Amsterdam Pub Guide
A Tale of one City
an evening in Nieuwebrugsteeg

6th July 2006, 19:30
Old Nickel and OlofspoortCities are much like lovers: once their deepest layer has been revealed, you lose interest. With no need to explore further, boredom sets in. Amsterdam, like the most enthralling and enigmatic woman, is still full of surprises.

Ever the archaeologist, I continue digging away, but there's been no sign of bedrock yet. I'll let you know when my trowel finally hits stone.

The 6th of July was much like any other swelteringly hot day in Amsterdam: sweltering and hot. So why did I invite Mike (that's Dutch Mike, formerly American Mike) on a pub crawl.. sorry.. research trip on such an apparently unsuitable day? Because I'm an idiot. I never think things through.

Here's what happened.

(Proof that they are next door to one aonther: left Old Nickel, right Olofspoort).

In de Olofspoort

In de Olofspoort

Why my experience in Olofspoort, which Iīve visited several times (and even photographed for inclusion in this guide) was so unexpected is hard to explain. So I wonīt bother trying. Iīll just share some of the magic with you.

Amsterdam is a very different place on the handful of tropical days it experiences each year. Pubs are deserted as drinkers seek a cooling breeze in a city without airco. Those without outdoor seating become ghost pubs, inhabited only by the barstaff and the odd customer with such unchangeable habits that even the risk of melting into a puddle of sweat wonīt deter them from their daily routine. You have to admire their commitment. If you can handle some perspiration of your own, youīll be rewarded with a chance to interact that is rarely available when the crowd consists or more than two. Naturally, the only people youīll be able to interact with are the barstaff and odd stubborn local, but, hey, who will know the place better?

In de Olofspoort back roomWhen Café Brandon (Keizersgracht 157) reopened after being sealed up for 20 years, much was made of its time-capsule atmosphere. I wasn't that impressed. It looks pretty modern compared to some of the places I hang out. The conservatism of Amsterdamīs publicans is such that several others, which have never closed, exist in a similar time-warp. Olofspoort goes one better. But weīll get to that later. The novelty of a no-smoking area in an Amsterdam pub is such that, despite its stifling lack of airflow, Mike and I plumped for the back room.

Victoriana, in its revolting pastiche form so beloved of unimaginative pub designers across the globe, has acquired a bit of a dodgy reputation. But here itīs genuine, whiich is another matter entirely. Remove the electrical fittings (well, not literally, otherwise there would be no lighting) and you could be back in 1860. An 1860īs apothecary. Behind a low counter is a whole wall of interestingly-shaped bottles filled with equally interestingly-coloured liquids. Except these arenīt medicines. Not according to the current concept of medicinal, anyway. These are the personal bottles of the regulars, each carefully labelled and locked. A wave of sympathy for poor old Tantalus swept over me. Iīll never use the word "tantalising" so carelessly again.

In de Olofspoort front room"OK", you say, "so thereīs an untouched 19th century room. What sets Olofspoort apart from Amsterdamīs other time-warp pubs?" The front bar. The journey from rear to front jumps you backwards in time another 200 years. With the casement windows thrown wide for ventialtion and no jarringly-dressed fellow customers, it offers views that could come from Vermeer. The backdrop of the 17th century brickwork of the houses across the alley complete an authentic image, spoiled only by the occasional basball cap bobbing by.

I asked Mike what he thought of the pub. After a moment's reflection, he replied: "It's perfect. I wouldn't change anything." a short pause "Except install air-conditioning." That's praise indeed from someone who could find fault with Mother Theresa.

The centuries during which jenever, not beer, was Hollandīs drink of choice have left their mark on Amsterdamīs pubs. The oldest and most authentic are jenever houses. And in these places jenever, proper jenever not the industrial alcohol usually sold under the name, is given the respect it deserves. The totemic names adorning the bottles behind the bar in Olofspoort speak to me in a strange tongue, but their message is friendly, even encouraging: "Forget beer for today."

In de Olofspoort bar counterZuidam, Rutte, Filliers - these are names that have me salivating like Homer Simpson at a pig roast. Where do I start? Sometimes you can have too much choice. I ask the barmaidīs advice. She points out that, in addition to these fine names Iīve already mentioned, they also have their own house brands. Sounds like a good place to begin. I also order a Affligem Dubbel, purely for mouth-washing purposes, I assure you. Mike asks for a "half om half", his litmus test of jenever house's level of seriousness. "No problem - do you want the house one?" was the barmaid's immediate reply.

