Getting to know: Briljant Brouwhuis

Haarlem is a historic beer city, and yet, irrespective of any historical context, perhaps the four main things beer-lovers who don’t live there know about the city are perhaps Rob Alphenaar, the Jopenkerk, Jopen, and the Uiltje Brewery — and they’re usually quoted in this exact order.

If we discount Jopen, with its 600-year history of catering to Haarlem’s thirsty drinkers — despite the fact its current incarnation only came of age recently by celebrating its 21st birthday — Rob Alphenaar has the distinction of being the longest-established, an honour bestowed by predating the Jopenkerk and Uiltje.

Much as Rob is synonymous with Haarlem and its beer-scene, Café Briljant was synonymous with Rob.  Closing its doors after 15-years of catering to the needs of Haarlem’s special-beer fanatics, Café Briljant will be fondly remembered by those not only living in the city, but those who have graced its hallowed bar from the rest of the country and beyond.  Its recognition as a national icon of beer bars and cafes — something of a beery national treasure, much like Rob — is validated by Rob’s position as current chairperson of the “Alliantie van Biertapperijen”, a national alliance of pubs, bars, cafes and taprooms, all of which have beer at their beating hearts.

Briljant Brouwhuis was operating throughout the Café Briljant years, producing beers that were not only available in the café but also at other outlets, beer festivals and suchlike.  Who can forget such classics as the brilliant “Briljant 10.40”, a complex Tripel/DIPA with an equally complex backstory and witticism: it was Café Briljant’s 10th birthday and Rob’s 40th, so why not produce a 10% ABV with 40 IBU.  And what about the online Spanish Inquisition gothic comic-inspired “RunFreakRun”, a Dark Saison potent enough to demand its own Holy Inquisition; or the “Hannes De Vijfhoeker”, brewed in honour of local artist and legend Hannes Kuiper, himself a nearby resident of Café Briljant in Haarlem’s historic Vijfhoek area, a leafy backstreet part of the city once famous for its production of Flemish fabrics.

It was perhaps the backstreet location that didn’t work in Café Briljant’s favour, since beer-lovers unaware of its existence were unlikely to stumble across it by-chance without prior knowledge.  Its compact size and limited scope for expansion may have also contributed to its closure, despite Rob’s ability to host international live music and stand-up comedy with ease in quite a small space; Café Briljant was frequently filled to capacity with both customers and an extraordinary number of beers in an ad-hoc array of fridges.  The potential for growth and expansion into something more substantial was palpable.

And so, the doors closed.  Café Briljant — infamous for its ‘red light’ machine, tables constructed from railway-carriage flooring, board-games, gaming nights, regulars, art exhibitions, and other endeavours — is no more.  No longer are customers able to cautiously navigate through the bar after a couple of beers, negotiating the open trap-door to the cellar that literally spanned the entire width of the customer-side of the bar.

However, as always, there is a silver-lining to every cloud, and like the oft-quoted phoenix rising from the ashes, an increase of awareness in Briljant Brouwhuis — supported by more ambitious sales and brewing plans — coincided with the demise of the eponymous café.  Fans and supporters were invited to invest, while Rob concentrated in transforming his other café, the dedicated Dutch Beer Bar, Lokaal, a short stroll from the Grote Markt, into the new spiritual home and official tasting room of Briljant Brouwhuis.

The spirit of Briljant lives on, and the future plans for Briljant Brouwhuis, Lokaal and Rob himself look positively luminescent.  Briljant Brouwhuis may be currently a small operation, but the history and reputation are well established, and the national recognition is on the ascent.  Look out for Briljant Brouwhuis and its beers dazzling your local beer shop, bar, café or beer festival.  The shining brilliance is difficult to miss.

Haarlem is not only a brilliant city, but it is also an utterly Briljant city, too.