Monday, February 25, 2013

At Borefts Bier Festival 2012

This post may seem a bit late, since Borefts 2012 was held back in September, but this has been a busy winter and I had to get the German road trip out of my system first. Anyhow, here is my personal recollection of the most recent craft beer festival hosted by Brouwerij De Molen in Bodegraven, Netherlands, September 28 and 29, 2012.

The old windmill of Brouwerij De Molen.

History of De Molen and Borefts
Menno Oliver started out as homebrewer and then picked up experience as a professional brewer at several Dutch breweries before founding his own brewery in 2004. He chose the name Brouwerij De Molen, Dutch for "The Mill Brewery", after the 17th century windmill De Arkduif in Bodegraven in which his small 500 liter brewery was constructed.

In control of his own brewery and with years of brewing experience, Menno Oliver started brewing more experimental beers and in the span of a few years he had created some amazing beers that got him attention far outside the Netherlands. His massive imperial stouts, in particular, were quickly picked up by word of mouth through online communities such as RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. In early 2009, De Molen was rated the 55th best brewery in the world by the users of RateBeer, a year later it had climbed to #10! De Molen is now one of the leading craft breweries in Europe with a number of world class beers, in particular their high abv imperial stouts - Hel & Verdoemenis, Tsarina Esra and Hemel & Aarde.

De Molen Hel & Verdoemenis 666
- world class imperial stout.

Along with the growing popularity and international fame of De Molen, Menno Oliver realized that his home country was in the backwater compared to neighboring Belgium, with regards to good beer festivals. He decided one was needed in the Netherlands and why not place it in his hometown, Bodegraven, which is located almost dead center between Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague.

Thus, in September 2009 the Borefts Bier Festival was born, hosted by De Molen at the windmill-turned-brewery. This was a small festival, by international standards, but the quality of the attending breweries - which saw international craft beer superstars De Struise Brouwers, Mikkeller and Närke Kulturbryggeri appear - and of the arrangement in general made it a success. Word of it to spread around the beer world. This global word of mouth advertisement ensured that more people would show up for the festival next year, and even more the year after that.

Summer 2011 saw the opening of a new and larger De Molen brewery, in a warehouse complex a hundred meters down the the road from the windmill. The new brewery gave Menno Oliver much more capacity to brew beer but also extra floor space for hosting the beer festival, so for Borefts 2011 the festival was split in two - with some breweries at the old windmill and the rest at the new brewery. By 2012, Borefts had grown into a mid-sized beer festival, where I hope it will stay.

Närke founder Håge Wiktorsson on stand at Borefts 2010.

Where to stay?
On my first two visits to Borefts I stayed in Amsterdam because the few places in or near Bodegraven sold out the moment the festival dates were published, but also because I thought it would be a lot easier to stay in Amsterdam as it was close to Schiphol airport. However, staying in Amsterdam also meant almost an hour travel time to and from Bodegraven, including a tight change of trains in Utrecht - running for a connecting train is not something you really enjoy after a long day of beer drinking!

Thus, for the 2012 festival I took the logical step and found myself a hotel in Utrecht, which slashed the travel time to Bodegraven to just 19 minutes and discarded the troublesome change of trains. Utrecht may not be as big as Amsterdam, but it's a central stop on the Dutch railways and easy accessible from Schiphol airport. It has a good selection of reasonable hotels and even sports a couple of great beer pubs. Who can wish for more? I'll return to the beer pubs at the end of this post.

So, getting to Bodegraven is all a question of taking the train, whether you come from Amsterdam, Rotterdam or Utrecht. Don't even consider driving, as there are very few places to park. And taxis are a waste of money. Trains are cheap, reliable and run all day long.

When reaching Bodegraven, get off the train and either follow the flow of visitors (you'll recognize the beer geeks, besides few other tourists ever come to Bodegraven) or find your way the roughly 600 meters west to the new brewery (just down the road from the windmill) where you have to purchase a tasting glass, with tokens and a program, for €15. Later you can purchase more tokens at several locations.

