Wednesday, July 19, 2017

I Met the Beauty and the Devil in Haarlem.

Typical bar in North Holland, Netherlands
photo by the author

I Met the Beauty and the Devil in Haarlem
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

           From the inside of the dimly-lit bar on the narrow, cobbled side-street in Haarlem, Netherlands, I watched through the windows as the lithe, Dutch woman spoke to a few of the bar owners in the neighborhood. The sunlight danced on her short, blonde hair, and the male barmen seemed to hang on her every word, hand gesture and smile. I had the sense that the thirty-something woman had the ability to put every bar owner in Haarlem into a trance and walk them into the North Sea. I think they would have gladly followed.
           A fortuitous fate had brought me face-to-face with this Dutch beauty and her sparkling blue-green eyes. Now I was trying to make sense of it all while I stuffed my face with mixed nuts and sipped on my fourth beer (two beers past my normal limit).
          I thought back to how we came to meet. After a day of biking across the countryside of North Holland, I decided to wander from the barge on which I was staying to find a small bar or cafĂ©, connect my iPhone to the wi-fi (pronounced wee-fee in Europe), and check on the status of the junk emails which had floated through the cyberspace and landed in my inbox. I didn’t want the sheer number of them to become unwieldly. Who knows? Maybe the house had burned down back home and the neighbors were desperately trying to get in touch.
           I wanted a cool brew to ease the sore muscles. It was to be an innocent, relaxing afternoon, before returning to the four-course meal awaiting me that evening aboard the barge.
          After finding the out-of-the-way bar with the round Amstel Bier sign above the door, I sat at the empty counter and listened to the young owner tell me about his twenty Dutch and Belgian beers on tap.
          He helped with my selection by stating, “I think you’d like Affligem. It’s a nice blonde pale ale.”
          “Affligem it is!”
          I watched as he selected the proper glass from one of the shelves. One of the joys of drinking beer in Europe is getting a specially-designed and branded glass to showcase the beer. He poured the beer, then set it on a coaster in front of me and said, “So tell me about American beers.”
          “Well, craft beers and brew pubs are all the rage. The old standbys like Budweiser and Coors are just commodity beers now.”
          We had a long conversation about beer and sports, and I ordered a second Affligem. He talked about the upcoming weekend that was going to be his busiest time, but he said, “I’ve not put any televisions in my bar, and I’m not going to. The football (soccer) crowd is too rowdy.” Then he asked, “What’s so special about the American craft beers?”
          “To some extent, we are copying the beer you have here in Northern Europe. Americans are learning to enjoy different hops and flavors in the taste. I come from Kansas City and there is a brewery there called Boulevard Beer. They have tried to create Belgian-like beers with lots of flavor and alcohol content, and they’ve been successful. Boulevard Beer was bought a few years ago by Duvel, the Belgian beer company.
          At that very moment, the beautiful blonde Dutch woman walked into the bar. As if on cue, the bar owner pointed to her and said, “She works for Duvel!” I almost fell off my bar stool, but was too awestruck by her eyes and smile. I reached out, shook her delicate hand and said, “Hello.”
          In a cute, European accent she replied, “My pleasure.”
          The bar owner explained to her, “This man is from Kansas City in the U.S. and he’s telling me all about the Boulevard Beer Company.”
          I turned to her and asked, “What do you do for Duvel?                  
          “Oh, I’m a beer rep for them. My territory is all of North Holland, except for Amsterdam proper. I visit about twenty bars a day. Some of them are out on the north islands and I have to take a ferry to get there. I promote our brands, including the Boulevard Beer from Kansas City.” She put a finger to her lips and then pointed outside. “I have something to show you. I’ll be back.” She disappeared for five minutes and returned with two bottles of Boulevard beer. One was a bottle of Tank 7, a Boulevard Beer of which I was familiar. The other bottle was Boulevard’s The Calling, which I hadn’t tried.
