Philosopher on the Job Market – Alex Groen

A few years ago, I would have never imagined myself writing about beer.When I was living in Italy, I did not even like beer. At some point, pilsners appeared in my life but they did not look like a particularly original choice. IPAs seemed much more interesting. Then I started working in a bar, and I discovered the magical properties of sour beers. In case you are in need of a recommendation, among my favorites are: Rodenbach Gran Cru (6% ABV), Vibrant P’ocean (a collaboration between Rodenbach and Dogfish Head, 4.7% ABV), Florida Weisse (Thornbridge Brewery, 4.5% ABV), Blos (brewed by Nevel Artisan Ales for Café De Kluizenaar, 5.5% ABV). Yet, one of the beers that literally stole my heart was Studio Oedipus no. 30 (4% ABV), a delicious raspberry Berliner Weisse with a beautiful pinkish color. This is where our story begins.

Admittedly, this interview started in quite an unusual way. What normally happens is that, during our editorial meetings, we decide to interview a person for a section of the magazine, and one of the editors (me in this case) volunteers to do the interview. What actually happened this time is that my initial timid excitement about Oedipus brewery fermented over time, and lead me to write an email and ask if there was a way – any way – to write a piece about philosophy and beers that involved their brewery.

My email travelled here and there, and finally arrived at Alex Groen, who, besides working behind the bar at Oedipus, studied (and recently started studying again) philosophy. I was lucky enough to be given the possibility to visit the brewery. Such an event had to be captured and photographed. Therefore, a Splijtstof delegation composed of Ted, our web and design editor, and I went to Amsterdam on a cold Saturday afternoon to meet Alex.

Figure 1: Oedipus Brewery © Ted van Aanholt

If you have ever visited Oedipus’ website or seen their labels, you know what I mean when I say that the brewery has a colorful style. After so many months of Zoom interviews, it feels nice to actually see an interviewee (no worries, corona rules were being followed). Alex welcomes us with a friendly and open attitude, and a low and slightly husky voice. A combination of characteristics that makes me feel calm and comfortable immediately. He shows us the big tanks where the magic happens, and the back room where a huge machine extends its two arms as if it wanted to hug the alcoholic nectar placed in the center one last time before putting it into bottles and cans. We also see a few barrels that were once filled, Alex explains, with wine or whisky, but that are now used to add flavor and body to beer. In September, Oedipus has released the second beer of a trilogy (the third and last beer still has to come out, so stay tuned!) brewed following a special method called bière de coupage. This technique consists of blending old and new beer together, allowing them to work in synergy. Like in a relationship between grandparent and grandchild, young beer gives old beer new vigor, and the old beer adds complexity and depth to the young one. More specifically, Studio no. 23, the first beer of the trilogy and one of Alex’s favorites, is made blending two parts grisette with one part Berliner Weisse aged in a red wine barrel. Studio no. 35, the latest one, is composed of one part grisette blended with two parts of a saison aged in a red wine barrel and refermented with Brettanomyces. We take a moment to look around and then we move back to our starting point, where we sit comfortably, and Alex offers us a beer. Ted accepts. “What kind of beer do you like? IPA, blonde, sour…?” Alex asks naming a few popular beer styles. I guess it is about time to see what kind of person Ted is.

“Sour,” Ted answers firmly.

Alex walks behind the bar and grabs a Polyamorie (mango sour, 5% ABV) for Ted and a País Tropical (session IPA, 4.5% ABV) for himself.

Figure 2: The tanks © Ted van Aanholt

“Why did you start working in bars and how did you end up at Oedipus?” I ask after checking with Ted that the recording has started, and that the voices can be heard well. Imagine coming all the way to Amsterdam and, only after being back in Nijmegen, finding out that the only thing that got recorded was the music they were playing inside the brewery.

“In the beginning, it was just a student job.” Alex begins, probably anticipating my question. “I was studying, I needed a job but I didn’t want to work in a supermarket and there was a small bar in Utrecht, where I was living back then, that was hiring. They didn’t ask for any experience so I just started there. After my Bachelor, I moved to Den Haag and then to Amsterdam and, in the meanwhile, I got my beer diploma and started to work in a bar called Proeflokaal Arendsnest. It is a really nice bar in the center of Amsterdam with more than 50 beers on draft, and they only do Dutch beers. That was amazing but then corona happened and my contract wasn’t extended. Luckily, Oedipus was hiring because they just opened the Badhuis in Amsterdam-Oost so I started working here.”

