Corona and the Specialty Beer Café

In the last article I wrote about how the corona crisis affected the breweries. Today I want turn your attention to how it is affecting the Specialty Beer Cafés. It might be slightly different in other bars but because I have always considered these to be one of the engines of the Dutch Beer Revolution they deserve special attention.

When corona hit

The government’s decision to close all bars and restaurants meant that the doors had to close and personnel sent home. For the bars with personnel on the payroll there are ways of keeping them on the payroll with the 90% funding, but that still means different costs for vacationtime for example. And let’s not forget the rent and utilities, even though they will not have spent much on electricity.

Some bar owners only have employees with so-called 0-hour contracts. You work for the number of hours assigned to you that week and that is. There are fewer attachments to an employer for example. If you are sick for two days you don’t get paid for those two days. This is one difference with the full contract workers. If you have a bar and also a number of full contract workers you are in a bigger bind. Most owners can run the bar themselves for now, especially because many of the specialty beer bars are not huge places and there will only be a maximum number of guests.

Two weeks ago there was some good news. Restaurants and bars can now open again but with only 30 people max and with social distancing of 1,5 meters, or 5 feet. This is great news of course but it does mean some changes and new ways to do this.

Making money while shut

The closure has led many an owner to come with some inventive ways to still generate some income. The most often seen wat was to sell beer packages. Bring the beers a guest cannot have in the bar to the guest at home. Sometimes including bar nuts and a deck of cards like De Koffer in Groningen has been doing. The owner and maybe one or two employees could be seen driving all over the city to deliver these packages.

In some cases they could still make around 20% of the usual income, but it also meant still paying employees in some cases and having them be busy with a delivery for parts of the day. But it did keep them busy, in contact with other people in the business and it kept the name alive. This last fact could be a very important one down the line.

The near future: 30 people max

I spoke to Rob Alphenaar for some general insight, about what he will do in the near future and how he sees the role of Specialty Beer Cafes in this. Why Rob? Well, apart from being the owner of Haarlem beer bar Het Lokaal (and before that the fairly legendary Café Briljant) and owner of gypsy brewery Briljant he is also the chairman of the ABT (the alliance of beer serving bars), a group of Specialty Beer Café’s all over the country. Being a part of this means a certain standard of excellence and knowledge. 

Bar owners can only reopen when they can be sure that opening will be more beneficial than staying home and use the money that the government can give you. So things need to be done to be sure that opening the bar for the day or night makes the most sense.

Bars can only have a maximum of 30 people in the establishment at once. These 30 people have to sit at least 1,5 meters away from each other, apart from people who live in the same household. So meeting a friend in a beer bar? Sure, but he better sit 1,5 meters away from you.

The government has also decided that you can only enter when you make a reservation. Rob is thinking of having sessions. Guests can book a table and in some cases will get a tasting menu. This way he knows there is guaranteed income. One guest taking 2,5 hours to finish an Imperial Stout is all fine and well, but won’t pay the bills. A reservation, maybe partly prepaid, could solve part of that. Another advantage of this that you can thoroughly clean the place between shifts. It also takes care of too much movement in front of the cafés.

Then screens need to be put up. Plastic screens between people and maybe at the bar as well. If there are no screens you need to figure out what 1,5 meters exactly is and cordon certain areas off.

Many of the specialty beer bars are often small tiny and can only fit 30 people while full anyway. For them it’s going to be harder. Bars will have to offer something special. Not just drinking a few beers but an experience of beer. This is something Rob says the ABT café’s can really offer. Every ABT café has the knowledge, and the beers, to make sure guests will have a pleasant evening with great beer and stories about that beer. They are not the type of bar where people try and break the world record for drinking lager in one hour. In face, whenever I ask owners if they have to throw drunk people out the answer is almost always: hardly ever.

Safety

Are the people working in the bars safe? That remains a question because for them it is impossible to keep to the 1,5 meters and will have to come close to the guests.

The national group of bar and restaurants have some guidelines but they are confusing at times. Not everyone I have talked to is completely certain what to do so they will have to do the best they can. But Rob sees this crisis having some positive side effects, like showing the customer what extra things a specialty beer bar can offer.

So when you are thinking of visiting a bar again, let the specialty beer café personnel give you 2 or 2,5 hours that will be unforgettable.

Corona and Breweries, Part I

This is part I of a hopefully not too long series of how the corona virus is affecting the world of Dutch breweries. Starting with the breweries, I will also discuss how it influences bars and shops.

It has been over a month now since the bars and restaurants in the entire county closed. Everyone involved with beer has been hit hard. The bars are of course completely closed and they try to make a bit of money by selling beer and food for takeaway. Shops other than supermarkets have in some cases seen losses of 50% or more. But hardest hit seem to be the breweries.

Breweries have lost most, if not all, of their primary sources of income. The bars are completely closed, the sale of kegs down to 0. Sales of bottles have gone down as well to the specialty stores. Only those selling to supermarkets seem to be doing ok but tanks are empty, in many cases for the first time in years.

Times like this ask to be inventive. Many breweries have started selling beer directly at the brewery. Something that in normal times is not allowed but this government has decided not to interfere in most cities and counties. But you can only sell so much, and only to people who really want it. It doesn’t make up for all the other sales. Often it is the only way to generate at least some income. Sure, it might take a tiny bit away from the shops, but most people buy one bottle from a brewery together with bottles from other breweries. Here the brewery can sell a box of beer at once. These small sales though can only recoup about 20% or less or regular sales. Yes, you read that correctly, many breweries have lost 80% of their income.

Government Help

The government is providing some help, but this is not reaching all the breweries. The government works with a list of business that they deem need help in this crisis. Breweries at the start were not on that list. They will get some deferrals for income taxes and the government can pay a large chunk of the salaries if employees cannot work anymore, this up to 90% if a company has lost 100% of its business.. But this is not including other parts of the salaries like labour costs, pensions and paid vacation. These costs keep adding up.

Restaurants and bars are on the list. Brewpubs in most cases are not. If your entry into the Chamber of Commerce mentions a brewery first and a brewpub second, you are not on the list so you don’t get the money a restaurant would get. It was only on the 28th of April that it was decided that businesses could get help (a one time sum of € 4.000) for their second type of business, like a brewpub/restaurant.

Bars and restaurants have closed, meaning nearly 100% of all kegs from breweries are not being sold at the moment. The distributors of this beer are getting government support, breweries luckily now get some as well. But the distributors don’t get paid anymore by the bars, so they cannot pay the brewers, leaving the breweries without money from that side.

Deferral

Income tax has been postponed for a while so breweries don’t have to worry about that just now. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to be repaid. There’s a big chance this will have to be done again when the bars and restaurants are up and running again. The question for the government now is how the breweries are going to repay it and in what time period. With a looming recession we don’t really know if people will start going to bars and restaurants again like they did before.

The Catch-22 of bank loans

If you were a healthy company before corona hit you can get a loan. But because the economic outlook at the moment is not great they are hesitant to just give you a loan, unless you hook up with a company that offers loan but against staggering interest. And the costs that are not being paid right now (taxes for example) will have to be repaid later, adding another figure of money a brewery won’t be able to pay back. The government is pushing the banks to offer loans, the banks say ‘but they cannot pay it back’. The government and brewers say: ‘yes dear banks, that’s the problem and that’s why they need the loans’. And so the cycle continues. Breweries in most cases also have nothing to put up for the loan, another reason banks are hesitant.

Rent

Big breweries often also lease properties in exchange for their beer being served there. These bars are trying to get discounts on rents. In some cases this has already gone down 50%, in other cases breweries (like Haacht) have decided not to ask for any rent during this period. Smaller craft breweries don’t have constructions like this and will have to pay the rent of the brewery space.  So the small brewers are not helped in this scheme and breweries with brewpubs are doubly hurt.

The brewery landscape in one year

It is undeniably true that some breweries won’t be able to come through this. CRAFT, (the organization where all craft brewers are part of) issued a statement that 50% of all breweries are in grave danger.

Michel Ordeman of Jopen, also the head of CRAFT, says that small breweries provide a lot of work as well. Not only in the breweries but also in the brewpubs and restaurants.

First of all we don’t know yet how long bars and restaurants will be closed. So far until at least May 20, but it could be longer if we as a nation decide to go outside en masse again and not stick to social distancing. And if everything does open again nothing is sure as well. Some breweries are going to offer free beer or heavily discounted beer to bars. This could lead to a new price war and might force some breweries who cannot afford this to fold.

50% of all breweries left after all this is over? A shakeup was bound to happen, but like this? The beer shops, bars and festivals will look very different in a year.