 A big, empty beer tent before the opening of Borefts 2012.

Borefts Bier Festival 2012
Like in 2011, the 2012 festival was held at two separate locations. Most of the breweries and visitors could be found in the warehouse connected with the new De Molen brewery or in the big tents outside. The other location was at the windmill, a hundred meters up the road.

Up at the windmill you could visit the stands of Dutch breweries Emelisse and Mommeriete, as well as The Kernel from England, Evil Twin Brewing from Denmark and Jester King Craft Brewing from Texas. De Molen, like in previous years, had their stand in their pub inside the windmill. This is also where the restaurant is located, where you can order light snack early in the day and hot meals after 4 pm.

A glass of Emelisse DIPA Hopserie at Borefts 2012
- it was dry-hopped on the spot with Apollo!

The majority of breweries were found at the new brewery: De Struise Brouwers and Alvinne from Belgium shared stand with HaandBryggeriet from Norway, serving beer from the überkool Taptrailer - first used for Copenhagen Beer Celebration in May 2012. Inside the large brewery warehouse you could visit the stands of Mikkeller from Denmark, Birrificia del Ducato from Italy, Gänstaller-Bräu from Germany, Buxton Brewery from England and Närke Kulturbryggeri from Sweden. Inside the brewery itself, you found Thornbridge from England side by side with Brasserie du Mont Salève from France.

All in all there must have been around a hundred beers on keg or cask, simply too many to get through in two days - even for a professional beer drinker like myself :) So the first thing to do when you've picked up your tasting glass, tokens and festival program, is to scan the program for highlights and go for the most rare or exclusive beers first - you never know when a given beer runs out. This year, Närke Konjaks! Stormaktsporter and Buxton Tsar Bomba were two such beers.

Buxton Tsar Bomba, inoculated with brett from 1978
- served from cask at Borefts 2012.

Borefts is usually less crowded on the opening day, which is always a Friday, and especially before 4 pm, because a lot of people will come after work. So I always make sure to be at Borefts before the festival opens at noon. It also makes sense to start early because you can then catch an earlier train home and so be able to start the second day better rested and more sober than if you stayed at the festival until closing time (10 pm).

Early in the day, finding a chair or bench to sit at is no problem, but later in the evening it makes sense to team up with some friends to reserve a section of a table so that you can rotate seating - while some are up to get more beer, others can sit down and get some rest. This wasn't really an issue the first few years, but with the growing popularity even Borefts may run out of seats. But this is mostly a problem on Saturday, when most of the visitors come.

Highlights from Borefts 2012
There were a number highlights at Borefts 2012 and I'm sure I've forgotten a few of them in the months that have passed. But these are the things I still remember:

- Närke Kulturbryggeri: Had an amazing stand with a large number of draft beers, cool slogans and the weirdest tap handle I've ever seen - a beer served from a Urinal! And when they served a world class beer like Konjaks! Stormaktsporter along with spruce and spice beers such as Gransus, Äljäjl and Bäver you could really spend a lot of time at their stand.

- Struise Taptrailer: First unveiled for the Copenhagen Beer Celebration a few months earlier, the 30 tap Taptrailer is a winner at any beer festival since it both refrigerates the beer kegs and offers the beer through taps along the side. At Borefts, Struise shared their Taptrailer with Alvinne and HaandBryggeriet - so brewers from all three served visitors to the Taptrailer stand. At times a bit chaotic, but the more fun for that reason. And who can complain when a stand offers 30 high quality draft beers?!

The amazing 30 tap Struise "Taptrailer" at Borefts 2012
- shared by Struise, Alvinne and HaandBryggeriet.
- Struise Pannepot Wild: One of the many great beers served from the Taptrailer was the Struise Pannepot Wild, which is the regular Struise Pannepot aged with wild yeasts. The result was heavenly, one of the most amazing beers at the festival - combining the sweetness of the original with a wonderful funky sourness.

