Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Ölmönger Special: Interview with Brouwerij de Molen

Bodegraven, an about 20 thousand inhabitants' town near the Haag in the Netherlands, is the home of one of the best breweries in the world. Originally situated completely in the town's landmark, the windmill De Arkduif (meaning 'ark dove', from the story of Noah's ark), Brouwerij de Molen - translation: the Mill Brewery - has today the head brewery down the street. The mill is still in used as a brewery for small batches.

© Brouwerij de Molen

Brouwerij de Molen was founded in 2004. During the first 11-12 operative years the brewery and its beers have been awarded uncountable times - e.g. as Ratebeer's best brewery in the Netherlands since 2008. The brewery is known for curious and experimental view on beer: the barrel-aged versions of different brands are known around the world. Probably the most known De Molen beer, Hel en Verdoemenis (Hell & Damnation), has had at least 18 different barrel-aged or spiced versions, many of them still in production. Mindblowing craftbeer is truly made there - according to the motto on the brewery's website.

© Brouwerij de Molen

I asked people from Brouwerij de Molen to answer some questions about the brewery, brewing and beer by e-mail. I got the brewery's co-owner John Brus to the other end of the line and luckily, he was more than ready to answer and provide me with some pictures from the brewery. Without any more hesitation and delay let's go to the interview.  

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Hello, John. Tell us about yourself. What's the story behind you? How and why did you become a professional brewer?

I'm John Brus, co-owner of Brouwerij de Molen in the Netherlands. I studied computer science and worked in that field for a long time.

Since the age of 15 - 16 I've been very much interested in beer and brewing. Starting with the first beer I ever drank I saved the bottle, and the next bottle turned out to be a different beer. It immediately caught my interest and I continued searching for new beers and flavours. Saving the bottles until my mom forced me to through away the 300 - 400 bottles/cans stacked in my room. From the age of 17 I started brewing beer at home together with a couple of friends. After I finished my study, I got a job, married and children and stopped homebrewing. Too much fun things to do and too little time.

In 2006 I became friends with Menno Olivier who founded Brouwerij de Molen in 2004. Our mutual interest in craft-beer and brewing in general draw us together. After a while we started talking about letting the brewery grow from just a brewpub with export sales to a grown-up brewery. In 2009 we organized the first Borefts Beer Festival together and in 2010 I actually started working in the brewery. Very eager to do professionally what I've always been doing as an amateur. Never regretted it for one minute.

What are the best things about being a brewer? Are there any unpleasant sides?

The best thing as a brewer for me is that I can do what I always wanted to do. I know when but I don't know why the 'virus' got me, but beer is my life.

I breathe beer, I talk beer, I wake up and go to bed with it.

For a craft-brewer there’s a big extra advantage: you get to travel a lot and meet wonderful people. Those are number 2 and 3 on my list of best things to do.

Being a craft-brewer has one unpleasant side. We love experimenting and people actually expect this from us. But experimenting means making mistakes - or better said: some flavours don't turn out 100% as you expected them or most people aren't ready for it yet. As a brewer and perfectionist I always want it to be... well perfect. But you can't please everyone.

© Brouwerij de Molen

Brouwerij de Molen was founded in 2004 by your partner Menno Olivier. You joined him in 2009. After that the brewery has moved to a new and bigger facility and received international recognition and worldwide success.  What makes Brouwerij de Molen different from other breweries in Netherlands, Europe and the world?

In the Netherlands we were - and still are - the pioneer for brewing craftbeers. The definition of craftbeer for me is making progressive beers, experimenting, trying new brewing methods and ingredients, brewing beers with more flavour without going over the edge and revolting against the flattening of flavours for the masses that has been going on for decades in most countries.

Worldwide this has been going on since the 90's, starting in the USA. Our beers are different because they are flavourful to the extreme yet always well balanced. We can brew according to the Reinheitsgebot and we experiment a lot from grasshoppers in an IPA to combining styles with special ingredients, barrel-aging and re-fermenting with Brett.

How would you describe the “De Molen character” in beer? Name three of your beers that bring out this character best.

I cannot. We brew from light bitters to crazy barrel-aged barley wines. So I must keep the character very general: our beers always have a body and are well balanced and flavourful. The three examples are: Vuur & Vlam (India Pale Ale), Bommen & Granaten (barley wine) and any barrel aged version of Hel & Verdoemenis (Imperial Stout).

© Brouwerij de Molen

You’ve planned to expand your production from 4.500 to 25.000 hectolitres annually. What are your expectations on your brewery’s expansion? Can De Molen fans in Finland expect more availability for your beers after the expansion?

In 2015 we already reached 7.000 hectolitres. But we had to work on every inch of the equipment, process and brewers to reach that amount.