Drink One for John Prine

It was a tough day for music fans all over the world when we heard that Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne had died because of corona and that the legendary John Prine was placed on a ventilator because of the same virus. On April 7th he passed away.

John Prine wasn’t a very known singer to the larger public. He was however a legend for the people that did know him, including his peers who placed him on the same level as Bob Dylan. In fact Dylan admired Prine a lot. My first introduction to him was about 12 years ago when someone I worked with suggested that I listened to him after we talked about Bob Dylan for a while. This was in the time of burn-your-own-CD’s so he handed me a copy of John Prine’s debut album a week later.

His music is best described as on the border of folk and country. It was the folk element that brought some protest themes to his music. There were songs about large corporations destroying the countryside (Paradise) or veterans returning from the war (Sam Stone). But mostly they were songs about life in midwestern America, heartache and pain included. Hello in There for example is about a couple growing old, and in just one sentence he managed to let us know the pain that they have gone through and that has stayed with them: “We lost Davy in the Korean War, and we still don’t know what for.” Where Dylan’s song were literary and cryptic, Prine’s songs were literary but it was very clear what the subject was.

Angel from Montgomery is often touted as his masterpiece, but for me it is Sam Stone. The song about a Vietnam vet returning home after having picked up PTSD, a wound and a drug addiction to ease the pain of that wound. His life back home now revolves around the addiction and this leads to him becoming a thief and he is estranged from his children who notice “there’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes”. This line could very well be the most heartbreaking line ever sung. He ends up dying of an overdose and is buried as a soldier in a local cemetary. The song is a beautiful and gutwrenching. The pipe organ tones in the beginning make if feel as an eulogy, not only to Sam Stone, but to the thousands of veterans who returned home in a similar state. Prine himself told Marc Maron in 2016 that he thought this song would be topical for a few years after it was released in 1971, but that even now it is as topical as it ever was  

So we raise a glass of good beer to John Prine, A Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. Prine was born in Chicago but his family was from Kentucky. Only the best for Mister Prine. You will be missed.

Bar Talk #1: Quarantine Songs

How are you doing over there at home? Missing going outside? Missing the chats with total strangers in your favorite bar? Well I do! So here’s something I came up with it. Something that happens quite often when I am out is that me and a friend try and come up with certain songs that fit within a certain subject. This here is the outcome of a fictional talk about songs that are about being in quarantine. Sure, there are hundreds more that you can come up with, but here are mine.

Queens of the Stone Age – Go With the Flow

It’s better not to be stubborn. This is what the world is now and you are not really in a position to change anything. You could go outside of course and don’t care about the new rules but that you are a selfish asshole. IT’S NOT FOR YOU!! Stay inside to keep others safe. This is the world now for at least a few weeks. So sit down, open a beer and go with the flow. It makes life a lot easier.

White Stripes – Seven Nation Army

Apart from this being a song about a large army trying to stop one man it seems that it is going to take a while to stop the virus. Oh, and also, the song is infectious. An indie hit that is being hummed in football stadiums all over the world.

Minutemen – My Corona

Legendary band from the 80’s. Sure it’s about the beer but it has the name corona in it and every chance you have to drop the name Minutemen should be taken advantage of.

Joy Division / Therapy? – Isolation

If you are depressed about being stuck at home for most of the time the classic Joy Division track ‘Isolation’ is the song for you. If you are angry about the whole thing listen to the Therapy? Version.

CNS&Y – Teach Your Children Well

We, like so many other parents, are now burdened with the task to teach or young son things he was supposed to learn in school. Not that a 5 year old has much to learn already but we do our best to teach him well.

Billy Bragg – There is Power in the Union

The slowing economy is completely changing the world in many ways. Millions of jobs are lost and others try to do their job as save as possible. Just this week an Amazon worker was fired for expressing concerns about this. Governments are trying to help as much as possible but many workers still need representation. Billy Bragg can point the way again. This is a reworking of an older folk song but we need the unions to save jobs, work and lives.

Elbow – Lippy Kids

A song about young people standing on street corners growing up. The standing together in groups has been postponed for a little while. It is also a song about the dreams you can have when you grow up before the reality of adulthood sets in. We are going to have a generation of people changed by this experience. But let’s still dream of building rockets.

Presidents of the United States of America – Peaches

“Millions of peaches, peaches for me”

And the best line in a popsong ever written by someone not called Dylan: “peaches come from a can, they were put there by a man”. Yes hoarders, you have 20 cans of peaches now, time to look up recipes.

