"What brings you to Bodegraven?" I was asked three times last Sunday on my short visit to the sleepy village between Utrecht and Leiden. My response, "Why, the brewery, of course", drew unanimously surprised looks, particularly odd since two of the questioners were staffing said establishment, and the other was drinking at the next table.
The De Molen brewery and restaurant, as the name suggests, is in a windmill, much like my beloved 't IJ brewery in Amsterdam. The large back room was occupied by a private party so I took up residence in the sunny front parlour to begin working my way through the beer menu on the adjacent blackboard. Menno, host and brewer, was on hand to offer notes on the background of each. I may even remember some of what he told me.
Pilz first. Menno said he had to make a pils because the market demands it. I was very glad to see that Ireland isn't the only country whose microbreweries have to face this hurdle. It's pretty inoffensive: dry, grainy and generally unchallenging. The red-amber Bock lager is a very different proposition. This one is highly malty, yet bitter, with none of the sugariness often found in dark lagers.
The strangest thing about De Molen Dubbel is its apparent opaque muddy brown colour. Only when held up to the light is the deep red hue apparent. It's heftily bitter and the only hints of fruit -- raisins to be precise -- arrive after a few minutes of warming. Much more fruit is present in the powerful and bitter hazy orange Tripel. 9.2% ABV and deceptively smooth drinking.
Oddity de jour was Ongemoutgraan, a 4.5% ABV pale yellow beer made mostly from unmalted barley. It's a laborious process, says Menno. What it produces is a grainy, worty, porridgey flavour balanced against a zingy hoppy bitterness, and much more flavour and body than the strength suggests. An ideal summer refresher, but pretty good on a December afternoon too. Engels is another masterpiece of originality: its English heritage is apparent from the sweet and hoppy aroma. While there are a couple of English ales with the whole chocolate-and-oranges thing going on (Young's Bitter springs to mind), none have it expressed as strongly, and deliciously, as this one. And, frankly, there aren't enough beers named after the founders of communism.
I was fortunate that Menno chose the time of my visit to show off one of his latest creations to a regular. Cue expectant look from the Beer Nut in the corner. The dry-hopped Amarillos Winter Warmer was just a week in the bottle. It's another 9.2% monster, this time in an IPA sort of style, though made with La Chouffe yeast. The flavour is brimming with peaches and madarins, balanced against that IPA bitterness. Add in the flat and sticky feel of a very young and very strong beer, and you have the ideal dessert accompaniment.
De Molen beers aren't confined to their place of birth, however. Most are bottled, and a shop on site sells them alongside a variety of other artisan products. I took two bottles away with me. My only previous experience of Stoombier was the one produced by Pelgrim in Rotterdam, by which I wasn't terribly impressed. De Molen Stoombier is much much better: brimming with citrusy flavours resulting from its dry hopping. It pours to a lovely foamy head and makes for very easy drinking, despite a fairly weighty 5.7% ABV.
Proudly displayed in the De Molen shop is the brewer's certificate from the 2005 Great British Beer Festival, where Borefts Stout won Favourite Belgian/Dutch beer. Borefts is a very dry and gassy beer, and begins with a carbonic sharpness, reminding me in particular of Guinness Foreign Extra, but in a good way. It's very filling and warming, possessed of a mild chocolatey bitterness. Not the world's greatest stout, but I can see how it would be a "favourite".
In the microbrewery windmill leagues, I think my heart still belongs to 't IJ, just for its sheer oddness. However, the warmth of the welcome and the quality of the beer make De Molen well worth the trip to Bodegraven. The regulars and staff ought not be at all surprised by this.