It was good to discover I'd lost none of my old rugby full back skills. Three conversions out of three impressed even me, and afterwards there would be another rugby tradition - beer. Unfortunately this wasn't at Twickenham, but in a sports simulation at The Heineken Experience in Amsterdam, where the drinks company's sports sponsorship features in several rooms of an interactive multi-media tour that is one of the city's major attractions.
Despite many trips to Amsterdam, and several visits to places including the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, Rembrandt's House and the Anne Frank House, I'd never been to the Heineken Experience. I decided that if I was going to go then I was going to do it properly, and joined a VIP Tour, which needs booking in advance. Just as well, I discovered, as I arrived and battled through the queuing crowds. The place was packed, even late on a midweek afternoon in October.
As well as providing you with a set time and the equivalent of priority boarding, the VIP Tour gives you your personal guide (regular tours are self-guided) and throws in a few extra features, including a visit to the stables to meet the Heineken horses, and a beer and cheese pairing session in a private bar at the end.
Our guide, Jasper, tells us that the building we are in was the Heineken brewery until 1988, when it became impractical to try to operate a brewery right in the centre of a city like Amsterdam, with its canals, bridges and narrow streets. A new brewery was built 40kms away, and it's the largest brewery in Europe. The old brewery was closed, but re-opened in 2008 as The Heineken Experience. This year they'll receive over one million visitors for the first time.
It's remarkable to discover that even though this multi-national company dates back to 1864, it's still family-owned and today controlled by only the 4th generation of the Heineken family. The founder was Gerard Adriaan Heineken, whose father was a cheesemaker, but Gerard decided at the age of 22 that he would buy a brewery called De Hooiberg (The Haystack).
Gerard also decided he would introduce a bottom-fermenting beer, which was unusual at a time when almost all beer was top-fermenting. To produce a bottom-fermenting beer you need cooling equipment, and as refrigeration wasn't common, they at first took ice from Amsterdam's canals.
Jasper explains the beer-making process, which uses only four ingredients: water, hops, barley and yeast. The Heineken taste has remained the same since Gerard first created the beer, and each month every one of the 165 or so Heineken breweries around the world has to send two cases of beer back to the Netherlands, where they are both tasted and given chemical analysis to ensure consistency. Heineken has to taste like Heineken, whether you drink it in Africa or Iceland.
We're taken to meet the Heineken horses, which are huge and beautifully-groomed, and used daily for ceremonial and promotional purposes. They're clearly cossetted creatures, who spend only a small part of their lives in the stables in Amsterdam, the rest of it living in equine luxury out in the countryside.
Jasper then lets us loose for a while to play foozeball and other sports games, gaze at memorabilia like Ronaldo's jersey, pretend to ride bikes, do quizzes, learn how to bottle our own beer, and generally be silly. Then we're dragged reluctantly away from the fun, although not too reluctantly as it's time for a beer and cheese pairing.
The first beer is the Heineken we're so familiar with, paired with a 1-year-old goat's cheese. The beer scent is citrus and yeasty, and nicely contrasted by the soft and creamy cheese. It's here you realise just how vast the Heineken empire is, as the other three beers are all from breweries owned by Heineken. Amstel is paired with a 2-year-old goat's cheese, while a beer brand called Brand (it means 'fire' in Dutch) is accompanied by another goat's cheese with herbs and garlic that has been matured for at least 6 months. Jasper explains how the garlic neutralises the bitterness of the beer.
Finally - and there's no stinting on how much beer and cheese you can consume - we're offered an Affligem Dubbel. This is an abbey brewery new to me, even if it is over 1,000 years old, and their deliciously chewy and peppery 6.8% ABV Dubbel is paired with a cow's cheese that has been blended with truffle. Like many beers made by monks, the flavour is suitably heavenly, and we make mental notes that the fabulous cheese can be bought at Schipol Airport on our way home. Another glass? I don't mind if I do. More cheese? Certainly. I decide I like being a VIP, even if it is only for a few hours.
For more details on regular and VIP tours visit The Heineken Experience website.
Many UK tour operators offer city breaks in Amsterdam, including Kirker Holidays. You can find hotels in Amsterdam through i-escape and Trivago.
All photos courtesy of Heineken.
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