The recent history of the Netherlands brewing industry has a depressingly familiar ring. Firstly, in the sixties and seventies, takeovers and mergers resulted in domination by big boys like Heineken and Oranjeboom. Secondly the Dutch formed an unaccountable liking for pilsner-style lagers which all but forced out the traditional styles of beer. Those regionals which did survive such as Brand and Gulpener only did so by jumping on the pilsner band-wagon. Since the eighties things have improved largely because of the wide availability of quality Belgian beers. However some microbreweries have also sprung up in Holland and, as in Britain, it's to them you look for the most interesting and distinctive beers.
The perceived wisdom is that Dutch-brewed lagers are much superior to the bland concoctions produced in this country. Sampling a range from the ubiquitous Heineken and Amstel through to well-regarded brews like Brand Pils and Cristoffel Blond, revealed the same taste vacuum (with one exception) as with British lagers. Maybe the Dutch have "dumbed down" recently.
The ale scene is much healthier, provided you know where to look. Hugh Shipman's Guide to Amsterdam Beer Cafes picks out twenty of the best for good drinking, including several famous city centre watering holes like In De Wildeman (with eighteen beers on tap) and Gollem, and also sends you out into very untouristy parts of the suburbs. All the chosen bars have a good range of beers both on draught and in bonle, with an emphasis on regionals, micros and Belgians.
To pick a couple - 't Smalle in the Jordaan area is a quiet, traditional "pubby" bar with a colour scheme which is a symphony in browns; 't IJ (prounced eye), the brewery tap of one of the city's two micros, picturesquely situated next to a windmill, is a simple tiled main room dispensing the superb beers brewed next door. These include the gloriously aromatic Plzen which shows that lager can he wonderful, the 6.5% Natte and the 9% Struis. Brewery tours are on Friday aflernoons The second micro is quite a contrast, being anached to the smart and stylish Maximiliaan cafe bar, close to the red light district. This offers six home-brewed ales but apart ffom a fine dark abbey-style beer called Klooster, they lack character, even the 9% barley wine.
In keeping with the overall atmosphere of Amsterdam, the bars are pleasingly laid-back, even when crowded, and the staff were invariably ffiendly and knowledgeable. Plenty of pub cats as well! Prices compare quite favourably when the generally higher strength of the ales concerned are taken into account. In other words the whole Amsterdam drinking experience comes highly recommended.