Nijmegen Mol

Nijmegen molLooking for lost beers is fun. But what do you do once you’ve found such an old recipe? Do you start brewing it again? Can you brew it again? An interesting example is a beer from Nijmegen. This nice Dutch university town by the Waal river is a good beery place to visit. It has De Hemel brewery in the town centre in what is originally a 12th century building. Young brewers like Oersoep and Katjelam are not afraid of the odd experiment. But once Nijmegen was really famous for its beer: mol. Which in Dutch means ‘mole’.

‘The city is renowned’, it was written in 1741, ‘for its breweries of a certain white beer, called Mol, to which is attributed a cooling, off-setting and cleansing power. Drunk fresh, it is no distasteful drink. The Nijmegen mol is not only sent daily throughout the lands of Guelders and Cleves, but even as far as Holland.’[1]

The earliest mention of this Nijmegen white beer dates from 1519 and it was highly praised throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The young British politician Edward Southwell visited Nijmegen in 1696 and remarked: ‘This place is famous for Moll, which is a white Beer, and the only tolerable Malt drink made in the Provinces’.[2] Another Englishman, Walter Harris, noted three years later: ‘Their Nimmeguen Moll, that is so plentifully transported about Holland, is a sort of Oat-Ale, much celebrated for its sanative Virtues… ‘Tis a well-tasted, mild and wholesome Ale.’[3]

In fact, Mol had only one disadvantage: it could not be kept for a long time. People had to ‘protect this Drink from decay’ and it was hard to transport over long distances, ‘because it quickly loses its freshness and taste.’[4] Yet it was available outside Nijmegen, among others in Amsterdam and Antwerp. In 1691 the traveling youngster Mathijs Beelaerts was extremely happy upon arriving in the town of Zwolle: ‘Here I first found Nijmegen Mol, for which I had craved so often during my illness, and which also refreshed me a lot.’[5]

As it goes with popular products, brewers in other towns started imitating the mol. They did so in Amsterdam, and in Haarlem and Weesp ‘Beer and Mol breweries’ surfaced in the eighteenth century. Maybe it was in connection with this that the Nijmegen breweries faded away. In 1829 J. Buurman in his ‘Geographical description of the city of Nijmegen’ had to conclude that the once 72 breweries had ‘declined because of less sales’: there were only six left. Worse, the ‘once so very famous and sought-after mol is not being brewed anymore.’[6]

And so, the recipe of the Nijmegen mol was lost. But not forever. In 1994, Dutch culinary and brewing historian Rudolf Nunes Ferro leafed through a collection of 17th-century brewing recipes from brewery ‘Den Witten Anker’ (The white anchor) from Dordrecht. Among them he found a recipe for ‘Nimweeghse Mol’. Ironically through one of the many breweries in Holland that had imitated the Nijmegen original, the recipe now returned to its home town. Pub owner Ton Lenting had the beer rebrewed by the Hertog Jan brewery for his Nijmegen pub De Stoof, for the first time in maybe two hundred years.[7]

But what sort of beer was this? Firstly and notably, it was brewed with ‘white barley malt’, which according to Nunes Ferro was ‘wind malt’: light-coloured malt that had not been dried trough heating, but just by having the wind blow past its grains, in an attic. Secondly, there was some fiddling about with the liquids during the brewing process. Not only did they subtract wort from the malt two times (a ‘first’ and ‘second mash’), but of the first mash, only two-thirds were hopped; the remainder was called ‘ontzet’ and kept apart.

The second mash was then also boiled and added to the hopped part of the first mash, after which this was left for ten hours to let it become sour (even longer in winter time). After this it was sent to the fermentation vessel. But then there was still the other one-third non-hopped wort from the first mash, the ‘ontzet’. This was softly boiled for three days(!), until all that was left was a sweet, syrupy liquid. This thick extract was finally added to the fermented beer, and the mol was ready.

