On warm sunny days the Oudegracht is as busy as a mall the day before Christmas. Tourists in and on boats, yachts, water bikes, canoes, surfboards. Anything that can float on water and pass underneath the many bridges.
It is never boring when I stand outside waiting to give a brewery tour at Oudaen. The canals in Utrecht runs a few meters below street level. But where in other cities there is only water and a street above, Utrecht has a canal and a terrace next to it, leading to the doors of over 700 cellars. Four meters above me people walk on the streets with their shopping bags, on their way to eat something.
On a nice warm day people sit outside on both levels. Staff walks around bringing beers, other drinks and food. Inside in the huge grand café it can at times be empty when it’s nice out, but around dinner time people pour in for dinner. Five tasting glasses with different Oudaen beers on a wooden paddle are served at different tables. The waiters offer a short description of a dubbel, or explain what hops are used in the special summer ale.
In a small separate room a group of young women enjoy a high tea surrounded by pink balloons. One wears a tiara. A few levels up a group is enjoying a dinner after finishing a conference in the theater room. It’s much better than the members of stag parties staggering from a party barge into the restaurant, slurrily asking to use the bathroom. An unfortunate byproduct of these warm sunny days.
And I look up. The ‘city castle’ that is Oudaen towers over its neighbors. It had done so for almost 750 years. Back then a member of the wealthy and influential Zoudenbalch family also looked up and envisioned a fortified house for his family. A house showing their wealth, but also defending them from other important families in Utrecht. After the Zoudenbalchs other families moved in, until it became a house for the elderly, which it stayed until well into the 20th century. Since the 80’s it is what it is today. A grand café/restaurant with in the basement one of the oldest craft breweries in the country.
A brewery that started in 1990, which makes it one of the oldest ones still operational. They started with the then newer Belgian styles like wit, tripel and dubbel. In the decades since beer tastes changed, styles came and often went away again. Yet beer drinkers have always found their way to the castle on the canal and the beers brewed in the cellar. They did so in the early nineties, they do so in 2022.
And this is what I tell the guests. History of the building, what beer is, how beer is made it. Anything you can expect from a brewery tour. I can do brewery tours all over the country. But standing in front of the copper kettles in the basement of a 750 year old building, looking out over a busy canal in one of the Netherlands’ nicest cities… nothing beats that.