off.
For Harry the latter isn’t that big of a deal. The collection is more about showing what he tasted that keeping the label in pristine condition. Because I wasn’t the first to ask this he has made a page specifically about this. In short his methods are:
- Soaking in water, sometimes with a little soap. If it doesn’t come off, use tools. Hot water is faster than cold water.
- Put the bottle in a microwave. Yes, nuke the bastards! This is for the special stickers with different glue. After some trial and error the perfect time for Harry is around 50 seconds. Beware of a very hot bottle.
- Pour boiling water in the bottle, also for stickers with silver or gold printing. It heats up from the inside and the label will loosen.
- The fourth and final option. Turpentine or similar chemicals; the stuff you use for heavy duty cleaning. But beware, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!! Use the shed instead to avoid any spousal abuse.
If this all fails the final option is simple, he photographs the label on the bottle. The labels are just to show what he has tried.
You can read his tips, with pictures, on his website.
Every collector has that one price possession and the gem in Harry’s collection is a label of Kluyn from Noorderzon, a now defunct brewery from Groningen. The label itself is a beauty with a medieval birdseye view of the city. When the brewery stopped Harry was able to purchase two bottles. Expensive but because Noorderzon was Gronings he got them anyway. The brewer then disappeared from beer land for a while but has returned. And what a return, he is now the head brewer of De Dochter van de Korenaar, an excellent Belgian brewery in a tiny piece of land surrounded by the Netherlands. So technically not Dutch but with a big Dutch influence.
Numbers 5000 and 10.000
For label number 5000 and 10.000 a special beer was made to celebrate these collecting milestones. Number 5000 by Grunn, number 10.000 by one of our favorites: Berghoeve. Harry explains why they got the honor:
“Berghoeve wasn’t entirely a coincidence. One of the Berghoeve beers was the basis for my idea of the Tjuster. When I first met Jurgen and his wife Geralda I told them that his beer came very close to my ultimate beer when you look at taste, body and color. Jurgens eyes lit up immediately and I think he was already working a recipe at that moment. This meeting at the Pint Noord Beerfestival in November 2012 went so well that we started an e-mail conversation and things were worked out. This beer became a unique beer called Tjuster, Frisian for Dark.”
Storing the collection.
When I asked the questions the count stood at 10,225 labels. These are in 75 albums. A lot of albums but not a lot of space, one IKEA Billy is enough. He has three of the world’s most famous cupboard dedicated to beer, one of them just with glasses from breweries from Groningen. Save two he has all the glasses that he is aware of exist.
The rise of Dutch craft beer…
Harry has been a close bystander of the Dutch craft beer revolution of the last decade. He has also seen the dark days of Dutch beer when there really wasn’t anything happening. For me the excellent person then to ask about his view on this revolution. In his view it’s the bigger breweries that started the craze by releasing a range of ‘specialty’ beers in the 1990’s. Heineken started their Eindejaarsseries (End of the Year series) in 1994 and Grolsch released a number of special beers with a special glass like De Vierde Wijze or Twee Zwaluwen. The opened the window just a little bit so people could see there were other things and things started from there. Even though they have now stopped making these beers again and focusing on their pilsners, it was a start. This led to the popping up of many new microbreweries all over the country.
Another revolution Harry mentions is the ‘brewery-lease’. Before that a brewery was a brewery and nothing more. He credits Jopen with being a trendsetter in this regard. Now there are many start-ups who first lease time and space in an already existing brewery, who maybe one day might develop into an actual brewery. Of this there are many examples in Holland.
…and how we can’t keep up
An explosive rise of beer in the country is great, but for collectors it also means more work. Because Harry is very active in the Dutch beer world he also is spending more time with his hobby, it easily takes up a few hours a week. But that is certainly not a negative thing. It’s all a lot more lively thanks to the many interactions on social media and the festivals and collectors fairs. His network keeps expanding thanks to involvement with BAV (the collectors club) and PINT. He shares a lot of information with Jan Ausems (Cambrinus.nl, another good repository of beer knowledge), the KBC (Klein Brouwers Collectief, Small Brewers Collective) through Jan-Willem Fukkink and the magazine Bier! with Fedor Vogel. They keep each other in the loop if they find new information to keep their database about beer as up-to-date as possible.
And drinking all this delicious new Dutch beer:
“It’s a challenge to drink at least one beer from all Dutch breweries. This is impossible. When I finally finish 5 that were on my wish list, 5 new breweries started. But it’s a great thing that so many people give me beer, the Tjuster was a thank you to them.”
I have lamented before about the state of craft beer in the northern provinces. On his website he posted as much as he could find about Groningen’s beer history. Tday the North hasn’t much to offer. The three northern provinces combined have a bigger population than Utrecht, yet Utrecht is the country’s Oregon, where the north is the country’s Utah. Not a place to visit for the beer…
Fellow Groninger Harry:
“the main reason to me is the lack of a backland (hinterland). We miss the feeling for the good things in life that they have in the southern parts of the country. Added to that is the small population. Groningen does have a beer tradition, and like many cities had many breweries. It might just be that the Groninger is more a pilsner drinker. At festivals you do see a rise in popularity in craft beer, so we might still catch up!”
Groningen might not have that many brewers, but it has Harry Pinkster’s collection. And thanks to the internet we can all enjoy his collection too and see parts of Dutch beer history. Keep collecting Harry, 15,000 isn’t too far away!