From the Archives: ’t Uiltje from August 2014

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For the few of you who have missed it, this week it was announced that Swinckels Family Brewers (Better known as Bavaria) took over Brouwerij ’t Uiltje. A Sell-out? For some maybe, but you can also see it as a logical next step.
We here have been Uiltje fans from the very beginning, so we thought it would be interesting to post an article (then on the Dutch Beer Pages) about ’t Uiltje and founder Robbert Uyleman. Enjoy!

An Owl flies in Haarlem

Haarlem once was a city that had hundreds of breweries. They all vanished over time until Jopen started brewing to become one of the biggest breweries of the smaller ones. Jopen’s logo can now be found all over the city. But from its ranks sprang a second Haarlem brewery: Het Uiltje.

Owlman Robbert Uyleman is an example of how being around good craft beer is infectious. His job and his love for highly hopped American style beers made him start brewery Het Uiltje. Robbert was working behind the bar in the Jopen Kerk in Haarlem because, well, he just liked working there one day in the week. On one other day in the workweek he was an accountmanager for a company specialized in audiovisual techniques, something he had studied for. But the call of the beer was louder than techniques for the eyes and ears so he bought the gear and started brewing with two friends at home. Of the three he was the only one to persevere and that perseverance gave us Het Uiltje. The rest is the usual story of a starting brewer. Jopen had already asked Robbert to substitute as brewer when one of them sick or to make the third brew of the day. When in February one of the brewers left, Jopen needed a new one and turned to Robbert, a logical choice. He gave up his job and started working for them fulltime, already being familiar with the installation and way of working. Brewer at Jopen is now his fulltime job, with het Uiltje being extra work besides it. But Het Uiltje is 100% his, as we will see.

The Owl Robbert’s last name is Uyleman. Uil is the Dutch word for owl. Using an owl as logo for his own beer was only logical. When he had decided on an owl he started drawing some owls. The first try was the best and that is now the simple but effective logo of Het Uiltje. Robbert designs everything himself: the labels on the bottles, the photography, building and keeping up the website, the texts on the site and labels. For him running a brewery is a creative outlet in more than one way than just brewing great beer. Robbert is in the Jopen brewery all day anyway so it was the most logical place to brew his Uiltje beers. That and living nearby. The Uiltje beers are all his own recipe and when the brewing is done, he buys the beer from Jopen and can do with it as he wants. He does part of the distribution himself but Melgers (the great store in Haarlem) takes care of some of it as well. Robbert is working on a more national distribution network.

Debut Robbert’s “debut” with Het Uiltje was in Haarlem at Café Briljant where he staged a Tap Takeover. In the crowded bar people could sample the beers and hear about his plans. The second beer (The Velduil) was launched during the Dutch Beer Week in May and was beer of the month at the Arendsnest in Amsterdam. The next two will be released shortly at different locations. At the Takeover he let people doodle on het Uiltje coasters to get some funny plays on the logo. Twelve ideas were picked up, and these drawings can be found on some of the labels too! If you find one you can make a picture and send it to Robbert. This has already happened a few times and the best photographs will be put in the monthly newsletter. The winner was Uilbelix, a little owl dressed up as Obelix from the Asterix comic books. He enjoys the interaction with drinkers, so that it is not a stuffy old way of just boring labels with text.

Local boy At the beerfestival in Haarlem I wrote about in the last article, I saw het Uiltje beer was also for sale in the café on the square. I wondered if he had help from Jopen with this but Robbert this is not the case, he does everything himself. As a true Haarlemmer he knows the local bars well and stepped inside them to try and sell his beer, with success. The bottles are already for sale in all of the eleven provinces, and he delivers the bottles himself so he has already put up many kilometers. His beer has crossed the border already too and can be found in Finland, Denmark, Germany and Belgium.

The Beer So what does Robbert actually brew? He is definitely of the American school of brewing: beers with a lot of hops. My first beer from Het Uiltje was a Double IPA and that was everything an IPA should be. Great floral notes and a very nice bitterness. A bitterness even my wife liked and she is not a fan of IPA’s (yet). The beers have the names of different owls. The Velduil, Steenuil or Dwerguil. Robbert likes a pun or two as well for the special releases; who wouldn’t want to try beers called Do Not Eat The Yellow Snow, Lekker Bakkie Kobi or Sai-so-niet dan toch? The last two are hard to translate into English but they are a coffee stout and a saison. The Lekker bakkie Kobi was made with raisins and dates.

Robbert at the Botermarkt Bierfestival 2013
Robbert at the Botermarkt Bierfestival 2013

Hoot The owl has long been a symbol of wisdom and some brewing wisdom reached the creative part of Robbert’s brain. As a brewer at Jopen and as his own separate brewer of Het Uiltje it is good to see yet another new face in Dutch brewing, and Robbert is one of the more talented ones. So walk into any Dutch beer shop and there is a good chance Robbert’s colorful label with the black owl is laughing at you, begging to bought. If you do, you won’t regret it.

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.