The north coast of The Netherlands is protected from the North Sea by a series of barrier islands called The Wadden Islands. From west to east they are Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland, Schiermonnikoog, Rottum and Rottumeroog. Save for the last two, they are all inhabited and Texel is even home to a successful beer brewery, a small distillery and a famous whisky bar and restaurant. I went along to Texel with my wife, Becky, to have a look.
Imagine a visual artist and a food technologist moving to an island off the coast of the province of North Holland and read what can happen in such a case. Joscha Schoots studied food technology in the south of The Netherlands followed by a year of agro-production science. "The latter study wasn't a success for me personally, but I had a great time," he remembers when we sit at the kitchen table of The Bonte Belevenis, the company he founded nine years ago with his partner and mother of his three children, Inge Yntema.
Joscha started his working career as a tour guide at Archeon Theme Park. "I was a baker, brewer and assistant games leader, juggling all that for a couple of seasons." Shortly thereafter he became an outdoor sports instructor at Bizon Outdoor in Belgium and The Netherlands. Then, alcoholic beverages entered his world. For a while he worked at La Trappe Brewery, one of the few Trappist beer producers in the country. Then he went on to a steam beer brewery in Utrecht, shortly thereafter moving to the island of Texel to work at the local brewery.
Inge joins the conversation, "At the time, we both lived in Tiel, the city where we met." She studied at the Art Academy in Arnhem followed by a ceramics study in Gouda. After graduation she started her working life as a screen printer at a graphic production company. "Well, it's been 17 years since Joscha was offered a job on Texel. We left the mainland and never looked back," she smiles gently.
At first the entrepreneurial couple started a gift shop at their house on the island, but quickly added a crafts centre to it. That's when Joscha started to brew his own beer and distil his own gin (jenever in Dutch) and liqueurs as a side project to his work at the brewery. The company grew and they looked for a new place, which they eventually found in a former petting zoo.
"We had been operating the crafts centre since 2004, where we brought various traditional crafts back to life on a small scale. We moved to our current place Landgoed De Bonte Belevenis (which loosely translates to The Colourful Experience Estate) in 2007 and now run a brewery, distillery, bakery, candle, soap and paper ateliers, tearoom, playground, petting zoo with live animals, a herb and vegetable garden and a shop where we sell our own products."
One of the goals of this small but versatile enterprise is to operate in a sustainable and responsible manner, both for the environment and for the people on the island. "We employ various people who are mentally challenged and would not be able to work in a 'normal' environment. School groups visit us for educational purposes, business people come to learn and we even perform marriages on the grounds." Bonte Belevenis production methods are as 'green' as possible. Joscha continues, "We re-use waste where we can. Vegetables are distributed to restaurants and vegetal waste serves as fodder for the animals on the estate. Manure will find its way to the herb and vegetable garden, whereas herbs and fruits are used in the distillery and the bakery. Candle stumps, paper envelopes and teabag tags are raw materials for the candle and paper ateliers. When possible we apply energy-saving methods." Joscha and Inge manage about 45 people, including those with learning difficulties, full-time and seasonal staff.
After an extensive tour around all the crafts, each of them housed in a small, separate studio, we finally enter the building that encouraged us to take the short ferry trip to Texel in the first place - the brewery and distillery.
Joscha continues his remarkable story, 'I've been brewing beer for more than 25 years and we have always been interested in the flavours of wine and distilled spirits. We started with a small 60 litre still that I built. It's a pretty small scale still. We brew 100 hectolitres of beer annually and make a similarly sized mash for the production of jenever and whisky.'
Well, let's focus on the whisky, please. When did the first spirit run off the still? "That would have been in 2014. In the five preceding years I performed a whole series of tests and got help from Het Kompas (see next page). We matured tiny amounts of spirit, made from various grains and added wood chips from different types of wood, just to taste how it would affect the spirit."
"That was a steep learning curve and with the thorough feedback from Het Kompas I eventually designed a series of four recipes. We've been making genuine whisky for almost four years now. Via crowd funding we were able to finance a large part of the growth, by attracting 600 shareholders who get paid back with our first bottled whisky this year." Thanks to them, Joscha could purchase a new 100 litres still that will be solely used to produce whisky.
He motions us to the tiny, unbonded warehouse and draws samples from all four recipes, matured in different casks, including new French oak, ex-sherry and even a cask previously containing red wine from Texel. Joscha experiments with different charring levels and cask sizes, from 110 to 250 litres. We taste the following samples:
1. Unpeated single malt;
2. Grain whisky from a mash of organic grain grown on Texel: spelt, rye, wheat and oats;
3. Peated single malt;
4. Single malt for which the malted barley is smoked using Texel's seaweed as fuel for the kiln.
Becky and I are both impressed by the cleanliness and purity of the distillates. The samples drawn from the smaller casks already show character. There is a craftsman at work here, for sure.
The tiny shop (with separate annex where distilled beverages can be sold by the bottle) is stocked with all kinds of products made at De Bonte Belevenis: apple crumble pie, cookies, bread from the bakery, candles and pieces of soap in all shapes and sizes, sheets of paper and six different types of beer, all brews from different grains, all organic:
Noorderzon (Northern Sun), 6% ABV
Bottom fermented blond beer with honey
Dichte Mist (Dense Fog), 6% ABV
Top fermented Weizen beer
Loodsbier (Pilot Beer), 7% ABV
Fruity beer with local berries and honey
Windkracht 8 (Wind Force 8), 8% ABV
Top fermented blond, Triple
Windkracht 10, 10% ABV
Dark malt wine
Windkracht 12, 12% ABV
Smoked malt barley wine
On a separate shelf the various liqueurs and jenever are displayed:
Texels Kwartiertje (Texel's Quarter), coffee/mocha liqueur, 20% ABV; Cherry and Cranberry liqueur, both 26% ABV; Wadloper (Wadden Walker), herbal bitter, 30% ABV; Texelse Jenever, 100 per cent grain jenever from organic malted barley, wheat or rye, each 35% ABV.
Various products are exported to the mainland. Will that happen with the whisky, too, or is it reserved for the shareholders only? "Starting in 2018 we expect to have more whisky bottled and will offer bottles for sale more widely."
The distillery is named De Lepelaar (The Spoonbill), but a definitive name for the whisky has not been chosen yet. "We are pondering a few," the couple smiles. They certainly have more plans to further develop their remarkable philosophy of life and their remarkable company on a remarkable island off the north coast of the Netherlands. If you can't wait until 2018 to sample their whisky, there is only one thing to do, go to Texel. You won't be disappointed.