What did it taste like? According to Nunes Ferro, the wind malt was somewhat sour by itself, and then the hopped wort had been left to turn sour in the vessel. But just before vatting, they would then add the sweet extract. In this way, the beer got a sweet-sour taste and it would foam a lot. There was, as we saw, however one disadvantage: the beer had been fermented, the extract not yet. When after ten days this had finished fermenting too, only a sour taste was left. That’s why the Nijmegen mol had to be drunk fresh: once the sweet extract had fermented, it was undrinkable…

So, back to the nineties. How to revive such a 17th-century recipe? Do you want to make a beer that only lasts for ten days? And thus the recipe was somewhat tinkered with, also because the beer was deemed too sour for modern taste buds. The mol brewed for the De Stoof pub at Hertog Jan turned out to be a reddish, opaque beer of 4,5 ABV and was available on a small scale for a few years. When Nijmegen celebrated its two thousand years of existence in 2005, De Hemel brewery gave the mol a go, this time as an orange-blond beer at 6% ABV. Brewmaster Herm Hegger admitted he also had changed the recipe ‘a tad’. ‘A brewer always does.’

Recently, Mattias Terpstra of Katjelam brewery asked me about Nijmegen mol. I then interpreted the old recipe and Nunes Ferro’s description of it into a sort of recipe:

Recipe Nijmegen mol

As said, the mol is fit to drink only for a short period of time. So what to do with it, in 2016 AD? The best idea would be to put it on draught during a festival. You can’t put it in bottles: they would surely explode and if not, the sweet-sour effect would be gone after one week and a half. An alternative would be to pasteurise the whole thing, killing the yeast. Anyway, the mol reconstructions from 1995 and 2005 seem like ordinary white beers, that had not a lot to do with the ‘real’ mol. I guess it’s up to Katjelam to bring the genuine mol back to Nijmegen…[8]

[1] Tegenwoordige Staat der Vereenigde Nederlanden. Derde deel, vervattende de Beschryving der Provincie Gelderland, Amsterdam 1741, p. 214-215.

[2] K. Fremantle, ‘A visit to the United Provinces and Cleves in the time of William III. Described in Edward Southwell’s journal’, in: Nederlands kunsthistorisch jaarboek, 21 (1970), p. 39-86, here p. 64.

[3] Walter Harris, A description of the King’s royal palace and gardens at Loo together with A short account of Holland in which there are some observations relating to their diseases, London 1699, p. 62.

[4] Ergbert Buys, Nieuw en volkomen woordenboek van konsten en weetenschappen, zevende deel, Amsterdam 1775, p. 459; Tegenwoordige Staat p. 415.

[5] F. Beelaerts van Blokland, Matthijs Beelaerts, ‘Met gecommitteerden uit den Raad van State op reis in 1691, Medegedeeld door Jhr. Mr. F. Beelaerts van Blokland’, in: Bijdragen en Mededeelingen van het Historisch Genootschap, deel 55 (1934), p. 176-231, here p. 229.

[6] J. Buurman, Aardrijkskundige beschrijving der stad Nijmegen, Nijmegen 1829, p. 14-15.

[7] Rudolf Nunes Ferro, ‘Een verloren gewaand bierrecept herontdekt. De bereidingswijze van de Nijmeegse mol’ in: Jaarboek Numaga 1994, p. 43-52.

[8] This article was based on an earlier version in Dutch,

3 responses to “Nijmegen Mol”

  1. Bosh says:

    Sounds a lot like Korean makgeolli which is a sour rice beer that was traditionally drunk fast before hitting final gravity so there’d be some residual sweetness to counter the lactic sourness.

    Obviously selling stuff with a active culture that hasn’t hit FG is hard to do and it was mostly wiped out.

    It’s made a big come back but the modern commercial stuff is generally fermented to FG and then back sweetened with artificial sweetener which just isn’t the same.

  2. qq says:

    Boak and Bailey have unearthed an obscure beer from Devon called Ashburton Pop, whose most notable features were a high level of carbonation and a certain “richness”. Sounds very plausible that it was an attempt to replicate mol for visitors to the port of Plymouth, or at least used the krausen-syrup technique. It was thought of as a competitor to “white ale” which presumably was the Devon clone of koyt or broyhan or something.

    It’s interesting comparing the timing with the development of champagne and its relatives. It makes sense that making secondary fermentations using priming sugars etc would develop first in beer and then cross over to wine where they had to wait for the development of strong enough bottles. Christopher Merret in the UK was the first to formally write about secondary fermentation in wine in 1662, but the idea seems to have been floating around for a while before then.

  3. Roel Mulder says:

    That does sound interesting. At least it shows the idea was floating around.

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