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Richard Foster, April 24, 2024

Laatste Ronde!

Filed under: Brewing Folk / My Life In Beer
Laatste Ronde!

Saving awful afternoons in Dutch pubs

I won’t be the only person who has found themselves at the end of the odd, wild, divulgence from strangers in pubs and cafes. Britain is full of such experiences, as you will probably know. I spent a pleasant afternoon in a London pub on my last visit to Blighty with a gentleman who suggested one could ward off hooligans using a lump hammer hidden in a jumbo size crisp packet, replete with crisps, as bait.  

You wiIl also be glad to know that Europe is full of barflies telling anyone who will listen about the state of the world, and their place in it. I think I am a magnet for such folk, maybe it’s my preferred afternoon drinking hours, a time when the desperate, the lonely, the shy, the failed artistes, the maniacs and the dreamers slink through an establishment’s doors to sup their poisons. The pint-sized gent called the Smallest Willy in Antwerp, for instance, who was much in demand on the Schelde’s docks. Or the saturnine individual who claimed they could change into the animal represented by their star sign at will, and who, despite coming back from the dead after a groundbreaking heart operation, still had a licence to drive motor boats in Slovenia. (I saw it.) Then there were the two ladies and the jack russell terrier, working in tandem to seduce a friend in a Belgian estaminet. Some sentimental knee fondling and the removal of false teeth - to give them a polish - was the give away. For the record, the dog got through three glasses of Leffe blonde. These are some experiences I can remember.

In the Netherlands, the best place for such hi jinx is the bruin café. There is some concern in the country that these kinds of establishments - the local kroeg, the vereining, the bruin café, or the praathuis - are in steady decline. It’s certainly true that an awful lot of them have gone west over the last two decades. Worse, some have been scrubbed up beyond repair to provide a “traditional-contemporary experience” as one flat-capped oaf brayed at me over the oppressive gurgle of lounge music in De Schouw, a once-legendary bohemian hang on Rotterdam’s Witte de Withstraat. De Schouw was the scene of continued mild debauchery over the years; a septuagenarian jazz vinyl session being served notice by the cops for being too loud, lives in the memory. I can never go back, now, unless on horseback at the head of a conquering force. 

The old drinking culture of sitting morosely all day over the morning paper and a couple of cheap fluitjes of mass-produced pilsner, or a thimbleful of jenever whilst nibbling a block of cheese, doesn’t suit the worldview of younger, more successful - or understandably skint - types. But the phrase, “there is no true beauty without decay,” could have been said of the atmosphere of the traditional kroeg. These old places’ residual, incremental fustiness - a combination of floorboards, low-lying damp and high drainage systems, old piss and cat droppings (dead mouse, shit, piss), bleach and mildew, printers ink and wood polish, the mildly alkaline smell of cut flowers in water, of polished brass, and the inevitable olfactory bequeathment of decades of dried, spilled ale - should be on the UNESCO list. They form an equable character, and may, in future, help save what’s left worth saving of civilization. But as noted above, it’s a core fustiness that has fallen out of favour with many. Some of it is allowed to remain in the newly renovated places in the Randstad, as a sign of “character”. These places initially look promising when you enter, but soon you realise you’re paying through the nose for whatever fly-by-night artisan fancy is aan de tap. The clientele will all be wearing expensive woollens, tracksuit bottoms and training pumps, and refuse to take off their ridiculously voluminous scarves. 

The act of a public, drinking in public in the Netherlands, is now enfurled in the dread hand of chocolate in all its forms. You can sit around and drink it with whipped cream, and discuss Netflix or next week’s company BBQ, or nibble at a hunk of it alongside your coffee or fruit infusion. It all looks good on your #Insta screen; you’re living a #cafeculture life of #choices. And you could feel, somewhere in the back of your well-groomed mind, that you’ve been cheated.

