This Artist Makes Beer Out of Potatoes and Snow

Designer and brewer Henriëtte Waal travels through the Netherlands with her mobile brewery, making super-local craft beers out of unlikely ingredients. Canal-water lager, anyone?

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Mar 24 2015, 4:00pm

Photo by Jorn van Eck.

I'm sitting in Amsterdam's Cafe de Ceuvel with designer and brewer Henriëtte Waal, and we're about to drink some of the most interesting beers in the Netherlands. We've chosen this spot because Waal is scheduled to brew a special 'freedom beer' for the cafe this May by using water from the Johan van Hasseltkanaal, a canal that this hippie community borders.

Canal water is exactly her kind of ingredient.

Armed with a shopping list provided by Waal, I had stopped by de Bierkoning—a specialty beer shop in Amsterdam with over 1,300 different types of craft beer for sale—before meeting her, so we'll have plenty to sample during the interview. Now, five bottles of craft beer sit before us on a rickety table, all of which we taste as Waal leads me through her outsider philosophy on brewing.

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Photo by the author.

Waal learned to brew six years ago as part of an art project at a water purification plant, and it was then that she discovered a hidden talent. But what started as a one-time thing became, in her words, "a small addiction."

With her mobile Outside Brewery—which she simply attaches to her car—Waal makes craft beers in conjunction with guest brewers throughout the Netherlands, using her surroundings as her inspiration. She's made a briny Sea Beer with seawater at an oyster bank on the isle of Terschelling. She once took to the roof of an industrial building with a snow shovel after a storm, which formed the basis of her Snow Beer—a heavy, sweet winter brew.

"It was completely ridiculous, of course. It took hours to warm up the snow," Waal laughs. "But I still have friends who say that this is their favorite beer. The whole ritual of making the beer, and the adventure of it—I truly believe that makes for a unique flavor."

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Photo by Henriëtte Waal.

Pieperpils ('Potato Pilsner')—The Outside Brewery In addition to seawater and snow, Waal likes to experiment with wild ingredients. The first beer she has me taste was made in the middle of a potato field during a harvest festival in Groningen. It contains 12 different kinds of potatoes and no grain whatsoever. It smells of earth and sulfur, and has a tingling mouthfeel and a particularly fresh finish.

When she started Outside Brewery in 2009, there was still much room for innovation. Nowadays, craft breweries in the Netherlands shoot up like mushrooms: in 2014 alone, a record number of 73 (!) new breweries opened for business, and the new generation of Dutch brewers continues to experiment with unconventional ingredients such as algae, cantaloupe, chilies, andcastoreum—a.k.a. beaver butt discharge.

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Photo by Henriëtte Waal.

Volkspils—Oedipus Brewing The men of Oedipus Brewery in Amsterdam designed this cucumber-flavored lager specifically for the Volkshotel. The light lager has a medium head and lots of cucumber in the aftertaste. "It's quite hoppy," says Waal. "This is a great beer for summer." Volkpils is light in color, almost greenish. "But that's probably just your imagination, because you know it has cucumber in it."

Besides her work as an artist and brewer, Waal also works as a curator for the monthly Beer Council at Mediamatic, where she introduces people to the concept of biodesign in an accessible way—namely, with beer. She also forges new connections between small brewers, designers, and the food industry. "I really try to think about what I can do for the conscious beer drinker who is looking for a more interesting, more complex product."

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Photo by Amenda Oomen.

Meneer de Uil Bowmore Barrel Aged—Brouwerij Het Uiltje The next beer that we try was suggested to me by Jochem Peteri of de Bierkoning, which he refers to as a 'muscle beer': an imperial stout that's been aged in whiskey barrels and clocks in at 11.5 percent alcohol. The beer is pitch-black, with very little foam. "The funny thing is that a stout is usually very dry, but this one is sweet and you taste the whiskey," says Waal. The flavor is heavy and very concentrated—this is no beer to guzzle. "Maybe they even sneaked a little whiskey in."

Waal's role as an outsider in the beer sceneas both a young woman and an artistgives Henriëtte the freedom to approach brewing in a different way. "I don't have to worry about brewing every day, or about delivering my product to shops and cafes. I don't have to worry about the things that come with setting up your own brewery." Instead, she chooses to focus on the social, ethical, and cultural function of beer. With her beers she can capture the imagination of a wider audience, which isn't always easy in the art scene. "Look, everyone understands a potato beer. Maybe not quite what the project entails, but you have a product that appeals to a large group of people. Beer is really everybody's drink."

When pouring the next beer, I create a foam layer of about three inches. "I'm a terrible pourer myself," laughs Waal. Despite the fact that the percentage of Dutch female brewers probably does not exceed 5 percent of the industry, Waal has never felt pigeonholed by her male colleagues. On the contrary: The atmosphere among the brewers is good-natured and anything but snobby. "And it's great that there's so many male brewers, because I love men," she laughs.

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Photo by Jorn van Eck.

Huismoeder ('Housewife')—Ramses Bier According to the brewers at Ramses, the best beers are made with guts. This beer with Slovenian hops was flavored with lapsang souchong tea, which gives it a fiery and smoky flavor. The smell reminds me of gunpowder and liquorice, but Waal smells raisins and rainwater. "It tastes a bit like iron," she notes, and we decide to drink the whole bottle.

According to Waal, the rise of craft beer and the decrease in sales of industrial beer is a product, among other things, of dated marketing. Big breweries paint a picture that is not appealing to consumers anymore. "People want local products and they want to know where their food is coming from. It's a development that cannot be stopped."

The idea behind her mobile brewery was to bring people back in touch with the landscape, but also to make the brewing process—which usually takes place on an industrial scale—visible again. "It is the complete opposite of the international food industry," Waal says. Craft beer has more to do with enjoying the flavor than with getting drunk. "Industrial beer is made so that you can drink ten beers in succession." She gestures to the last bottle: "A beer like a Wild at Heart is not made with drinkability in mind. Which isn't all that smart, commercially speaking." But the audacity with which small breweries like Oersoep experiment is often welcomed by the new generation of beer enthusiasts.

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Photo by Jorn van Eck.

Wild at Heart—Oersoep Brewery "This is my favorite," Waal says. "But you have to be up for experimenting with this one." Made with wild yeasts, Wild at Heart is sour, with notes of red fruit, and it smells a bit like a horse blanket—a flavor that a layman might be quick to describe as 'funky'. But the difference between industrial beers and craft beers is that you have to learn to appreciate the latter.

Whether she sees herself more as an artist or as a brewer, Waal isn't sure. When she is working on a design project, she always finds herself making a beer to go with it. "I have to keep myself from only making beers and not doing anything else. But it's hard to make a really excellent beer with the Outside Brewery, because there are so many variables."

She adds, "On the other hand, I've made some very good beers because everything sort of went wrong."

The balance between commercial and artistic brew is a tricky one, and not every experimental beer will find favour with a larger audience. Waal's brewing process is all about the experience, about the social aspect, and the super-local flavor. "And because I'm an artist, I will always opt for the most extreme beer."