WHAT ARE DUTCH BROWN BARS?
Yesterday was my birthday, and since I could not celebrate it the only way I know how - by travelling, that is, - I thought of writing about a place I would have rather been. This place is the Dutch bruine kroeg, or the renowned 'brown cafe/bar'.
I have mentioned brown bars before as one of the 18 reasons why I really love the Netherlands: they embody all things Dutch, from beer and cheese to ultimate gezelligheid and national character. Such bars take their name from the warm tints of the dark, wooden interior with smoke-stained walls and old simple furniture, as well as soft, cozy lighting. Add some wax-dripping candles, a crackling fireplace, quirky bits and pieces of decor, and you've found a perfect brown café. These atmospheric establishments and their well-worn look exude a friendly, homey charm that will win you over in no time.
All brown cafés have their own character that reflects location, history, and, of course, regulars. What they all do have in common is a laid-back, come-as-you-are atmosphere. To locals, the brown bar is almost an extension of their living room: this is where you go for a cup of coffee in the daytime or for a drink after work, let their hair down, catch up with friends and neighbours, and just unwind. It's safe to say that bruine kroeg is a big part of Dutch culture, and wandering into one will give you a real taste of local everyday life.
These bars usually have a few Dutch beers on tap, some regional and foreign bottled brews, wine, and a decent selection of liquors. Have a sip of jenever, a Dutch spirit similar to gin named after juniper berry (jeneverbes). It's served in ‘tulip glasses’ because such a shape enhances the smell of the drink hence enabling you to taste the flavours better. The drink is poured to the rim of the glass, and you are supposed to take the first sip without holding it, leaving the glass on the table (see picture above, click to enlarge). After the first sip, it is advised to drink the rest slowly like you would drink a glass of whisky. Fancy trying it out? Head to Proeflokaal Wynand Fockink, a 17th-century distillery and a bar in the heart of Amsterdam.
Brown cafes normally serve lunch and dinner meals as well as snacks and finger food (also known as hapjes). These snacks come in all shapes and sizes and go very well with beer and spirits. The warm platter of bittergarnituur (roughly translated as "accompaniments to the bitter drink") is a staple of the Dutch pub cuisine. It consists of kaassoufflés (melted cheese in a thin dough wrap), mini frikandellen (minced meat sausage), gehaktballetjes (meatballs), vlammetjes (thin pastry filled with chilied beef), loempias (Indonesian spring roll), and bitterballen (meat ragout balls).
Since bruine kroegen are all about this warm feeling of gezelligheid, these watering holes make great spots for another quintessentially Dutch thing - the borrel. What can be roughly translated as a "very informal reception" that involves drinks and snacks, this is first and foremost a cultural concept that represents the Dutch love for socialising, schedules, and a sense of belonging, Coworkers gather together for vrijdagmiddagborrel, or vrijmibo, to enjoy some drinks at the end of the work week, councils and associations discuss agendas over beers, classmates celebrate graduations with an afstudeerborrel, and so on.
A few brown cafés claim to be the oldest in Amsterdam. Café Hoppe and Café Chris date back to the 1600s. In 't Aepje ("In the Monkeys") has been open since 1519, and you will be able to tell once inside - it almost feels like time travelling. This bar occupies one of the two remaining wooden buildings in town (the only ones that survived the catastrophic fire in 1452). Back in the old days, the place used to be popular with sailors who were coming back from the faraway lands of the Dutch Empire. Some of them would show up at the bar with monkeys, down a few, and then head upstairs to sleep.Today, the monkey memorabilia is the only reference to those times.
At only 18 square metres, Café de Dokter , or as locals call it, Het Doktertje, in the Nine Streets neighbourhood (De 9 Straatjes) is the smallest bar in the city. It has been run by the same family, the Beems, since September 2nd, 1789. In its early days, it was the hangout spot of the doctors and medical students from a nearby university. The bar boasts a broad assortment of whiskies, unusual for a brown bar, offering a glass of house whisky for €3 and featuring a 'whisky of the month' for €4.50. Pair your glass of choice with cheese, smoked sausage or a homemade, juicy pickle while listening to jazz and talking to the owners (that's the sixth generation now!).
If you enjoy a good fireplace as much as I do, pop into the true hidden gem that is Cafe de Wetering when in the area of the Rijksmuseum. This bar oozes coziness and is an all-around pleasant experience. If you are looking for a date spot on a cold autumn/winter day, this is the place to be. Just imagine a rough wooden floor, rough brick walls, and sounds of the wood splitting in the background. It just doesn't get more romantic and intimate than that.
Of course, cats fancy brown bars, too. In fact, many furry buddies live in Amsterdam's pubs full time (I see your horror, non-Dutch people!) and are proper local celebrities. My favourite - both cat and bar - is Claus from Café Bax in Oud-West (pictured above). Claus is one opinionated and independent fella, and it is he who is the real owner of the bar. Bax is a great example of the so-called 'new brown bar' - although they opened the doors only 12 years ago, the carefully curated lived-in look achieves the same effect as their much older counterparts. Check out this bar for seasonal and interesting beers - they always keep their finger on the pulse of the city's breweries. You won't be disappointed - take it from me, a person who lived around the corner and frequented the place all the time. Claus, if you are reading this, you've got another postcard coming!
To conclude, what is so amazing about these bars? if my descriptions haven't done the job, you will have to see it for yourself. Since birthdays are for presents, I've compiled a list of 34 bruine kroegen scattered around Amsterdam, quite a few of which I visited on more than one occasion. A couple of things to keep in mind: many of them don't accept credit cards, so have cash at the ready. Some are self-service at the bar. Do not be surprised if a bartender washes a beer glass upon ordering in a special sink - that's a normal practice here and yes, your glass will be clean. Now, go immerse yourself in that gezelligheid and let me know how it goes, because I am curious!
Happy travels x