If youīve never tried a proper jenever, you have a real treat awaiting you. But here are a few tips for the fullest enjoyment. Don't think of it as gin. A real old jenever is aged, like whisky, in small oak barrels. Just like whisky, this is where it picks up its colour, from pale gold to deep amber. (The industrial paintstripper variety is distilled, coloured and on the off-licence shelf within a hour or two.) The good stuff is sold by age: starting at one or two years for the lightest and most easy-drinking, progressing through the deeper, more complex 5 and 8 year olds and climaxing with ones of 12 or even 17 years (almost old enough to drink themselves) packed with rich, sherry notes. As you may have noticed, I do have quite a liking for it. But getting back to my essential advice, start with a two year old and work your way up in the ages. But make sure that it is jenever that has been genuinely aged. "Oud" (Dutch for "old") doesnīt necessarily mean old in the weird world of industrial jenever distilling.

In de Olofspoort casement windowsOlofspoort has some wonderful jenevers at prices that look laughable compared to those for whisky of a similar (or even far inferior) quality: Rutte 12 year old is a paltry €4.60. A bargain for such a mature and deeply layered drink. It made the Filliers 8 year old (one of Belgiumīs finest) which had preceded it over my tongue, appear shallow and one-dimensional. And I love Filliers 8.

Having shared all of this with you, I now have a favour to ask. If you visit Olofspoort, please donīt make me regret having recommended it. Itīs a special place and I want it to stay that way. So treat it, the staff and the regulars with a bit of respect. Thatīs not too much to ask, is it?
6th July 2006, 21:15

Old Nickel

In this ancient part of the city, where tattoe parlours, budget hostels, coffee shops, snackbars and taverns crush against one another in a brick-built mob, odd companions are no surprise.

It's only in the modern age that the rich and poor, sacred and profane, dirty and filthy, have acquired their own separate urban spaces. For every man, his own ghetto.

Seen in this light, the juxtaposition of Old Nickel and Olofspoort is a return to an older, more natural order. Understandable. But still fucking weird.

Mike was dubious about the sign advertising 60 beers. He poked his head around the door: "Doesnīt look too promising". I had to agree. Budget hostel and beer bar isnīt a combination you see often. Itīs a combination you never see. Something had to be wrong. Which made the decision to check out olofspoort first an easy one.

Old Nickel 60 beersWarmed by a couple of jenevers we were in a more adventurous mood when we left. Spotting a Prael brewery sign on Old Nickel we decided to take a chance. Iīm glad we did, though Mike may disagree.

I like my research companions to have opinions of their own. Ones that differ from mine. Not, too often, or they just become a pain in the arse. But often enough to throw my own thoughts into relief. To add a little darkness (or light) to my own pathetically monochrome image. Thatīs what happened with Old Nickel.

At first glance, our fears about a cheap hotel lobby were realised. A carpet much too thick and much too red, a cheap bar counter; it wasnīt looking too good. Did they really have 60 beers? The barman wasnīt too inviting, but did pass us the beer menu. A quick count proved the claim to be true. But there was an even greater shock beneath its laminated exterior: the choice was actually quite interesting. More beers I wanted to drink than many bars with a list four times as long. Mahrs Bräu Ungespundet, Schlenkerla Rauchbier. No-one ever sells decent German beers in Amsterdam, Wildeman excepted. What were they doing here? Just as I had been getting ready to launch into my favourite speech complaining that Dutch beer bars rarely sell anything not Belgian. Here the Belgians barely made up half the list. How curious.

One of the great traditions of the British pub is the miserable landlord. Having grown up amongst them, I bear them an unaccountable affection. This barman was a classic of the type. Someone from whom the slightest service has to pulled like a rotten tooth with brute force and a good pair of pliers. I soon spotted that second pub favourite, the loudmouth bigot at the end of the bar. Someone with whose every opinion you are bound to disagree, unless youīre a visiting delegation of the KKK. Me being English, my usual response to a stream of extremist ranting is the odd vague nod and a superhuman effort to avoid eye contact. It helps when thereīs a legitimate object for your attention, such as a football match. On the giant screen they were 20 minutes into the France - Portugal semifinal. Brilliant. When I had finally managed to extract a bottle of St. Bernardus Abt from the grumpy landlord, I was set.

As distractions go, football is almost perfect in a hostile pub. Itīs a safe neutral way to draw people into conversation an wash away tension. Football is the lingua franca of the man in the pub. I thought a remark on the histrionics of the Portuguese team would go down well. They had just played the Dutch in one of the most bad-tempered World Cup games since the Battle of Santiago. Soon we would be chatting away like old mates. The response was disappointing. I persisted. A player got booked. "Games with Portugal never end 11 a side", I quipped in Dutch. This wasnīt working: landlord and bigot still looked like they were sucking lemons. Zidaneīs penalty goal to put the French into the lead and potentially dump the hated (by the Dutch) Portuguese out of the competition, didnīt improve their mood any. Sometimes you have to know when to just let things go.

