A few months ago I was talking to a brewer about our favorite beers. We had a very interesting conversation about our favorite types of beer. Though we both loved the same product (beer), we differed greatly in our opinion about what good beer is. He brews blonds and tripel style beers, getting his inspiration from Belgium. My favorite beers were from Dutch brewers who were more in line with the American school of brewing; your Russian Stouts and Imperial IPA’s.
This made me think about the types of brewers that we have in the Netherlands. I sure my ideas will cover other ‘developing’ craft beer countries as well. With this I mean the countries who are in the middle of their own craft beer revolution.
The following article about the types of brewers can be considered the follow-up of an earlier article about what I called Post-Modern Brewing, the way newer brewers view beer, it’s creators and it’s drinkers.
The three types in the Netherlands
Let’s start with the three types, they are:
There is a fourth type that I will describe at the end of the post, the post-modern brewer. He could be viewed as a separate type, but because I think he is a hybrid of these three I will discuss him as a special category.
The three types are not specific for the Netherlands. Every country that has been making and drinking beer for generations will have at least 1 or 2 of these. In countries where for example West Coast hops haven’t arrived yet they might still be only making pilsners. Other countries are in a new growth, or revolution, when it comes to craft beer. Think about Italy, Scandinavia, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, New Zealand and more. They will tick every box, though the definition of each type is different. Like ‘craft beer’ the three types are terms where its definition depends on circumstances and time. The terms will remain, but their definition is different for every country. Some countries never had a huge influx of Belgian ales for example, classic there could mean German Pilsners or English stouts.
Let’s start with a historical background that will become important when describing the types. The Netherlands’ post-war beer history has been uninteresting when it comes to types. Only an economist would find the time when pilsners reigned supreme and made Heineken a worldwide brand fascinating. Up to this day pilsners have a huge share of the market, with craft beer just barely making an impact so far, though this is changing. If it will ever surpass it remains to be seen, but I seriously doubt it. The position of pilsners in the beer drinking culture is important, because I believe it’s its tediousness in the eyes (mouths) of some that paved the way for other styles of beer.
The Netherlands’ taste in ‘different’ beer came mostly from across the border. One look at the map and it is hard to miss that the country is located in the middle of three major beer producing countries. Germany to the East, Belgium to the South and a short hop westwards over the sea England. The first two have had a major impact on Dutch beer, England slightly less. With the influx of more Belgian beer in the 70s and 80s a new type of beer drinker developed, the specialty beer drinker. That there is a new wave of new drinkers coming these days is then no more than a natural development.
The Classic Brewer
The classic brewers brews the kinds of beer that have been around for decades. This entails mostly Belgian tripels or blondes and maybe a weizen thrown in. An example of brewing what you know because it has been proven to be good. This type of brewer is still very much around. Many new breweries debut with a tripel or a blonde. If they simple don’t like the newer styles or wild experimentation or are unaware of other styles I don’t know. The classic brewers I do know try and stay far away from Russian Stouts are double IPA’s. For them Duvel and Tripel Karmeliet rule supreme.
Calling them classic, or maybe even conservative, is by no means meant as an putdown. They are as much a brewer as the other two types I will mention. They brew good beer, and there is a market so they can do what they like.
The Contemporary Brewer
Here is a brewer who knows there is more than just beer from the neighbors. The United States and other European countries have great newer styles as well, like the aforementioned IPA which after being a hype in the US first and now in Holland is a style that will likely stay. Why? It has in the US for over 15 years now and I see no reason why it shouldn’t here. He is not adverse to new styles, but not experimenting wildly. This could be because of a lack of interest, means or knowledge.
These are the brewers who brew what the fad is at the moment, and or only a season or two behind the actual frontrunners. In the last few years this meant that they debuted with IPA’s, like many of the Amsterdam breweries I wrote about earlier.
The Modern(ist) brewer
This is the brewer at the forefront of brewing. He makes what the current fad is but thinks and looks ahead at the coming years as well. These are the true groundbreaking artists who do not make what sells, but make what they like and that in turn will sell next year. Most times their influences are American, but increasingly they develop their own ideas about what will work. Case in point is the growing number of Dutch beers with hibiscus or lemongrass. Instead of IPA’s as the most modern style in the country he will already be tasting and thinking about making a Berliner Weisse or other sour ales.
They are the alternative/jazz musicians. For the bigger public what they make doesn’t work because of its often extreme nature. For the small group of devotees it’s the highpoint of beer making. They are the band that is now playing the smaller venues in front of 500 people, but next year they might very well fill a 2000 seat arena. This means people will come who don’t know what went before, and this could upset some of the hardcover lovers of craft beer. But this is how the economy works, so deal with it.
The post-modern brewer
The fourth type of brewer I told you about. No surprise huh? This brewer is a hybrid of the three. A brewer who is at ease with making a dubbel one day, an IPA the next and a herb-infused barleywine aged in a wine barrel the day after. He shifts through periods and styles and what he makes is not just the next step, it can be an big break from what is behind him. He doesn’t believe that one style is better than the other. He appreciates a well made beer though and a simple weizen is just as great a challenge as a chocolate porter. Most of all they believe it is for everyone, free of borders of space and time and high or low culture. A radler? No problem? A difficult beer with brett, let’s try it!
In 5 or 10 years I can describe the same 4 types of brewer but the description could be completely different. If the IPA keeps its leading position as a craft beer in Holland in the coming years it will move out of the realm of the contemporary brewer and into that of the classic brewer. The Modernist brewer of today won’t be making the same beer in 5 years, for the classic and contemporary brewer this might take a little while longer.
It is possible to be two of the three types as well, but this comes with time. When het IJ started brewing in the 1980’s they made Belgian style beers. They kept doing this for a long time until new owners and brewers started to make more American style beers. In this case it wasn’t the brewer who went through a change, but a brewery.
Again, this is not meant as a putdown of brewers who only brew Belgian tripels. They can make excellent beers as well. If it is as interesting is another question. But just like music, there is beer for everyone, so there are artist and brewers for every taste. It’s a good thing we live in a country with so many different influences.