Pubs and bars in Amsterdam have a particular style, as Alastair Gilmour reports.
I’m not into acting or role-play; I’d run a mile if invited to a theatre workshop, but somehow I’ve absorbed a character in a book. I blame Bernard MacLaverty.
His Midwinter Break published last year contains so much personal detail it’s got to be autobiographical – but it’s also biographically me. Briefly, a couple “getting-on” in years take a short holiday to Amsterdam; she to visit the immaculately-maintained kerks (churches) that chime with her religious upbringing and he – though he is an architect and should be more interested in buildings than he apparently is – simply wants to visit bars and find out more about the city’s drinking culture.
He is Gerry and his wife is Stella. I call my wife Stella after Stella Rimington, former director general of MI5, because she knows my every move. She detects where I’ve been by my mood, who I’ve been with, and what I’ve had to drink, eat and argue over. It’s not anything serious, simply a gentle ribbing, but Midwinter Break hits the spot. And, the characters’ surname is Gilmore.
'Stella' at Begijnhof, Amsterdam
For example, while both of our Stellas are moseying around the 14th Century Begijnhof women’s refuge, Gerry and I are sating our fascination for Amsterdam’s “brown bars” – corner locals
so called because of their tendency to favour dark wood furniture, matching timber panelling, low ceilings and dim lighting all skimmed by decades of tobacco stain. The Dutch notion of cosiness is gezelligheid – and gezelligheid is everywhere.
As with most cities, it’s often best to discover Amsterdam’s beery delights by accident – that way, the pleasure of cutting along a narrow alleyway to discover an utter gem of a pub is doubled and your directional skills – hitherto latent – are vindicated. You can be a hero just for one day.
I stumble upon Café ’t Molentje, on the Singel canal (corner of Hartenstraat), a tiny corner bar high on gypsy jazz and vinyl, and long on tradition. And though the beer list is by no means lengthy, it’s a fine place to settle into in the company of a Belgian De Konink Tripel or La Chouffe Blonde – or to pull up a chair outside and celebrate canal life with a genever chaser.
Café Hoppe, Amsterdam
I’m ducking into Café Hoppe, an atmospheric pub you fall in love with at first sight; I’m diving into Karpershoek, all timber walling and delftware tiling with scatterings of sand underfoot; I’m wallowing in Arendsnest, a glory-hole serving 30 indigenous draught and 100 bottled beers that oozes stylish and classy ambience.
There are more than 170 breweries in the Netherlands and a good deal of their beers are here, along with 40-plus gins and liqueurs. I’ve decided friendliness runs through the bar’s copper piping – and no doubt Ms Rimington will know it too when we rendezvous later.
Possibly the last thing you’d want when tasting a beer that’s completely new to you is for it to be pronounced “puke”. And the last thing a barmaid wants hear is yet another punter ask if Puike Pale Ale really is as sickly as it reads on the pumpclip.
In De Wildeman, Amsterdam
I’m sipping my Puike Pale Ale at In De Wildeman, a pub I’d been impressed with on a previous visit when I also made the decision that no trip to the city would be complete without a return stop.
The 6.0% abv beer from Amsterdam’s Brouwerij De Vriendschap is actually pronounced “poykee” – Dutch for “fertile” – and rather than throwing up all sorts of tasteless connotations, it is a phenomenal example of the brewer’s craft slowly releasing astonishing aromas and flavours from its lemon curd-like golden glow.
In De Wildeman – the signs depict a caveman with club – is a two-roomed bar housed in a former genever (Dutch gin) distillery. And it’s amazing. With its wood panelling coloured in various pale greens and browns, well-used pews and black-and-white tiles – and distinct air of intrigue – it could be lifted straight off a Rembrandt canvas. Like a masterpiece, it gets inside the soul.
Beers range through a decent selection from Germany and Groote Britannië (but what’s the point of drinking London Pride in Holland?), to Dutch and Belgian favourites – 18 on tap and a further 250 in bottle – plus a regular American draught beer such as Flying Dog Pale Ale. They might come from other shores but In De Wildeman is indeed een uniek bierlokaal.
With easy airline and ferry links from the North East of England, vibrant, cosmopolitan Amsterdam is a familiar destination for our region’s city-breakers. I probably don’t have to mention its sleazy, hedonistic reputation – it’s all there in its red-light glimmer if you want to explore that side – but for grazing on street food, drinking in brown cafes, shopping in stylish stores, raking around flea markets, visiting kerks, or simply strolling and lingering to people-watch (the young man striding out in fedora and long grey skirt opened my eyes), there is nowhere better.
Drinking in Amsterdam takes a tour through the traditional Dutch to the internationally streamlined, from the dingy to the slick, but everywhere you venture, it’s gezelligheid all over.
Stella and Stella know this instinctively.