On the bar is a dispenser for Dutch jenever – the liquor that inspired British gin – silver taps of lager and 10 hard-boiled eggs at €1 a pop.
Café de Druif is one of Amsterdam’s oldest “brown bars”, or bruine kroegen, and part of a movement to preserve these cosy drinking rooms.
Jasper Gottlieb, 34, helped save the 16th-century drinking spot from a future as a trendy wine bar when its former owner stepped down in December. With three colleagues he cleaned and restored the bar, fixed leaks and electrics, but left the walls as tobacco-stained as ever.
“This may be the oldest bruine kroeg in Amsterdam,” said Gottlieb, who cuts an unconventional figure as a publican in black jeans and white trainers. “Because people were frequently illiterate, it had a symbol of a bunch of grapes outside, and it was brown because of the smoke.
“Perhaps I’m a romantic, but I love all of the stories. I see a lot of things changing in the city, but it’s so good to have somewhere like this, where regulars have been coming four times a week for 40 years.”
There’s no room for stag nights, but there is for new elements, he added. “We have oat milk and natural wines, but we also have liver and ossenworst raw sausage. The old locals keep coming, there are lots of young people and everything in between: young, old, rich, poor. But, of course, no smoking.”
Some fear this classic Dutch pub is vulnerable to takeover by big chains. According to the Koninklijke Horeca Nederland hospitality association, national bruine kroeg numbers have fallen by almost a third, from 12,065 in 2007 to 8,260 at the end of 2022.
The head of Amsterdam’s PvdA Labour party, Lian Heinhuis, proposes that their function and interiors should get a listed status, potentially banning whitewashing the walls. “If you let big money take over, it’s more attractive to put in an expensive juice bar or a wine bar,” she said. “The social function is under pressure, there’s less of a neighbourhood feel. So we want to make them part of our official heritage as they have done for a number of pubs in England or bodegas in Barcelona.”
Some Amsterdammers agree the bars are a vital component of Dutch culture. Social historian Roos Hamelink said the 1544 brown bar In’t Aepjen is immortalised in the remorseful phrase “in de aap gelogeerd”– “lodged in the monkey”, a reference to sailors who had spent the night there.
“The story goes that the place was the favoured drinking parlour for the drunks and scum of the city, many of whom would drunkenly enlist themselves for long sea journeys with the [Dutch East India Company],” she said. “Something they very much regretted the next day, as they awoke from their stupor. What is fascinating to me is that it exemplifies how these legendary drinking institutions have anchored themselves in Dutch folklore and language.”
But other brown bars, like ’t Doktertje, have told local media they are wary about more regulation – especially if the status invites more crowds of TikTok tourists only seeking a background for selfies.
Best-selling author of Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City Russell Shorto reflected that a modern take on the past can also be more inclusive. “The whole idea of brown cafes existed for a period of time: some have maintained that feel but, for the most part, they evolve,” he said.
“I think they tended to be male hang-outs, and nobody in the past had the sensibility we do now. If you walk in the canal district, it feels like it’s always the 17th century which, until recently, was proudly thought of as the Golden Age – and now we recognise it wasn’t golden for everybody. There’s always that tug of war.”
Still, there are no makeover plans at Café Welling, which is by the Concertgebouw. Sitting on a comfy sofa, Bas Lubberhuizen, 76, its owner for 45 years, believes the pandemic highlighted its purpose.
“It’s the social function that’s so important,” he said, sipping a vaasje [pint] of Zwarte Ruiter beer. “It’s all about talking, people talking to one another – no social media. This is the social medium. We don’t sell beer: we sell atmosphere.”
Regular Robert Bruinsma, 80, agrees. “It’s not just [about] shouting, drinking and peeing in the road,” he said. “[They are] unique.”2023-06-04T13:04:53Z dg43tfdfdgfd