A special year: Noord-Hollands Bierfestival

The building of Alkmaar’s Grote or Sint-Laurenskerk church was completed in 1518, making 2018 its quincentenary, its quincentennial birthday — it’s 500-years old.  Beer was already celebrating a history of about 4,500 years when the church was built, so holding the Dutch Beer Consumer PINT’s Noord-Hollands Bierfestival in the church’s nave is a great idea.  The Renaissance welcoming ancient history.

Visitors drink many of the provinces best beers in the shadow of the ornate Van Hagerbeer/Schnitger organ, one of the most famous and important pipe organs in the world, surrounded by a variety of huge paintings — Dutch masterpieces — that are about the same age as the church itself.  In recognition of its 500-year history, the church holds a temporary exhibition, the “Stairway to Heaven”, which allows visitors to climb to the top of the church for a breath-taking view over the city.  Moreover, visitors can walk across an air-bridge within the church, close to the church’s vaulted ceiling and Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen’s splendid painting of The Last Judgement.  From this elevated spot, 40-meters above the nave, visitors can look down over the beery shenanigans below.

The province of North Holland in the coastal northwest of the Netherlands is perhaps one of the country’s most visited, since it contains the towns and cities of Amsterdam, Alkmaar, Zaandam, Den Helder and Haarlem.  Due to its size, the province has a large catchment area for breweries and is a hotbed of brewing talent, brewery infrastructure and beer innovation.  Located only about 45-minutes away from Amsterdam by train, Alkmaar is the focal city for all beer in the province of North Holland for one day only.

With such a large province full of breweries, it is unsurprising that brewers of all types are here today.  From the long-established beer companies (widely available across the land) to new endeavours dipping their toes into the art of brewing, the range of breweries participating at the Noord-Hollands Bierfestival is broad.  What is surprising however, are the differences in age between one brewer and the next, and how each brewery blends its own experience and motivation to established and classic beer styles and recipes.  It is interesting to drink an excellent beer from a brewer who began brewing before the neighbouring brewer (whose comparable beer is also excellent, albeit more contemporary) was even born — this range of skills and experiences is one of the reasons why the Noord-Hollands Bierfestival is a success.

Like any modern beer festival, there is the presence of at least one ubiquitous Piaggio Ape converted into a mobile, refrigerated bar.

TV NH, the news and media broadcaster for the province, is a partner of the Noord-Hollands Bierfestival and a TV crew prowl the festival throughout the day, reporter Chantal Bos inviting willing drinkers and brewers into discussing their beers and thoughts on camera.  Also captured for posterity are the results of the province’s annual Beer Awards and post-award ceremony interviews.  There are three awards this year: the most popular beer (chosen by the public), and the best ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ beers (both chosen by a jury).  The winners are Stadsbrouwerij Radboud’s Weizen (popular), Brouwerij Hoop’s Chocolate Porter (light) and Brouwerij Breugem’s Hot & Stout (heavy).

In previous years the Noord-Hollands Bierfestival was held on a Sunday, but this year (the 12th year) the event has wisely been moved to a Saturday, a switch that is being mirrored at many national and international beer festivals that see higher numbers of visitors when most people don’t work the following day.  The switch to Saturday has the added benefit of an extra hour added to the festival, although towards the end of the day there seems to be a certain amount of confusion about the actual closing time, with both breweries and drinkers assuming the festival closes an hour later than it actually does.  Also new for 2018 is the “vaksessie”, a 1-hour session reserved for trade visitors from the beer, catering and hospitality industry, an opportunity for professionals to meet and speak directly with the brewers.

With no less than 26 breweries attending of the festival, the Noord-Hollands Bierfestival is a well-attended and popular success.  Alkmaar’s central and easy-accessible location in the centre of the province swells attendee numbers, and visitor numbers are further bolstered by a shrewdness that bring 40% of attending breweries from the immediate Alkmaar region and another 40% from nearby Amsterdam.

The Noord-Hollands Bierfestival is another event for the beer-lover’s annual calendar.  See you there in 2019.