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Free Brewer, Free Country

A firsthand account of an evening spent in soul-destroying company that would have been even worse were it not for a free flow of Gulpener.

I haven’t had a drop of Gulpener since that tedious evening at the church last September, over half a year ago. (Note: True at the time of writing, this statement no longer applies). This in itself should be construed as unusual because I rate their UR-Hop IPA higher than most Dutch beers. On the irksome occasion I am about to describe, however, only the standard Gulpener Pilsner was served. In hindsight, the free flow of this disappointingly mediocre brew ˗ so bland it could only be concocted in the Netherlands, the land of watery pilseners ˗ was pretty much the only thing that made the event in question bearable.

The Backdrop

In previously published chronicles I have alluded to being the main caregiver to my terminally ill mother, and I am formally registered as such with my local municipality. By virtue of this status I not only receive an annual stipend of 100 Euros (!); I am also on the mailing list of a monthly newsletter in which the upcoming support groups and workshops that I never attend are announced. Not that I frown upon these initiatives, I just prefer to keep myself to myself.

Nevertheless, when I received an invitation to attend a dinner for the benefit of us registered caregivers organised by the relevant municipal bodies and the local Rotary club, my interest was sparked. As most of my friends are largely preoccupied with the trials and tribulations that go hand in hand with raising a family, and rightly so, few of them can grasp the psychological strain that comes with trying to support a loved one in the final stage of their life. Prompted by the prospect of meeting at least one like-minded individual wrestling with a situation similar to my own in a somewhat less formal setting, I confirmed my attendance to the dinner.

The venue was the Grote Kerk (Big Church) on the market square of my home town. Having not glimpsed the inside of that church since my secondary school days, over twenty years ago, I arrived to find its interior tastefully refurbished and its pews replaced with roughly twenty-five round tables set for six persons each. The majority of the tables were already fully occupied so I made my way down to the far end of the nave, to a cluster of unclaimed seats and surfaces.

Somewhere along the way, a Rotary club member dressed in a classic waiter’s uniform appeared and guided me to “the best seat in the house”, where he took my order. One bottle of Gulpener, coming right up! I had barely made myself comfortable before I was joined by two sisters in their mid- to late-forties, no more than ten years my senior. They began to annoy me as soon as we had introduced ourselves.

“Frits?!”

“No. Chris.”

“Well, we’ll just call you Frits anyway! Ha ha ha!”

“You can call me whatever you like, but don’t get offended if I don’t respond…”

Perfunctory smiles, uncomfortable silence. For them, that is ˗ I myself am rather fond of silence. In spite of the rocky start, the elder of the two claimed the nearest seat to my left. It would not take long before the silence was broken and my inner tranquillity besieged.

“Are you local?”

“To a certain extent…”

“Huh? What do you mean by that?”

I described how I had grown up, studied, and worked all over the place but that my parents had bought a house in the quirky little bubble I consider to be my home town before I was born, and that it had essentially been a lifetime of coming and going for me. The woman seemed perplexed, as if she had heard of some of the places I’d mentioned but could not quite place them on her mental map of the world.

After a moment or two, she leaned closer to me and whispered apologetically that she could not help zoning in on the conversation between her sister and another woman who had joined our table. Did I mind if she eavesdropped on them for a while? I readily approved with a smile and a nod. The waiter reappeared and I signalled that I was due for a refill.

The Brewer

Gulpener is an independent family brewery that has been up and running for eight generations since being founded in the Dutch Limburgian town of Gulpen in 1825. With an annual production of around 110,000 hectoliter encompassing a range of twenty brews, it is the only independent brewery in the Netherlands capable of competing with the nation’s large-scale commercial breweries such as Heineken and Grolsch.

Being the family business that it is, it is unsurprising that Gulpener has chosen to assert its market share by underlining its community-based approach and highlighting pronounced sustainability goals. Free to chart its own course and free to do what feels right, the extended Gulpener family has even gone so far as to proclaim itself “De vrije brouwer” (The Free Brewer).

In an attempt to start reducing its ecological footprint, the brewery began sourcing ingredients from local farmers in the late 90’s with the intent to minimise the long-haul transportation of raw materials. Over time, and with the strengthening of these regional relationships, a unique cooperative between Gulpener and thirty local farmers has been established. All these farmers are dedicated to the application of ecologically friendly production techniques. Spanning a combined area of roughly 400 hectares, the cooperative assures the brewery a steady supply of home-grown barley, wheat, and rye, acquired at prices deemed acceptable by both parties.

Hops are also acquired locally ˗ in the village of Reijmerstok, to be exact ˗ where the Wouters family grows two different types. The typically bitter Mercur and the 100% biological Hallertauer Traditione are both essential to the full range of Gulpener brews. Meanwhile, naturally purified water is extracted from various wells with significant deposits of marl in the direct vicinity of the brewery. Any post-production residue is cleansed in an on-site bio reactor and subsequently re-used. To what end, the company website does not specify.

