In October this year, co-owner of Brouwerij de Molen John Brus (pictured above, left) swung into Singapore for a short visit. First founded in 2004 in Bodegraven, the Netherlands, the brewery has since become a well-known global beer with a huge reputation for a penchant for strong, barrel-aged beers.
We grabbed Brus for a short chat about recent global beer trends, such as barrel-aged beers and the recent spate of craft breweries getting bought up by large beer conglomerates.
For our readers who aren’t quite familiar with Brouwerij De Molen, could you share with us a little bit about how you guys started out?
The brewery was founded in 2004 by my business partner and head brewer Menno Oliver. When he first started it, it was just a small brewery restaurant with a tasting room. That was his plan… he didn’t quite plan on becoming a big brewery. His focus was on making good beer, because there weren’t any good beers in Holland at that point, mainly Dutch lagers by huge breweries like Heineken, as well as Belgian beers. There was a large variety in Belgian beers, but they were generally mainstream Belgian beers that were sweet and uninteresting in our opinion. So he started the brewery to brew the beers he liked, without much planning for the future.
When I joined him in 2009, we started talking about becoming a bigger brewery. I’m not the kind of guy who wants to run a restaurant or a bar! I like to brew beer. By that time he had the same opinion, so he readily agreed and said “Let’s sell the restaurant, and start a bigger brewery.”
That was the first time there was a real plan – to grow. We focused on five years to grow from eight or nine hectolitres to about four and a half thousand hectolitres. It may sound big but it’s nowhere near compared to the Heinekens of the world. Heineken is actually our closest neighbour – they’re only about 15 kilometres away – and in this one brewery they brew nine million hectolitres alone.
Our first brew in the new brewery was in 2011; by 2014 we already reached our target of four and a half thousand hectolitres – so we hit our target within three and a half years, and not the five years we had planned. This is also the same time the craft beer scene in Holland exploded; people were beginning to discover good beer on a large scale. For us, this was the sign that we weren’t brewing enough beer because the demand is much bigger. We were already turning down many countries who wanted us to export to them because we didn’t have the beer to sell them.
So we’ve decided to grow again – our new plan is to grow to 25 thousand hectolitres, and we’re buying a lot more fermenters for that to happen.
Barrel-aging beer is now a huge trend amongst breweries across the world; interestinglyDe Molen is one of the breweries that started a barrel-aging program very early on. What was the thinking behind that?
We started barrel-aging in 2005 or 2006 with four barrels at first. The trend just started in the beer world and it was picked up by a number of American breweries so we picked it up as well. We like to experiment, and we like to learn from other breweries – part of the craft beer scene, after all, is that you learn from one another.
Originally barrel-aging was a very authentic way of aging beers in the Czech Republic and Germany, as well as in casks in England. I’m not sure who was the first to do barrel-aging the way it’s done now, like eight months in a bourbon barrel.
So what barrel-aged beers can we expect from De Molen in the coming year?
It’s difficult to make plans on that because of the availability, to be precise the lack of availability, of barrels. It’s basically what we can get our hands on.
But we do have big plans to expand on our current number of 50 barrels, because with a new building we have so much more space for them.
Are we expecting more collaboration brews coming up from De Molen?
For sure! There isn’t really a concrete plan right now aside from one with Põhjala in Estonia. The head brewer is a friend of mine and he said he was able to get some Ardbeg barrels, so he said “Let’s do this collaboration and put the beer in these Ardbeg barrels”. Of course I said yes – I’m a big fan of smoked whiskies.
We also have a coming collaboration with Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia.
“We don’t look at what the market wants, we make what we want to make. It may sound arrogant, but in a sense it’s our way of showing the world that we’re authentic.” – John Brus, co-owner of Brouwerij De Molen
Is there any particular reason why De Molen tends to make the bigger, bolder and more aggressive beers?
Of course there’s a reason – we make beers we like.
We have a few rules for what we do. For us, quality comes first. If there’s a hop variety that we need, it doesn’t matter the price. Of course we’ll find the cheapest way to get it, but if we need that hop we go out and get that hop. We’re not going to say “Oh, let’s go for Czech hops because they’re easier to get”. No, we get Czech hops we want to use Czech hops.
We’re big fans of smoked IPAs, strong black beers like imperial porters and imperial stouts, and so that’s we make. We don’t look at what the market needs, we make what we want to make. It may sound arrogant, but in a sense it’s our way of showing the world that we’re authentic, and that we’re doing what we love.
Wouldn’t making what you love but not what the world needs make things challenging then, if you make a lot of product the world may not like or is ready for?
The people who go to the supermarket and buy $5 beers are not going to buy our beers, but there’s always a niche market that do – the ones who want something special and different.
Hence we’re never going to become a big brewery like Samuel Adams or even Stone Brewing Co, much less Heineken. For us it’s all about the beer, and not about market share.
If you see the global beer market now, there are many small breweries that are being acquired by big beer companies; beer giant AB-InBev bought out Elysian Brewing, for example, and most recently Heineken bought a 50% stake in Lagunitas Brewing Company. What are your thoughts on this?
There are many reasons why small breweries “sell out” to the big boys.
Some are just fed up with what they are doing, when they see a lot of money coming by they think “If I take that I can live well for the rest of my life, go fishing for turbot or something”.
There are a few of them who are interested in the investment that follows an acquisition; Duvel Moortgat, for example, recently bought Brouwerij t’IJ. They could have been interested in the money but I don’t think so, I know the people behind the brewery and they already have money from selling a chain of pubs. I’m pretty sure the reason is that they now have even more money to invest in the brewery so that they can expand and grow, maybe to 50 thousand hectolitres.
Would you ever consider selling if you reach that point? If someone came by and said they’d buy a share of your brewery so you can grow to a capacity of 50 thousand hectolitres?
That’s a difficult question. I don’t know. Not now. But maybe in the future, when I need to retire?
It also depends on who’s knocking on the door; If Heineken knocked on my door I would say, no way.
It seems that whenever a craft brewery gets bought out craft beer fans seem to go into a frenzy, some even start boycotts.
I can understand that reaction from consumers; they also have a lot of passion for the product. If you grow that big like Lagunitas, there would be a segment of customers who get upset and say they’ll never buy any Lagunitas again. But 95% of consumers don’t care who owns the brewery; they only drink the beer. So I can also understand if a brewery is not afraid of that threat.
As a passionate beer drinker, it’s sometimes sad. Then again, if the beer hasn’t changed, does it really matter? Have you drunk a Goose Island Bourbon County Stout recently? There’s been no change even though they were bought out by AB-InBev. It’s still a perfect beer.
We thank The Drinking Partners, the official distributor for De Molen beers in Singapore, for arranging the interview with John Brus.