TRAVEL PRELUDES: Finally, a chance to visit the Jopenkerk — a Haarlem brewery in a church, and with gruit beer.


In far-off olden times, a “Jopen” in Haarlem was a wooden barrel of roughly 30 American gallons, used to transport beer from burgeoning riverside breweries to customers throughout the city.

The ensuing ale barrel of an idea for what eventually became today’s Jopen Bier stretches back all the way to the 15th century, when Jopens were filled with Koyt, Haarlem’s municipally-regulated gruit beer.

To give the beer a better flavour and extend its shelf life, gruit is added to it. This is a herb mixture with sweet gale as its main ingredient. When it comes to trading and distribution, landlords tax the brewers, and they are forced to buy their gruit from specific suppliers. Haarlem city council sets up a large number of regulations and statutes that describe the beer production process down to the finest details. In 1407, Koyt is brewed in Haarlem in accordance with the brewing statute (recipe prescribed by the council). Its consistent quality makes Haarlem gruit beer famous far beyond national borders. During the 15th century, Koyt is the most popular beer in Antwerp.

I’m trying to imagine New Albany’s city council designing (and enforcing) beer recipes. Changing times, and all that.

More than 500 years later, a momentous event occurred in the history of Haarlem, both city and beer, because I went there for the very first time. Perhaps not coincidentally, five years later a serious effort began to reclaim Haarlem’s lost brewing heritage.

1992 — Haarlem Beer Society

Haarlem council posts a newspaper request for ideas to commemorate the city’s 750-year anniversary in 1995. Ideas related to beer are suggested. After all, the city along the Spaarne River developed around the production and sale of its own beer. The Haarlem Beer Society is established in 1992 with the aim of making traditional Haarlem beer available once again. Walter Schelfhout combs the city archives for old council recipes and comes up with two, dating back to 1407 and 1501. Council archaeologist Maarten Poldermans and Haarlem historian Loes Vroom verify the authenticity of the recipes and Leuven University recreates the beer.

By 1996, the present Jopen company had been formed to brew beer in Haarlem on a regular basis, although at first it functioned strictly as a contract brewer. In 2005, after years of negotiation, Jopen purchased the Jacobskerk, and in 2010, the renovated church opened for business as the Jopenkerk brewpub.

Since then, in a growth arc familiar to all American craft beer lovers, increased demand has led to the construction of a production brewery in the Waarderpolder industrial park near Haarlem. The downtown brewery is the smaller batch showpiece, and the beers for distribution are brewed at Waarderpolder.

In 2015 came yet another Jopen installation, a distillery/cafe in Hoopddorf, a town a few miles south of Haarlem — and yes, it’s also located inside a former church.

I like their style.

Seeing as my most recent stay in Haarlem came in 2008, apparently I’ve missed all the fun times at Jopen. On the other hand, having shot the entrepreneurial rapids with NABC since just before Jopen’s inception, it actually may be the case that the grandest times for customers have been the most stressful for the brewing company’s owners.

That’s often the way it works.

As this post it published, it is Saturday, the last full day of our trip. I’m sure we’ve had the chance to visit the Jopenkerk by now.

Truthfully, for at least the past two decades — probably closer to 30 years — I’ve almost never seen a church gone-out-of-business without pondering what a fine brewery it would make.

It’s contagious.

Beer enthusiast or not, it’d be hard for anyone to argue that this isn’t one of the most stunning breweries, with its gorgeous and colorful interior, earning Jopenkerk the honorable title of “Best Looking Bar in the Netherlands” in 2013.

I’ve always like Jopen’s ales precisely because they weren’t hop bombs. Nowadays, I’m sure some of them are, but I’m a sucker for historical recreations like Koyt and Adriaan, and it is likely those are the ones I’ve been drinking.

In 2008, the Jopenkerk brewpub was a cordoned-off building site. Now, exciting new chapters of Haarlem’s brewing history are being written. It’s too bad Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson wasn’t around to help edit them. He’d have enjoyed the beer-in-church thing, I think.