All about Dutch beer brands, gruit, kuit, bock and white beer!
Beer has been brewed for centuries, dating back well before the Middle Ages. At this time, it was primarily brewed in monasteries and consumed at mealtimes. The alcohol percentage was pretty low, so much so, even children drank it. Beer was brewed with a variety of grains (from the year 1000 mainly wheat) and flavoured with a mix of locally sourced herbs such as bay leaf, cumin, aniseed, and gale as the main seasoning. It is for this reason that it will have tasted different from country to country and even region, depending on what ingredients were available locally. Traditional styles were heavy, dark, and in fact verging on medicinal!
This beer was called gruit beer. Brewers bought the gruit (the spice mixture) in a local gruit house. At home they then turned it into beer. This was typically a woman's job, by the way; brewing mainly took place at home, while the men were working elsewhere.
Around the year 1300 the hop plant was introduced from the northern German cities. In some beers, the gruit was completely replaced by hops, giving it a pleasantly bitter taste and a longer shelf life. In fact, British brewers then incorporated hops into their brewing process after hearing about the Dutch!
A century later, kuit beer started to grow in popularity. Kuit is a top-fermented, slightly cloudy, and slightly bitter beer. Although today barley is the most commonly used brewing grain for many beer styles, kuit is brewed with at least 45% pale oats and 20% wheat. Dutch kruit beer became a very successful export in the 15th and 16th centuries, drunk in Germany, northern France and England.
Fun fact: The surnames Hoppenbrouwer and Kuitenbrouwer are still present in the Netherlands today and refer to these two beer types.
So, the Dutch beer landscape as we know it, including the brands we mention below, started changing in the mid-eighties, when more and more brewers began to focus on "special beer".
This then led to what we know and love as the “craft beer revolution”. We have the Americans to thank for the ‘craft' beer phenomenon and proliferation, that’s where it all began. This so called “revolution” all centred around prohibition in the US, the law banning the sale and production of alcohol. Everything was turned upside down when President Jimmy Carter lifted the ban on home brewing. The outcome was that many hobby brewers were then able to sell their own beers. Brewing imports then increased, giving rise to more enthusiastic beer fans. This new community of beer lovers, inspired by new flavours, began to brew alternatives to the popular and widespread lagers. These new special beers were affectionately called “craft beer”. At the same time in England, CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) was born, committing to British beer culture, and in the Netherlands, it’s the first time Dutch brewers look towards their neighbours for inspiration and start brewing traditional Belgian beer styles. Consumer association PINT was also founded to promote Dutch beer culture!
According to the most recent count, The Netherlands now has 782 registered breweries. Some of them are 'rented brewers', where they brew using equipment that belongs to other brewers. They get beer styles and inspiration from everywhere these days. The Belgian styles are of course still doing well, while the IPA, for example, has established itself here from
England via America as one of the most popular styles. The heavier styles are also very popular, such as Russian Imperial Stouts and beers that are aged in whisky/bourbon barrels.
Brewers are now also increasingly returning to the classics. Jopen, for example, does this with their Jopen Koyt. This is a gruit beer that was brewed in honour of Haarlem's 750th anniversary and is based on a recipe from 1407.
The witbier (literally, white beer) is made using un-malted wheat. White beer is also a bit of a cultural reference to the aforementioned gruit, it has aromas of coriander and orange peel. White beer traditionally has a small percentage of oats in, like the kuit beers. As does Oatmeal Stout, for that matter.
White beers are full of orange and vanilla tones, ending with both sweet and sour. As soon as the sun starts to shine in the Netherlands, the many terraces are packed with people enjoying a white beer. The beer style is also widely brewed in the Netherlands. For example, the IJwit, one of the most popular beers from Brouwerij 't IJ. With its 6.5%, it is on the stronger side, but also extra tasty. A nice alternative is the extra refreshing Zonnig Zeewit from Gebrouwen door Vrouwen, with only 3.8% alcohol it's very easy drinking and full of flavour. Or go for another Amsterdam icon, Lowlander White, a real thirst quencher for summer days.
Despite this nationwide adoption, white beer has its genesis in neighbouring Belgium (yes them again). Belgians are still the godfathers. Most of the best emulate Belgian styles.
You cannot write about Dutch beer culture without mentioning bock beer. Yet the bock beer as we know it today is actually an evolution of a German beer style. The Dutch versions are seasonal produced, resulting in two major releases of bock beers each year. Creatively, the Dutch bocks hinge on the two seasons they are brewed for. Firstly, there is the Lentebok (the spring bock), a lighter and hoppier variation of the two, though as beers go, it’s still quite malt-forward and bready. This is later followed by the Herfstbok (the autumn bock), these are dark and malty, with more prominent "autumnal" notes of toast and nuts. Interested in hearing more? Read What is bock beer?
Compared to their neighbours Germany and Belgium, the Netherlands may not be known as a true beer country. That being said, The Netherlands is home to some of the big hitters in beer, if not, the biggest hitters. And with hundreds of different breweries the Dutch beer market is still a global player. This is not an exhaustive list, just a great starting place!
No mention of Dutch beer would be complete without out special mention of Heineken. What’s the first thing you think of when asked about Dutch food or drink? It's unquestionable. It's the iconic green bottle with the smiling e's! Heineken has been brewed since 1873. At the time of writing this, there are 125 Heineken breweries, spanning more than 70 countries. Dutch beer isn’t limited to this golden lager though, there’s a whole world of styles out there, as you can see!
Dutch breweries are no different to UK and their proliferation of IPAs in recent decades. And just like the UK, they are big fans of hops, often throwing huge quantities into their brew kettles, resulting in punchy, bitter, resinous brews. However, unlike the UK, there is a focus on beer styles that extend beyond lager and IPA. Dutch drinkers are big on blondes, stouts and tripels too! Unlike their Belgian and German counterparts, Dutch beer, especially craft is less renowned for producing a small number of styles exquisitely, more for experimentation and playing around with trends. Here are some interesting and "experimental" craft brewers: