Rick Nelson | Oedipus Brewing
When staring at the row of beers available at the supermarket it’s hard to miss the colourful world of Oedipus.
But they haven’t always been there. Three years ago the boys behind the brand were brewing their potions at home. We spoke to Rick Nelson about the Dutch beer scene, where it’s headed and what the
future holds for Oedipus. And we did so sat in camping chairs, beers in hand.
- Text by Hannah Fuellenkemper & photos by Yuki Kho
Oedipus makes beer. How did you guys start brewing?
Actually we brewed our first beer on 24 august 2011, one day after Lowlands. At home.
Still drunk from Lowlands?
[Laughs] Maybe, but we’d been planning this for the last three months. And before then, Sander, Paul and me had been working at the Beer Temple, basically the place we’d discovered this whole different beer vibe: different flavours, different bottles, all of it coming in from around the world, mostly the States. There was none of this in the Netherlands; we had a totally different way of perceiving beer. So we thought we had to start making changes ourselves, did some YouTube research, asked people and started home brewing… So yeah, we were certainly drunk after our first brew: it took 14 hours, we finished at 2am. Really tasty though. After that we homebrewed for two years but it was just before the end of the first year that we’d made something we thought was fit to sell. We’d made this first brew at Brouwerij de Molen on a 500-litre installation and sold the batch in a weekend. They were really surprised when we came back after the weekend and asked for another slot and were like ‘What, you sold it all?!’
So brewers rent out capacity?
You can, yeah. That’s how you grow organically: you outgrow capacity and move to more. That’s the way we went for about three years, moving up to brewing 2000 litres and different styles. That’s always been really important to us, the diversity. Even as home brewers we were making something different every week and we still continue to experiment. Actually, that’s what this place is all about; it’s meant to be an experimental lab.
What capacity do you have here at your brewery in Noord?
One vat holds 5ha litres but the fermenting tanks hold 10ha litres so we brew everything twice. In total we can make 7000 litre here a month but we also use capacity at a brewery in Belgium. We’ve just bought a new 2500-litre brew house though so soon things will be changing. Ultimately we want to be able to do everything here on site.
With your eyes to what’s going on in the US, how does the Netherlands’ beer scene compare if at all?
I think there’s still stretch in the market; also in the US (and when I say US I mean certain states only), but there it’s definitely a bit more saturated. I mean it would be, it’s been going on for 10 – 15 years longer. Theirs is an adult industry, there’s a whole generation of people that’s grown up with it, which means a whole lot of knowledge and experience. Compare that to here where most brewers are self-taught. That makes for unique tastes, sure, but it’s not the same level of experience. And I’ve always thought that maybe being self-taught makes you a bit stubborn, and that’s something you can be but not always makes for better beers. You have to be open to learn. There are 280 brewers in the Netherlands (many are contract brewers) compared to say, 70 brewers in Portland alone. You can also taste a difference in quality.
Why is Portland’s beer scene so prolific actually?
They live beer but for various reasons. They’ve got the hops close by, grains too. Lots of fruit grows there which means they’re busy with flavour. I guess being remote makes you independent too. Plus they’ve got a couple favourable beer laws.
But back to my last question then, what do you think will happen here?
I think that when the quality bar gets raised, some might not make it. That’ll take a while though; first, the drinker has to get used to what he’s drinking which, currently, they’re not. They’re used to the image of craft beer, not necessarily the special points of taste. But I think that in the end quality will prevail.
Do you think all the small breweries are giving the big guys a run for their money?
I think they’re becoming increasingly aware of us and that they’re doing much more research about us than we know. Maybe they’re even beginning to get a little bit afraid: I know Heineken just bought a share of Brouwerij ‘t IJ and things like this have been happening in the States for the last 4 years: the really good breweries are bought out or they enter into some sort of partnership. This says something about how mature the market is becoming but is also a survival tactic for the big brands.
Like Google. Buying all the robotics companies.
Yeah. I’m not sure how this will go but it says something about the future of the beer scene, too. And that’s the kind of thing I’m interested in; not in trends in taste, but in what’s going on on the business side of beer. There’s still so much to do in the Netherlands that it doesn’t make sense to follow trends. Just make what you like.
What’s it like running your own business when before you were a… what?
I wanted to be an artist, to make a profession out of it. But in the year I graduated from the Rietveld that dream sort of crumbled – I don’t even know if it was my own dream, it was probably more of a collective dream. We all wanted to do a masters, take up a residency... But then that was replaced by something that was even more me – I do all the creative direction here and I learned a tremendous amount from school. I know many people wouldn’t agree, but I saw my education there as very much a marketing and communication study. We always had to defend our concept against 20 critical students and a teacher. We learned how to combine context, content and form. To create concepts that are not only pretty to look at but that also make people think.
And that’s written all over the Oedipus brand. It’s a world.
Exactly. We wanted to make a complete world.
And the others? What did they do?
Sander has a Master in Earth Science in hydrology, Alex is an anthropologist and Paul studied psychology. He’s also the only one who worked in what he studied before Oedipus. And last year a fifth guy joined us: Tristan. He does finance and helps us with structure, so now for instance we all have fixed roles. But before we started Oedipus we didn’t have experience in business, even with responsibility you could say. But that’s helped us grow the way we did, always improvising and in a playful way. Not planning too much. But now we’re professionalising.
Professionalising… and onto new things?
Yes, always. In 2016 we’ll have gotten our new brew house installed here and we’re going to start a programme with wooden barrels making sour beers. This is a totally different process needing different yeast, different bacteria and time and we’ll be making blends of 1 – 2 years. Let’s see how that goes.
Thanks Rick for this interview!