Which is when I took the trouble to examine my surroundings a little more closely. Distracted by the tacky modern additions, I hadnīt noticed the beautiful room they partially covered. Now in the UK, standard practice with a lovely old interior, was to rip it out, throw it in a skip and ship in as much formica and plywood as physically possible. In Old Nickel they hadnīt bothered with steps one and two. Why anyone would want to hide such decorative carved panelling is a mystery. Maybe they though it looked too classy for a hostel reception. But at least itīs still there. Along with a monumental tiled fireplace.

Iīll return now to the difference of opinion between Mike and I. He hated Old Nickel, not even the interesting beer list could redeem it. Me? Call me perverse, but I liked it almost as much as Olofspoort. The juxtaposition of so many seemingly incompatible elements made it truly original and full of genuine surprises. I can understand Mikeīs point of view. Iīm certain that his reaction is that of the rational, sane man. Just call me crazy.

Mike's Minority Report

In de Olofspoort

We are distinguished from one another by, among other things, our priorities. Conveniently, so are cities.

If Amsterdam mirrors the priorities of its residents, then it's my kind of town. Yes, beer is everywhere. But, even better than that, good beer and other fine drink is not at all hard to find or long to travel.

Take In de Olofspoort as a prime example. Conveniently located near the railroad hub of the city, Olofspoort is situated in a fine preserved building dating from the 17th century. But, even better, the furnishings of the pub (most of them, anyway) are not that much more recent.

Although I hope this is temporary praise, Olofspoort is one of the precious few pubs in this defiantly pro-smoke country that actually offers a separate room (and a very nice one at that) for non-smokers.

Aside from the excellent location and furnishings, Olofspoort offers drink. How about a choice of 200 to start? Of this total are 60 jenevers from both Belgium and the Netherlands. They also offer 100 Dutch liqueurs and bitters. That would seem to be enough for an evening, wouldn't it.

Of course, the place is just so nice, why stop with only one evening?

Old Nickel

But, just as people are never perfect, neither are cities. In particular, there is, in Amsterdam, The Old Nickel. Ironically located not just next door to, but also right up against de Olofspoort, Old Nickel is a good priority (lots of good beer) buried under a thick cloak of apathy.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the beer list at Old Nickel, however, the good news ends there. The pub actually serves a second purpose: it is the lobby/front desk of the hotel located above. The hotel will never be mistaken for The Ritz. In fact, it will never be mistaken for the Son of The Ritz. This should give you some idea of the clientele who populate the pub/lobby.

Secondly, though obviously a room that has passed well through the centuries, Old Nickel would rather hide it behind furnishings that might be considered the fluorescent lamps of lighting. That is, some improvement will be needed before it reaches tacky.

Did I mention the people? Yes, well, when you prefer to drink in silence rather than chat with your neighbour, perhaps you have an idea of the sort of people you might find there.

But, as I mentioned, the beer is OK. However, now that I think of it, most, if not all the beers are probably also available in a much nicer local not far away. So, why bother? The answer: don't.

The boring details

In de Olofspoort
Nieuwebrugsteeg 13,
1012 AG Amsterdam.

Tel: 020 - 624 3918
Opening hours: Wed - Thur 16.00-24.00,
Fri - Sat 16.00-01.00,
Sunday, Monday and Tuesday closed.
Number of draught beers: 2
Number of bottled beers: 1
Regular draught beers:
Food: Snacks.
Old Nickel
Nieuwebrugsteeg 11,
1012 AG Amsterdam.

Tel: 020 - 624 1912
Fax: 020 - 620 7683
Opening hours:
Number of draught beers: 6
Number of bottled beers: +-60
Regular draught beers:
Food: Snacks.

The Amsterdam Pub Guide Continues:
Amsterdam Pub Guide Part One Dam Square - Leidseplein
Amsterdam Pub Guide Part Two Zeedijk/Nieuwmarkt
Amsterdam Pub Guide Part Three De Jordaan
Amsterdam Pub Guide Part Four De Pijp
Amsterdam Pub Guide Part Five Amsterdam East
Amsterdam Pub Guide Part Six Amsterdam South
Amsterdam Pub Guide Part Seven Amsterdam West
Amsterdam Pub Guide Part Eight Utrechtsestraat

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