“And when did you develop a serious passion for beers?”

“A couple of years after I first started working in Utrecht. I remember that I felt very special when I stopped drinking regular pilsners and switched to La Chouffe or Duvel (both Belgian golden strong ales and both around 8% ABV).” We all giggle a bit because we have all felt very special when we started ordering something different from a pilsner on draft while, as Alex points out, pilsners are a very interesting style too. “But then one day I was in a bar with a friend and I tried my first Orval (Trappist ale, 6.2% ABV).” Alex continues. “That was my eureka moment. I said to myself ‘if beer tastes like this, then I want to know everything about it.’”

“Oh, so that’s how you started the journey to become a beer sommelier?” I ask remembering that, during our first Skype call, Alex mentioned a beer diploma.

“Well, kind of. A colleague of mine was doing the course to become a beer sommelier. I thought it was cool and I decided to give it shot.”

“Cool!” I exclaim. “How does that work?” Maybe this is a sort of beer-course-chain in which someone does the course, talks about it, makes other people interested, other people do the course, talk about it, make even more people interested and so on. What a wonderful world that would be!

“It is an internationally recognized diploma.” Alex starts explaining. “Officially, the diploma is given out by an institute in Germany and Austria. However, two out of the three levels that compose the diploma can be obtained in the Netherlands. The first level consists of ten classes of four hours each. You get an explanation of the basics of beer and of the brewing process, and it includes beer tasting. After that, you have to do an exam. Usually, you are given a short list of twenty possible styles that can be tested in the exam. During the exam itself, you have to recognize the style of about six beers based on their color, taste, and look. The second level is similar but more intense: there are twelve or thirteen classes and each class involves an in-depth explanation of one aspect of the science behind beer. So, one class could be a lecture on yeast, another a lecture on hops and so on. The third level is really awesome because you get to go to Austria to receive your diploma.” Alex concludes, still visibly enthusiastic about the whole experience.

All of a sudden, the fact that we both share not only our passion for philosophy but also our enthusiasm for beer and for working in bars (although I clearly have less experience and knowledge than Alex), hits me. There are indeed some obvious reasons why one might like working in a bar. First, as Alex points out, it is a very common job for students. Second, it is a kind of job that sociable people tend to like because it gives the possibility of being around and talking to people. Yet, the high number of philosophy students who do this kind of job makes me wonder whether there is some sort of deeper reason why we (I am not speaking on behalf of all philosophy students in the world, not even in the Netherlands, but still) like it so much. Unable to answer this question myself, I turn it to Alex.

“When I started, I didn’t really like it. I was a bit scared by the constant interaction with people.” Alex starts answering. “But then, I realized that everyone goes to bars to have fun. All you have to do as a bartender is to give them the tools to have a nice time. Everyday life tends to be so serious and so busy but then you enter into a bar and you get transported to another dimension. It’s a sort of holiday from yourself and an outside-life experience. Even time seems to be standing still. You can talk to someone without realizing that the hours go by. This makes the atmosphere in bars very nice also for those who are working. Most of the time you see happy people.” Alex pauses. “Sometimes even annoying people but that’s part of the deal.” He adds chuckling. “Especially if I work over the weekend, it almost feels like I am not even working. I can just have a nice time with my colleagues and with the guests.”

I reflect a bit on the beginning of Alex’s answer. It reminds me of a scene that I witnessed this summer while I was working. One evening, I was on my own behind the bar. Besides taking care of the remaining guests, I had to close the terrace so I went outside. There were still a few people inside, in particular a couple who comes quite often. At one point, the guy stands up and comes to the bar to pay. I see him from outside, so I start walking inside towards the register. While walking, I notice that the guy is looking at the girl who is with him with an intense look. The kind of look you have when you are very proud of being with that particular person. The girl notices it, blushes, and they smile at each other. I was witnessing this whole scene from behind, the perfect angle to see its full development, and it gave me this insight, which might not be entirely philosophical but really changed my perception of the job I am doing. Like in Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand, where, by pursuing my own self-interest, I fulfill everyone’s best interest, I fulfill the couple’s best interest (giving them nice food, drinks and, hopefully, a nice date) by pursuing my own self-interest (not being fired, doing my job well, getting paid for my hours…). But maybe this is too much of a cynical and economic way to put it. What really touched me of the scene was the feeling of being and, at the same time not being, part of their story. I felt like a participant spectator. On the one hand, I am a participant and I am part of their story because, as Alex said, I am giving them the tools to have a nice date. I could also make it hard for them to have a nice time. I could be very rude or I could forget their orders, for instance. Hopefully, they will remember their date with pleasure. Yet, on the other hand, I am also a spectator and I am not part of their story. It is their story. I am only looking at it from behind the bar.

