Origin: Uithoorn, Noord-Holland, Netherlands
Van Vollenhoven’s Extra Stout is arguably one of the best beers currently produced in the Netherlands, and it’s also a piece of genuine brewing heritage that links back to pre-war industrial brewing. The story of its remarkable survival begins in 1733 when Jan van den Bosch opened a brewery and vinegar factory, De Gekroonde Valk (The Crowned Falcon), on Hoogte Kadijk in Amsterdam’s docklands, southeast of the Dam. The Van Vollenhoven family of Rotterdam took over the business in 1791 and started to use the family name to brand the beers, with the crowned falcon becoming a familiar trademark through its depiction on the labels. The business reached the peak of its success in the late 19th century under the stewardship of philanthropist and politician Willem Hovy, partly thanks to the monopoly it exercised on beer exports to the Dutch East Indies. The Van Vollenhovens marked a century of ownership in 1891 by installing a statue of the falcon on a 5.5m-high pillar at the entrance to the brewery, which by 1900 was the biggest in Amsterdam, ahead of both Heineken and Amstel.
Like many Dutch breweries of the time, Van Vollenhoven was open to influence from neighbouring country’s brewing traditions. Hovy himself was responsible for introducing a strong stout inspired by British and Irish models in the 1860’s, motivated partly by social concern for the harm caused among the urban poor by the overconsumption of spirits. A strong, robust and full-bodied beer, reasoned Hovy, could provide a healthier alternative to jenever: the brewery’s own workers were issued with a free crate of it every week, and, like similar products in the English-speaking world, it was promoted for its medicinal benefits, including for nursing mothers. When at the end of the century the brewery, like most other major breweries in the Netherlands, began to adopt German-inspired lager brewing as its mainstay, the strong stout remained a key product.
Van Vollenhoven struggled to secure its success into the 20th century, however — the retreat of colonialism threatened its export markets and the 1930’s recession and World War II dealt twin blows from which it never recovered. In 1949 the business was sold to Heineken, one of the key early stages of that brewery’s post-war development into the global giant it is today, and the plant on Hoogte Kadijk finally shut its doors in 1956. The brewery was demolished, but the falcon remained perched on its pillar until 1967, when Hovy’s descendants, who had since emigrated to South Africa, had it moved to their garden near Johannesburg.
But perhaps thanks to its social traditions the brewery wasn’t forgotten and remained a source of neighbourhood pride. The neighbouring “sibbelwoningen”, brewery workers’ model houses dating from 1828 and now listed buildings, were renovated in the 1970’s and came under the management of a very active and campaigning social housing cooperative. Some local people then formed the Stichting De Gekroonde Valk, an enthusiasts’ organisation keen to document the brewery’s legacy, who were partly responsible for the crowned falcon returning to its historic perch when a replica was installed in situ in 1993 that still stands today.
Meanwhile Heineken continued to brew some of the inherited brands, including the stout, which limped on for a surprisingly long time, though inevitably as a cold-fermented and lagered beer rather than as a genuine warm-fermented stout. By the turn of the century it was still emerging occasionally from Heineken’s ‘s-Hertogenbosch plant, still an interesting speciality but generally regarded as a shadow of its former self. I tasted a bottle in 2001 with a declared ABV of 6.5%, and noted a very dark brown, near-black beer, with a coffeeish, lacy and shortlived head and a fruity tobacco, cream and leather aroma. There were marmite notes on a malty, milky palate that was initially sweetish with gentle carbonation, with hops building slowly to a firm long finish with burnt toast, coffee, ash and rum-like alcohol.
Specialities with low and dwindling turnovers don’t generally sit well with megabrewers so it was no surprise that shortly after this Heineken announced the withdrawal of the brand, with the last brew at Den Bosch in 2002. But the stichting, determined to preserve the Van Vollenhoven name, approached the global brewer and negotiated to license the brand, in the end paying only a “symbolic” amount. The stichting were keen to revive the old recipe, warm fermented and bottle conditioned at 7% ABV, with pale, brown, black and coloured malts, sugar and hops, as passed from the Van Vollenhoven brewers to the new owners in 1949 and retrieved from Heineken’s archive. Their search for a brewery with suitable kit led them to De Schans, established in 1998 by former IBM technician and home brewer Guus Roijen at Uithoorn, only 15km from Amsterdam and in the same province of Noord-Holland. The revived stout, complete with a label based on a historic design, first flowed from here in 2006.
My sample of the 2007 version was a near black beer with a fine deep fawn head and a complex fruity dark malt aroma with blackcurrant, coal, chocolate and vinyl hints and a savoury bacon smoke bite. The complexity and the bacon hints continued into a sweetish dark chocolate, caramel and raisin palate with brooding fruity tones and a satisfying nuttiness, before a fruity swallow heralded a roasty finish with tangy notes, charred wood and quite mild malt, notably smoother and less hoppily drying than the lager version. De Schans’ own beers are interesting, if occasionally inconsistent, but this was heads above them, and well on its way to becoming a minor world classic.
The brewery and the brand owners have agreed to keep the beer as a limited edition brew, giving its annual release a sense of occasion. The 2009 batch was launched in November so should still be around from selected specialists at the time of writing in May 2010 — the Bierkoning beer shop in Amsterdam is one of the more reliable sources. It’s well worth seeking out, not only for its heritage but as an excellent and enjoyable contemporary gem.
More Bières sans frontières selections in the next post.
Read more about this beer at ratebeer.com: http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/schans-van-vollenhovens-extra-stout/67281/