Tastings School - The Netherlands - Refreshing the parts other beers cannot reach

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The Netherlands - Refreshing the parts other beers cannot reach

Roger Protz goes behind the scenes at the gigantic Heineken brewery in Amsterdam

Small country, big beer. Heineken is a beer colossus, the world’s fourth biggest producer and, the company claims, the most profitable. This success has been built by breaking out of the straight jacket of the Dutch market, with a population of just 14 million, and going global.

The figures spelt out to visitors to the Dutch head office and brewery at Zoeterwoude outside Amsterdam are mind-boggling. The group produces 118 million hectolitres of beer a year. It owns 130 breweries in 65 countries, employs 57,000 people, has such other famous brands as Cruzcampo (Spain), Moretti and Dreher (Italy) and Bingtang (Indonesia) in its portfolio, and is building a major presence in the emerging markets of China and Russia.

It’s all a long way removed from the humble origins of the company in 1863. Gerard Adriaan Heineken was so appalled by the depravity and drunkenness caused by gin drinking in Amsterdam that he told his mother he would make healthy beer for the masses if she would buy a brewery for him. Mrs Heineken dutifully broke open her piggy bank and bought De Hooiberg – the Haystack – brewery, the largest in the Dutch capital, with records going back to 1592.

Heineken was an instant success. Within a few years he had built a second brewery in Amsterdam and opened a third plant in Rotterdam by 1873. The Haystack closed long ago but it remains a potent symbol of the history and growth of the company, with every Heineken brewery throughout the world sporting a Haystack bar.

Heineken, which merged with its great Amsterdam rival, Amstel in 1968, grew to dominate the Dutch market, accounting for half the beer produced in the country. The company was busy in export markets for many years, but its global success was created by the remarkable figure of Alfred Heineken, known as Freddy, who died in 2002 after a career spanning 60 years with the brewery.

When Freddy, grandson of the founder, joined Heineken it was a public company, but he was determined to restore it to family control. With the support of the banks, he achieved this aim in 1954 and set about turning Heineken into a global giant.

He believed in strong branding. He dumped such folksy images as Dutch windmills and achieved international success by putting his beer into attractive green bottles with a red star logo. Today 80 per cent of Heineken’s income comes from overseas sales, though the company’s presence in the Dutch market is daunting: Grolsch, based in Enschede near the German border, is another big export brewer but is tiny compared to Heineken.

The Rotterdam plant was built solely for export. It became surplus to requirements when breweries were built abroad and Heineken now supplies the Dutch market with plants at Zoeterwoude and Den Bosch, the latter 50 kilometres south of Amsterdam. The main Amsterdam brewery closed in 1988 and is now a visitor centre and museum called the Heineken Experience that attracts 300,000 visitors a year.

Zoeterwoude is the most modern brewing plant in Europe and is so huge that visitors have to tour it by bus.

Four million litres of water are stored on site, along with 11,000 tonnes of malt. There are six brewing streams, with production running at 560,000 bottles an hour from 14 bottling lines.

When the Haystack brewery was bought by Gerard Heineken, the pilsner revolution was in full swing in central Europe and Scandinavia. Dr H Elion, a student of Louis Pasteur, isolated a pure strain of brewer’s yeast suitable for cold fermentation for Heineken and this culture is still used throughout the world to produce the group’s beers.

Heineken’s master brewer at Zoeterwoude, Jean Bohmen, explained that 5% Heineken, known either just by that name or as Heineken Pilsner, is “the building bricks of the company.

The basic recipe from Amsterdam is used by all our breweries. The original single strain yeast – known as Heineken A – is shipped all over the world and the same raw ingredients are also common to all our breweries – we need consistency of flavour.” Amstel is brewed in the same plant and its separate yeast culture is discharged after every brew – Heineken is careful to avoid any crossfertilisation of the two cultures. “You have to keep your yeast happy, like a woman,” Jean Bohmen said with a gravelly laugh and a total disregard for political correctness. He said that for the Dutch market, the group has phased out the use of maize blended with barley malt. Grolsch has followed suit and Jean said all Dutch brewers are moving to all-malt beers. “It gives beer a boost – they are premium products, as good as wine.” Heineken uses barley grown in Belgium, France, central Europe and Scandinavia. Its main pilsner is hopped with Yakima Chief from the United States while Amstel uses Aurora and Saaz from Germany and the Czech Republic. Water is reclaimed from the surrounding dunes, cleaned and put through a reverse osmosis system to remove all impurities. Calcium and magnesium are then added as flavour enhancers. Jean Bohmen said the water, at the end of these processes, is medium, neither hard in the English style or soft in the Czech version.

