Saturday, September 12, 2015


As you have read in my previous story, I reached the milestone of 300 bars in Dublin a couple of months ago. While I was updating my bar list, I noticed that I was about to reach another milestone: there were just 3 more bars to go before I reached 1100 in total.
This had to be a special occasion ofcourse, so I set out to come up with a great bar. I then realised that I would be going to Holland in 2 weeks time, and my friends had been pestering me about a relatively new craft brewery in Rotterdam that was supposed to be great so I decided to go check it out.

I arrived in Holland on Friday afternoon and went out to dinner with my dad and my friends.
There are 3 guys that I have known since kindergarten and we still get together regularly. We all grew up in the same town, just outside Rotterdam. One of them has moved to the East of the country, one of them moved to the city, then back and then back to the city again. One of them still lives across the street from my dad. And me, well, I live in Dublin as you know.

For such a small town, there is a surprisingly large number of dining options. Apart from the local chipshop, there is a 100 seater Chinese restaurant, a shoarma and pizza place, an upscale French style restaurant, one of the pubs has recently upgraded its menu to serious restaurant level food and then there is the restaurant where we always used to go for special occasions: Het Wapen van Haastrecht, which translates to The Haastrecht Arms. The place had been there for as long as I can remember, the people who ran it were recognised pillars of the community and basically everyone in town has special memories of the place. We ate there when my mother celebrated her 60th birthday. We ate there on the day of my mother's funeral, unfortunately only a few months later. We ate there when I graduated from high school. The restaurant has a very special place in my heart.
Imagine my shock, then, when, in January this year, my dad told me that they would be closing down.
Hold on, what?

The owners had simply sold the place and retired. Just like that.
I was heartbroken.

I couldn't find a usable picture of the restaurant, so here is a photo of a sad cat wearing a sombrero

The silver lining, however, was that a new restaurant would take its place so the space would not be wasted (or turned into luxury apartments as everything else these days).
In a funny twist of irony, I found later that this restaurant has 4 branches across the country and that it is owned by the same company that runs the chain of La Cubanita tapas restaurants. That company started out as a single restaurant, 15 years ago, and my friend Michell is the head chef at the original location. He was their first employee all those year ago, when nobody could have guessed what a succes it would become. They now have around 50 branches.

So it was with that thought in mind that I rounded up the old crew and made reservations for the new restaurant.
                                                                  Of which I did find a photo

When you live abroad for so long, you start to realise that life in your home country moves on without you. I picked up a newspaper at Eindhoven Airport and could not identify the man on the front page. It turned out it was the Dutch prime minister. When I left the country, he was a junior assistant to a member of parliament. The guy has moved up in the world. Apart from the football scores, life in Holland is something that largely passes me by these days. The prime minister aside, I could not name a single member of the current government.
The second thing I noticed, is that the railways have discontinued the discount scheme that I always used, which gave me a nice 40% discount on railtickets, which made it worthwile to join the scheme, even if you only came to Holland twice per year. The railway employee who advised me on this, also pointed out that it didn't matter because my discount card had expired in January. Would you believe that.. those cards are valid for 5 years from the date of issue.
It HAS been that long.
Adding further to my dissatisfaction about the current state of the railways, was the fact that you were now expected to have a special chipcard for public transport, on which you add credit and then scan your card when you enter or exit a station. I asked the railway employee how this would work out for tourists like me and he instructed me that I could simply buy a temporary chipcard for the price of 1 Euro.
When I agreed to this he simply gave me a train ticket to where I was going, so they basically just add 1 Euro to the price of your ticket because their daft system does not account for the fact that maybe not everyone in the world wants to buy in to their dumb scheme.
                      There is a guy with a Ned Kelly beard, just out of picture, pointing a gun at these women.

Annoyed, I picked up my ticket, got a beer for the journey and sat down in the train. When travelling to my dad's home town from Eindhoven, you need to switch trains at Utrecht which is great because it gives you the opportunity to restock your beer. I arrived at my destination but not before the railways had one final chance of annoying me: the ticket inspector informed me that I had forgotten to 'check in' , as I believe he called it, and was now basically travelling illegally.
When I explained my situation as being effectively a foreign tourist who does not know all the intricacies of life in this country, he informed me that he would need to escort me to the exit of the station as my ticket would now not open the gate. I told him I didn't care and he could do whatever he wanted but that I was sure I could get out on my own.
Ofcourse, when we got to the station, the guy was nowhere to be found and the gate worked fine on my illegally un-used ticket. That's another thing that has changed monumentally since I left- the railroads suck these days.

