The first Friday of August is international beer day – the perfect opportunity to reflect on this much-loved beverage. The ‘amber nectar’ is the oldest and most consumed alcoholic beverage in the world. The histories of beer and shipping are closely intertwined.

In 1323, Amsterdam was granted the exclusive right in Europe to import beer from Hamburg, which resulted in the enormous growth of the city's port. Large quantities of beer were also carried on board during the voyages of the Dutch East India Company.

Jopen beer

The ships of the Dutch East India Company – the East Indiamen – lay anchored at the Rede van Texel (a ‘roadstead’ or sheltered anchorage area off the Dutch island of Texel), ready to be loaded for the long voyage to Asia. Provisions for months at sea – including large quantities of beer – were brought on board. There was one barrel of beer for each crew member, and an East Indiaman generally carried 300 crew members. The beer was not only for the journey; there were also casks on board that were intended for sale in the Dutch East Indies. The beer destined for the East Indies and for the captain and the first officer was of high quality and came from breweries both in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Different kinds of beer were brought on board, including Liège beer and the so-called Brunswick Mum. These types of beer contain a lot of hops, which extended the shelf life and meant it arrived in the East Indies in good condition; this was similar to the well-known beer type IPA (India Pale Ale) brewed in England with plenty of hops to keep it in good condition during the long journey to India. The malt-rich Jopen beer, which still exists today, also went on board.

Green and slimy

Naturally, there was plenty of beer for the crew to drink too, although they had to make do with a simpler and cheaper brew. The alcohol content was much lower than that of beer today. The quality of the beer was fine for the first weeks of the voyage, but after a month or two it began to spoil and they switched to water to quench their thirst. By that time, the water wouldn't have tasted much better, as the water on board turned bad even more quickly than the beer. After a few weeks, the water had turned green and slimy and was full of disgusting creatures. Fortunately, there was always wine and brandy, which stayed good for much longer.

Dry 'couscous'

The sailors drank beer from early morning. Breakfast on board an East Indiaman consisted of groats (crushed barley) mixed with plums or raisins. This was boiled into a thick porridge. To make it slightly more palatable, a good dash of beer was often added. This mixture was also called ‘koeskoes’ (couscous). Another common breakfast on board was beer with bread and syrup. Every day, each crew member was given one lidded tankard (of about 1.5 litres) or eight ‘hats’ of beer. The distribution of drink on board was the task of the bottleman.

Fighting a losing battle on the beer quay

The Dutch version of the saying ‘fighting a losing battle’ is Vechten tegen de bierkaai (literally: fighting on the beer quay) and originates from Amsterdam. At the Bierkade or Bierkaai (beer quay) on Oudezijds Voorburgwal (an important street alongside one of Amsterdam's canals), the beer carriers took care of the task of unloading the casks from the ships and transporting the beer to traders and pubs. They had their own guild and enjoyed the exclusive right to transport beer within the city. Beer carriers were generally strong, hefty fellows. You wouldn't want to get into a fight with them – you had no chance of winning. You would be fighting a losing battle, and this was the origin of the Dutch saying ‘fighting on the beer quay’.

Author: Sander Wegereef