Candidate #23- Café Briljant, Haarlem, The Netherlands

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Haarlem is a small city to the west of Amsterdam. Far more than just a satellite town, Haarlem has an important history itself, and provided the name for the New York suburb. The heyday of beer brewing in Haarlem goes back to the 15th century, when there were no fewer than 100 breweries in the city. And it’s twinned with Derby, England, oddly.

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There are a good number of cosy and warm Dutch pubs (brown bars), and a jewel in the crown is Café Briljant. They stock around 50 beers, with a heavy Dutch and Belgian prevalence,  offer 5 changing taps and 29 whiskies. They also serve a real community vibe, nestled as it is in a quaint suburb. There is  great window seat to watch people go by (below) or an equally appealing alcove seat at the back.

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Venue: 8/10

A relaxing venue, and perfect for gathering some energy after a wander around some very pleasant, meandering, historic streets.

Beer: 7/10

A great bottle range and 5 changing taps to keep you interested.

Worthy? Maybe

The definition of a hidden gem

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Candidate #18- Café Belgique, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Café Belgique hides in plain sight- amidst chain retail outlets, it’s easy to not notice this gem of a beer warren.

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One of the smallest bars in Amsterdam, you’ll find yourself wondering, “How can this be one of the smallest?!”. Unbelievably, they host live music. I’m not sure how, or why- as appealing as music is to some, it won’t make this one-room cubby-hole any bigger, so it’s not like they can pay the DJ off the back of increased customer revenue- it’s always full. And heed that advice- turn up very shortly after opening (3pm) and you might get a seat.

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In truth, it thinks it’s way cooler than it is. And by ‘it’, I partly mean the clientele. If this were London, we’d call them scenesters. The website states “It’s frequently visited by a varied public of locals, expats, musicians, artists and dj’s”. See what I mean? Who cares if artists go there? Do I feel better about my Orval because the guy with an unkempt beard sat too-closely next to me sticks wires through books encased in styrofoam and calls it “A Critque on the Abandonment of Western Values”, and his dreadlocked girlfriend photographs litter blowing in the wind for her forthcoming exhibition in a disused plastic bag making factory? No, I do not.

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For the size, the beer choice is broad- 50 bottles and 8 taps, but even this may be too many as evidenced by the foul taste of the Floreffe Blonde.

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Venue: 9/10

The only real criticism is the size, but that’s also part of the atmosphere. And when you do finally get that corner seat by the window, boy does it feel cool.

Beer: 6/10

Decent range, but unfortunately not all the taps are very well maintained (I’m looking at you Floreffe Blonde).

Worthy? Maybe

Candidate #15- In Den Uiver Proeflokaal, Haarlem, the Netherlands.

Haarlem, thirty years older than Amsterdam, is a medium sized town less than 15 minutes to the west from Amsterdam Centraal (apparently far enough to deter most tourists). It has a long history in brewing and was a major centre in the 16th and 17th centuries: this legacy can be seen in street names, such as Brouwersvaart (Brewer’s Canal)-  a waterway used to bring fresh water from the dunes to the city’s breweries. At its peak, Haarlem had roughly 100 breweries, but the Black Death ravaged the city’s population: by 1752 there were just 7 breweries left; by 1820, none.

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In the 1990s the Stichting Haarlems Biergenootschap started brewing historic recipes and Jopen beer was born. The kind folk of Haarlem didn’t exactly sit around drinking water waiting for the beery Gods to brew again: Haarlem has a robust selection of good beer bars, and per capita it must be amongst the most beer bar rich town in the world. Enter: In Den Uiver Proeflokaal.

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Remarkably, there are just 5 reviews on Tripadvisor, which may explain the positive reaction from staff, who seem genuinely happy to talk you through their beers and history: the snug hidden around the back was an office of the world’s oldest newspaper still in print, since 1656 (Haarlemse Dagblad), but I could believe it belonged to the Drones Club, such is the English-private-member-club-of-yesteryear feel.