My dad picked me up at the station and we set off for his house. One of the good things about coming back home is that THAT is still exactly as you remember it. A new tv aside, very little has changed in my dad's house in the 9 years since I decided to call it quits on living in Holland. The one thing that, unfortunately, did change is that my mother is no longer there which is the one thing that I would liked to have seen unchanged above anything else, thank you very much.

One of my boys had had to cancel for diner as he had a job to do for a Japanese tv station and as a small independent business man, you need to take every job you can to build your portfolio. The 2 other guys arrived soon after and after the usual chats about work, children and increasing patches of grey in each other's hair, we set off for the restaurant.

I must say; they have done a good job on the place. It is still recognizable as the place of old, but it now has a more modern touch to it. I liked what they had done to the place very much.
They operate a system in which you pay a set price for a 3 course menu and then pick from the 10 starters, 11 mains and 7 deserts. All this can be yours for an incredible EUR14.50. There had been some rumours that you could not possibly expect decent food at such prices, but I’ve seen crazier things. With a fresh pint of lager in front of me, I perused the menu. It looked excellent and eventually I settled on carpaccio for starter and chicken satays as a main.

The food arrived and I must say my carpaccio was excellent. My dad had smoked salmon, my friend Conrad who moved out of town and then back and then out again also had carpaccio, and my friend Vincent had prawns. He always has prawns. Everywhere. All the time. I bet he would eat nothing but prawns if his wife would let him. I happen to know the guy literally from the day he was born (he is 5 weeks younger than me and our mums were in Lamaze Class together) and even at the age of 1 day, he requested prawns for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Anyway, he is by now ofcourse and expert when it comes to prawns and he declared them to be great. And if Vincent says that about prawns, it’s true.

                                                             This is top of his bucket list.

Mains were served later, as you would expect, and I asolutely loved my satays with peanut sauce. That’s one of the things I miss about Holland- it is nearly impossible to get Indonesian food in Ireland. There is one Indonesian restaurant in Dublin that I know of, and it gets mixed reviews so I haven’t been there yet. Maybe I should give it a go.
My cheese cake desert was also great and when the bill came, the grand total, including all drinks, came to 24 Euro per person. Insane, isn’t it? We left a big tip and as the night filtered out I realised that I was glad that the new restaurant is a worthy replacement of the one that was there before. Look, at those prices, you don’t expect food worthy of a Michelin Star but it was a great dining experience and if they keep up the work like this, I’m sure that this restaurant formula will soon have 40+ branches as well. Thumbs up!
My friends and my dad went home after the restaurant, but I was still in the mood for a night cap. I went to one of the local pubs, which still has the same name but has had a major refurbishment about 6 months ago (stop changing things from my childhood!). It is now run by a guy I used to be in school with, and inevitably I ran into some vaguely familiar people and ended up having a couple of drinks with my former dental hygienist and her friend. That’s small town life for you.


                                                       This pub has been there since the 17th century.

The next morning, at breakfast, I had a look at the listings magazine that came with the paper and found to my surprise that this week’s restaurant review was of the place we had been the night before. That, too, is small town life for you.
I had planned to take my dad out for lunch but as the Tour de France was on, he preferred to watch the Alpe D’Huez stage rather than going out, so I decided to watch it with him, as I had plans for the night and the next day and wanted to spend some time with my dad. This also gave me the opportunity to indulge in another one of my home coming pleasures: Shoarma!
Shoarma comes from the same background as kebab, but is different in the way it is cut. Where kebab comes in thin slices, like sliced ham, shoarma is cut in small bits, more like if you chopped up bacon. For the last couple of years now, my dad’s hometown has a shoarma place where you can go and eat, or you can take it out and eat it at home, as I did now. I ordered a shoarma and 2 extra portions of garlic sauce. You have to eat shoarma with an indecent amount of garlic sauce you know, otherwise you won’t get the whole experience. I sat down at the dinner table with the Tour de France in the background and drowned my shoarma in garlic sauce. It was great. I can understand that these guys do a brisk trade. Combined with their pizza offerings (which are also pretty good) they have an excellent selection of post-pub food.
And here is where the only thing I can’t fathom about the place comes in: they close at 10PM. Most kebab places I know, both here in Ireland and in Holland, do their best trade late at night. There are kebab places here in Dublin that don’t open UNTIL 10PM. Then again, the licensing laws in small towns aren’t observed as vigorously as they are in Dublin. When the current owner took over the pub I had been in the day before, it was said that he would observe the official closing time more closely. Not a chance in Hell. I had walked out of the place at 02.50AM the previous night and there were at least half a dozen people still there and not a single one of them had any intention of calling it a night any time soon. Small bars in mainland Europe simply tend to close when the manager wants to go to bed, which is rarely before 5AM.
So I heartily enjoyed both my shoarma/garlic feast and the Tour de France (that’s another thing that doesn’t really make the headlines in Ireland- cycling) before heading out for a couple of drinks with friends.

