From traditional neighbourhood cafés (pubs) to cutting-edge cocktail bars, drinking options abound in every Dutch city and larger town: Amsterdam is one of the wildest nightlife cities in Europe and the world. In more rural parts of the country, there is no finer place to experience first-hand that very fine Dutch art of being gezellig (relaxing over a drink in a cosy, charming, old-world café).
Coffee & Tea
The hot drink of choice is coffee – after all, it was Amsterdam’s merchants who introduced coffee to Europe – served by the cup (no refills), usually with a cookie on the side.
Ordering a koffie will get you a sizeable cup and a separate package or jug of koffiemelk, a slightly sour-tasting cream akin to condensed milk. Koffie verkeerd is similar to a latte, served in a big mug with plenty of real milk.
Hard-core aficionados may find the standard cup wanting, but craft espresso vendors are gaining ground: the Coffee Company, a national chain, is Holland's answer to Starbucks and artisan coffee roasteries and micro-roasteries are mushrooming in cities and towns countrywide. Many baristas roast beans in the back room of their own, third-wave coffee shop and use connoisseur styles of drip coffee, cold brew, espresso et al.
Dutch roasters to look for include Man Met Bril and Giraffe in Rotterdam (two of a dozen odd roasters in the Netherlands' second-largest city), Brinks near Nijmegen in Central Netherlands and Keen Coffee in Utrecht. Major players in Amsterdam include White Label, Lot Sixty One, Two for Joy, Monks, Bocca and Sweet Cup.
Tea is usually served Continental-style: a cup or pot of hot water with a tea bag on the side. Varieties might be presented in a humidor-like box for you to pick and choose. If you want milk, say 'met melk, graag'. Many locals prefer to add a slice of lemon.
Dutch specialist coffee, live latte art, music, coffee mixologist workshops and an on-trend street-food market make the annual three-day Amsterdam Coffee Festival (www.amsterdamcoffeefestival.com) a hot date for urban foodies.
The Dutch love beer. It’s seen as the perfect companion for time spent with friends in the sun or out partying till the small hours. And they’ve had plenty of time to cultivate this unquestioning love – beer has been a popular drink since the 14th century, and at one time the Dutch could lay claim to no fewer than 559 brewers. Traditionally most Dutch beer is lager (or Pilsner), a clear, crisp, golden beer with strong hop flavouring.
Beer is served cool and topped by a head of froth. Een bier or een pils will get you a normal glass; een kleintje pils is a small glass and een fluitje is a tall but thin glass – perfect for multiple refills.
Heineken is the Netherlands’ (and possibly the world’s) best-known beer. However, it's often dissed at home – ‘the beer your cheap father drinks’, to quote one wag. Amstel (owned by Heineken) is also well known, and Grolsch (visit its brewery in Enschede, Twente) can also claim a certain amount of international fame. Most beers contain around 5% alcohol, and a few of those cute little glasses can pack a strong punch.
While the big names are ubiquitous, the Netherlands has scores of small brewers worth trying, including Gulpener (from Gulpen in east Limburg), Jopen (Haarlem), Drie Ringen (Amersfoort), Leeuw (Leeuwarden) and Hettinga (Zwolle). La Trappe (brewed close to Tilburg and open to brewery visits) and Zundert (from Zundert, birthplace of Van Gogh, no less, in Noord Brabant) are Dutch Trappist beers. The potent beers made by Amsterdam’s Brouwerij ’t IJ are sold on tap and in some local pubs – try the Columbus brew (9% alcohol).
Other local breweries worth trying include Texelse Bierbrouwerij on Texel, Rotterdam’s Stadsbrouwerij De Pelgrim, Utrecht’s Oudaen and De Hemel in Nijmegen. In addition, almost every town has at least one cafe or bar serving a huge range of beers.
If you’re around in spring or autumn, don’t pass up the chance to sample seasonal bock beers, such as Lentebok (spring bock) and Herfstbok (autumn bock). Sample many – and possibly suffer the consequences – at Utrecht’s Café Ledig Erf, which has a bock beer fest over an autumn weekend, or at Amsterdam's annual Bokbierfestival (www.facebook.com/bockbierfestival), the Netherlands' biggest and best-known beer fest held over three days in late October.
It’s not all beer here: the Dutch also make the hard stuff. Way before gin was created, the seafaring Dutch were distilling malt wine (for medicinal reasons and to sustain sailors out at sea for months at a time) to make what is today known as jenever (ya-nay-ver; Dutch gin; also spelled genever). It gained its name from the juniper berries that were subsequently used to flavour the fiery drink, traditionally served chilled in a tiny glass filled to the brim. The Wynand Fockink distillery in Amsterdam, dating to 1679, is a perfect spot to learn about and taste jenever.
Jonge (young) jenever is generally smoother and easier to drink than the darker, stronger tasting oude jenever, which can be an acquired taste. A common combination, known as a kopstoot (head butt), is a glass of jenever with a beer chaser – few people can handle more than two or three of these.
There are plenty of indigenous liqueurs too, including advocaat (a kind of eggnog) and beerenburg, a herb-infused Frisian gin still made as it has been for centuries at Weduwe Joustra in the small Frisian town of Sneek. The fifth-generation craft distillery has a small museum explaining how the liqueur is made, and its shop sells ceramic bottles of Beerenburg FS and Beerenburg FSOB, both with a fiery 38% alcoholic content and aged for three and five years respectively in oak barrels to create the perfect, after-dinner Frisian digestive.
No craft distillery experiments with so many local flavours and products – to dazzling effect – as Mr Mofongo in Groningen. Its liqueurs, vodkas and gins made from ginger, thyme and all sorts are sensational.
Coffeeshop v Coffee Shop v Café
When in the Netherlands, it's crucial to understand the difference between a coffeeshop (marijuana-smoking cafe), a coffee shop (koffiehuis), as in a specialist espresso bar serving craft coffee, and a café (pub).
A coffeeshop may serve coffee (never alcohol), but its focus is cannabis and hash. Smoking (any substance) is banned by law in cafés.
Borrel in Dutch means, quite simply, 'drink' – as in a glass of spirits, traditionally jenever (Dutch gin). But in social parlance, to be invited to borrel means to take part in an informal gathering for drinks, conversation and fun. It usually incorporates food too, especially borrelhapjes (bar snacks) such as borrelnootjes (peanuts covered in a crisp, spicy outer shell), and kroketten (croquettes) including bitterballen (small, round meat croquettes) – the name comes from the tradition of serving them with bitters, namely jenever.
Any occasion can be a reason for borrel: a birthday, a beautiful sunset that invites patio sitting, the end of a work day (vrijdagmiddagborrel, usually shortened to vrijmibo or just vrimibo is specifically Friday afternoon work drinks with colleagues). When you see a group of locals spilling out of a brown cafe onto the street with a glass of beer in hand? That's borrel. The famously open Dutch rarely mind an addition to the party.