Getting to know: Stapzwan

The literal translation of the motto adopted by Utrecht’s Stapzwan brewery is “discovering, connecting and enjoying”, and since brewers Vincent Stap and Jeroen van der Zwan are childhood friends who have spent over 10-years travelling together on their beer journey, it’s safe to assume the motto applies as equally to their friendship and business relationship as it does to the beers they produce that we enjoy.

For international readers it is perhaps noting that when Vincent and Jeroen first dabbled in the world of brewing at the impressive and humbling ages of 16, the legal age for drinking beer in The Netherlands was conveniently 16, meaning there is nothing questionable in the fact their first products, brewed in the attic of Jeroen’s mother’s attic, were sold to friends and teachers (!) in the schoolyard under the brand-name “biertje”.  “-tje” added to the end of a word in this context is a Dutch diminutive; hence: the ‘little beer’, although the brewers’ diminutive ages could also apply because they were, indeed, ‘little brewers’ at the time.

Much like teenagers all over the world in an age prior to mass internet connectivity and social media, the second enterprise was the inevitable home-made T-shirt industry that operated alongside the beers.  Both beer and T-shirt endeavour were funded by the proceeds from sales of their first popular beers: the Valentine, Christmas and Abraham.

Despite the initial successes and local fame, the big wide world beckoned; Vincent and Jeroen put the brewing venture on-hold to go their separate ways and continue their studies in various parts of the country, much to the chagrin of a local beer scene that would have to wait a few more years to see the promising ‘biertjes’ again in a more professional, grown-up guise.

To the benefit of the thirsty drinkers of Utrecht, study did not diminish Vincent and Jeroen’s first love for beer / brewing and they remained involved in the industry throughout their studies.   In 2013 they decided to reconvene and work together again to rekindle their teenage mission, to reignite their burgeoning brewing business: Stapzwan was officially registered a year later.  Stapzwan, of course, being a combination of Vincent and Jeroen’s family names.

Much like Vincent and Jeroen’s love of beer was nurtured during their teenage years, we all have something we recall, love or hate from our teens.  Some people may have a passion for the electronic music from the early computers, home games-consoles and arcade machines from their youth, for example, and this enthusiasm could be typified by Utrecht musical duo Men of Mega, Bart and Jasper, who are exponents of chiptune — a popular style of music created on such ground-breaking technologic devices as, for instance, a Nintendo Gameboy.  Vincent and Jeroen happen to be good friends with Men of Mega, who were planning to release an album called Porter; and so, history tells us that Stapzwan’s first official beer was a Porter, brewed as a tie-in to the Men of Mega album launch.

Since the initial Porter, things have been going from strength to strength for Stapzwan, which has cut the ties with its home-based approach due to the increased growth and distribution.  Expansion required additional staffing, and Sanne Kuipers joined the Stapzwan team last year to undertake customer liaison and other marketing matters.

Despite the growth, Vincent and Jeroen still design, test and refine the beer recipes at home, before engaging a contact brewer in Uitgeest or Sittard to scale-up production for the mass-market.

Alongside the initial Porter are a selection of Pales Ales, a Weizen and, something of a rarity, a gose.  Stapzwan beers are easy to recognise due to the unique brewery logo — designed by local well-known graphic designer Lennart Wolfert — which is worlds apart from the hand-made, home-made designs a teenage Vincent and Jeroen started with.

There is also a touch of beer-alchemy happening too; it seems to be sorcery, but we’re assured there is no magic involved.  By taking one of their off-the-shelf porters and letting it age naturally for a year or more (albeit in a larger, corked bottle), Stapzwan have created a completely different beer with nothing more than the added ingredient of time.  The aged Porter is, of course, wonderful in a barrel-aged kind of way, although it has never been inside a barrel or any other vessel that would impart such delightful flavours — it is simply a masterclass in how a well-brewed beer not only survives the journey into the future, but also thrives from it too.  If you would like to cellar something special at home and reap the benefits a few years down the road, you may be very surprised and pleasantly pleased with Stapzwan’s core porter, which itself is worth drinking now.  Buy a few, drink some now, and cellar the rest.

If you’re interested in trying Stapzwan beers, which we recommend, here are the clues that will aid you in finding the Stapzwan logo that adorns the packaging:  firstly, look for the city, its name and iconography (Utrecht and the city shield), the year Vincent and Jeroen started brewing (1997), and central to the whole design is a palm tree, shown in deference to the Aloha shirts they sported as teenage brewers.

If that challenge proves too cryptic, simply look for the brewery name: Stapzwan.  It’s a massive clue about who produces the beers inside.  Although the beers should speak for themselves and their quality.