In the 19th century, one of the most important changes in brewing took place, in Holland just like in the rest of the world: the advent of lager. It meant completely new ways of producing beer, but also new ways of running breweries.
But first, let’s have look at Dutch beer before lager. The nineteenth century, the era of gas light, horse-drawn carts and steam trains. And there was no lager to be found, initially. Old newspapers give an excellent view of the range of beers available at the time. Beer drinkers could choose from funny sounding styles like Princesse, Gersten (‘barley’), Double Gersten, Minnebier (‘wet-nurse beer’) and so on. I’ll be getting back to what the heck these beers were and how they tasted. On top of that, there were some beers that we now consider typically Belgian: there was Dutch faro, lambiek and oud bruin, the latter then being similar to today’s Flemish sour brown beers.
To be perfectly honest, Dutch beer did not have a very good reputation in the 19th century. Many considered it to be quite weak and poor in quality when compared to beers from other countries. This was a bit harsh, considering the wide range of Dutch beers available, but there was some truth to it, as we will see. Luckily for Dutch beer lovers, there was also plenty of British beer available: even in small towns there was English Pale Ale, Scotch Ale, Strong Ale, Porter and Stout to be had.
The latest craze however was ‘Bavarian’ beer: initially with names like Erlanger, Nürnberger and Kitzinger, it came to Holland around 1835, and never went away again. This was the era of steam ships and railways: it became easier than ever before to transport barrels from Central Europe to any place on the continent. And this Bavarian beer was of excellent quality: in Holland, it soon earned a great reputation.
The great innovation of Bavarian beer was bottom fermentation. For the less initiated: bottom fermentation means fermentation at a cool temperature, somewhere between 4 and 10 degrees Celsius (39 and 50 Fahrenheit). This contrasted with the traditional bottom fermentation which takes place at room temperature. To give you an idea: basically all specialty beers are still brewed top-fermented nowadays; it’s mostly lagers and other German beers that are bottom-fermented. So the range of bottom-fermented beers is not so big, but volume-wise the lagers have won: the whole world is drinking it.
Naturally, back in the 1800s, some Dutch brewers were keen to cash in on this new beer craze. But there were a few obstacles along the way, notably: how do you get the cold temperatures required? Mechanical refrigeration didn’t exist yet. Holland is on the North Sea coast: the climate isn’t exactly Bora Bora, but you don’t get extremely cold winters either, unlike the Bavarian brewers who could also benefit from cellars and caves in their Bavarian hills and moutains. And there was another problem: the Dutch tax laws were very unfavourable to Bavarian-style brewing, which required the mash tun to be filled several times.
That said, already in 1844 a brewer from The Hague, a certain B.M. Perk, announced that he had adapted his brewery for production of ‘the so commonly sought-after Bavarian beer’. In the years after that, a few more brewers followed suit. But it wasn’t until 1864, when a 22 year old youngster called Gerard Adriaan Heineken bought the Amsterdam Hooiberg (‘Haystack’) brewery, that bottom-fermentation was really going to take off in Holland. Heineken didn’t introduce bottom-fermentation at the Hooiberg: the brewery had been making ‘Bavarian’ beer since 1858. But Heineken was a gifted businessman who would change the small traditional brewhouse into a modern factory in a matter of years.
Just don’t think that this means Heineken immediately produced the yellow-coloured frothy lager that it’s now so famous for. It wasn’t that Heineken that won them the gold medal in Paris in 1875 which is still proudly shown on their label. The first Dutch Bavarian beers seem to have been mostly dark in colour, not unlike Munich’s dunkles beer. The blonde ‘pilsener’ lager didn’t arrive in Holland until 1877, when it was first served by ‘Austrian girls in national costume’ at the Amsterdam Palace of Popular Industry (Paleis voor Volksvlijt), an exhibition building not unlike London’s Crystal Palace.
For Heineken it would take another ten years or so before they brewed their own version of Pilsener, with the ‘A’-strain of yeast that was isolated by the company chemist in 1886. And even then, for years their pilsener lager which is now their pride and joy would only be a minor player in their range of beers. In 1911 for instance, almost half of the output of Heineken’s big Rotterdam brewery was taken up by a dark,cheap lager called ‘gerste’ (‘barley’), with pilsener making up only 12,7% of production. Recently, the Dutch Jopen brewery recreated this gerste beer in collaboration with Amsterdam-based beer historian Ron Pattinson. Actually, this Jopen recreation wasn’t so bad; a pity that it was just a one-off!
After the First World War, almost no top-fermenting breweries were left in Holland. Bottom-fermenting lager brewers like Heineken, Amstel and Oranjeboom had pushed them off the market with considerable ease. The traditional breweries were much smaller in scale and quite a few of them still used backward methods. But even bigger and better equipped companies like Amsterdam’s Van Vollenhoven brewery had to give up their top-fermenting princesse beers in favour of lager and in their case, stout. It simply was what the Dutch public wanted. In a matter of decades all the traditional Dutch beers had gone – and nobody seemed to care.
After the Second World War, the variety of even the bottom-fermented Dutch beers disappeared. The gerste, Munich, dark lager and Dortmunder all gave way to a flood of pilsener, up to the point were Dutch breweries made virtually nothing else. In other countries, like the UK and Belgium, lager caught on much later than in Holland, top-fermenting breweries were much stronger and traditional beers were much more loved. In Holland, the old beers disappeared without a trace.
And that, of course, is why those old Dutch beers are so appealing – they are the country’s biggest secret. But not for long anymore, of course – we’ll be looking into them on this blog, starting tomorrow. And that will be including recipes.
 For more on gerste, Heineken’s production in 1911 and the collaboration with Jopen, check out Ron’s website: http://barclayperkins.blogspot.com.