Beer and Jenever in Amsterdam
I was two days into a mild but irritating bout of food poisoning, and the Dutch medical tradition of avoiding prescription drugs was a source of frustration. “Just drink plenty of fluids and rest,” said the receptionist. No point even bothering the doctor with my minor illness.
So I decided to deal with it in the same way as I deal with most ailments, physical or mental: I went to a bar. Perhaps beer wasn’t the exact fluid she had in mind, but it was undoubtedly a fluid. And since I was meant to be resting, where better to do so than my local brown café, Café Krom. Brown—bruine—cafés are Amsterdam’s answer to a British pub, and this one is a place so comfortable it feels like an extension of my living room.
I ordered the Dutch version of a boilermaker: a jenever with a beer chaser. This is known as a kopstootje—meaning ‘small headbutt’—though I hadn’t yet plucked up the courage to actually order it by that name. But the bartender understood immediately that I needed the kind of sustenance one draws from a nip of a strong spirit and an ice-cold beer, together.
Within minutes I was served. The jenever was poured at my table into a tiny tulip-shaped glass until it overflowed (as is customary, so one has to take the first sip without lifting the glass). It tasted herbal, sharp, and slightly sweet, bringing out the bitterness of the lager chaser.
Walk past it and you might think that Krom is a typical brown café. And it does have the classic features: brown color scheme, a range of beers and jenever, boiled eggs behind the counter, and a moderately surly proprietor. But it also has its quirks: Art Deco stained glass above the bar and bathrooms, a jukebox from the 1950s (the only occasional source of music), a resident cat, and a still-life painting of a skull, books, and a jug of wine.
My fellow patrons were neighborhood locals, mostly, no tourists in sight. Middle-aged couples enjoying a tea and an aperitif, the men almost universally silver-haired with ruddy complexions, small glasses, well-cut but artfully rumpled suit jackets and an air of ease that is the cornerstone of Dutch living.
The Dutch call it gezelligheid: a word that loosely translates to a combination of fun and coziness, but signifies comfort above all. This is the main criterion by which a brown café is judged. It is not the comfort of being tucked in bed, or of eating an entire pizza while binge-watching Netflix. It is the comfort-fun of a lively conversation with old friends while enjoying a beverage or two.
I left feeling refreshed and on the road to recovery. Perhaps that’s why Dutch doctors don’t prescribe pills for minor ailments. Gezelligheid can be the best medicine—and in Amsterdam, it isn’t hard to find.