Monday, January 21, 2013

Dutch masters

Eight whole years had managed to fly by since I'd last visited Brouwerij 't IJ. I've no idea how I let that happen. I used to love coming to the quirky little tap room under the windmill: very much a neighbourhood pub for a few convivial after-work drinks rather than an attraction for tourists or beer geeks (what are they?) So, a couple of days into 2013, we set off on a brisk walk through eastern Amsterdam to the brewery.

As we walked through the onion-skin city, the 17th century core gave way to 19th century splendour by the zoo and the neighbourhood was altogether more modern by the time the windmill was in sight. I had heard that the pub, too, had undergone a transformation in recent years and sure enough it has almost doubled in size, turning an L-shape with a new 18-tap bar running the whole way along. And yet they've still managed to retain a lot of the old poky character. It still has a watering-hole feel and the locals are still drinking in it, though they're now outnumbered by the backpackers and international students. Opening time has moved a whole hour forward to accommodate the newcomers, and the doors were unlocked at 2pm. Closing remains a strict, civilised, 8pm. So still very much my kind of place.

Even with all the new tap space, the selection is still mostly limited to the old IJ reliables. But among these there are a couple that have never made it to this blog so I started with the intention of putting that right. Plzeň is, as the name suggests, the house pale lager: arriving a misty yellow colour with the yeast discernible by taste as well as by sight. It's a pleasant beer, though: mildly spicy with hints of lemon; refreshing like a good witbier. I'd go as far as to say it's more like a wit than IJwit which is almost completely clear and incredibly sweet: bursting with bubblegum notes. I liked it, but it wouldn't be for everyone.

On to the newer stuff, and seasonal of the moment was WIJssenbock, a smooth dark amber Dutch-style bock of 7% ABV. There's an amazing balancing act going on here with a smooth and fruity raisin flavour contrasting with a light and zesty bitterness making for a strong beer that's very sinkable. At the same strength and a similar colour there was also Speciale Vlo, created in association with top Amsterdam off licence De Bierkoning. This is sharper, with a strong seam of pine resin hops running through it as well as a tannic quality, like some English bitters. I found it a bit too punchy to begin with, the intense hops giving it an air of floor cleaner, but my palate adjusted quickly and by the end I'd have happily ordered another, only it was time to move on.

Even greater than my surprise at not visiting 't IJ in so long was the discovery that in ten years of drinking in Amsterdam I had completely missed a central brewpub. Bier Fabriek isn't exactly a new arrival, so I guess the reason I'd never heard of it before was partly because it's in a bit of a commercial black hole, fronting onto the everlasting building works on Rokin, and partly because it's not really worth talking about.

For one thing, it's dark. They've gone with low light and bare concrete I suppose for an industrial look, but it just ends up feeling oppressive. The staff were cheery enough and the supply of peanuts was a nice touch: throw your shells on the floor to add character. But the beer really wasn't up to much. Three offerings, namely Alfa Puur, a sickeningly sweet, diacetyl-laden pils; Rosso, a strawberryish red with lots of earthy woody funk, indicating to me that Dr Brett has paid a visit, most likely without an invitation; and Nero, a strong black beer -- a lager, I would guess -- that has overdone the dry roast flavours. These don't taste like the work of someone who loves making beer. I find it hard to believe the brewer even enjoys drinking the stuff.

In one of Europe's top beer cities, Beer Fabriek is eminently skippable.

Top of my agenda for this quick excursion to the Netherlands was a trip out of the city to Haarlem, and a visit to the Jopenkerk. Jopen is a fairly big, well established, Dutch brewery but the range and quality of their beer is impressive. Information on where the main brewing happens is hard come by, but the Jopenkerk is their brewing showroom: a roomy brewpub in a converted church set up more to help show the process to the punters than as a serious production facility.

We were there early on a Sunday afternoon. Most of Haarlem doesn't open until 4 on a Sunday and this is one of the rare exceptions. Only a handful of people were in before us and almost on the dot of 4pm it became instantly packed, largely with families. Haarlem is a town set in its ways, it seems.

I kicked off with one of their flagships: Hoppenbier, a hazy golden affair brewed to a local recipe from 1501, they say. There's a candy fruit aroma, like rhubarb and custard sweets, and the flavour is full of juicy satsuma zest, plus a little bit of incense spice. The Hoppenbier hops haven't been sitting around since 1501 anyway. Commemorating the centenary of the Jopenkerk building in 2011, there's Jacobus, a 5.3% ABV pale ale made with rye. Not too much rye, I think, as there's only a mild hint of the sharp grassiness I dislike in these beers. It's mostly quite smooth, with toffee and caramel, balanced against lightly lemony hops.

Herself, meanwhile, opted for 4-Granen Bok, a dark red beer of 6.5% ABV with a sweet pipesmoke aroma and bucket loads of chocolate in the flavour, turning dry and a little astringent. Overall it's a rounded warming beer, which is just what you want from a winter bock, regardless of the number of different grains in it. This was followed by the powerhouse blackcurrant beer Johannieter, at 9% ABV. Pitch black, it's sticky and Christmassy but the fruit isn't laid on too thick, successfully avoiding Ribenafication.

From these four it should be apparent that Jopen like mucking about with beer and using odd ingredients and recipes. A black IPA seems almost pedestrian in this context, but there it was: Grateful Deaf, brewed in collaboration with Ken Fisher, a gypsy brewer from Oregon and utilising the Zythos hop blend. It's very much on the "hoppy stout" end of the spectrum, with the dark sticky liquorice flavours to the fore, and a creamy texture. The hops mostly provide bitterness, giving the same intense, almost acrid, sensation you get with Porterhouse Wrassler's XXXX. It's a flavour profile that seems to pull in too many directions at once.

Time was beginning to run short and the pub getting uncomfortably full but I wasn't going to miss Jopen's Grätzer and Grodziskie, historical recreations of smoked beer from recipe research by Ron Pattinson and Evan Rail. The Grätzer is made from 100% smoked wheat malt and pours a cloudy yellow, like an innocent weizen. But raising it to the nose induces a blast of hospital corridor phenols. A burnt element comes in on tasting: embers and iodine, with a sour tang around the edge of the tongue. Hard work, but at 4% ABV it's manageable; any stronger and I think it would be a struggle. The Grodziskie is a little more refined with less heavy smoke and more of an exotic whiff of the thurible about it.

The Jopen supping didn't end with Sunday service, however. We picked up an unseasonal bottle of their Lentebier in De Bierkoning, finding it still marvellously fresh and zingy with lots of lemon zest. And later in Beer Temple had a go at Mashing Pumpkins, a collaboration with SNAB. This is another 9%-er, a dark red-amber and, while showing lovely cinnamon spicing in the aroma, lacks the flavour to back it up. There's also a weird sourness from the smoked malt which they added for some reason.

I'll allow Jopen the occasional dud as long as they keep the odd stuff coming.

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