What does become abundantly clear is that Gulpener revels in its independence, which is held synonymous to freedom ˗ a freedom so deep-rooted it can be tasted in each and every version of the final product. Or so they would have you believe.

Personally, my interpretation of the concept of freedom is far more ethereal than the right to uninhibited verbal expression, the ability to act or change without constraint, or to possess the power and resources to fulfil one’s purpose. When it comes to this matter, I am inclined to subscribe to the definition conveyed by Nikos Kazantzakis, eternalised in his epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” Clearly not the catchiest of quotes to throw around if you’re in the business of selling beer, I know, but food for thought nonetheless.

The Free Brewers

Confusingly enough, there also exists a group of 44 independent, family-owned breweries in Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg, who call themselves “Die Freien Brauer” (The Free Brewers). The members list includes some old favourites, such as Störtebeker, and up until 2017 boasted the likes of Flensburger and Gulpener as well.

I was not able to ascertain whether the latter began referring to itself as “The Free Brewer” before, during, or after its formal association with the wider group but the similarities in business and marketing approach are striking. “The Free Brewers” also propagate independent entrepreneurship, high standard of quality, and responsible behaviour towards their business partners and respective local communities. The group’s ideals are expounded in a manifesto of sorts delineating seven core values, as summarised below:

  1. Great independence ˗ “We are independent entrepreneurs, and we are not a tributary to any limits fixed by parent companies. … We are neither bound to any international concern leadership nor to any stock exchange. We are therefore in a position to stand by our long-time business partners, even in difficult times. … (We) stand for a personal, sustainable, and conscientious entrepreneurship which keeps boundaries between ourselves and a merely profit-oriented management culture.”
  2. Unique variety ˗ “We offer a special variety of regionally-based taste experiences. … With over 300 different kinds of beer of the highest quality, we contribute to the preservation of a considerable diversity, which makes our beer market interesting and unique.”
  3. Personal responsibility ˗ “As regional commercial enterprises we take the responsibility for our regions seriously and get involved with the people of these regions. … Direct interpersonal relations and fair, respectful intercourse are self-evident to us.”
  4. Highest quality ˗ “By producing characteristic regional beers of prime quality, we go to any lengths to meet the high standards of excellence we aspire to.”
  5. Clean environment ˗ “All commodities for our beers are natural and have their origin in our regions. For this reason, our existence as brewers is mainly dependent on a healthy and intact environment. Only with top-quality commodities and pure water are we able to produce premium beers that meet our high expectations. Therefore, it is very important to us to think ecologically and to protect the environment. We treat natural resources with caution and respect.”
  6. Real tradition ˗ “We brew modern beers with a traditional background. We preserve the genuine regional art of brewing and way of life for the love of our beer. … (We) are simultaneously open to new ideas, and we support progress, because we do not consider tradition as persistence in antiquated working methods.”
  7. Attachment to home ˗ “We safeguard local employment and support a solid regional economic structure.”

While the “The Free Brewers” appear to place less emphasis on the broader concept of freedom than their singular counterpart, their respective messages have remained one and the same. In many ways, “The Free Brewers” ˗ Gulpener included ˗ have done well to respond to the demands of an ever-growing number of conscious consumers by, first and foremost, practising what they preach. At the end of the day, word gets around; especially on the world wide web!

As far as Gulpener is concerned, its dissociation from the co-op has only led to enhanced ambitions. A series of 100% biological brews, including the tasty UR-Hop IPA, have already been rolled out. The construction of a new brewery, set to become the most sustainable in Europe, is currently underway and the company’s ultimate goal is to stop using fossil fuels by 2030. If and when they succeed, many other brewers will undoubtedly feel compelled to follow suit.

The Free Thinker

A small selection of starters had already been served by the time the woman to my left was ready to resume our conversation. She spoke of an old acquaintance, or some distant family member, who lived in Thailand and had called her not too long before just because he wanted to speak Dutch with somebody. Had I ever been overcome by such impulses whilst living “over there”? I smiled and nodded. She was visibly pleased ˗ she had found a box to place me in.

Then, quite abruptly, she enquired whether I knew her father, whom at one point had apparently been considered my home town’s unofficial photographer and was equally renowned for being the owner of a costume shop that no longer exists. I told her that I remembered the shop but had no recollection of her father.

She went on to explain that, despite living almost twenty kilometres away, she frequently drove into town on a Friday evening to accompany her father to his favourite pub and that her sister usually tagged along. On some of their more recent outings, the old man appeared to be enjoying himself less and less, to the point that he had started making covert getaways when he could not persuade his daughters to walk him home.

