Hertog Jan is one of the oldest and perhaps most popular breweries in The Netherlands, well-known for its pilsener beer (which was actually the only beer in our house when I was growing up!). They brew several other styles as well, like weizener, dubbel and bock beer. But Hertog Jan is probably the most revered for its pièce de resistance, the crown jewel of the brewery: ‘Grand Prestige’. This Belgian style dark strong ale of 10% has been brewed since 1983 and has gone on to win many awards, the most prestigious being the two gold medals at the World Beer Cup – comparable to the Olympic Games of beer – in 2014 and 2018.
Two weeks ago I was invited to celebrate this proud achievement with them at their 3rd annual Grand Prestige event at their brewery in Arcen, Limburg. Together with fellow beer writers Jody (Ongewoon Lekker), Fabian (Bier met Boot) and Bas (Fifty Shades of Men) I had the opportunity to tour the brewery and taste different vintages of their Grand Prestige, including the new barrel aged version. Here is a short recap of that wonderful day with a behind-the-scenes look at the brewery.
The master brewer himself, Gerard van den Broek, took time during the festivities to give us a personal tour, which made the experience all the more special. We started with an introduction to perhaps the most underrated ingredient of beer: water. Coming from the city, I can absolutely taste the difference between our tap water and the water I drank there: their water has almost no flavor. Good clean stuff. In 1915, when four struggling brewers started the brewery then called Stoombierbrouwerij de Vriendenkring, they chose the location in Arcen because of the relative ‘easy’ access to the groundwater coming from the Ardennes, which is only about 50 meters deep. In those days drilling for water wasn’t an easy task, making this the perfect spot. On top of that, the brewery is right next to the river Maas, a useful transport route.
Gerard also talked about the other ingredients they use for Grand Prestige. The beer is made with four different types of malt: pale malt, dark malt, wheat and a secret crystal malt that is produced especially for Hertog Jan. I gave Gerard my most charming smile, but to no avail, it’s still a secret! The main hop varieties used are Hallertau and Saaz, also known as ‘noble’ hops for their delicate earthy and spicy aromas.
Next, we got to see where the beer is made! The original copper kettles are still in use, and surprisingly to me, are also copper on the inside! As you can see from the photo the brewery is not that big, hence their pilsener is brewed elsewhere, at the Dommelsch brewery (both are owned by AB InBev). One of the highlights was tasting the beer fresh from the tank. It had finished the fermenting stage and just been moved to the lager tank two days before. The most notable thing was the absence of carbon dioxide. It definitely tasted like beer, but without the carbonation and the full-bodied flavors. We compared it to the finished product from the tap, the Grand Prestige 2018. The finished beer contained much more aroma and complex flavors, like dried fruit, some chocolate notes and spices. What a difference! The tour taproom is right in front of an impressive wall of cognac, bourbon and port barrels in which the Grand Prestige ‘vatgerijpt’ beers are aged for several months. In this video Gerard gives some background info on their barrel-aging program, which they just started three years ago (in Dutch).
The most famous part of the brewery is without a doubt the gorgeous cellar. It’s probably only about 15 meters long, but the rows of bottles seem endless and it feels tiny, dark and dusty, just like a mysterious beer cellar is supposed to feel. It currently contains 561 maturing Grand Prestige bottles of different vintages. It was only in 2001, when they had been brewing this beer for 18 years, that Gerard discovered how well it ages. A huge flood 8 years before had filled the cellar with water and it was soon closed off because of the damage and the rubble. When the master brewer visited the cellar one day, he found bottles covered in mud but still intact. Being passionate about beer he doesn’t believe in throwing it away, so he opened one to taste it and voilà, bottle-aged Grand Prestige was born. To prove his point he popped open a bottle of Grand Prestige 2015 down there for us to taste! Indeed, the flavors had softened and were richer and sweeter. Magic.
If you visit the brewery and buy a bottle, you can store yours in the cellar too! If that’s not an option, you can register the one you have at home in Hertog Jan’s digital cellar where you will receive tips on how to store it. The brewery says that the optimal aging time is six years; after that it will lose its carbonation. My 2018 bottle will be down there for a while then!
Vertical beer tasting
After seeing all those beautiful beer bottles in the cellar I was very excited to participate in the vertical beer tasting workshop by Fiona de Lange, Dutch beer sommelier and cicerone. Tasting beers vertically simply means you’re comparing the same beer from different vintages.
What happens to a dark strong ale when it ages? The volatile compounds in the beer change over time, causing a decrease in bitterness and an increase in sweetness and vinous character (similar to port or sherry). The oxidation of the beer also increases over time, giving it a cardboard or wet paper flavor. As long as this off-flavour is offset by the positive flavors, then your beer will still be good to drink. If you’re interested in vintage beers and cellaring, check out this great little book ‘Vintage Beer‘ by Patrick Dawson.
We tasted five different vintages of Grand Prestige. The youngest, 2018, is characterized by a dried fruit flavor, spices from the yeast, chocolate and caramel notes and a bit of an almond / amaretto flavor. In comparison, the 2016 version has less malt bitterness, less chocolate flavor and more fruity notes. Two more years of aging (2014) gives the beer more alcohol in the flavor and less carbonation. The sherry notes caused by aging were most prominent in the 2012 vintage. The last beer we tried, and possibly my favorite one, was the Grand Prestige 2017 bourbon barrel-aged. I love the vanilla aroma and the bourbon and almond flavors in the beer.
About the brewery
The brewery was originally called Stoombierbrouwerij de Vriendenkring and was established in 1915 by four brewers who had fallen on hard times in WWI. The brewery was very succesful until WWII, when the horses and cars were seized by military forces and the brewery itself was damaged by allied fire. The brewery was taken over several times during the years up to 1995, when it was acquired by Interbrew, which later merged to become AB InBev. They now have a beer pipeline running from the brewery to their pub across the street. How cool is that! Read more about the history of the brewery in this article by VN.
The Magnus Grand Prestige beer was first brewed in 1983. Three years later it won its first award, the gold medal at Monde Sélection held in Geneva. In 1998 the name was changed to Grand Prestige. The beer has won many more awards and medals, two of which were gold medals at the World Beer Cup in 2014 and 2018. To hear more about this wonderful beer check out the video below (in Dutch).
Pub opening hours
Monday – Thursday 11 am – 8 pm
Saturday 11 am – midnight
Friday and Sunday 11 am – 10 pm
Brewery / store opening hours
Tuesday – Friday 11 am – 5 pm
Saturday 11 am – 6 pm
Sunday 11 am – 5 pm