Brown cafés in the Netherlands: all you need to know

Your workweek has taken its toll, you’re probably as tired as Sisyphus constantly rolling an immense boulder up a hill. But today, you have something to look forward to because it’s Friday. The usual cozy Friday night in that brown café on the corner.

Een biertje doen,” is a well-known expression in the Netherlands and something many of us do weekly and there’s nothing better than enjoying those glasses of beer with your friends in a typical Dutch brown café.

But what exactly is a brown café?

Before the 16th century, bars did not exist as we know them today. There were inns, lodgings, and taverns that were focused on offering food and accommodation both to travelers and city dwellers.

Halfway through the 17th century, coffee made its entry into Europe and this resulted in the emergence of coffee houses, which varied by city. The term café, the French word for coffee, was born during this period.

The brown café originated at the beginning of the 19th century when people established small pubs or cafés in their living rooms as a source of extra income. In the Netherlands, almost everyone was allowed to own and run such a pub — until 1881 when the act to regulate the sale of alcohol required a permit in order to own a brown café.

In addition, a maximum of 500 permits was allowed to be issued in the largest cities. This was the start of the professionalisation of the catering (HORECA) industry.

What makes a brown café different?

The typical Dutch brown bar is the authentic café with a story, a traditional, old-fashioned pub with little lighting and lots of dark brown wood. There is always an intimate atmosphere, a sense of domestic coziness, and security. The brown pub owes its name to all that dark and smoky ambiance. Wallpapers and curtains brown from smoke.

It is often said that a real brown café has sand on the floor, which creates an authentic atmosphere with no clear theme or goal. The rougher (and browner) the inside, the better.

Most old brown cafés in cities like Amsterdam and Haarlem were known to be frequented by sailors and canal boat captains, where drinking and the chewing of tobacco were the order of the day.

The Amsterdam Krulletter

Until half a century ago, the name of many Dutch brown cafés, especially in Amsterdam, were painted on the windows with white paint in the “Amsterdamse Krulletter”; a font developed by Jan Willem Visser, who was also the typographer of Amstel Beer.

The name of a café written in that typical brown café font can still be seen in some of them today. Some of these establishments come with a lot of history and visiting one is like going for a glass of beer in a museum.

Retro or modern

Brown cafés have continued to endure despite the arrival of hipster bars, cafés, and other catering businesses, as well as trendy lounges and cocktail bars. While the typical brown pub may not be as popular as it used to be, many of them still exist — but mostly in small villages and townships.

Brown café’s offer a cosy interior. Image: Tom Ordelman/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

In big cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague, brown bars and cafés are where football fans gather on Saturday and Sunday afternoons to watch and cheer for their favorite football teams. A typical Amsterdam brown café is the perfect venue for Ajax fans to gather and watch Ajax while drinking and cheering as folk songs play from the pub’s jukebox.

READ MORE | What to do when it’s raining: the ultimate guide to Amsterdam indoors

This is the same during European championships and World Cups. Most brown cafés are filled with Dutch folks garbed in orange costumes and singing André Hazes’ “Wij Houden van Oranje.” The atmosphere is always very surreal and it’s one you never want to miss.

What is there to do in a brown café?

In 2017, research published by Oxford University revealed that going for drinks with friends to the pub, or what we call “een biertje doen” in the Netherlands is good for your health. Like every other social connecting activity such as dances, singing, and storytelling, pubs act as a bubble or safe space within many communities, where drinking and chilling with friends is seen as a ritual associated with connecting to people.

A brown café can be a place to seek company. A place where people can talk to each other, drink a beer together, go on a date, watch a football game, kiss a stranger, laugh, dance, and just be merry. Some brown pubs organize events like Halloween and Sinterklaas parties, etc.

They can also be a place to go for some peace and quiet, where you can sit quietly at the bar, order a couple of drinks and just brood, reminisce, or watch TV. The installation of jukeboxes, dartboards, and sometimes pool tables offers extra entertainment so that people are not only dependent on the company of others. There are even brown cafes with an extensive collection of books and the latest (sports) magazines. If beer and a book are all you need, then, by all means, break a leg.

A dying breed

The main characteristic of a typical Dutch brown café is that it brings people from different walks of life together. Due to changing consumer behavior among new generations, it is particularly the older generation that still opts for a brown pub visit. And the older they get, the fewer of them visit these establishments.

Unfortunately, the number of historic brown cafés in the Netherlands has been decreasing drastically in the past couple of years, and very few of them are expected to survive the pandemic.

More and more (young) people are also choosing to settle in big cities, so the traditional brown bars and cafés in the smaller towns simply don’t have enough customers to stay open. However, there is some hope. There are currently crowdfunding initiatives to help as many of these brown cafés survive the pandemic.

Honestly, if you’ve ever been in a brown pub and experienced its ambiance, you’d come to realize that they have just too much history to be allowed to die out. It would be such a shame. So please donate to the crowdfunding initiative and help save these pubs.

Whether it’s a beautiful antique pub or a simple neighborhood café on the corner, brown bars or cafés play a major role in Dutch culture. There is so much history and each one has a different story to tell. Every pub-loving person in this country, whether a local, expat, or tourist, should definitely visit a brown café when the country is open again. You’ll be very glad you did.

Have you ever been to a brown café? Which one is your favorite? Tell us about your experiences in the comment below. 

Image:Paul2/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

Chuka Nwanazia
Chuka Nwanazia
A renegade wordsmith, freelance writer, poet, and digital marketer based in Amsterdam. Besides writing, he extremely enjoys traveling around Europe in search of old and rare books, writing poems while riding the train to nowhere, performing at poetry events, spending too much time reading books, contemplating the meaning of life, preparing tasty dishes and desserts, and searching for the perfect bookshelf.

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  1. Spent many hours in the Groot Zwaan across from the Central Station Amsterdam. A great old brown cafe. Many local friends and characters. Great pub grub and socialization. This was 25 years ago. Hope it’s still open and serving the locals een biertje. Hup Ajax!


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