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Behind the mystery of Grolsch

Dutch brewery begins to send some of its seasonal offerings to Britain

There has always been an air of mystery around Grolsch. Perhaps it's the odd name, or the swing-top bottle, though many breweries in the past used such a device. The beer itself has never been that different. It is within the international style of Pilsener-derivative lager, albeit a well-made, example.

Grolsch's distributor in the U.S. once ran ads saying that its lager had been brewed the same way since 1650. In fact, golden lagers were not developed until the 1840s, in Bohemia. Grolsch does not come from Bohemia Nor is it from Bavaria, as an early "style" piece in a respected Sunday newspaper once confidently announced.

It is from a town once called Grolle, now Groenlo, in east of The Netherlands. The brewery was established by a Catholic family called De Groen. All those G's are uttered expectorantly in Dutch: hhhkkk-rolsch! A second Grolsch brewery, not far away in Enschede, has been extensively restored after being damaged last year as a result of an explosion in a nearby firework factory. That temporarily delayed plans to replace both breweries with a bigger, out-of-town, plant.

One of the De Groens once told me that they had tried to phase out their "old-fashioned" swingtop in the 1950s, "but the Protestants protested". Well, they would, wouldn't they? That's why they are called Protestants. According to Mr De Groen, these people were either so careful or so abstemious that they liked to drink some of the beer then re-seal the bottle for another time.

I learned that the milkman would leave on my doorstep with the yogurt, cheese and butter-cake, a six-pack of pot-stoppered Grolsch.

(The Catholics are a majority in parts of the east and south of The Netherlands, which was historically created as a Protestant nation. Conflict between the two groups rarely escalates beyond such harmless joshing). Living in permissive Amsterdam in the 1960s, I learned that the milkman would leave on my doorstep with the yogurt, cheese and butter-cake, a six-pack of pot-stoppered Grolsch. He would probably have left pot, too, had I thought to ask. Flower-power ruled, but the choice of beers was usually less liberal: Amstel or Heineken.

As a "rare" country beer, Grolsch even had some mystique in Amsterdam, but I feared that it had sold its soul when it suddenly adopted a logo apparently squeezed from a toothpaste tube by fashionable graphic designer with whom I was working. Still, Grolsch has resisted pasteurisation, and held its lagering (cold maturation) to a minimum six weeks, when some of its rivals from other countries manage with four, three or two. It has a fresher, more herbal, hop character than most international lagers, and a cleaner malt background, but is that enough? Not today.

The differences between popular lagers are refinements. The similarities are much more evident. When did you last see an ad for lager that said anything about taste? Have you wondered why? The word "neutral" does not sound convincing in advertising.

Once you have spent billions on marketing and advertising a single product, the suggestion of using the same brand-name on other beers becomes heresy. Express the thought that these other beers might taste of something and you become a suitable case for treatment.

For years, Grolsch's only other brew was a seasonal Bock (strong, dark-brown, lager), available only in The Netherlands, each October. Then came something completely, and truly, different: a Grolsch Amber Ale. This was sold in The Netherlands, but not Britain, though I seem to recall having seen the odd bottle in the U.S. Three years ago, again only in The Netherlands, the brewery released a series of "concept beers", with a questionnaire inviting consumers to respond to each. This exercise led to beers with resonant names like Baritone and Bassoon, and ingredients such as cardamom, mace and pimento.

labelNow, a range of seasonal Grolsch beers has crept into Britain. This move seems to represent a triumph of proud brewers over strategy-crazed marketing men (though I have to concede that the labels are lovely, despite the absence of swing-top). The text on the labels has not even been translated from the Dutch.

The current example is called Grolsch Zomer Goud. Lager malts are used, but infused with lemon peels and blossoms of linden and elder. The end result is not a lager, because the yeast used is of the type usually employed in a wheat beer. This heightens the fruity taste.

Grolsch Zomer Goud has a very pale, greeny-gold, colour; a fine bead; a very flowery, sweetish, aroma; a subtle fruitiness, more like sweet lime than lemon; and a smooth, restrained, but persistent, late dryness. It has 5.0 per cent alcohol by volume. Both refreshing and appetising.

labelHaving tasted them in The Netherlands, I am looking forward to the autumn Herftsbok ("Harvest Bock"), a sweetish lager of 6.5 abv, and especially to Winter Vorst ("Frost"), a strong (7.3) ale spiced with clover, honey and orange peels. The latter has an attractive, tawny to ruby colour; an aromatic, malty bouquet; rich, sweet appetising, licorice-like flavours; a lightly oily, smooth, soothing, body; and a gently herbal, flowery, finish. Then, next spring, at 6.5 per cent, comes a hoppier Lenten Bock. There are, after all, four seasons in a year. Or, as we say in Dutch, De Vier Jaargetijden. It's on the label.

Published Online: JULY 9, 2001
Published in Print: JULY 1, 2001
In: The Observer

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