Smiling through a stringy blond beard, forearm covered in tattoos and his skinny jeans not quite skinny enough for a snug hug on his lithe, lean frame, the bartender tries to describe Brouwerij de Prael’s Wisselend. It’s the only beer of 11 on tap at the Amsterdam microbrewery’s cozy tasting room without a beer style or ABV listed on a wall-mounted menu made of wooden slats — maybe that’s because it doesn’t exactly have a style or a set alcohol content.
“Well, it’s a limited-edition beer… I’m not sure how to explain it,” he says. “Basically it’s Mary aged in an old whiskey barrel, and it came out a little heavier than expected, about 14.5-percent. That is why I only sell it in small glasses.”
In case you’re wondering who Mary is and why she’s been aged in a whiskey barrel, she’s a strong woman with a voluptuous body the color of rusty copper. She smells of candy-coated toffee, and when you move in for the kiss, her subtle scent of spiced fruits stirs longings of fireside warmth on cold winter afternoons. Her love is gentle, but not to be overindulged. She’s a barley wine (9.7% ABV), one named after Dutch folk singer Mary Servaes, or Zangeres Zonder Naam (The Singer Without a Name).
Founded in 2002 by a pair of former psychiatric care workers, Brouwerij de Prael is located down a narrow alleyway in the heart of Amsterdam’s Red Light District; perhaps you’ve heard of the area. Here you’d expect to see packs of smirking lads — wankers, if you will — and you do, but what you might not expect are families on holiday taking afternoon strolls. Somewhat sketchy though it may still be come the wee hours of morning, nowadays the Red Light District is a proper tourist attraction by day. You haven’t been to Amsterdam if you haven’t taken the whole clan out for some good family fun gawking at the ladies in the storefront windows.
Once upon a time, back in the 1300s, this area was known as something else: Beer Quay, so called since it was the first point of contact for beers imported from Germany. Brouwerij de Prael’s vibe isn’t quite that vintage, but there’s certainly a throwback air to its tri-level bar/restaurant. Old transistor radios and sundry brick-a-brac are scattered here and there throughout the space, which is decked out in woods, bricks, and, downstairs, monochromatic tile flooring.
The best spot in the house is the comfortably worn, black-leather couch on the top floor, next to an old cemented-in fireplace with ornate Delft tiling — an ideal perch for enjoying live jazz sessions every Sunday afternoon from 2pm – 5pm.
Vinyl records and album covers mounted on the walls are a further homage to the mid-twentieth century Dutch folk singers after which the brewery’s beers are named. Johnny, for example, is a slightly bitter blond named after crooner Johnny Jordaan; Heintje, a delicious German-style wheat with the ambrosial scent of honeyed malts, pays tribute to Heintje, a multilingual child star with more 40 million album sells under his belt; Nelis, a 7.7% bock, is a hat tip to Manke Nelis.
Brouwerij de Prael poured a terrific range of beers during my visit in January: two bocks, an IPA, milk stout, barley wine, blond, dortmunder export (pale lager), tripel blond, quadrupel, weizen, and of course whiskey barrel-aged Mary. The Heintje and Johnny were certainly standouts, while the Rubberen Robbie, a collaboration beer with fellow Amsterdam brewers Oedipus Brewing — which, by the way, just completed a successful crowdfunding campaign that netted a cool 100,000 euro — is an interesting smoked porter worth seeking out. If it’s not on tap, check Brouwerij de Prael’s bottle shop around the corner, or stop by De Bierkoning, the ‘Dam’s longtime craft beer treasure chest; in fact, stop by there anyway.
Great beer and good vibes are reason enough for Brouwerij de Prael to headline any Dutch craft beer crawl. Their social philosophy, too, is also one well worth supporting, as co-founders Arno Kooy and Fer Kok’s brewery, bottle shop, and tasting room are all fully staffed by those with various mental health conditions.
I’ll drink to that.
Brouwerij de Prael is located at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 30. +31 (0)20 4084470. Open from 12pm Tuesday to Sunday; closed Monday. The tasting room / bottle shop is located just around the corner at Oudezijds Armsteeg 26.