02 November 2015

Going to meet the owl

A highlight of the 2014 Borefts beer festival was the Haarlem-based brewing company Uiltje, so when I heard they'd opened a bar in their home town I decided to make a point of visiting at the next opportunity. Said opportunity arrived in the aftermath of Borefts 2015 so, on the Sunday following the festival, we checked out of our hotel in Leiden and headed north to Haarlem.

Last time I was in Haarlem on a Sunday it was the middle of winter and the place was deathly quiet. There was rather more life about it on a sunny September day but many of the pubs don't open until at least mid-afternoon, including our destination. The first stop was a restaurant for lunch and I opted for a Brand Weizen with that. It's bright and fresh and sweet with lots of banana candy, reminding me a lot of Grolsch Weizen (memorably described by Ray Bailey as "a cartoon version of the real thing"), so if anyone wants to put the case for Dutch Weizen as a separate beer style, here's the evidence.

The nearest thing Haarlem has to an early house is the Jopenkerk, so we dropped in there next for some Sunday worship. Jopen is in the throes of its 20th anniversary celebrations and is releasing a sequence of commemorative collaboration beers. The first was Jopen Imperial Pils, brewed with the help of Kees!. It's 7.8% ABV, dense, murky and hot with the plasticky flavour sometimes found in bad German pils, concentrated and added to a golden syrup sweetness. I'd been slowly coming round to the notion of imperial pils as not all bad, but this was a stark reminder of why the style doesn't usually work.

The next anniversary collaboration is with Del Ducato: Coastal Gose. On the high-strength side for the style, I think, at 4.5% ABV and a pale opaque orange colour. It's a very simple beer, to the point of boring, delivering a lightly refreshing saltiness but finishing quickly and offering no other complexity. Yet another modern gose with not enough herbal action. Is there a coriander shortage?

And finally a smoked imperial stout that's a three-way collaboration with Toccalmatto and Grateful Deaf: Smoking Trojka (above right, with the Imperial Pils). There's a serious roasted fish aroma to this and the texture is very thick and tarry, despite a fairly modest 10.5% ABV. It's very bitter, with both the acrid smoke and vegetal hops making a contribution, while the centre is a heavy smoked mackerel meatiness. It's certainly full-on but I found it a little too harsh to be enjoyable.

Onwards, then, to the day's final destination, just a couple of blocks away. Uiltje-Bar is quite small, favouring high tables and stools, though with a handful of comfy spacious booths down the back. It's bright and clean and favours many of the modern craft beer bar stylings, with an underback of numbered taps beneath a wide blackboard on which are chalked the details of the beers in grid formation. What surprised, and somewhat disappointed, me is that only a couple of the beers on offer were Uiltje's own. The guest selection is mostly very well chosen, though the brewery list is a lot like one you'd be just as likely to see in Edinburgh's Hanging Bat, Barcelona's BierCaB or even Dublin's Beer Market.

There's a house beer -- Uiltje-Bar Pale Ale -- so that's where I started. It's 5% ABV and a dark red-amber colour, pumping out bags of toffee in the aroma. It tastes sweet too but thankfully avoids being sticky and the malt is neatly balanced by a lemony hop flavour. It's an odd combination but it mostly works, though a worrying diacetyl note starts to creep in as it warms.

Turning to the guest beers, but keeping it local to begin, Shire Stout by Ramses. This is flavoured with a variety of oddities including coffee, juniper and bog myrtle, but it's the added vanilla that really stands out. The coffee in the aroma could be beer derived but there's no mistaking the sweet vanilla taste. It finishes quickly and on an acrid dryness. A bit of a novelty beer, this, and not in a good way. At 8.7% ABV the base beer should be more assertive than it is.

Klein Duimpje brewery next, and De Blauwe Tram (right of picture), a tripel I've seen a few times but never tried. It's ridiculously sweet, even for an 8% ABV tripel. It smells of boiled sweets and sickly syrup then tastes of candycanes and orange cordial. The thick, mouth-coating texture makes all of this worse too. There's a reason tripels take advantage of the spicing effect of Belgian yeast but this beer doesn't, and suffers as a result.

There were a couple of English offerings on the board. Kernel Enigma Chinook IPA was some way from home but tasting beautiful: an elegant mix of grapefruit and gunpowder wrapped up in a brightly golden 5.9% ABV  package. Wild Beer's Ninkasi (left of picture) -- a 9% ABV farmhouse-ish arrangement -- was rather pointier, starting on a pleasant peachy aroma but descending on tasting to a harsh mix of saltpetre, bitter melon rind and vegetal hops. There's a serious and not at all enjoyable acid burn running throughout the experience which I did not care for.

Omnipollo Leon smoothed my scorched palate next. It's described as a "Belgian pale ale" and offers a simple and classy thirst-quenching mix of lemon tea with oranges. And then, with the bus to Amsterdam approaching (the trains were out of action for the day), it was time to hit some of the sillier stuff.

For me, Naparbier Hop Doom (picture, right), a double IPA of a trifling 11.2% ABV. The aroma is fantastically juicy but it's more serious to taste: bitter jaffa pith on a chewy malt base seasoned with herbs and incense. It's warming but not nearly as hot as the huge ABV might imply. Another winner from the Navarra brewers. The missus opted for Mikeller's Big Worster, an 18.2% ABV beast of a barley wine. This one burns, right from the outset, dark fruit and toffee also featuring in the aroma. Peeking around all that alcohol there's liquorice, chocolate and vanilla in the flavour and even a lighter burst of mango. The end result is something I thought more like a tokaji or fino sherry than a beer, with a flavour that's surprisingly balanced and integrated. And, most importantly, enjoyable to drink.

And so to Amsterdam. We had two days to kill here and top of my agenda was a trip out to the 't IJ brewery to sup a few in their tasting room which has been expanded again since we last visited in 2013. There were a few new beers to try that Monday afternoon, all broadly in the American vernacular, though the Dutch and Belgian style beers on which the brewery made its name are still going.

't IJ Amber is 5.2% ABV and an appropriate dark copper shade. Chewy toffee is the central point of its flavour, with hints of hop resin and smoke. The texture was my favourite part of it: a light baking soda effervescence and a dry tannic finish producing something a little similar to English bitter, being similarly understated and refreshing. The new 't IJ Black IPA is absolutely bang on the style with all the right punch of leafy rocket and cabbage on a tarry, roasty black base plus a big espresso aroma. And all this is achieved in only 5.4% ABV. Nicely done. I finished off with a bottle of Flink, a session-strength blonde ale which utilises Amarillo and Waimea hops. It has the crisp and grainy character of an unfiltered pils plus a softer wheatiness and some light Belgian fruit esters. Only the merest hint of citrus points to the hops and there's a bit of an unpleasant musty edge. If we'd stayed for another I'd have reverted to that black IPA.

But we didn't stay, because the trip to 't IJ was merely a side-excursion of a bigger beer drinking project we had going that day. I'll tell you what we were up to in detail in the next post.


  1. I enjoyed the kernel enigma chinook bottle i bought from stewartstown...yes thats right a tiny town in tyrone has kernel

    Ninkasi sounded disappointing, have some vintage bottles of the original batch, remind me to bring one with me if you hear I'm heading to Dublin at some point.

    PS is beercat a new bar? ;)

  2. Typo fixed, ta.

    I've not had much luck with the funkier end of Wild Beer's range.

  3. I seem to remember hearing that both the Grolsch and Brand Weizen were brewed in Germany, not Holland.

    1. Interesting. Might they be the same beer?