It's hard to tell what effect the expansion will have on Finland. We don't have a marketing plan. We brew what we can and it's sold to those importers who order it. It's a luxury position I know and maybe someday we’ll start making plans for sales. For now I'd advice any Finnish beer lover to ask for it, so more will reach Finland. :-)

There has been some discussion about small breweries and craftbeer “against” big breweries and bulk beer. Recently the discussion has leaned towards “bad beer” vs. “good beer” opposition. How would you define good beer? What makes the difference between bad, good and damn excellent beers? What are the best other breweries’ beers you've tasted recently?

Some people, maybe I could call them purists, talk about small against big and craft - as in hand labour - against automated macro brewing. I'd call that bullshit. Most craft brewers have new and top-notch equipment meaning an automated brew house. Most highly appreciated US craft brewers are huge compared to European craft brewers. Does it make them any worse? Not in my opinion.

Good against bad beer is even trickier. I know dozens or more microbreweries that brew some awful stuff they call beer. For me it has always been revolting against the flattening of flavours.

A long time ago there were many breweries with just as many different beers, styles and flavours. A can assume a lot of them making bad beer as well. Some breweries took control. Probably because they were a little better, they got more money and devoured all those small breweries. Bad for the owners of those small breweries but even worse for the beer drinker. Not at first, when they still got better beer. But as the story continued, marketers and financial departments started running the breweries instead of those creative beer loving brewers. Resulting in uniform beers across the globe because “everybody has to like them” and “it must be as efficiently produced as possible”.

We're taking back control, those beer loving brewers. We want flavour, we want diversity, we want to be surprised now and then.

The best beers I've tasted the last couple of months are from Laugar (Spain), Pöhjala (Estonia), Gänstaller Bräu (Germany), Brew by Numbers (England) and Fyne Ales (Scotland).

© Brouwerij de Molen

Besides the high quality of products, De Molen is known for barrel-aged beer. Beer experimenting - challenging to the ordinary means of brewing – has become more common in recent years. What are in your opinion the pros and the cons of beer experimenting? What would you consider as going over the limit?

There is no con against experimenting. We need to experiment as humans in general in my opinion or we get stuck. The results of an experiment can of course be disappointing. But then you either throw it away, or decide to give a small crowd the opportunity to taste how an experiment like that turns out.

You’ve planned new brewery collaborations with Estonian Pōhjala and American Monk’s Café. Personally I’m very interested about your Pōhjala project which involves Ardbeg barrels: there are many personal favorites around. What effect have your collaborations had to De Molen’s own brewery selection? Can you give examples?

The Pöhjala collaboration is still a plan but will happen for sure! Just last weekend we released another Ardbeg aged beer: Tsarina Esra Ardbeg BA Brett. Crazy beer yet so good!

It's hard to pinpoint what a certain collaboration project does to our own selection. We always learn and take this information back home and use it. But I can't give examples.

The other way around I can give some examples. Fyne Ales has taken our collab called Hills & Mills into production. And there are several breweries – Struise, Haandbryggeriet, Marble – still brewing our Vuur & Vlam according to our recipe.

If a Finnish microbrewery would show interest in collaboration with you or De Molen, what kind of beer would you suggest to them?

I'd love to make a Sahti together with a Finnish brewery someday :-)

But there are so many collaborations we still want to do and some many other things as well. I'm afraid it will have to wait.

© Brouwerij de Molen

Let’s play fortune teller: What will be the big craftbeer trends in 2016 and 2017? How will they affect De Molen’s future plans?

Hahaha. :) I don't like to tell the future and I don't like to react to trends. We do what we want to do and of course can be influenced by anyone we meet or by anything we see. Our main goal for 2016 is to expand the brewery.

In 2017? Maybe sour ales will finally become more wanted in Europe. I know this has already been going on in the US and Scandinavian countries, but the rest is still a little behind.

The Ölmönger blog is about matching good beer with good music. Have you brewed beers for artists or bands? Which artist or band would you like to brew a brand beer if you could choose? What kind and style would it be?

We have brewed a beer (American Pale Ale) for a Dutch artist called Tim Knol. He's a rocky folk-singer. We were asked by John Coffey, a metal band, but had to refuse because lack of capacity. Which was sad.

Personally I would love to brew a beer for Elbow or Guy Garvey himself. I know they are beer lovers and to me they’re one of the best live artists in the world – even though I'm more of a metal-head myself. It should probably be a hoppy yet traditional IPA for them.

That's all for now. Thanks for the interview, John. I wish you and Brouwerij de Molen success in the years to come.

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So, next we'll get back to the usual business with five selected De Molen beers and Ölbeats - one beer and Ölbeat per day starting tomorrow. Since this is a special occasion, there will be a twist in the blogposts. What will it be? Wait for tomorrow and see.