Brewing water at Den Bosch, in contrast, is drawn from wells.

Heineken uses a ‘step infusion’ system of mashing that is a hybrid between the British infusion system and the classic decoction method preferred by central European lager brewers.

Mashing, where malt starch is transformed into fermentable sugar, takes place in mash tuns, where the temperature of the water starts at 80º Celsius and drops to 50º, followed by a ‘protein rest,’ when protein that would create a haze in the finished beer is removed. The temperature is then raised first to 60 degrees and finally to 70 degrees, by which time starch conversion has taken place. The sugary extract or wort is clarified in a lauter tun and then boiled with hops, in pellet and extract forms, for two hours. The hopped wort is filtered in a whirlpool to remove any remaining protein, is cooled to seven degrees and fermented for seven days.

Heineken Pilsner is lagered or cold conditioned for a minimum of 28 days, Amstel for 18 days. While Amstel is conditioned in upright conical tanks, Heineken, as its television promotion stresses, prefers horizontal vessels. Secondary fermentation is slower in horizontal vessels, creating a fuller flavoured beer with some malt sugars remaining.

For its domestic market, Heineken has a range of beers that will surprise drinkers accustomed only to regular Pilsner or Amstel. In 1989, the group bought the Brand brewery in Wijlre, close to Maastricht, which still operates there and produces two superb lager beers, Pils and a stronger version, Brand-UP – UP is short for Urtyp Pilsner or Original Pilsner. The group also bought the De Ridder (The Knight) brewery in Maastricht. The plant has closed but De Ridder’s tangy and lemony cloudy wheat beer Wieckse Witte is now brewed at Zoeterwoude.

Beer at the two main Dutch plants is produced, as Jean Bohmen puts it, “24/7”. This is the antithesis of microbrewing but unlike some global giants there are beers to suit the most fastidious palates. Today this massive global business is run by Freddy Heineken’s daughter Charlene, whose name sounds more like a character from an American TV soap than a brewing mogul, but who is determinedly building influence in markets that – to paraphrase an old Heineken slogan – other beers fail to reach.

Tasting notes

Light toasted malt and gentle hop aroma with a touch of apple fruit. Hop bitterness builds in the mouth with juicy malt and a hint of fruit. The finish is dry, malty and gently bitter

Malty, buttery nose with good punch of hops. Biscuity malt and spicy hops dominate the palate while the long, bittersweet finish has some good hop notes

Hopped with German Northern Brewer, Perle and Hersbrucker, with 28 bitterness units, it is lagered for 48 days and has a floral hop aroma, with a big malty and hoppy palate and a lingering hoppy and bitter finish

BRAND-UP (5.5%)
The pick of the bunch – a classic Pilsner matured for 56 days. It’s an all-malt beer and is hopped with German Hersbrucker, Spalt and Tettnang varieties, which create an impressive 36 to 38 units of bitterness. It has a superb floral hop aroma with toasted malt and lemon fruit notes. Sappy malt, tart fruit and bitter hops fill the mouth, followed by a long and complex finish that has hop resins, juicy malt and tangy fruit

A wheat beer packed with tart lemon and spicy aromas and flavours, a creamy malt note in the mouth and a long finish that is spicy, fruity and wonderfully refreshing In the Netherlands watch out for Amstel Gold (7%), a rich, malty but quenching beer in the style known as ‘Dort,’ from the German beer style of Dortmund

New beer for Britain
Heineken was one of the first lager beers to be brewed in Britain more than 40 years ago but it had its own specification of just 3.4% ABV, compared to 5% in the rest of the world. In 2003, Heineken took the bold decision to phase out the British-brewed version, which though in decline was worth 1.2 million barrels a year.

The group terminated its contracts to brew in Britain – it was not happy that the Whitbread contract had passed to its arch European rival Interbrew – and started to import 5% Heineken Pilsner from the Netherlands. Around 25 million euros has been invested in the new operation.

Sales have not yet reached those enjoyed by the 3.4% beer – that wasn’t expected – but they are growing by more than 20 per cent a year at a time when most premium lagers are static or falling.

The beer has a high profile as sponsor of the Rugby World Cup and football’s Champions League. The beer can now be enjoyed at home, not only in bottle and can but also in an innovative five litre beer keg that offers fresh draught beer on tap.

Heineken Experience
Stadhouderskade 78, Amsterdam
Tel: +31 (0)20 523 9666

Heineken Experience opening hours:
June, July and August: Mondays through
Sundays, 11.00 - 19.00 hrs.
Last ticket sales: 17.45 hrs. September,
October: Tuesdays through Sundays, 10.00
- 18.00 hrs. Last ticket Sales: 17.00hrs
Admission: €11