Tom Petty – I Won’t Back Down

In one of the most poignant episodes of televion in the last couple of years Jason Aldean played this Tom Petty song on Saturday Night Live. A week before during his show in Las Vegas a shooting killed over 80 people in the audience. That same week the legendary Tom Petty died. A song about perseverance, something we all very much need right now.

“No I’ll stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin me down”

R.E.M. – It’s The End of the World as we know it

It really is!

I was at heat wave stricken Werchter festival in 1999. It was hot and I didn’t drink enough. Metallica, Blur, Pavement, Marilyn Manson and many more I saw while it was scorching. The closer was R.E.M. and just before the started an epic thunder and rain storm provided relief to thousands.

We have more time now to listen to music for emotional relief.

If you have any songs to add, feel free to add them.

Support your local brewer, especially in these strange times

On Sunday afternoon, March 15, the Dutch government took the unprecedented step of closing all restaurants and bars and to keep children home. What followed was a frantic hour-and-a-half to give customers their last meals and drinks before closing the door at 6 pm. This will last until at least April 6th although no one seems to believe things will open again a day later. Corona is here and it will stay for the time being.

That night instagram and facebook were full of pictures of unlit, empty bars. Chairs and stools on tables, not a customer in sight. The streets in Amsterdam and Utrecht, always busy with locals and tourists, are now mostly empty.

No customers means no income. The government is now trying to everything in its power to try and keep all businesses running. People will still be paid and businesses will not have to pay their taxes immediately. Banks are not asking small businesses to pay back their loans straight away but have halted this for 6 months. I will never vote for any of the political parties in the cabinet right now but they are trying to keep the country running. Sometimes it is a good thing to live in one of the richest countries in the world.

This governemt is also not standing in the way of any ideas to keep getting an income. Many breweries are now selling beer online or are driving around the city delivering beer. Or you can just drive to the brewery and buy it yourself directly from the brewery. This has to be done to keep things running, some breweries had 0 orders last week. If you don’t have bottles in a supermarket things are going to get very tough. Beer festivals have all been canceled until at least early May.

This crisis is going to change the world where we live in. We don’t know when it will be over and we don’t know how we are going to get out of this. But it is going to be naieve to think that in a year the same breweries and bars will still be around. Some tanks will fall dry and breweries will end operations.

And what can we do? As has been the mantra these last few years: support your local brewer! Bring your favorite bar to you! Some bars offer packages that they can bring to you, peanuts and games included. Order some beer at a local brewery and have them deliver it. The big guys will be fine once this corona thing is over (including Corona), but it is the smaller ones that will suffer. Support them now if you can. Let’s beat this together and keep beer culture alive.

I cannot visit places in the coming weeks, but I will see if I can still post things online now and again.

Take care my friends and hold on. Most of you will be fine, but you can seriously hurt others around you. And remember that the party that will happen once live has returned to normal will be epic.

As local as can get: Klinkert in Blokzijl

At the end of February I spent a few days in Blokzijl. Blokzijl is a tiny town in the region where the provinces Overijssel, Flevoland, Friesland and Drenthe come together. It is one of those Dutch towns built with a strategic purpose. It still has part of the old walls, now adorned with some canons and a view over the mostly reclaimed land. Once built to defend that part of the country against the Spanish troops or bishops from Germany with a hunkering for expansion westwards.

It then became a fishing town with a comparatively huge inner harbor from which the boats sailed to the Zuiderzee to fish for herring. It is also where my family has lived for centuries before my great-grandfather decided to leave Blokzijl and look for a brighter future for him and his family in Amsterdam. It was this fact that brought me here.

Deze afbeelding heeft een leeg alt-atribuut; de bestandsnaam is img_77891.jpg
The Brouwersstraat in Blokzijl

Like any town Blokzijl needed food and drink. Water was unsafe to drink so the brewers got the task to brew beer for the entire community, including the children. The brewers were all located in the Brouwersstraat, which yes, means Brewersstraat. But then the town lost importance, people left and other liquids replaced beer as the number one source of hydration.

And so it remained for decades.

Until 2018 when Grytsje and Kees Klinkert decided to start a brewery. Kees’ parents once owned a vegetable store in the Brouwersstraat so it seemed only logical to start one in this street. The building itself is old, very old. You can still see parts of the walls and roof from centuries ago. Apparently it was even a brewery once called De Zwaan (The Swan). Apart from the brewing installation it also houses a sort of tasting room and a small store selling local food stuff and a few other local beers.

