I had been told to meet outside a garden centre on the edge of the city centre and to come by bicycle. My legs still ached from the 12 hour drive the day before and I was soaked through from the rain as I gently crashed into the entrance of Amsterdam’s Intratuin centre, still struggling with the unfamiliar back-pedalling brakes of my hire bike.
This trip was one of many I took throughout the year as I sought the guidance I would need to successfully brew a beer using just my allotment, and whilst the final four ingredients may have ultimately come from one tiny plot in East Devon I had racked up thousands of miles seeking out the experts who would help me.
I had already journeyed into the heart of the hop farms of Hereford and learned how important geography and terroir is to a beer, seeing the difference that just 100 miles can make as I made my way from the windswept, clay soil of my coastal Devon to the lush green canopies of the towering hop bines. Earlier, exploring the dusty, cobweb-strewn cellars of the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels I had seen how crucial wild, local yeast and bacteria would be to my final style of beer and how the success of the project would hinge on understanding these wild partners.
I now turned my attention to another of my four ingredients, which is why I found myself in Amsterdam waiting for a man called Yoris Hoebe on a wet and windy afternoon to learn about water. Not to find out about the regional peculiarities of the local supply or the chemical makeup of its minerals and salts, as for that I would have travelled far less to Burton on Trent, but to find out what it takes to brew with rainwater and why this is particularly important to the Low Countries.
Arriving shortly after me and stopping with infinitely more grace, Joris led me inside for a tour of his latest rainwater collection site, and I took the chance to interview him for the Growing Beer podcast. A friendly man in his mid-thirties with distinctive white hair, he explained in his softly spoken way how he started the Hemelswater (Heavenly Water) project as we wandered beneath the vast glass roof that drained into tanks at the back of the building. From here the water is taken to the de Prael brewery, known not just for good beer but also its commitment to employing people from a range of social backgrounds, where it is used to brew a new version of the de Prael blonde beer that is jokingly named Code Blonde after the Dutch weather warning for adverse weather. I asked why he started brewing in this way and Joris explained the threat posed by the prolonged or intense rain the city receives regularly – being so close to sea level puts the city in real danger of flooding, so collecting and using this rainwater to make beer helps to reduce the load on the sewer system. Similar to Growing Beer, the early days of the project relied on Joris to collect and transport the water single handed, his own campaign starting with a single 1000 litre tank that once full had to be pushed by hand through the streets to the brewery.
Interview finished and motivated by the promise of a comparison between the two beers I got back on my bike and followed Joris as he glided effortlessly in and out of cars and bikes, the wind picking up and the rain, rather appropriately, lashing down around us. I followed behind and narrowly avoided several collisions as I continuously veered into the path of the local cyclists that travel the streets at breakneck speed. We zigzagged across the city, touring the old rainwater collection spots as we made our way to the brewery, craning our necks at rooftops or venturing around abandoned buildings to see where Joris had managed to get permission to collect in the early days of the initiative. Despite getting used to the bike I still struggled to keep up, a blatant tourist bumbling into the 2-wheeled rush hour.
Finally we arrived at de Prael, a modern micro brewery and bustling tap room squeezed in and around a traditional canal-side building on the edge of the red light district. As Joris took me past the stainless steel fermentation tanks at the entrance I was keen to see how they prepared the rainwater, expecting complex water treatment and an intimidating list of vital equipment. I was pleasantly surprised as Joris explained that the rainwater is simply fed through basic UV and carbon filtering before adding to the brew in place of the mains supply – an approach that I could easily use myself. Relieved and excited to know that making my beer with water collected from my plot was now a definite possibility I was desperate to see what impact it would have on the final beer, so we stepped out of the calm of the brewery and into the noise of the tap room.
Joris told me that Code Blonde is popular and regularly sells out, but managed to find bottles of this and the standard, non-rainwater version. Both poured a vibrant amber with a lively white foam, the only quality separating them being a slight reduction in head on the Code Blonde once settled in the glass. Not an issue for me but potentially a big deal to the Dutch drinker looking for ‘fists of foam’, as Joris put it. On tasting the Code Blonde was noticeably softer with a smoothness that allowed the upfront yeast flavours to gently transition to the sweetness from the grain before leaving a gentle bitterness into the finish. I was aware that my own expectations of a beer brewed with a water containing barely any minerals or salts would affect my perception of it, but it did feel almost lighter in the mouth, everything in balance.
As the bar filled up for the evening Joris bade me goodbye and good luck, making his way back home to catch up on work and get his young children to bed. I returned my bike and took to the streets on foot, a weight lifted from my shoulders and an excited bounce in my step – the rainwater had a positive impact on the blonde style of beer, I couldn’t think of a reason why it wouldn’t work for me back in Devon and I still had time to hunt out good beer in Amsterdam.
Leaving on foot I crossed two of the four canals that surround the heart of the city, briefly stopping for takeaway croquettes and bitterballen as I made my way to the final destination of the trip, Proeflokaal Arendsnest. A cosy bar with striking, gleaming copper pipes in front of the large, handwritten beer board it served an astounding array of exclusively Dutch beers on tap. I settled in for the evening and as I started on the witbiers and pilsners I considered how my own beer was beginning to take shape – the recipe was still to be defined but it was becoming clear just how unique it would be. Not only would the hops, barley, yeast and water gathered from my tiny part of the world affect the flavour and quality of my final beer, it was exciting to think that it’s identity would also be shaped by the people and places I was visiting throughout the project. Everything I’d seen and learned over the day had come about from people like Joris recognising the need to change their approach to water consumption, building on tradition and coming up with something truly innovative.