                                                It has lots of garlic, so categorize under 'Health food'

There was a new bar in the city of Gouda that, according to my friends, offered 90 different types of beer. Before I went there though, I had to make a visit to one of my old favorites; De Tapperij (This translates roughly as ’The Tap House’).
I have been drinking in this bar at increasingly large intervals since I was 15 and I always enjoy it there. It’s nothing particularly spectacular but it’s just one of those places that are nice and where everybody knows your name. (My brother in law always says that he feels he is drinking in a hallway with tables in it). I walked in the door and within 5 seconds, the barman said “Hey, how’s life Lennard?!”
See- that is what is so great about this place. I had shown my face exactly once over the past year and a half and they still know who you are. I had a couple of beers and did some catching up with other regulars (you know, the ones that still actually are regulars there) and then went to the new bar.
The building used to be an Irish pub of the ‘If we put up enough shamrocks, it will look legit’ variety and, as a result, soon had to change tack because everybody saw it was fake. Here’s a little word of advice for those running Irish pubs outside of Ireland: There is one thing that makes pubs in Ireland stand out from those anywhere else in the world: Atmosphere. It doesn’t matter how many shamrocks or signs saying ‘Killarney 2765 miles’ or pictures of Michael Collins in uniform you order from the Irish Pub Warehouse in Glasgow, you need atmosphere to make it work.
After the faux Irish pub, it was a lunch room for a while and now it is a bar again.

                                         Bonus word of advice: green beer is for people from Cleveland

When I walked in, my first impression was that, for a bar that boasts 90 beers on offer, their selection of draught beer was somewhat disappointing. There were just 5 taps and the only beer that appealed to me was Grolsch. I can get Grolsch in the convenience store 2 minutes from my house in Dublin, I don’t need to go to Holland to drink it. I sat down with my pint and picked up the paper and the beer list. Their list of bottles, I must say, was quite impressive. They had a myriad of brands that I had never heard of, and the ones I had heard of I had never tasted because they didn’t exist when I lived in Holland. More on this in a bit, because my attention was drawn to the barman who said “If you’re interested, we also have Westvleteren at the moment”.

Hold on.

Westvleteren? Did he just say Westvleteren? Are you kidding? I ordered him to summon a bottle at once and keep it outside the fridge for consumption at the appropriate temperature.
“It’s a bit expensive, you know..” he said, but I told him I did not care one tiny bit.
If you are wondering what all the fuzz is about at this stage, let me explain the story of Westvleteren ale to you.

Trappist Ales are very special beers. They are made by actual monks in actual monestaries. Only eleven of them exist in the entire world and you can’t call yourself Trappist unless you are awarded a special designation by a central governing body.
Some of the Trappist breweries produce large amounts of beer. Westmalle, Chimay and La Trappe each make over 3 million gallons of beer per year. It is easily available pretty much anywhere and I can get Westmalle and Chimay in at least a dozen pubs in Dublin alone.