“Your father sounds like a smart man; the best way to avoid an argument is to make oneself scarce.”, I had remarked with a grin.

“No! He’s a selfish man. We come all the way over here to see him and he does nothing but sulk!”, the sister, who had clearly also inherited the eavesdropping gene, cried contemptuously from yonder.

In my bewilderment I realised that I was experiencing a snippet of the old man’s existence, and that I didn’t want any part of it whatsoever. Unable to bring myself to smile, I simply nodded, lowered my forkful of Lebanese fattoush back onto my plate, and ordered another Gulpener.

Along with the main course came the performances. To start off, the president of the Rotary club delivered an emotional speech which was more about his delight at the pandemic being over than anything else. Unfortunately for him, the Netherlands would be back in lockdown some three months later.

Next up was the former, officially chosen town poet, who proceeded to recite about half a dozen pieces from her oeuvre. She then expressed her admiration for people like us caregivers, who are consistently confronted with the impending loss of a loved one and soldier on regardless. After the round of self applause that followed, the poet admitted to having difficulties dealing with loss herself, and confessed to struggling to come to grips with her new reality ˗ one in which she no longer held the title of town poet. Because letting go is hard, we were subsequently treated to half a dozen more of her finest verses.

Last but not least, there was a musical performance by a soprano with piano accompaniment. The woman to my left pointed out that the soprano had once been a classmate of hers. We both recognised our old music teacher behind the piano.

“After all those years of teaching, do you reckon he remembers us?”

“For his sake, I sincerely hope he doesn’t…”

“Ha ha ha!”

“Ha. Ha. Ha.”

More Gulpener.

I must have been on my sixth or seventh bottle when the anti-mask, anti-lockdown rhetoric was unleashed. The platters of Tunisian shakshouka, Mexican quesadilla, and goat’s cheese quiche had already been cleared from our table; dessert was on the way. With the bulk of the evening behind us, I was determined not to let myself be thrown off balance. Although her impassioned monologue about the unlawful infringement on our right to freedom and the lack of scientific evidence supporting it was primarily for my benefit (I, of course, needed a crash-course on freedom, having spent all those years living in countries “less free” than the Netherlands…), my attention was mostly devoted to the tropical sorbet that had been placed in front of me.

“Well?”, I heard after a moment of blissful silence that was followed by a gentle tap on my left bicep.

“What’s that?”

“Our freedom…”

“Oh, right. I don’t really have an opinion, to be honest; I merely comply.”

Her expression was a collage of disappointment and disgust. “I hope you realise there’s millions of youngsters and elderly people out there who are suffering because of this nonsense. You just don’t care because it doesn’t affect you personally!”

It was obvious that, above all, she was referring to her own suffering. I myself was primarily baffled that all this was happening at a dinner where the majority of the guests regularly come into close contact with people who have weakened auto-immune systems. I very nearly said as much but was able to picture the road I would have been heading down and quickly finished my sorbet instead.

It was only in the restroom that I came to realise just how draining the preceding two hours had been. From the onset, my expectations for the evening had been low but I’d imagined myself getting bored rather than bothered to the brink of vexation. Thankfully, after splashing some water on my face, I quickly came to the conclusion that I was at liberty to leave whenever I pleased. It’s a free country, after all. Relieved to find that I hadn’t left anything at the table, I went to retrieve my jacket from the coat stand and got the hell out of there.

In the vestibule, I bumped into the ladies that had been seated to my right, a sympathetic mother-daughter duo who had remained silent for much of the evening. There had been several attempts at striking up a conversation between the three of us but the sisters had kept on butting in. I guess their limits had finally been breached as well, though they had managed to persevere without so much as a drop of Gulpener.

Who knows, had they served the superior UR-Hop IPA, I may very well have lasted until the end of the night. Had I been more like one of Kazantzakis’ defining characters, the unrestrained Alexis Zorbas, I would have blatantly kept the Gulpeners coming and told the sisters exactly what I thought of them; or to take their debilitating auras elsewhere, at the very least. Chances are, I would have been laughing ˗ at the sisters, at the president of the Rotary club and the performers, at the absurdity of it all. I may have even genuinely enjoyed myself that evening. That would have taken much more than a constant flow of Gulpener though. For no matter how dire the circumstances, I still catch myself clinging on to hopes of better days to come. I still fear the prospect of suffering loss too. Although I may perceive myself to be independent, I am far from free.

By Christopher Andel

Born in Bangkok to a Dutch father and German mother, Christopher has spent much of his life pedalling back and forth between Europe and South East Asia. A true ‘Jack of all trades’, he has worked as an environmental consultant, language tutor, and roadie for the Chippendales, just to name a few. He currently resides in the Netherlands and is patiently plotting a return to greener pastures.

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