A Look Inside the Pilsener Club, One of Amsterdam’s Storied Brown Cafés

Barkeep by | Nov 2018 | Issue #133
Waiter Dennis de Jong exits the back room at the Pilsener Club. | Photos by Joe Stange

Amsterdam—with its canals, history, museums, and nightlife—is one of the world’s most entertaining cities. Here’s the problem: everyone knows it. Its stunning old center is over-touristed, overcrowded, and overpriced. Still, there are great little pubs in which to hide, talk, and drink at fair prices. These are the brown cafés, or bruine kroegen.

One of the finest examples, founded in 1893, is the Pilsener Club—or, as the locals call it, the Engelse Reet. Translation: the “English Ass.”

There is a story behind the nickname. The narrow alley that is home to the Pilsener Club is not a dead end, but it used to be. It leads to the Begijnhof, or Beguinage—a medieval refuge for religious women, protected by a canal. At night the drawbridge went up, so the alley went nowhere. In Amsterdam slang, a dead-end alley is a reet, or ass. This particular ass happens to be English, since it leads straight to the Begijnhof’s English Reformed Church.

Look past Amsterdam’s red lights and “coffee” shops, and you’ll find the cozy, well-wooded, beer-adoring brown café, or bruine kroeg. There are many scattered around the city, nearly all of them worthwhile if you are into things like atmosphere, well-poured beer, and chit-chat.

The brown café, or brown bar, is a cozy sort of locals’ pub special to the Low Countries, meaning Belgium and the Netherlands. Think of it as the buckle in a belt of beery hospitality that runs south from the pubs of Ireland and Britain through the estaminets of Northern France, and west to east through Germany’s Wirtshäuser and Czechia’s pivnice. The names, beers, and quirks vary, but the spirit of conviviality is more or less the same.

How do you know if you’re sitting in a brown café? There are hallmarks—none of them obligatory, but they add up like a score somewhere in the back of your mind. The most authoritative piece of evidence, increasingly rare, is an appropriately brown patina left from the days when smoking was still allowed. Bars that developed those patinae now preserve them as treasures, more valued than heirloom beer signage or painted portraits whose origins nobody can remember.

Still, even the patina is not required. There is no cut-and-dried list of criteria to what makes a brown café.

“It’s more like an emotion,” says Rick Kempen, a beer ambassador for the Amsterdam-based distributor Bier & Co. who spent eight years waiting tables at the Pilsener Club in the ’80s and ’90s. “You can decorate a new bar and paint it so it looks like nicotine, but if it doesn’t feel like you’re in a brown bar, it doesn’t work. It should have a history. It takes some time.”

De Jong tilts a frame to reveal the patina on the bar’s wallpaper.

Kempen returns often for beer, natter, and nostalgia. The famous patina is still there, brown as ever. On a recent visit, the waiter graciously offered to tilt a framed landscape—said to be painted by the owner’s great-grandfather, who founded the place; it’s a fourth-generation, family-run establishment—to reveal shocking whiteness beneath.

“Did you know that all these places would have had white wallpaper?” Kempen said. “The nicotine would have changed the color in six months or so.”

Another thing that makes the Pilsener Club unusual: It has waiters, not barmen, because there is no bar. Gracious fellows in white shirts and black ties retreat to a small cold room in the back to pour your beer from the taps, then return with great efficiency. The usual thing to drink here is a perfectly poured tumbler of fresh Heineken for less than €3 (about $3.50). When Kempen worked here, there were only two beers: Heineken and De Koninck, the Antwerp Pale Ale, poured into its signature “bolleke” glass. These days there are more than 20 choices, including a few local independents and better Belgian beers like Boon Oude Geuze and Orval.

Yet from the beginning this was a place to drink Pils, chiefly Heineken. Its original name was Zum Pilsner Club, after the German style. Following the invasion by Nazi Germany on May 10, 1940, the owner scraped the old spelling off the windows and replaced it with the more Dutch-sounding De Pilsener Club.

It’s possible to sit and drink in the alley when weather allows. Otherwise, there are eight tables inside and a wide variety of ancient bric-a-brac, much of it beer-related. On a small shelf at the side is a rack of boiled eggs that cost 50 cents each. (In the old days they would have been free, an easy way to keep peckish people in the pub.)

Kempen says longtime regulars include writers, journalists, and philosophers who come as much for the conversation as the beer. He still sees familiar faces on return visits. Many others, however, are gone—one in particular.

If you go to the Pilsener Club, look for a special plaque on the wall, behind the table by the window. This plaque honors a certain Mr. Peters, a daily regular at the café for more than 70 years. Kempen got to know his habits well. “He would always arrive promptly at five, order a beer and a cigar. During this time he would drink three genevers,” Kempen says, referring to the Low Countries’ own special sort of gin.

Pity the strangers who sat in Peters’ spot at the wrong time. He would hover and glower until the visitor finally got the hint. This was an amusing show for the other punters. “When he died,” Kempen says, “everyone attended his funeral.”

More than the nicotine patina or even the beer, it’s the people that make a brown café—especially the regulars. “There’s still that sort of people around,” Kempen says. “But less and less.”