Archive for May, 2016

From Mill to Factory. Utrechts Beerbrewersfestival 2016

In a move that was bound to happen, the successful Utrecht Beerbrewersfestival moved from its old spot in downtown Utrecht to a larger location. Like the industrial age in the 19th century the windmill is now replaced by a factory. A former factory that is now an entertainment complex called De Fabrique.

The move was inevitable. The former location was great, close to the railway station yet rustic. But the number of breweries kept growing, and so did the stream of beer lovers making their way to the windmill. Last year they sold out their glasses long before the festival was finished, leaving many disappointed.

I was somewhat afraid when I heard this was their new location. Factory buildings conjure up images of concrete slabs of drabness. It was also 1,5 km (about a mile) away from the nearest railway station.

Boy was I wrong.

_DSC0896The setup was great. Some brewers had outside stalls, the rest was placed inside. There was room to sit inside or outside, a problem at the previous location. Though concrete the building has a retro feel to it, like they never really tried to make it into one perfect space, but rather a collection of previous additions. Old beams on the ceiling, defunct electricity units were still there. Useless, but it did add a certain warmth.

The number of breweries present this year was 27. But were all these new breweries also better in quality? Well, unfortunately new breweries tend to come out with beers that are anything but renewing, too many blondes and tripels. The market is already swamped with these and it doesn’t offer anything new. There is nothing wrong with his per sé, but I tend to try to more unusual styles. As I have noticed before the cream of the crop is getting better, the gap with the rest seems to be widening. Duits & Lauret and VandeStreek were conveniently placed outside, but it is no surprise that they had long lines. Rock City from Amersfoort is improving every year and they brought some nice barrel aged beers along with many other styles.

New breweries, no old styles

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Neobosski

If you really want to stand out as new brewery, come up with something new. A new brewery for me, and one I appreciated, was Neobossky. They have one beer, a Black IPA type with inspirated by Duits & Lauret and Emelisse. Could be worse right?

So tell me, are porters making a comeback? I had quite a few good ones in Utrecht. Oproer had a porter called Leftöver, made of you guessed it, leftovers. It’s typical that their beer made from what was laying around was better to drink than other beers. SpierBier from Mijdrecht brought a Baltic porter aged in red port barrels. One of the highlights for me and apparently also for others because they made the top 5 of most coins sold. There were other barrel aged projects that were worth trying from VandeStreek and Rock City. I didn’t even get the StapZwan porter I had last year that was amazing, and a good example of a new brewery starting with something slightly different.

Or come up with something old. De Dikke won the Most Appreciated Beer of Utrecht award with a Kuyt beer, a nice historic beerstyle that needs to be made more. It wasn’t the best beer in my view, but having the balls to make this earns a lot of bonus points. Congratulations.

Other improvements

So the new space is better. Apart from more room the food has improved too with great hotdogs and fried chicken. People walked around with Belgian fries too, a lovely touch. A pop-up Mitra store sold bottles from breweries present at the festival so you could take with you what you weren’t able to taste.

Blueprint for the future

If it is at all possible to stay at this location the festival has room to grow. I had a feeling the turnout was little less than previous years, but that could just be because they were spread out more. There now is room for even more brewers and visitors, and they only used a quarter of the available space. I will be back, I hope you will too.

P.S.

Oh, remember how I told you that I was worried about the distance from nearest railway station (Maarssen) to the festival? Not a problem, if you didn’t want to walk or weren’t able to, a shuttle brought people to and fro all day during the festival.

Heineken: Ruining small brewers for over a century

Recently I walked into a supermarket I had not been to for a while to see if there were new beers. Hurray for me! I took home bottles from Hawaiian brewery Kona, Guinness and Monteith from New Zealand. The Kona beer was fine, the Monteith not so much. It made me wonder why bottles from the other side of the world were shipped to supermarkets in Northwestern Europe where there is plenty of good beer to begin with. Then a little bird whispered to me… Heineken. Indeed, this brewery is owned by Heineken and as part of their Beers-of-the-world portfolio they pump even more of their stuff into our supermarkets. Unfortunately for the beer lover these beers are often bad, malty beers that bring absolutely nothing new. I cannot imagine anyone preferring beers like Monteith or Cruz Campo over any of the other beers for sale. Even Heineken itself is better I think.