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Another nod to the local history is the plethora of aeronautical memorabilia to celebrate the Haarlemmer Anthony Fokker, an aviation pioneer whose Douglas DC-2 (the eponymous ‘Uiver’) won its class in the 1934 Melbourne Race.

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In the summer, get there early and enjoy a seat outside and look over one corner of the stunning market square and Grote Kerk. Some reviewers on Tripadvisor claim that the market square is ‘Nothing to write home about”- what else is in your life? Because I want some of that.

Venue: 8/10

Cosy and ‘gezellig’ in the winter, great outdoor in the summer.

Beer: 7/10

Decent enough: 10 taps, 15 bottles.

Worthy? Yes

You can’t invent history.

Candidate #11- Café De Dokter, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Café De Dokter has been in the Beem family since 1798; now into the 6th generation, currently in their 40th year. The name derives from it’s first owner, a surgeon, and the close proximity to a hospital, making this a regular haunt for physicians.

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At just 18 meters squared, this is the smallest bar in Amsterdam (a hotly-contested accolade).

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The walls are adorned with all sorts of medical paraphernalia, some of which has a husk of dust. The lighting is sparse, low and often candlelight, adding to the cosy, gezellig feel of this drinkers’ den. It’s easy to get very comfortable and hunker down for hours. It’s a far cry from the adjacent chaos of Kalverstraat and the bustle of het Spui. On Fridays, it is possible to pick up a new read at the book market next door, then escape from the rain in this splendid hideout.

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Venue: 9/10

Dark wood panelling adds order to the centuries of hoarding that adorns most of the walls. It can be empty and still feel atmospheric. Authentically old and charming.

Beer: 6/10

Better for Jenever, there are some decent enough Abbey brews, and La Chouffe is usually a crowd-pleaser.

Worthy? Yes

Few bars can match the curiousness of the interior. Excellent, family service too.

Candidate #6- Café Gollem, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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Café Gollem was the first to bring good beer back to Amsterdam. And is still one of the best.

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Around since 1974, Gollem is a beer institution famous in Amsterdam and the world. Originally, the proprietor hired a car, drove to Belgium and filled up. These beers sold quickly.

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Gollem probably looked old when it was new. The bar has an ambience that breaks down social barriers and patrons chat freely. Maybe also because it is tiny: the venue is split over two layers; a large U-shaped stool area surrounding the bar, with some prized window seats too, and a mezzanine floor with some small tables. Get here early if you want a seat.

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Make sure you compliment your beer with some Trappist cheese. Those monks, man.

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Venue: 8/10

The only criticism is the size, but that’s also part of the atmosphere. So really I’m just complaining that it’s hard to get a seat, which is kinda like complaining because it is too good.

Beer: 9/10

It’s hard to imagine a better beer list. There are 14 taps to choose from (7 regulars, 7 guest) and ~250 bottles covering local breweries here in Amsterdam, craft brewers around the Netherlands and all the big and small players from Belgium.

Worthy? Yes

Little has changed since its’ inception almost 40 years ago, because they got so much right.

Candidate #4- Café Gruter, Oud Zuid, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

In the den of Amsterdam’s social elite, south of the park, Café Gruter is a vestige to honest and grimy drinking. The seating sprawls outside, some of which is sheltered by a conservatory, all of which enables patrons to watch the wealth go by.

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The walls are plastered with polaroids; faded and old nestled with glossy and new, suggesting a work in progress.

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The bar is high and layered, offering a perfect leaning perch to imbibe and enthuse. The beer list is small but well chosen, often with a few seasonal brews.

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Venue: 8/10

Effortless, slightly grotty, unkempt, haphazard brown-bar is not an effortless style to pull off; Café Gruter offers a masterclass. The bar also spills out onto a top people-watching terrace in a rather swanky Amsterdam suburb metres from the best park in town, so the location scores a lot of points too.

Beer: 7/10

Beer lists in the Netherlands rarely take the more = better approach so common across the pond, but whilst small, it is well chosen and Westmalle Tripel is testament to that.

Worthy?

Gruter is a quintessential brown bar. Amsterdam already has FOUR venues on the list, but amazingly none capture the brown bar culture that has thrived in the Netherlands for centuries.