Sometimes, differentiating yourself means that you're cheaper. Sometimes, differentiating yourself means targeting a new demographic. It may even mean that you differentiate yourself by subculture and/or association. However, there's a small team in the heart of Amsterdam, brewing something that doesn't compete with existing beers on any of the previously mentioned marketing-textbook strategies... They brought back something that's always been there. Lowlander Beer brings you botanical brewing. Hops are overrated... We decided to get in touch with them, and get the inside-scoop.
Ok seriously, before we get into all of this and discuss Lowlander Beer specifically – what on god’s holy earth made beer brewing so popular? What’s with the sudden hype and love for micro brewing?
Well, we would say it is not that sudden and also not a hype, but mainly love. Love for exploring new flavours and love for rediscovering lost brewing heritage. The history of craft brewing saw America’s beer landscape start to change already in the late 1970s. Brewing traditions and beer styles brought over by immigrants were slowly disappearing and the American brewing landscape was shrinking in size but also taste. The only way to drink something else than light lagers was to home brew your own beer, giving birth to what we now call the craft beer industry.
In the Lowlands – The Netherlands – there was a similar development: among other things up scaling caused the large lager brewers to survive, and beers become more and more bland in taste. Meanwhile the smaller breweries (the ones making tasty witbier, stouts etc.) had to close their doors. The dissatisfaction with a limited offer in styles and flavours could definitely be a reason for the popularity. We believe it also has to do with the renewed appreciation of local produce and revival of the Dutch brewing industry long before the big lager guys took over the market.
What do you think contributed to the current (dare we say) ‘hipster’ love for beer and brewing?
Craft beer scores well on the ‘hipster’ checklist: authentic, local, artisanal, independent, unique, nostalgic and DIY. In the early days craft beer was mainly for a small group of connoisseurs, while nowadays having a craft beer in an eclectic Amsterdam tasting room has become the norm. In their search for originality hipsters make the same choices (how ironic). So maybe we should conclude the hipster love for brewing and beer contributed to the success of craft beers, instead of the other way around?
But if I understand you correctly, you still looked at this exciting new industry of craft beer as ‘slightly played out’? Or better yet, put in your own words; “a little generic with its tunnel vision towards hops”, correct? What made you guys consider this?
At Lowlander Beer we brew with botanicals for a number of reasons. Firstly we think it makes the beer taste better and a little bit more exciting. Secondly, we are fascinated by the tradition of distilling within gin & genever production. Finally, we are passionate about the lost art of brewing beer with botanicals.
It may be hard to imagine what beer would taste like without hops but this wasn’t always the case. Hops were only woven into the thread of beer’s history relatively recently. Incredibly, the world’s third favourite beverage dates back over 6500 years. Documented use of hops in this process can be traced back only around 700 years. That means there was a full 5,800 years of blissful beer drinking without anyone even sniffing a hop. This begs the question of what was used to flavour and bitter beer in their absence? The answer to this (a whole variety of botanicals) is what has inspired Lowlander Beer.
We have taken inspiration from the past to create a new hybrid selection of beers brewed with botanicals to create a subtle and lasting depth of flavours. Using botanical ingredients means that we give it a truly unique flavour and this is why we think that going back to the past will actually lead us to the next step in beer’s evolution.
How many times did you fall “flat on your face” before finding flavours that actually worked? And what flavours best work with beer? Surely not everything works? What are some golden flavours that you can never go wrong with?
Botanicals such as herbs, spices, fruits, fresh and dried plants leave us without boundaries for our creative process. New flavour ideas can come from anywhere and our diverse backgrounds as brewers, mixologists, distillers and foodies gives us a different perspective of what beer can be.
It might sound simple but brewing with botanicals is no easy feat. From deciding precisely what flavour we want to get out of our herbs to establishing what quantity will create the perfect balance, it’s a terribly intricate affair. Of course there are some known well-working combinations, for example bitter orange flavours in witbier, or coriander in (mainly Belgian) witbier or Tripel beers. We aim to take it even to the next level with for example vanilla and typical Dutch licorice root in our Poorter, a beer with a distinguished flavour and a lot of character. We don’t want to bore you with all the technical details, but we could chew your ears off explaining how Lowlander Beer gets its exceptional flavour. One thing we do know is that, when it comes to brewing with botanicals, there’s only one way to figure out what works best: trial, test and drink ;-).
Also, if hops weren’t used for such a long time (in the past), why are they so popular now? Is there a reason people don’t brew with botanical flavours? If so, how does Lowlander avoid making the same mistake?
Brewing with hops, started back in the 14th century, resulted in a more constant quality and longer shelf life. Another advantage of hops is that they grow very fast, sometimes up to 10cm a day. The rise of craft beer in America made home brewers explore new and interesting hops, which opened a whole new world of flavours as well as techniques. We love the incredible aromas and flavour this abundant ingredient provide beers as much as the next person, and acknowledge a tasty beers needs hops. Whilst Lowlander’s beers have been heavily influenced by other ingredients, you will still find a hoppy addition in every bottle.
So while other brewers think malt, water, hops and yeast, a beer at Lowlander starts with peeling dozens of oranges, extract bags full of herbs, make teas and tinctures.
What’s it like to brew a new beer, in a market and industry that seems saturated with new brands coming up all the time? What types of things are now very important as a commercial beer brewer, to keep in mind that was maybe less important back then (when the craft wasn’t as hip as it is now)?
Brewing a new beer, launching a new brand is a great adventure. From the very first idea to where we are today: I wouldn’t want to miss a minute of it. The number one thing that is important to us is consistent flavour. You need a great tasting product, bottle after bottle, sip after sip.
Another thing I’ve always had in mind is ‘go big or go home’. From day one we’ve worked with the best brewers, designers, mixologists and distillers to create the Lowlander brand, ready for a journey that will cross borders. We stay true to our mission: putting the flavour and intrigue back into Dutch beer.
Where is the industry headed right now, according to you? And how does Lowlander look to fulfill its ambition become a globally recognized brand?
There is so much more to discover and develop; the craft beer industry is still far from its peak we believe. There is room for growth but like with most industries we expect a division between those who keep innovating, expand and go across borders, and those who won’t. The beer industry in general is a great example of an industry where scale means efficiency. Logistics and distribution are extremely important, long term we will probably see micro brewers work together or merge to keep up.
Our vision for the Lowlander brand is to brew beers full of flavour and character; something that expands people’s horizons. Not just by sipping a Lowlander (or two) but also by taking it to the next level with distinct food pairings by the best restaurants and chefs. Or by introducing beertails and combining the best of both botanical worlds: liqueur and beer.