I realize that I zoned out for a while. “So, you started studying philosophy in Utrecht?” I ask, trying to go back to the early days of his philosophical interests.

“Yes, I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to study.” He admits. “I was interested in philosophy but I also didn’t really know what it was about because I didn’t have this subject in high school. Anyway, after high school, I was travelling in New Zealand with a friend, and I called my mum telling her to just enroll me for the philosophy Bachelor in Utrecht.” Alex pauses a bit as if he was trying to justify, or maybe just explain, his seemingly random choice for philosophy. “I’ve always thought that you should study what you find interesting and philosophy was that for me.” He concludes. His answer reminds me of other similar interviews I have done in the past. It is interesting how so many people are attracted to philosophy for philosophy’s sake, so to speak.

“And then?” Now I am curious to know if his interest in philosophy just died out at some point.

“Well, once I graduated I didn’t really feel like keeping on studying. I liked philosophy, and I absolutely loved the minor I did in musicology but I completely disliked the student life with all its restrictions. You have to read this and that, you have to write a paper that has this number of words or this specific style. After my Bachelor, there wasn’t anything that interested me enough to balance out my intolerance for the student life. For this reason, I decided that I wouldn’t start a Master until I found something that really inspired and motivated me. In the meanwhile, other things happened. I got a manager position in a bar and, all of a sudden, I realized that I had been working full time for four years. Back then, I was working so many hours per week that I ended up hating my job in bars. It was like waking up from a long sleep. That was the moment when I decided to start studying again.”

“Oh, that’s interesting!” I exclaim thinking that after a break of four years it must have been quite difficult but also quite exciting to go back to university. “What do you do now?”

“I am doing a Master in Filosofie van Cultuur en Bestuur. One of the conditions of this Master is that you have to combine it with another Master, so I went for a Master in political science. Global Environmental Governance, Sustainability and Climate Change, it’s called.”

“Why political science?” I interrupt Alex but he does not seem to mind (too much).

“I was in a debating club in high school, and I have always been interested in politics so I thought that a Master in political science was a good option for me.”

I ask Alex if he sees any connections between the two Masters he is currently doing.

“I am definitely trying to combine them because I have to write two theses at the end so it would be handy if there was some overlap.” Alex begins with a pragmatic but indeed astute answer. I do not know many people who would enjoy writing two theses back-to-back. “Yet, besides that, I think my specialization is quite tied to philosophy in that it aims at exploring our attitudes towards nature and towards the world around us. Philosophy can actually be of great help to political science here. In every age philosophers have said ‘now philosophy is more relevant than ever’ but I do actually think that this is particularly true for our age. In a moment in which everything is becoming so scientific, in which capitalism teaches us that something is valuable only if it can be counted in monetary terms, philosophy is extremely relevant.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we can see it with populism and fake news. People are not trained to be critical and I think philosophy would be able to teach people to think for themselves. Of course, people cannot be forced to read Heidegger or Hegel but they should be asking themselves why the things around them are as they are and why the events happen the way they happen.”

Figure 3: Find the one from Nijmegen © Ted van Aanholt

It might be just me but I have never seen as much interest in beer and brewing as in the last few years. So many people have recently developed a real and great passion for this (not only) blonde alcoholic beverage. Some have started brewing beers at home with friends. Others have even found a way to make a living out of it. I express my thoughts aloud and ask Alex “Do you have an idea why special beers are such a thing now?”