Westvleteren, however, only make about 120.000 gallons of beer each year.Ofcourse, I can see you think, if they make small amounts of beer, it will be more difficult to get. Yes, true, but this is only the start of your troubles. Besides the tiny amount of beer they make to begin with, they have the additional trick of not having a distribution network: You can only buy it at the monastery.
And even then you’re not there yet. You can’t just rock up to the brewery and load your trunk full of beer, oh no. You will have to make a phone call to the dedicated Westvleteren ordering line, which is open for only 2 hours each week. Didn’t get through because it was too busy? Tough luck, my friend. Try again next week. Monks are strict like that.
So eventually, at some point, you might actually get through and you can place your order. It is now important that you make the right choice. They have 3 types of beer (Blonde, 8 and 12) but you can only buy 1 case. When placing your order, they take down your phone number and license plate and tell you to come to the brewery the next week during a very specific pick up window, which is typically 2 hours in the middle of a week day. You drive up to the brewery, give them your order reference and license plate and then they will sell you your case. Congratulations! You have your Westvleteren and, as off now, you are blacklisted from buying any more of their beer for the next 2 months. The monks want to give people a fair chance of getting some beer and prevent the locals from buying it all.
Officially, it is not allowed to re-sell your beer, assuming that you would want to do that in the first place after all the hassle. You will understand from all this: if you get the chance to get your hands on Westvleteren, you take it.
                                                                             Oh yes, you will.

And so I did. It must have been 15 years since I last drank it, and it was as good as I remember it. As a sort of jackpot within the jackpot, they had managed to get a case of the yellow capped ‘12’ which is the best of their beers. (They don’t label the bottles so their different beers are only distinguished by the color of the bottle cap- green, blue or yellow).
As my friends were starting to pour in now, we sat down in the garden and I enjoyed my trappist. I enjoyed it very much, knowing that it would easily be 5 years before I would taste it again. When I finished it, I went inside to have a look at the rest of their bottle selection. Magnificent as Westvleteren is, I wasn't going to drink 13-euro-a-bottle beer all night.

Here is another thing that has changed since I left the country: Holland all of a sudden has a booming craft beer scene. When I was living there, you were pretty much left at the mercy of a handful of huge macro breweries and if you wanted something outside of that you would have to go the Belgian route. There were a few small breweries in Holland at the time, but most of their beers were sort of hard to get. Not now though. There has been an enormous development in the Dutch craft beer world, and breweries now pop up left, right and centre. In fact, Holland now has more breweries than Belgium, something that would have been impossible a decade ago.
This has lead to some sour statements from the people South of the border, which mostly revolve around ‘Quality is better than quantity’ and similar observations. The reality is, however, that Belgium has been so far ahead of the rest of the world that they became complacent. Belgium relied on their traditional position at the head of the pack and saw little need for innovation for decades. Meanwhile, however, the rest of the world saw interesting developments elsewhere and started to make their own styles of beer. As with most other things, this movement was led by the United States. In the past, the USA would be written off as a producer of characterless macro lagers like Budweiser and Coors, but the craft movement in the USA did what the USA does best: they figured out how to do it, then made it better and then became the best in the world. Yes, there, I said it: American beer is the best in the world. Don’t believe me? Go anywhere in the USA and order a couple of local brews and you will know I’m right.

Anyway, I digress. I was talking about the Dutch craft beer scene and that has become very impressive as well. I tried about half a dozen Dutch craft beers over the evening and they were all great. When the time came for me to get the last bus home, one of my friends offered to drive me home so that I could stay a bit longer. She has moved to the country side since the days of old and had to drive home herself anyway, so it would be little effort for her to take a 3 mile detour to get me home. I happily accepted the offer and when I got home, I made my way back to my old highschool years bed and was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

The next morning, I had breakfast in the sun, paid a visit to my grandpa who, at 98, is still going strong, and then got ready for the main event: Bar #1100.

As mentioned above, craft beer is booming in Holland now and Rotterdam has a craft brewery as well. I had agreed to meet my friends there in the afternoon so I set off for the rail station. I was overcharged once again, and set off on the short train journey to Rotterdam. When I got there, and yes, I’m going to complain about public transport again, I found that the Rotterdam Subway had undergone a transformation as well. Even though there are hardly any additional stations, there are now 5 lines, rather than the 2 we used to have. The thing is, one of the lines from my days has 2 little offshoots to outlying suburbs and these have now been promoted to being actual lines themselves. The system is now also connected to a new lightrail system that connects Rotterdam with Den Haag so there you go; 5 line subway, ladies and gentlemen. With the new set up came, ofcourse, a new ticketing system and, as you will have guessed by now, poor old tourist me got caught inbetween 2 options. As I do not have the standard public transport chip card (comparable to Oyster Card in London or Leap Card in Dublin) on the account of me only being in the country a couple of days per year, I was given the opportunity to purchase an All Day Pass for EUR 7,50. This was ridiculous. I only needed to go 4 or 5 stops and then the same route back at the end of the day.

