"It's Noon Somewhere": The Heineken Experience, Amsterdam

Recently, on my way to Munich, I was able to squeeze in a semi-impromptu excursion to the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam. Credit for that trip goes to its unofficial sponsors, Northwest Airlines and the European Central Bank. Let me explain.

It began with a phone call from the airline: schedule changes had resulted in an eight-hour layover in Amsterdam. So I packed my leftover Dutch guilders and a public transport ticket--both souvenirs of a brown café weekend a few years back--and, when I landed at Schiphol Airport, hopped the train into town and took a tram to the old Heineken brewery. I was half an hour early, so there was plenty of time to walk over to the national bank and change my now-obsolete guilders into euros.

By the time the doors opened, about two dozen people, mostly Brits, were lined up, and a bus full of Japanese tourists was rolling up to the curb. Once inside, an attractive young women--dressed in Heineken green, of course--handed me a guidebook and a ticket good for three beer samples, and sent me on my way.

The tour began with a walk through a re-created street from the late nineteenth century, when the brewery was a small, family-owned business. One of the buildings is the home of Doctor Elion, a student of Louis Pasteur hired by then-owner Gerard Heineken to develop a strain of yeast for his beer (Elion's "A" yeast is still used at the brewery). I looked inside the window and watched the doctor (anyway, a holographic version) at work--until he caught me peeking and curtly drew the curtains shut. The next stop was a small theater, where I stood on top of a vibrating metal, watching a video of Heineken bottles zooming through the brand-new brewery and feeling like I was one of them.

Emerging from my trip down the bottling line, I entered the old brewhouse. It was an immaculate room, with white-tiled walls dating back to 1913 and copper brewing tanks almost as old. The vessels were cut open and fitted with video monitors describing the brewing process. Everything was left in place for visitors not just to admire. And touch, too; I played with the controls without worrying about being chewed out--or, even worse, causing an industrial accident.

The windows at the north end of the brewhouse overlooked a canal, on the far side of which stood the old Heineken family residence, now part of the brewery's corporate headquarters. At the other end, I looked down into the stables where the Shires, Heineken's enormous dray horses, were resting up for their daily exercise: pulling a beer wagon through the streets of town.

After taking in the brewhouse, it was time to visit the Brewhouse Bar, a re-created Gay Nineties café, for the first of my samples. It was 11 in the morning in Amsterdam but, according to my body clock, it was still the middle of the night. Then I recalled my college roommate's words of wisdom from years ago, "Remember, it's always noon somewhere."

The tour route next led through rooms that once served as aging cellars; in fact, one of the old lager tanks is still on display. I was surprised to discover that the room didn't seem level: was jet lag catching up to me? Actually, it wasn't: the tilted floors were the result of Dutch thrift; management didn't want to waste beer when it was poured out of the tank. In one of the rooms, there were booths where I could send picture postcards and even a video clip to friends back home.

The rest of the rooms offered a variety of multi-media entertainment. Some of it was quite clever. In one room, I sat in the driver's seat of a delivery wagon, watching a film that gave me the feeling I was guiding the Shires through the streets of Amsterdam--and doing an awful job of it: my wayward horses forced more than a few pedestrians to run for their lives. Another room offered a video presentation featuring Heineken's commitment to the environment; the photography was among the best I'd seen. A few rooms were on the weird side: "Moods and Music" reminded me of a roomful of dentist's chairs with monitors tuned to a primitive light-and-sound show.

The next-to-last stop was the See You Again Bar, an ultra-modern place with tables, booths, and two more glasses of Heineken. Checking my watch, I found I'd spent a little more than two hours on the tour--considerably more than the website recommended. On my way out, I stopped at the coat check room to collect my souvenir: a 300-milliliter Heineken serving glass, carefully packed inside a metal tin. That glass--full, of course--is, as we speak, providing inspiration as I put the finishing touches on this story.
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The Heineken Experience is located at Stadthouderskade, 78; From Central Station, take tram number 16, 24, or 25 to the Heinekenplein stop. It's open from 10 am to 6 pm, daily except Mondays, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. Admission is €7.50. More information is available on line at www.heinekenexperience.com.