- Buxton Tsar Bomba: When I first read about this beer, I knew I had to try it quickly before it ran out. This 9.5% abv imperial stout was inoculated with brettanomyces yeast from a 1978 bottle of Courage Russian Imperial Stout! Yes, it had that funky brett flavor - rich and flavorful. A unique imperial stout and a once in a lifetime tasting experience.

- De Molen Bommen on Cascade: Usually I like their imperial stouts the best, finding the regular Bommen & Granaten barley wine a tad sweet, but this 15.2% abv version was dry-hopped with Cascade making it an explosion of hop flavors and bitterness which perfectly matched the sweetness of the barley wine; a fresh imperial IPA on steroids!

- The atmosphere: Like previous years, what really struck me to the core was the great atmosphere. The beer geek factor may be high (I've got nothing against that, by the way), but everyone seemed so relaxed, there were no shouting or overly drunken people. People were there for the beer experience. I've shared tables with countless people I don't know at the start of the day but that I've gotten to know well over the afternoon. People from all parts of the world. People I look forward to meet again at future festivals.

- The arrangement: Borefts keep impressing me for being so well arranged. They have thought about everything, from cheap water bottles sold everywhere, finger food that goes well with beer, hot food when you get hungry, rinsing stations where you can clean your glass between tastings, toilets and urinals. And by spreading the brewery stands over two locations they spread people and reduce queues. And there's plenty of chairs and benches to sit down at, with tables for taking notes. Nothing is left to chance! Compare this to my critical remarks of the Copenhagen Beer Celebration.

Saturday was a bit more crowded, but still manageable.

In summary
Despite its growing popularity, with more visitors showing up every year, the arrangement is flawless and the festival still feels like a small and cozy craft beer festival. It is certainly small enough to allow direct communication between brewers and visitors, which I value highly. And the quality of the attending breweries is staggering, few other festivals - possibly with the exception of Copenhagen Beer Celebration - have such a high standard and such a breadth of beer styles.

There's no doubt in my mind, if there's one festival I have to attend in 2013 it will be the 5th Borefts Bier Festival which will most likely ("99% sure" according to the De Molen website) be held on September 27 and 28. So, mark those dates and make plans for a Dutch holiday this fall. UPDATE: These dates have just been confirmed on the De Molen Facebook page.

Jester King Das Überkind at Borefts 2012

Utrecht beer pubs
I promised a few words about the beer scene in Utrecht and we're basically talking about two pubs, both of a very good standard though world class may be pushing it a bit far.

Kafé België is located along a canal on Oudegracht 196 in old town Utrecht, at the time of my visit it was the highest rated pub in Utrecht (on RateBeer). I had been there once before, back in 2007, and remembered it as a nice place with a fairly good selection of Belgian beers on tap. This time, the pub turned out a lot more crowded than I seem to remember. Granted, it was Friday night - probably the busiest night of the week. Still, in the end I managed to find standing place on the side of the bar. It wasn't ideal and the noisy atmosphere made it difficult to ask about or even order beer. On a regular weekday, this may still be a great beer pub - but on a Friday you'll be better off trying the next one.

Café Derat is a small and cozy "neighborhood pub" on the corner of Springweg and Lange Smeestraat. From the outside you could be forgiven for thinking it's an ordinary café, but inside you're met with a view of old woodworks - from the solid furnitures to the bar. The walls are plastered with beer signs and on one wall hangs what looks like a huge, mummified rat in a glass encasing. And it is. It's the rat which was found dead during renovations in 1978 and thus gave name to the café, which is now run by a smiling and friendly fellow, named Eric, and his two cats, Josephine and Spot. Eric may not have the largest number of taps, but there are always something interesting on draft. And he knows his beers, often suggesting new ones to try. As the pub is fairly small it may feel crowded, but unlike Kafé België it didn't feel cramped and never so noisy you couldn't talk. Even on a Friday night. Since my visit, Café Derat has climbed the ratings and is now considered the best beer pub in Utrecht. Needless to say, I highly recommend it.

Owner of Café Derat, Eric, and one of his two cats.

More photos can be found at these Flickr sets: Borefts 2012 and Café Derat.

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