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Gulpener Dort

The Netherlands, better known by its popular (but inaccurate) name Holland, is a small country that nonetheless straddles Europe's spirit-distilling and beer-brewing belts.

The spirit is Dutch gin, especially associated with three mainly-Protestant provinces: Friesland, North Holland and South Holland.

The best-known beers are internationally-known names like Heineken, Amstel and Grolsch, but there are far smaller and more colourful breweries farther south.

Even in the blandest times of mass production, a handful of small breweries survived (often in coal-mining areas) in two mainly-Catholic southern provinces. One, confusingly, is called North Brabant. (It is north of the cross-border Belgian provinces of Flemish and Walloon Brabant). The other traditional brewing province is Limburg (again, there is a province called Limburg across the Belgian border - and a city of the same name not far away in Germany).

Dutch Limburg is a remarkably narrow, pendulous, province, following the river Maas (better known by its French name, the Meuse). At various times in their history, the Dutch have hung on to this province because of the strategic importance of the river.

At the very foot of the province is the city of Maastricht ("Crossing on the Meuse"), which was once ruled by the Kingdom of Burgundy. Maastricht is known for its beer cafes. Although it is a small city, of about 120,000 people, its proximity to two other countries, gives it a slightly cosmopolitan feel. It became a more familiar name after a 1992 treaty advancing the European community was signed there.

There are five breweries in or around the city. Heineken owns two of them, Brand and De Ridder. Three are independent: Alfa, De Leeuw and Gulpener.

The latter, in the nearby village of Gulpen, was established in 1825 as a farm. Gulpen is orchard and cattle country. The village is on the river of the same name, which flows into the Maas. The waters rise in the Ardennes, and the brewery has its own wells, sunk into sandstone. The oldest corners of the building are also made from sandstone.

In recent decades, the brewery has grown considerably and offered an increasing range of styles, including Mestreechs Aajt (similar to a Lambic); Korenwolf (a Belgian-style "White" beer; and Sjoes (blend of a sweet "old brown" lager and a hoppy Pilsener. "Other brewers thought I was crazy when I started making specialities," said principal Paul Rutten, when I first met him, nearly 20 years ago. Rutten, fourth generation of his family to be involved in the company, added: "When people are in a cafe, they should not only discuss football and politics - the beers should give them something to talk about, too."

Gulpener Dort is one of several beers made in the area that were originally inspired by the dryish, medium-strong, full-coloured golden lagers made across the German border. The Limburg coalfield is contiguous with that of the river Ruhr, in Germany, where thirsts were once quenched by breweries in the city of Dortmund. Today, the Dutch Dortmunder style beers are bigger-bodied and stronger in alcohol than those in the city where the style was born.

Tasting note: 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume (5.2 by weight): deep gold to bronze color; yeasty aroma; big, smooth, body; marshmallowy, malty, palate; light, leafy, hop in finish.

Food pairings: Oilier fish, such as eels or halibut. Among meats, chicken or pork. Crunchy vegetable dishes. Herbed mash.

Published: APR 1, 2000

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