It made me wonder why this space cannot be used for Dutch breweries, or least quality breweries. Surely if they can sell their beer here this will only be better for local business.

I am not advocating Dutch beer only. Recently the supermarket in my little village got bottles from breweries like Meantime and Goose Island. You cannot say that this is bad beer, and I for one was happy with the new offerings. Diversification is good for beer, more malty water isn’t.

I know that shipping containers from Australia and New Zealand is relatively cheap and not as much as burden on the environment as a plane, but I cannot imagine it being great either.

Heineken has breweries all over the world, driving out competitors and in some cases monopolizing local beer markets. In some cases like Congo even using rebels and armed militia to get things done (Dutch only). And let’s not forget their long history of racism and misogyny.

But let’s stick to what Heineken has done in the last 100 years to make work difficult for smaller brewers.

Some examples.

Heineken’s growth is the small brewer’s demise

Heineken started in downtown Amsterdam as De Hooiberg (the Haystack) but changed the name to Heineken and opened a brewery just outside the canals in the building that today is the Heineken Experience. The early history of Heineken is quite fascinating and is worth checking out.

mozac3afek-gekroonde-valkWith some good brewing knowledge and savvy business sense they expanded. Rapidly. To fortify its position in the Netherlands it opened new breweries and started buying other breweries. Not to expand their beer portfolio but simply to close the competition: if you can’t beat them: buy them and close them. Gone were famed breweries De Gekroonde Valk in Amsterdam or De Zwarte Ruiter in Maastricht. This led to (almost?) no stouts being made in this country anymore. No more special beer styles but only lager, only Heineken.

They became a worldwide monstrosity when Heineken made a really big splash when just three days after the end of Prohibition they landed on the shores of the US with Heineken beer; one of the most impressive stories in beer history. After the war most breweries were closed in the Netherlands, but Heineken kept growing and merging (with Amstel and Brand to name just two) to become a giant.

Cafes

Since the 60s they started to behave like banks. People wanting to open café’s often could not get a loan from a bank. Heineken provided this and often paid for the beertank in the basement. But, as you can imagine they weren’t too happy with beers outside of the Heineken family being sold here and they demanded a minimum of liters to be tapped of their beer. It was hard for a brewery outside of Heineken to get a tap. So there wasn’t much room, not many places to sell.

The contracts themselves… well, you could complain about it. They were hard to get rid of mostly and the bar was stuck to it for a very long time. In fact, the big Dutch brewers were deemed a cartel by the European Committee and were slapped with a E 274 million fine. Things are better these days and it is getting a lot easier to get local or unknown beer in a bar now, but the big breweries still block many smaller ones from entering the market. Sure, this is normal business and not something that happens in beer alone, but it makes for fewer choices for the consumer, and isn’t that really what we deserve?

Future

Does Heineken still buy smaller breweries to then close them? So far that hasn’t happened here yet. Only now have there been some small collaborations between big breweries and smaller, craft if you will, breweries. Duvel Moortgat and ‘t IJ and De Molen and Bavaria are two examples. The only ones so far but more is bound to happen in the coming years. Let’s just hope Heineken won’t resort to tactics from its history to obstruct the increasingly more knowledgeable beer drinker from what is good in the world. And supermarkets, give the small guys a shot. Heineken’s ads for James Bond probably cost more than the entire Dutch craft beer brewers earn. Let’s leave the bottles of mediocre beer in New Zealand and let that nice guy in Haarlem or Utrecht drive his van a few kilometers to your store.