Alex starts answering without hesitation as if he ruminated on this topic already and found a convincing answer. “I think it’s part of a broader phenomenon that started, at least in the Netherlands, in the 1980s but that has definitely accelerated in the last ten or fifteen years. People are being more careful about what they buy and about what they put in their bodies. We now have superfoods, homemade bread, growing numbers of vegans, vegetarians and even those who still eat meat or fish are more careful about its provenance. The consumer culture is changing. People are getting fed up with mass-produced products whose taste is very bland and whose quality is iffy. People are starting to look for special flavors, for high quality and uniqueness.” 

“Is this something you are trying to do at Oedipus too? To give an experience that is not just about the drink but also about the food, the music, the style?” I ask while looking around. A powerful but comforting smell of soup hit us as soon as we entered the brewery. We did not quite know where it came from until now, when a curly-haired guy named Wiard joins us and sits on the couch in front of me. After a few minutes, Lien appears from a door that I did not notice before, wearing baggy blue trousers and holding a small bowl of red soup. Lien offers the soup to Wiard, he tastes it and nods as sign of approval.

Alex witnesses the soup trial, then turns to me and exclaims “Absolutely! Oedipus brewery has a very dynamic atmosphere. You are always surrounded by beers, good food, and music.”

The beer-food connection makes me think of the Amsterdam symposium on the history of food I attended last year. I start telling Alex about it, and about how some of the speakers discussed the differences between the production of coffee and the production of wine. Coffee is usually produced by poor countries for rich countries, while wine is produced by rich countries for rich countries. This parallel raised many questions of inequality among the speakers at the symposium. While I was preparing the questions for this interview, I realized that beer does not really seem to fit the coffee-wine parallel even if, like coffee and wine, beer seems to be living its golden age. You can become quite successful by brewing beers without having a big company behind you. This rarely happens with wine and even more rarely with coffee.

Alex seems to agree with me and adds his own thoughts to mine. “What I really like about the history of beers is that they are very connected to a certain place. For instance, pilsners are originally from the Czech Republic, where the soft water coming from a well close to the Radbuza River gave this beer style its peculiar taste. It wouldn’t be a pilsner without this particular water (try for instance Urquell, 4.4% ABV). Or think about IPAs, whose typical bitterness is given by the high percentage of calcium present in English waters. Back in the days, beer was part of the household, it was a sort of everyday drink because in the Northern countries it was simply too cold to grow grapes. Nowadays the beer industry has its own problems of inequality. Most of the companies are owned either by Heineken or SABMiller or InBev, which have some water sources in South America and, as it turned out, they are not always behaving fairly towards the local employees and the population at large. 1 I think that the inequalities you mentioned about the coffee or wine industry are still there but they seem to be more related to the companies themselves than to the kind of product they sell.”

A few years ago, I was presented with this piece of evidence by a friend of mine: people who love Harry Potter tend to like The Lord of the Rings less (and vice versa). There definitely was not a deep scientific truth behind this statement but I found out that, for some reason, it was quite an accurate description of people’s likes and dislikes. Since then, I found myself in many “either Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings” situations, starting from the classic battle between salty and sweet snacks. The preference for either wine or beer is a classic situation of this sort. People who love beer tend to like wine (a bit) less. And even those who claim to love both equally deep down prefer one of them. The following comment made by Alex convinces me even more of the truth behind the “either Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings” situations. “Beer is more honest than wine, and the brewery subculture is less competitive than the wine subculture. Breweries help each other. Beer is also inclusive in a way that wine isn’t. Two or three years ago, I was travelling in Peru, and I found the smallest brewery in the middle of nowhere. It was owned by three guys who went on holiday together and tried a craft beer that they had never tasted in their home country. They liked it so much that they started making craft beers themselves in Peru using local ingredients. It was a fantastic beer and a fantastic experience.”

Figure 4: Alex Groen © Ted van Aanholt

At this point, I realize that the clock is ticking and that I want to know more about Oedipus. Therefore, I ask Alex about how the brewery was founded.

Alex must know the story quite well because he starts answering promptly adding some fun facts here and there. “Three of the four founders worked together at the Beer Temple in Amsterdam, which is an American beer bar. Because of their job, they had the chance of trying many beers that were not on the Dutch market yet, and they got inspired. They started brewing and they went totally crazy. They were brewing at the place of one of them and the first year they made so many beers that they completely filled up all the fridges he had. Then they decided to open a company. They needed a name, and they thought about something they all had in common, namely the love for their mothers. That’s how Oedipus was born.” The reference to Freud is too obvious not to laugh about it. Then Alex adds, “Many other breweries founded around those years share the same story. They all tried to fill a gap in the Dutch beer culture.”