The brewing installation is tiny, just 100 liter. They brew once a week and they can easily get rid of the 300 bottles in Blokzijl in the restaurants and supermarket. And the restaurants that serve the three Klinkert beers are good ones, like the Michelin starred restaurant Kaatje bij de Sluis, located a few doors down.

This is not their job. 300 bottles is not enough to make a living from for a couple with 4 children. Grytsje works as a caregiver for handicapped people while Kees is a car mechanic. This is a hobby which is not (yet) making money.

Klinkert is a great example of a small local business adding something to the community. And not with a beer that seems local because it was commissioned by a store or a restaurant or bar but by an actual beer brewed in the town. It adds something to a city like Blokzijl. It might not ever reach beyond the town limits, making it more special. We need more small local breweries like this all over the country. It makes visiting a new part of the country a bit more interesting to the menu. The big international breweries will still have a huge chunk of the market and smaller national breweries are also carving out their piece, but please support your local brewer. And it doesn’t get more local than this.

So if you do decide to visit the beautiful Blokzijl and it’s harbor be sure to visit the store/brewery when it is open. Check the openings times if you want to visit. If not go to a restaurant nearby that does have Klinkert beers.

Klinkert Bier & Delicatessen Website.

Facebook Page.

Brewing with a View

As I stand on the dike that I can see for miles in all directions. There’s the Afsluitdijk to the left of, the 30 mile long dike with a highway on it that connects Friesland to Noord-Holland. Built in the 1930’s and making what was once a part of the sea into a lake. Far ahead I see the lighthouse of Vlieland and next to it Terschelling. The ferries taking tourists to these to popular vacation destinations both leave here. A bit closer I see modern yachts, older sailboats and every other kind of ship that you can think of. Behind me is the town of Harlingen, one of those typical Dutch villages that once was a city, walls and moats and all. And below me is the main reason for my visit: Het Brouwdok and it’s brewer Gerard.

Gerard is a proud product of Friesland, even though he has lived in the West working in IT he returned to his homeland to brew. He also started studying the one thing that is only taught in Friesland and that is the Frisian language. If the brewing doesn’t work out he can still do that. But so far, the brewing is high one and only profession.

As far as locations got it doesn’t get any better than this. It was also here, in the back of this huge structure, that Gerard started brewing. And with success because the brewery quickly grew and now there is this big, modern installation. Italian made and with a bottling line. It all looks beautiful and brand new. And with the huge ceiling and the light it shines.

Here are the Brouwdok beers (meaning Brewdock) brewed. But not every bottle and keg that leaves the brewery has a Brouwdok label. He also makes beer for others because this is unfortunately still needed. Good as a source of income, but it also means making beer for local breweries that sell it to bars and shops where his beer would fit as well. Because the beer is good. No brewing mistakes, nice and clean with good flavors.

The brewing side of Brouwdok really is a one man operation. He often does everything himself, including the bottling which I know from experience is better done with two or more people. He has one companion who takes care of the sales.

These beers that he does make are for the local market. And the local market is not as adventurous as the more populous Western part of the country. They love their blondes and triples here, so this is what he usually makes. There is no national distribution yet on any large scale. You can get the beers in Friesland and some other parts of the north but that is about it.

Name

The name might lead to a little confusion though and could turn out to be a slight problem in the future. The name was chosen because there was a big change they could move into the nearby Entrepotdok, the building used by customs to get goods into the country. This didn’t pan out however though they are still close to the sea. Another problem is that the new Brouwdok in Dutch sounds very much like Brewdog.

Tasting

If you don’t want to trek through all of Friesland to search for Brouwdok beers I suggest visiting the brewpub that is next to the brewery. Beautiful, wooden and light with direct access to the water. There are tables, couches to fall asleep on and a dog.  This is the real winner with all the beautiful views and most of all good beer. Tasting paddle is possible and the best way to sample the many taps of goodness. Of the beers that I have tried the Baltic porter and a smoked beer were my favorites.

It might take a while for Friesland to catch up but BrouwDok has the most exciting beers in Friesland that are made by a brewer himself. That alone should be worth the trip to Harlingen, the tasting room with amazing view is just a great extra.

Website of Het Brouwdok