          She said, “These are two of the three Boulevard beers we are promoting in Belgium and Holland.” She looked at the bar owner and said, “I think the three of us should give them a try. I usually don’t drink much beer during the day, but . . .” She turned to me and winked, “every so often I like to do some tastings.”
          The bar owner grabbed three glasses and opened the bottle of Tank 7.
          She turned to me and said, “So tell me what you know about beer in America, and about the Boulevard Brewery, too.”
          “Craft beers and home-made beers are becoming very popular. In fact, my neighbor had a big brewing party in his garage the other day. He and his buddies gave their wives the day off, and the dads brought their kids with them. They rented a big bounce house in the driveway to let the kids jump and play while the men brewed their batches of beer. It looked like fun.”
          We continued to sip the Tank 7.
          I asked her, “Do you know how Tank 7 was named?”
          “I little bit. Tell me what you know.”
          “The story I heard was that Tank No. 7 at the brewery was considered cursed. Every time they used it, hoses would break, valves would stick, and the batches were nasty. Then one day they brewed a beautiful batch with a unique flavor, and they knew it was a good one. When they named it, Tank 7 was the obvious favorite. The label was designed using the font from the Ouija board to compliment the strange happenings around the cursed tank.”
          She smiled and said, “I didn’t know about the label design. I’ll have to tell that one to my superiors!” We laughed and I realized I was starting to get a little giddy from all the beer.
          I added, “I have a friend whose softball team nicknamed the beer Tanked by 7 because of the high alcohol content." Then I explain that tanked was an English slang term for being drunk.
          We finished the Tank 7 (8.5% alcohol) and the bar tender opened The Calling (also 8.5% alcohol). I wondered, was The Calling named for a siren call from the Duvel? Duvel, which is Belgian for devil, was a centuries-old family beer made in Belgium. Supposedly, in the old days, one of the neighbors couldn’t stop drinking it, so he called it the devil. Now the company has become a world-wide beer conglomerate.
          I realized I’d had too much to drink, but decided to tell her another story about homemade beer. “One of the guys in our bicycling group made some beer in his basement.”
          “Oh?” she asked. “Tell me about it.”
          “He brewed up a good batch and realized he didn’t have any filters to strain it, so he used some of his wife’s panty hose. He called it Panty Hose IPA. The label he designed had a pair of legs on it.”
          The beautiful woman stared at her beer glass. She laughed and made reference to the panty hose, “I hope they were clean.”
          We laughed some more.
          I was getting a bit woozy, so I looked at the bar owner and asked, “Do you have something to eat? I’d take some chips or nuts if you have some.”
          “Sure.” He reached under the counter and a small bowl of mixed nuts appeared.
          All of a sudden, the woman and the bar owner were on their cellphones, speaking in Dutch. The bar owner looked at me and said, “She’s going to visit with some of the other bar owners in the neighborhood.” That’s when they went outside into the sun-filled street and I watched her through the windows. She kept them in rapt attention while I sipped on the remnants of The Calling. After about fifteen minutes she returned inside with the bar owner.
          I decided it was way past time for me to go back to the barge for supper. If I had another beer, I might not be able to find my way. We said our good-byes and she disappeared out the door. I thanked the bar owner and walked out onto the cobblestone sidewalk, being careful to walk slowly and stay close to the building walls in case I needed something for balance.
          I didn’t know what her name was, but that didn’t matter. I’ll always remember those blue-green eyes. What a story, I thought. How would it begin? Let’s see . . . “There was this man who walked into a bar . . . that would be me.”
          I began to laugh as I gingerly walked down towards the canal.
Early morning view of the canal at Haarlem, Netherlands
photo by the author

 Author’s note: Duvel Moortgat USA, a subsidiary of the Duvel Brewing Company of Belgium announced the purchase of Boulevard Brewing Co. in October of 2013. The price was not disclosed, but industry publications estimated the cost exceeded $100 million U.S. dollars.