The guy at the ticket window told me that my best bet would then be to buy a 1 Hour Unlimited Card, which would give me unlimited access to all modes of transportation within the city limits. I again explained that I did not want to avail of all his modes of transport but merely wanted to get 5 stops down the line. Alas, this was my only option so I set off in a dim frame of mind with two 1HourUnlimited passes at the extortionate price of EUR6,-

                                              Dear subway: Fuck you.

The brewery is in an area that is colloquially known as De Kaap, or The Cape in English. It is on a peninsula that sticks out of the South bank of the river where the port was in earlier days. What little memories I had of the area were not exactly positive. The only time I remember being there was about a decade ago, when we had to play a darts match in a local pub there. I remembered the area as dirty, grey and rough looking. On our walk to the darts match, most of what we saw was apartments with boarded up windows, broken street lights and shifty looking people peering from dark alleyways. When we got there, the pub turned out to have exactly 1 beer option- Heineken. It is safe to say that I was glad to turn my back on the place after the match and never came back.
What a difference a decade can make.  Gone were all the boarded up windows, broken street furniture and trash on the street. Most of the apartments had been freshly repainted in bright colors, there had been an influx of new businesses like restaurants and shops in the area and old warehouses had been redeveloped. After 5 minutes I realised it: it felt as if I was walking through Brooklyn.

                                   Though there is a distinct lack of people wanting to kill Walter O'Malley

We got to the brewery shortly after and that, too, has a touch of Brooklyn to it. It is housed in an old warehouse, but it’s not alone. The inside of the building is entirely open plan and, apart from the brewery, it also houses a pizza place, an artisan butcher, a cheesemaker, a cider shop, a bookstore and a whole host of other businesses existing peacefully under one roof.

I got a beer from the expansive menu and made for the outside seating area where a couple of my friends had already claimed a table. The view is phenomonal, looking out over the river and another island where old stately buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with shiny new skyscrapers. The mighty Erasmus bridge towers up to your right and the rest of the skyline recedes in the distance. It truely is an amazing spot.

I took a sip of my excellent beer, a oatmeal stout with an impressive depth in taste and a whopping 9.8% alcohol. I then made back for the bar to take a picture.
It was now official: this was my 1100th bar. I had taken it a bit slow after number 1000, back in Las Vegas in October 2013, but this was another great landmark in my neverending pub crawl. I already have my eyes set on a very special one for #1250.


The thing about living abroad is that, yes, at times I truely miss my Dutch friends. Even after 9 years in Ireland, I still sometimes feel a pang of sadness in my chest when I’m standing at the bar in Dublin and I read on Facebook that 20 of them are having a great time back in Rotterdam.  That is one of the things I have realised more and more over the years. I miss my friends and, to a certain extent, my family but apart from that and a couple of pubs I used to be a regular in, I have no real bond with Holland as a country. I am having a ball in Dublin and I wouldn’t change back for anything.

I couldn’t.

If, hypothetically, I moved back to Holland tomorrow, I simply wouldn’t know how to live there anymore. First of all, Holland has changed quite a lot over the years and secondly, I have become so accustomed to Ireland that changing back now would simply make me walk around thinking that I had ended up in a parallel universe where everything is weird.
People drive on the wrong side of the road. Why is everybody so uptight about petty rules and traffic lights? Why is insurance a hot topic of debate, all the time? In my 9 years in Ireland, I have heard insurance come up in conversation perhaps a dozen times. In Holland you will get that in the space of 2 pints.

So, to get back to the reality of the day, it is always great to be back home and see that a lot of people make an effort to come see you. I spent the whole afternoon, and part of the evening catching up with friends I hadn’t seen for various lengths of time, while working my way through the breweries catalogue. Perhaps the highlight of the day was an Imperial Red IPA with the brilliant name Lennie. It was so nice of the brewery to name a beer after me, even though they didn’t know I was coming, or who I am in the first place.
The next day, I had an early flight and went through the business of making my way to Eindhoven through somewhat hazy eyes. In the airport, I ran into a couple of Irish guys I knew, who had been on tour with their band in, I think, Germany.
Meeting a couple of Irish guys in Holland and telling them you’re about to go home, to Dublin. I think that’s a fitting end to this episode.

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