Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Koyt: A beer worth fighting for

In the beer halls of Haarlem, a picturesque Dutch city noted for its canal houses, flower-filled windows, and rich beer-brewing past, you can sip koyt, a brew so delicious that thousands of people once fought for the right to drink it—and changed the course of Dutch history.

In Café Studio, a bar on Haarlem's town square, a jovial, beer-loving historian named Walter Schelfhout tells me the tale of the 15th-century dustup. ''Back then, fortunes were made in the beer trade,'' he begins. Koyt, a type of beer made with herbs (including sweet gale, bergamot, and coriander), was the city's prime beer export, sold from Bremen to Picardy and popular in the province of Friesland, which functioned as a feudal state governed by merchants—who, incidentally, imposed stiff taxes on all imported and exported goods.

In 1487 Friesland's largest city, Leeuwarden, banned all foreign beer, including Haarlem's, to protect sales of the local stuff. But one innkeeper—pressured by his patrons, most of them peasants—kept serving Haarlem's dark, aromatic koyt. Soon enough, city authorities came to confiscate the beer, and a huge brawl erupted. The customers fled to a sympathizer's home, where they were besieged. ''Things looked grim,'' says Schelfhout. Immediately, the homeowner's brother started mobilizing support in the countryside, and several days later a peasant army 8,000 men strong marched into Leeuwarden, demanding not just Haarlem beer but fair trade as well. When their demands were ignored, they rescued their friends—and sacked the city while they were at it.

In the aftermath, the beer ban was lifted and trade duties lowered. The merchants of Leeuwarden never fully recovered their power, and droughts and major fires in the province further weakened their control; by the early 1500s Hapsburg Emperor Charles V, ruler of Spain, Germany, and most of present-day Holland, took over Friesland, which had never before been governed by a foreigner.

As for Haarlem koyt, it flourished until the 19th century, when lighter, easier-to-digest pilsner beers from Bohemia eclipsed traditional brews. The last city brewery folded in 1916. But thanks to Schelfhout and a few other historians, who found a 1407 recipe for koyt in the city archives and revived it for Haarlem's 750th anniversary five years ago, the beer is once again being brewed—at the Schaapskooi Trappist brewery in southwest Holland, under the name Jopen Koyt (jopen is a type of barrel).

Savoring my glass of Jopen Koyt (not yet exported from Holland), I detect notes of nuts, orange, and violets, with an aftertaste of history. Now this is a beer worth fighting for.

Originally printed in the April 2000 issue of Saveur.


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