In the warehouse of the Eindhoven music café Wilhelmina, behind the brown wooden bar and close to the stage, are four stainless steel tanks. Dommelsch stickers make it clear what is inside. At least: it should be. Because the tanks, each with a capacity of 1,000 liters, have been empty for months.
Wilhelmina, like all other cafés and restaurants in the Netherlands, has been closed since mid-October due to the corona virus. The beer, which normally flowed through the tap at a rate of a thousand liters a week, suddenly had no purpose anymore. The brewery picked it up, promising to supply a new stock for free as soon as the catering industry was allowed to reopen.
More than six months later, the time has come. It should not have lasted a week longer for café owner Frans van den Nieuwenhof. “All the walls in my house have been damaged because I walked through them,” he says, standing next to the shiny tanks. “So I would say, put beer in it.”
These are busy days for brewers. Last Tuesday, the cabinet announced that restaurant owners were allowed to open their terraces again eight days later, on Wednesday 28 April. The Netherlands has roughly 50,000 pubs, eateries and restaurants, of which an estimated 40 percent to half have a terrace. Not all of these businesses actually open, because operating a terrace alone is often not profitable.
Yet there are many thousands of catering companies left who, after not having ordered a keg for months, now suddenly all want a new beer stock within a week. How do breweries handle such an extensive supply operation?
If you take the N69 from Café Wilhelmina, drive south for 15 minutes and then turn off to Dommelen, you will automatically pass a tall facade of red-brown bricks. It is the Dommelsch brewery, a building dating from the late nineteenth century where no beer has been brewed for years now. This takes place behind the old building, on a factory site full of meter-high silos: the largest Dutch brewing location of the Belgian beer conglomerate AB InBev (turnover: converted 39 billion euros). Not only Dommelsch is made, but also other InBev brands such as Hertog Jan, Leffe and Jupiler.
Also read: The terrace is for the over-30s, the park more for the young
The brewery was affected by the closure of the catering industry. “The production of casks was completely stopped,” says Kristof Daskalovski (33). The Flemish had just been in charge of the brewery in Dommelen for a few months when the corona virus reached the Netherlands. Tank beer, for in large barrels such as those at Café Wilhelmina, was also no longer in demand. Due to the increased sales in the supermarket, the brewery did fill more bottles. Nevertheless, the annual production fell from 150 to 160 million liters to between 120 and 130 million liters last year.
“But,” says Daskalovski, “now we are back at full speed.” The brewery, which employs 250 people, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It is Thursday, just a week before the terraces reopen. Daskalovski enters the hall where the machines that fill the kegs are located. A robot lifts the twenty-liter barrels from pallets and puts them on a conveyor belt that carries the barrels through a car wash and past a filling station. After a few minutes, the machine will lift the full barrels back onto a pallet. “We fill three hundred an hour,” Daskalovski shouts over the noise from the production line.
At the start of the second lockdown, the big four brewers (Heineken, AB InBev, Grolsch, Bavaria) collected the beer from all their Dutch catering customers, which would otherwise have been spoiled in the kegs and tanks. It is difficult to say how much beer is now going back to the catering industry. AB InBev received two thousand orders, but the number of liters involved is not immediately available to the group. Grolsch and Bavaria do not make any statements about how much beer they supply for the terrace opening. Only Heineken can say that it has delivered “approximately 1 million liters” to customers in recent days.
The production time of the beer was the biggest complicating factor with regard to the terrace opening for the brewers in Dommelen. Dommelsch lager has a brewing time of two weeks, with some types of beer it is even longer. In order to have sufficient beer in stock at the time, the brewery had to increase production in time – even before there was certainty about the relaxation of the corona measures. With the risk of taking action too early and being left with a large surplus of perishable beer.
In fact, the brewery had to determine the beer production for 100 percent with 50 percent of the knowledge. Will the terraces really open? And if so: does the café owner order his usual thousand liters, or does he first purchase a little less? Brewery manager Daskalovski: “I prefer to produce those thousand liters of beer. And whether they will order it or not, that is our problem. But when someone orders, we have to be able to deliver. ” In the end, AB InBev dared to gamble to increase production at the beginning of April. The group then also implemented the annual increase in the price of beer. A liter of Dommelsch now costs 3.13 euros, 3.3 percent more than before.
InBev had to estimate not only how much beer was needed, but also of which brands, says hospitality director Michele Van Spilbeeck (31). She talks via a video connection from her car, because she is constantly on the road in the run-up to the reopening. “It depends on what kind of catering business opens. For example, you can find Jupiler more quickly in a sports canteen. It will not open immediately. We expect that more Hertog Jan will be ordered again. That’s more for restaurants. ”
Not all catering owners are happy with the conditions under which the terraces will reopen. Also read: ‘This hardly makes sense’
In the brewery, Daskalovski stands between rows of colossal storage tanks. All the brewed beer ends up in one of these reservoirs, in a windowless space at the bottom of the brewery complex. Total storage capacity: about 2.5 million liters. If you put all that in bottles, you can fill a stack of beer crates almost ten times the height of Mount Everest.
“They are all full,” says Daskalovski, looking at the tanks. Normally this is an undesirable situation. If no more beer can be stored in storage, the brewing process must be stopped. Now it is different. Daskalovsky is confident that the outflow will be large enough to compensate for the influx. It is enormous: the brewing department starts fifteen new brews, each of 40,000 liters, each day, which will end up in storage after two weeks.
Pumps push the beer from the storage tanks through long pipe systems to filling departments for bottles and kegs. And to a battery of tankers, such as that of Jos Verbugt (54). The cargo space of his electric truck is filled with 4,000 liters of Dommelsch.
Verbugt, a Dutchman in a fluorescent InBev jacket, visited catering customers every day for 25 years, but not for the past six months. “I worked in the warehouse and took crates to supermarket distribution centers,” he says as he starts up the truck for the ride to a series of pubs in Eindhoven. Today Verbugt has its first catering delivery in months. He is not alone. Until 28 April, a truck will leave the site 200 times a day in Dommelen to supply catering customers. Both large trailers with barrels and smaller tankers.
In Eindhoven, Verbugt parks the truck on the square in front of Café Wilhelmina. He opens the flap at the back and rolls out a hose, which he drags along like a firefighter, through a side door, to the warehouse with the four stainless steel tanks. Verbugt attaches the hose to a coupling at the bottom of one of the tanks. “A thousand liters,” he says, “it will take ten, twelve minutes.”
Verbugt walks back to the truck. He enters some settings on a computer screen. Then he presses a big blue button: ‘Pump Start’. The installation in the truck buzzes to life – and the beer starts to flow.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of April 28, 2021