There again, like other places around Europe, beer drinking in the Netherlands is now an increasingly expensive and humourless lifestyle experience, siloed into demographics, penetrated by LED screens, continually shaped by folk we shouldn’t trust. It’s a stitch up: one that’s eating its way into young minds, maan. The revolution wasn’t televised, but it was certainly sanitised. People take so long choosing what to drink nowadays; groups of moderns simper over huge, colourful menus and collectively gawp over words like “yeast” and “peach flavoured”, as if they were a bunch of nuns on a daytrip looking at the Turin shroud. And - be damn’d - demanding trendy and complicated foodstuffs to go with it.  

It’s no surprise that the arse is slowly subsiding out of the traditional market for promiscuous, pointless, bohemian drinking in the Netherlands. High prices of ingredients and ground rent don’t help. Add a post-Covid civic prissiness about opening and closing times, the evils of casual chocolate, and increasing paranoia about one’s health (that is, to be as healthy as possible whilst being a successful freelancer, or whatever) and the goose feels cooked. The worst offenders in my mind are the people who set the bloody opening hours. Once upon a time one could have literally stayed out until you dropped, visiting a chain of establishments from six o’clock in the morning (and talk gloomy banalities with posties and amateur fishermen) to the following six, whilst talking gloomy banalities with fusc-wearing architecture students and insect-like ravers. Now, places open around four o'clock in the afternoon and close at one or two in the morning. Too dreary for words. 

Nostalgia strikes to save me from my gloom in writing all of this miserable stuff down, and I am forced to think of happier times in the noughties: the memory of an owner sweeping his Leiden bar and whistling Serge Gainsbourg, while the business end of his brush was at least a foot off the floor, is a marvellous one. Later that same day, this landlord hosed my party down on his terrace as he felt the environs facing the street were “too dusty”. He went into artisan baking and we haven’t heard of him since. 

Then there was the marvellous experience of drinking De Rijck ale every Saturday afternoon, in the beautiful Leiden pub De Bonte Koe. De Rijck is a gorgeous nutty ale that, in appearance and initial taste, isn’t too far off (but much better than) Antwerp’s more famous De Koninck. De Rijck’s SAS pilsner - a light fruity number - had the advantage of never making you feel pissed whilst keeping your euphoric eloquence intact - a vital attribute when you’re in full flow about the history of the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The brewery is run by Anne De Rijck, the first woman “brewing engineer” in Belgium and the fourth generation of her family to bring such bounty to the world.  

And: there are wellsprings of hope in the most humdrum of places. Every second Sunday of the month, I regularly go to Katzwijm Brouwerij and get wrecked off their sophisticated  homebrew, whilst talking nonstop about the important matters of the day, such as the battle of Waterloo. Katzwijm is an independent concern in the quiet bulb-growing town of Voorhout. The brewing operation, initially the passion of two brothers - the late great Space Siren guitarist and producer Corno Zwetsloot, and bulb farmer Sico Zwetsloot - has risen to take equal billing alongside the recording studio housed in the same decommissioned wooden bulb shed. Overseen by Corno’s partner, Ineke Duivenvoorde, the place is thriving, attracting fey bohos from the big cities and farmer types with forearms like hams. The beers range from liquid morphine (the stouts) to things that can’t stay in the bottle but taste great after half of the foam has gone up your nose. An afternoon lounging on the greensward next to the shed, with the sound system playing Bruce Lacey, or the latest hot Dutch sounds (Neighbours Burning Neighbours, Tramhaus, The Homesick) is a rare treat. Corno was a huge fan of English bitter and a well-balanced Katzwijm ale or IPA is a rare treat in a world of pissabed alcoholic pretension. Proost, jongens!


Photo taken by Nina Dörner

Richard Foster is a writer on music and culture for websites such as Louder than War and the Quietus. He runs the Museum of Photocopies. His novel, Flower Factory, was published in 2022. His new book, The Punk Rock Birdwatching Club, is slated for release in February 2025.

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