August 2021

Tulips and beer

Dutch craft beer ǀ What on earth have tulips got to do with beer? Very little it seems. Except perhaps for tulip shaped beer glasses. But there is one country in this world where tulips can serve as a metaphor for the phenomenal rise of craft breweries.

Cross your heart: what do you really know about the Netherlands? If unsure, you may quickly run a check on Instagram, the world’s largest picture gallery, to see our collected wisdom on the Low Countries. What you will find is a hodgepodge of beautifully photographed clichés, which would make the Dutch Tourist Board proud: tulips, windmills, canal houses, bicycles, cheese and flat landscapes as far as the eye can see.

Instagram has a point here. The Netherlands is not just flat, it is also small (twice the size of New Jersey), extending 312 km (194 mi) N – S and 264 km (164 mi) E – W. What is more, a large chunk of the country is actually below sea level. The reason the country of 17 million people is not underwater is that for 2000 years the Dutch (and their ancestors) have been busy digging a complex system of dikes, piling up dunes and installing pumps (the windmills). And while they have been at it, they also managed to reclaim land from the sea. This has provided the Netherlands with one undeniable distinction: it is the only country in Europe, which grew in size by reclaiming land from the sea, not from its neighbours.

Some of the land must have been given over to the cultivation of flowers. Because today, some 80 percent of the world’s flower bulbs come from the Netherlands, making it the world’s leading exporter of flowers. Incidentally, the iconic tulip is not a native plant. It was imported from an area today known as Turkey in the late 16th century. At first, tulip bulbs were sufficiently unfamiliar to be mistaken for vegetables. Some tried to fry and eat them. But once it became clear what to do with them – put them in the ground and watch them grow –, everyone began to wax lyrically about their beauty.

For 17th century Dutch merchants, they became a symbol of their wealth. Just as the super-rich today collect art at extraordinary prices, they began to collect and display rare tulips – even at the risk of having them stolen from their gardens. Since tulips were rare and much sought after, prices for bulbs began to soar. It is on record that in 1637 someone paid 5,200 florins (perhaps USD 750,000 in today’s money) for a single bulb. That was more than three times what the painter Rembrandt was given for his painting “The Night Watch” (an iconic painting and nowadays on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) in 1642. Therefore, it is kind of sad – or a sign of the democratisation of luxury – that these days you can buy a bunch of tulips for USD 2.20 at any German supermarket.

Tulips from Amsterdam – or is it craft beer?

It may be a bit of a stretch, but tulips can serve as an apt metaphor for Dutch craft breweries too. Although taking their inspiration from trends in the US and the UK, they evolved into a cherished homegrown industry. And like tulips in spring, there were none for ages but quickly several hundred. Just take a look of the map of breweries, which can be found on the website (thanks to Jan Ausems and his team). There are hardly any white spots left. Even in Amsterdam, where commercial properties must cost a fortune, you trip over kettles wherever you go (48 breweries), the drinks writer Michael Simon joked.

Although Dutch beer lovers would have been aware of the craft beer revolution in the US, it took the Financial Crisis (2008), redundancies and some decent severance payments, before several took the plunge and set up their own breweries. Or so the story runs. Since then, the number of craft breweries has continued to rise, even during 2020, to reach 840 from 111 in 2008.

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