Although there is still no clear definition of craft beer – if anything, I believe it to be more a consumer emotion than a set of parameters for beer to adhere to – the whole thing is driving big brewers crazy. Craft breweries are being bought by them, ‘crafty’ beers are being launched by them – but no money can buy the deeply felt emotion of beer drinkers – let alone their love. So, how do Dutch ‘big’ brewers respond to the whole thing?
One of the world’s largest breweries seems to be taking it cautiously. Sure, Big Green bought Lagunitas in two steps and now owns it completely – but it seems Lagunitas is still left to make all of its decisions by itself. No rumors of meddling with recipes, no loss of identity – but a massively increased footprint and plenty of cash to build themselves a new brewery near Manchester, England. Heineken also acquired a small Italian brand (Hibu) and now must own more than three hundred brands and breweries world wide – but Heineken itself seems focused on doing what they do best, brewing a pretty good lager. They played with ‘Wild Lager’ when they launched H41 (and subsequent offsprings) and have launched a web shop (Beerwulf) which operates independently and has European aspirations.
Any crafty ambitions are left to small daughter brewery Brand: every year it hosts a homebrewers competition on a fixed beer style, the winner of which ends up in the permanent portfolio of Brand. Co-organized with PINT, the Dutch beer consumer organization, this year the competition revolves around Gose.
All in all, Heineken seems to stay away from pretending to be something they aren’t: a craft brewer in the eye of the beer geek. Rightfully so, it focusses on its lager – having seriously changed their marketing attitude. Rather than trying to appeal to wannabe stockbrokers partying in Singapore or Vegas, they are now talking about the beer again. They actually call it beer again – many marketeers tend to refer to their product as ‘the liquid’. Really, they do.
Now owned by Japanese brewery Asahi, Grolsch seems to be left alone for now. It will be interesting to see how it will develop into, and will eventually be done with – and to – the brand. But for now Grolsch brew master Marc Janssen clearly has plenty of time and opportunity to play around in his pilot brew house. In 2015, when SAB Miller still owned the place, Grolsch launched Kornuit – a ‘crafty’ lager which aggravated me. Marc Janssen actually starred in the TV-add, and has stayed away from that since. Good.
I met him last year at the opening festival of Dutch Beer Week and tasted his Weizen IPA. I liked it, but was more impressed by the man himself. He is clearly as passionate a brewer as any woman or man stirring in a kettle. He’s about beer, and I believe if you’d let him loose he’d be crafting some awesome stuff. After his experiment with Weizen IPA he’s been playing with other styles, and one of the perks of being a beer blogger is that savvy marketing ladies send you some of those experiments to sample. Hence I got to try his Session IPA, Saison, wine barrel (Sauternes) aged Tripel and some days ago a bottle of Porter landed in my fridge. Some of these beers were tested in selected Dutch bars so potentially they may be launched at a larger scale.
I sort of hope so. Grolsch brews a decent lager and a long list of fruit flavored (nonalcoholic) Radler. But although most of the test brews could have been way more outspoken, they do indicate Grolsch is seriously looking at what they can actually do. And, for beers looking to appeal to a large consumer group, I enjoyed all of these test beers – wine barrel aged Tripel the most.
Meanwhile, in Lieshout, it’s all about buying your way into craft. Bavaria purchased Palm Breweries and released some real weird TV-adds on it – but we haven’t seen any serious beer development from them since. It also remained fairly silent on their collaborations with De Molen and Maallust – which is probably more worrying than hearing lots of it. Late 2016 I worked myself up over some hilarious newspaper article in which, among a whole lot of other oddities, Bavaria said it wanted to position itself as the biggest independent family brewery in the world. Funny, isn’t it? Currently they seem to be real busy with a nutty attempt to have carnival be made an official national holiday – not so much because they like carnival, but it makes for an awesome selling opportunity. Bavaria’s biggest contribution to beer innovation was last year’s introduction of beer ice – a disgraceful attempt to bring alcohol into a new shelf in supermarkets. It makes one think they’re totally clueless in Brabant.
Dutch MegaBrew (Anheuser-Busch InBev)
And then there is ABI – considered by many the Evil Empire of beer. The biggest play in The Netherlands is their distribution of Goose Island, but the fun is with Hertog Jan. Brew master Gerard van den Broek and his team have been playing some cool games with their flagship Grand Prestige, releasing vintages over the past years. And inspired – amongst others – by their fellow ABI brewers of Goose Island, they’ve been barrel aging this award winning barley wine. Recently they release fout new versions, all aged in Bourbon barrels (however, it remains unknown which distillery partnered with them), three of them spiced up. Besides the ‘standard’ Bourbon barrel aged there are versions with juniper berries, vanilla and VOC spices (a blend of spices the Dutch used to ‘import’ from South-East Asia). I got to pre-taste them in their barrel version, so without gas, and accompanied by culinary masterpieces made by Luc Kusters (Restaurant Bolenius). The beers were very young and tended to overpower the delicate Dutch Cuisine dishes, but the idea is great. Beer is in the spotlight again. But I also believe that if Carlos knew about this, he’d pull the plug straight away – “Stop wasting my precious dollars on that stuff!” – and Gerard and his team would be back at brewing something less interesting.
Dutch ‘mega brewers’ all take a different approach, and will consequently have different results and successes. Meanwhile Dutch small and independent brewers continue to gain ground and brew awesome beer. So what should we make of it?
There’s one thing I believe we should be happy about. Because, due to all the changes brought to us by the beer revolution, most big breweries have changed at least part of their attitude: they’ve put beer central again. They actually talk about, and think about, the liquid – and now even call it by its name again!
Putting beer central again is one thing, but will they also put the beer drinker central again? Because all the above examples of how Dutch ‘big’ brewers respond to the beer revolution – or better: probably none of the above examples – will buy them the deeply felt emotion of beer drinkers – let alone their love. There still may be no clear definition of craft beer but beer drinkers increasingly know full well what they want, and what they don’t want, to be drinking. Darauf ein Bier!