The ramblings of a visitor to the 8th PINT Utrechtse Bierbrouwers Festival

Located on a strip of land between the Amsterdam-Utrecht railway and the Amsterdam–Rhine Canal, the venue for the 8th Utrechtse Bierbrouwers Festival (UBBF) initially appears to be inconveniently located in a somewhat sleepy backwater far from the city centre.  Arriving by public transport could be considered a burden for beer-festival attendees who are used to having everything conveniently handed to them within the city limits.  A 15-minute walk from the nearest railway station — itself infrequently served by a slow local service — could also be too much for the casual drinker who likes accessibility; even the free shuttle buses from the station to the venue offer little solace.

However, from the moment drinkers arrive at the venue — DeFabrique, the one-time linseed oil and animal feed factory — everything falls into place.  There are many reasons why the beer festival is held here, many practical and cleverly-planned explanations why this is the perfect location.  Not only are the facilities at DeFabrique presented as clean, safe and highly-maintained with the utmost care, but in the case of this type of beer festival there is also a method in the madness of choosing this as the correct venue.

Clientele who must invest time and effort to reach a beer festival have an ulterior motive, which in almost every case is an interest in the beers, the brewers and the organisations involved.  Whilst UBBF is exceptionally busy with over 1500 visitors drinking sensibility and having a wonderful time, the layout at DeFabrique means it doesn’t feel crowded at any time — if fact, it feels overly spacious with an ambiance of relaxation.  If UBBF were held in the city centre, accessible to all, it may have a very different vibe.

The laid-back atmosphere at UBBF is further reinforced by an apparent lack of defined entry and exit point (besides the guards securing entry into DeFabrique’s complex; reassuring in these troubling times).  Visitors simply enter the festival area from whatever direction is most suitable, passing brewers, bars and drinkers en route to the reception area, which is uniquely situated at the very heart of the festival.  This approach creates a warm, fuzzy feeling from the get-go; something other more uptight festivals lack.

With ticket scanned and festival-glass in hand, beer lovers can visit any of over 30 local brewers from Utrecht Province, meet the brew teams, have a chat and try the latest offerings.  The ability to get up-close and personal with brewery personnel is a delight to be savoured and a valuable custom to be upheld.  It’s unfortunate that some other so-called ‘beer festivals’ choose to eliminate the brewers from between the tap and consumer, thereby removing the very essence of what makes beer festivals like UBBF, and many others, so great for both brewers and consumers.

Industrial chic is all around at DeFabrique, which is to be expected from a reclaimed factory that is fast-approaching its 100th birthday.  Manufacturing ceased here in 1996, yet the historic infrastructure at DeFabrique has been lovingly preserved.  Echoes of its former life offer constant reminders of a bygone age, whether it’s remnants of engineering or dormant heavy machinery.

The main bulk of UBBF is split between two principal areas: the cavernous “Perserij”, with its skeletal staircases, minimal lighting and the original mezzanine platforms that formed part of the long-gone linseed oil mills; and a lengthy covered arcade running along the length of the building outside.  Sun worshippers are amply supplied with tables, chairs and the accoutrements of sunny weather in the large parking area-cum-playground, which presumably may once have been a harbour for the factory, enabling easy access from the factory to the nearby canal for raw materials and finished goods.

Although there are over 30 breweries from Utrecht Province here, there are still many other local breweries absent.  However, the range of brewers and number of beers appears ideal for a beer festival of this size.  Some of the larger breweries bring almost their entire portfolio of beers; some of the smaller breweries actually bring their entire portfolio of beers.  It’s a great mix.  The old and new served side-by-side; the traditional brews look down with disdain upon the young upstart brews, who look up with a devilish glint in their eye that states they’re here to stay.  There’s room for every brew, everybody and every taste.

Slap bang in the middle of the breweries is a stage, on which several artists provide various musical interludes during the day.  The emphasis is on classic Rock ‘n’ Roll, R&B and Country.  The close proximity to the brewers impedes conversation, and this is perhaps the only minor downside of the day.  Speaking with raised voices is, of course, possible, although it is noticeable that breweries away from the stage appear more popular during the music.

The stage also doubles as the podium for the mid-afternoon award ceremony, at which the most appreciated beer of Utrecht Province receives the Tomas Schroën trophy.  Tomas, who was not only an entrepreneur and pivotal figure on the Utrecht beer-scene, but also an enthusiastic beer-lover, sadly lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2017, and the trophy now bears his name with pride.

The winning beer for 2018 was Arrr!, a black IPA brewed by House of Pint.

Thirsty drinkers who wish to avoid foregoing some great beers in favour of a much-needed haircut, hot towel shave or trim for the beard, have their local heroes at UBBF in the shape of Utrecht’s Local Heroes Hair Salon & Barber, whose convenient pop-up barbershop appears to be doing great trade today.  But, if you’re already suitably coiffured and simply need some physical, mental or spiritual exercise (with beer), why not try some Beer Yoga at one of the two sessions running during the day?

Between-beer sustenance is ably provided by the ubiquitous Food Truck, which in this case is here courtesy of Utrecht’s Restaurant Jonkheer De Ram.  However, there’s also a traditional Ice Cream Cart if you need something sweet and less filling.

If retail therapy’s your thing and you especially like Beer T-Shirts, you’ll be in paradise visiting Utrecht’s CraftBeerShirts — now in their fourth year — who not provide the official UBBF T-Shirts, but have also brought several rails of their unique Dutch design beer-wear.  Beer Festivals and Beer T-Shirts always walk hand-in-hand.

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting the service hours at UBBF because these are in some way the crucial difference between an enjoyable, successful day and an event that in many cases can, quite frankly, end up becoming a mess.  The metaphoric doors open at midday and close at 7 pm.  This is an adequate amount of time, and it avoids any ambiguity about the role and point of UBBF — is it an opportunity to meet the brewers, try their beers and hear their story whilst imbibing?  Or is pop-up nightlight with too many people overindulging and consequently being inappropriate in the neighbourhood?  Too many beer festivals blur the boundaries, and what may start as a pleasant beer festival rapidly descends into something that alienates the hardcore beer aficionados, without whom the event would probably not even happen.  I prefer the UBBF approach.

And besides, if you’re still a little thirsty as the clocks countdown to 7 pm, Mitra — one of the largest drinks chains in the country — are conveniently at UBBF with a pop-up beer shop selling all your favourite beers.

Special thanks need to go to Jan Ausems, Jos Eberson and Kees Volkers of Houtens Brouw Collectief for organising UBBF with PINT, the Dutch Beer Consumers Association.