In Amsterdam’s seedy Red Light district, two psychiatric nurses open a brewery and employ the mentally ill to turn out good beer.
by Ben McFarland
A tall Dutch chap called Fer Kok sits opposite me in the bar of the De Prael Brewery. He’s proudly plonked his Willy on the table and there’s an unopened Johnny next to it. It’s 10 a.m. in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, and we’ve only just met.
Even for Holland’s most notorious of neighborhoods, this is a strange scenario. But then again, we’re in a slightly bizarre place. Like all breweries, De Prael crafts beer—Willy (a dark Dubbel) and Johnny (a crisp kölsch) are two of several unfiltered ales—but, unlike most of its craft brewing counterparts, De Prael’s ale-making altruism extends well beyond the tanks.
Surrounded by peddlers of pleasure and coffee shops hawking herbal highs, De Prael offers an alternative and essential escape for those who need it most. The employees who work here, brewing and bottling the beer, cleaning the canteen and delivering kegs to bars, all suffer from varying degrees of mental illness.
Founders Kok and Arnoo Kooij were psychiatric nurses in Amsterdam, helping patients get back on their feet and finding them voluntary work, like making furniture, baking bread and fixing bikes. The two also liked making unusual ales, and brewed beer in pots and pans for friends’ birthdays and weddings. “We experimented with all kinds of ingredients, and people really liked what we were doing,” adds Kok. “So it soon became clear what our business should be.”
They dovetailed their hobby with their hospital work and, in 2002, De Prael was born. “The jobs we’d been sending patients to kept them occupied, but they kept coming back to the hospital,” explains Kooij. “They had very little pride in what they were doing. Being proud is very important for people here.”
Using secondhand dairy equipment and heeding the advice of fellow homebrewers, Kok and Kooij built a basic brewhouse in west Amsterdam. The makeshift micro soon provided a work haven for more than 50 people suffering from schizophrenia, manic depression and personality disorders. While the priority was people rather than pilsners or pale ales, the beers were actually selling extremely well.
“The beers were merely a byproduct of the business,” adds Kooij. “But more people wanted to drink them and, crucially, more people wanted to work with us.”
No longer able to survive solely on social funding, they realized they needed a bigger brewery, and that the beers needed to make money. In 2008, De Prael relocated to the Red Light District, moving into a former paper mill and auction room that more recently had been the Last Watering Hole, a gritty good-times bar notorious for being a little naughty.
Now, the space houses a brewery, a pub, a tasting room and a shop, as well as a hop garden where employees grow Tettnang, Saaz, Magnum and Challenger. It is, however, an unlikely place for a brewery: Not only is it cramped, but it has little access; all of the ingredients arrive by canal boats that, once unloaded, are stacked full of De Prael beer.
An anonymous, out-of-town industrial estate, however, simply wasn’t an option. “We needed to be in an area where the issues surround us and we fit in. Historically, this area has been very bad, lots of hookers and junkies struggling to get it together. Not long ago, a guy was shot outside the brewery door, ”says Kok. “We try to bring structure and culture here. It’s been a bad neighborhood, but efforts are being made to clean it up.”
Kok is often confronted about his decision to hire mentally ill people to work with alcohol. His answer’s clear: “We are strict from day one,” he says, leaning forward. “If you drink on the job, you lose it. When we started, some thought it was a dangerous idea, but we are very serious about the way we work. This is a professional business, not a party or a prison.”
Of the hundreds of workers he’s employed, five have had known alcohol dependency, and only four employees have been dismissed: two for drinking, and one for smoking a joint outside of the brewery. “And then there was another guy who, for some reason, liked standing in water and playing with the electricity,” adds Kooij. “So he had to go, too.”
They agree that training their workers can be difficult because their concentration levels tend to be low. “Some of them work very hard, while some tend to take a lot of breaks and work slowly,” says Kok, before astutely noting, “same as every other office in the world.”
Elbow-bending altruism aside, there are plenty of reasons for this brewery to be proud—namely, the excellent beer. Inspired by Belgian brewing tradition with the odd American or German influence, all the ales are unfiltered and named after famous Dutch crooners. The seven-strong core beer line-up includes a dubbel (Willy); a tripel (Willeke); a Bavarian wheat beer (Heintje); an autumn bock (Nelis); a British barleywine (Mary); and a typical Dutch session beer (Andre). “Our beers are romantic,” says Kok. “They’re little dreams in a glass.”
But who would have dreamed of a brewery run by mental patients, surrounded by drugs and debauchery? “A lot of people think it’s a crazy idea,” grins Kok, gesturing out of his window at the working women in theirs. “Somehow, it works.”
CRAZY GOOD: DE PRAEL’S FINEST
Willy: The flagship ale is a strong (11.5% ABV) yet subtle winter warmer; rich, spicy and warm with a dark fruit finale.
Johnny: A clean and crisp kölsch with a lovely bitter finish.
Mary: A vinous, voluptuous 9.7%-ABV barleywine’s brewed with orange peel and peppery hops.
Heintje: This Bavarian-style wheat beer—named after a singer with a high voice Kok’s sister liked—is a hazy thirst-quencher with big banana and clove notes.
Nelis: Named for singer Manke Nelis, this devilishly drinkable dark ale conjures figs, dates, raisins and a hint of bitter black cherry.
PLUS: De Prael was originally called De Parel, Dutch for “the pearl.” The name was inspired by “De Parel van de Jordaan,” a tearjerker hit by Dutch singer Johnny Jordaan. Beer labels and coasters had already printed when a letter from Budels Brewery’s lawyer informed Kok and Kooij that the name was taken; Budel already produced a Parel beer. So, the guys shuffled the letters around: The choice was either De Prael (an old-fashioned word meaning “extravagant”) or De Lepar. They opted (wisely) for the former.