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Holland's giant cleans up its act - on the quiet

Every now and then a big brewer does something to indicate that it is not muscle-bound, that it understands the way in which the beer drinker's sensibilities have changed these past decades. In the Netherlands, Heineken recently switched to all-malt beers, abandoning adjuncts.

The company has to use meaningless platitudes to explain why it made this change. If it were to say that the new version of Heineken constituted an improvement, that would be to concede that its predecessor was inferior. For similar reasons, Heineken has somehow managed to make the improvement without bringing about obvious changes in the beer's character.

This is rather like a car maker switching to leather upholstery, but having the motorist continue to feel that he is sitting on plastic. Still, it's the thought that counts Heineken has been busy. For last year's Bock season it introduced a rather good version made with wheat (in Dutch, Tarwe). The Heineken Tarwebok grist comprises 17 per cent malted wheat, along with four specifications of barley malt.

Its original gravity is 1064, and it emerges with 7 per cent alcohol by volume. It is very dark, something between ripe cherry and black; smooth and silky, with notes of chocolate and prunes in a complex palate.

I was in the Netherlands just ahead of this year's Bok season, but I did catch the launch of a new beer from Heineken.

It is a darkish lager with a very deep amber-brown colour and a dense, creamy head. It has a very good hop nose; a firm, malty body; a clean, nutty palate; and lots of hoppy flavours in the finish. This beer has an OG of 1064 and 6.5 ABV.

It will be marketed in the Netherlands in the last two or three weeks of December, to mark the eve of the New Year, and will be called 1994. If it is a success, will Heineken be able to resist leaving it in the market permanently? If it is not popular, will we ever see it again? Heineken swears it will be back 12 months later ... as 1995.

In my many years of drinking in the Netherlands I have always enjoyed the cluster of breweries in and around the country's southernmost city, Maastricht.

In the heart of the city, on the "left bank" neighbourhood called Wych, or Wieck, is a tiny brewery that was established in 1852. The brewery, founded by a family called Van Aubel, is known as De Ridder, meaning "The Knight." It takes its name from the Knights Templar; one of them, St. Martin, is the parish saint.

Arched buildings from 1857, and an elegantly balconied 1903 house, with Delif fireplaces, form part of the facade, on the riverside. Behind rises the 1930s tower brewhouse, a local landmark and listed building. Inside a small copper brewhouse is skirted in green tiles.

A stained glass window depicts the knight after whom the brewery was named. Another window overlooks a small garden with a lawn, herbaceous borders and whitewashed walls. Another looks into a neighbour's back yard, with washing lines.

During the years of mass marketing in the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the brewery had a tough time and suffered form lack of investment. By the 1980s the owners, unable to find a successor within their family, wished to sell. Two or three brewers from outside the Netherlands were ready to buy, then Heineken stepped in and concluded a deal.

The Netherlands is by no means overstocked with breweries and beer lovers worried over the future of De Ridder, but it is still in business a dozen years later.

Its beer called Maltezer (malty, but not chocolatey), a "Dortmunder" of 6.5 ABV, has had a following for decades and in more recent years the brewery has launched a "White" beer in the Belgian style.

This is called Wieckse Witte. Like most beers of this style, it has a gravity of 1048, and an alcohol content of 5. Its grist is 50 percent wheat, a blend of raw and malted, the remainder being barley malt. The hops are Hallertau-Hersbruck and Lublin, with orange peels, coriander extract and allegedly a third, undisclosed, spice.

After primary fermentation the brew is centrifuged and reyeasted for a secondary in tank. It is bottled on its lees, and not pasteurised.

Wieckse Witte has a soft start; a slightly grainy-mealy palate; and a very late coriander finish.


Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: NOV 1, 1993
In: What's Brewing

Brewery Review - Brew Travel - Beer Styles

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