This summer, when cafés were allowed to open again, my boss changed the beer menu quite drastically. What I had learned about the beers that were previously on the menu was not useful anymore and, to be completely honest, I was a bit tired of repeating to the guests the characteristics of each beer only based on the information my boss (or some more experienced colleagues) gave me. I decided that it was about time to learn the different beer styles myself, to try them out and to be able to give more helpful and more constructive recommendations to the guests. As every philosophy student, I started my journey towards a greater understanding of the beer world not from practice but from a book. I did some research and, eventually, I found a book titled The Complete Beer Course. Bootcamp for Beer Geeks by Joshua Bernstein, an American beer journalist and critic. In the introduction, Bernstein says that this is the best time in history to be a beer drinker but it is also the most confusing one because of the humongous choice we have. Looking at the Oedipus website, I wonder what their approach to this is. They do have some year-round beers (one of my favorites is the Swingers, lemon gose, 4% ABV), some seasonals and then there is the Studio section, which is absolutely crazy cool. So, what kind of choice is Oedipus trying to give?

Alex listens to me patiently and then comments. “I actually think Oedipus is not really following trends. Now, for instance, New England IPAs and hazy IPAs (a good one is Can-O-Bliss Hazy IPA by Oskar Blues 7.2% ABV) are a big thing, or pastry stouts (an example, Caramel Fudge Stout by Kees 11.5% ABV) but we do not do that. The first beer that was ever made at Oedipus was the Mannenliefde (6% ABV), a saison, which was a very popular style at the time but they never made a classical saison. If you check any Oedipus saison, you can see that there’s always a twist in it, like lemongrass or pepper. Oedipus is also trying to give a very specific identity with its own peculiarities to each beer. I think that has to do with the fact that Oedipus was founded with an ideology behind it. The Mannenliefde was meant to break the stereotype of beer as a mainly masculine drink. The label was, and still is, pink, and the whole design is inspired by openness, diversity and vulnerability. Mannenliefde wanted to give the message that beer is for everybody. What you say about the humongous choice we now have, beer-wise, is true but I think it’s an advantage and an interesting aspect of the beer culture over the wine culture, for instance. Beer gives so many possibilities to experiment with and to express different identities that, if people are really interested in it, they can find what suits their personality best.”

“And where does the experimentation happen?” I ask. I did not miss Alex’s quick and subtle reference to the wine culture. Classic “either Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings” situation, as I said. Beer 2, Wine 0.

Alex luckily does not see me giggling, and replies. “Well, we try to keep improving every beer, although there are some beers that we do not change anymore (like the ThaiThai, spicy tripel 7% ABV). Yet, if you are referring to the real experimentation, that happens with the Studio series. Of course, this also means that sometimes experimentations fail. Once, for instance, all the bottles exploded because the fermentation went wrong.”

Figure 5: Studio no.35 & Studio no.32 © Ted van Aanholt

“Where do you take inspiration from?” I am now quite interested in finding out what the steps that lead you from “Oh! This painting is cool!” to “I want to make a beer out of it!” are.

“Inspiration can come from everywhere!” Alex exclaims enthusiastically. “For instance, Studio no. 24 (black session IPA, 6.5% ABV) is inspired by John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. We also made a lemon tart ale (Studio no. 32, 7.5% ABV), which is inspired by Massimo Bottura, the chef and owner of Osteria Francescana, and his ‘Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart.’” My face lightens up when Alex utters this sentence. I lived in Modena, where the Osteria Francescana is located, for three years while doing my Bachelor. I do remember that when I first started watching the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table I saw that the first episode of the first season was about this little three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, which, of course, I only knew from the outside. It was almost surreal to see all the streets where I used to walk every day in a series. Alex continues. “But inspiration can also come from something completely different. Studio no. 27 (5% ABV), for example, is a wild ale made in collaboration with ARTIS Micropia, the first museum of microbes. I think that’s also why philosophy and beers are similar, so to say.” He concludes.

“Ah! Gotcha!” I think. “What do you mean?” I quietly say.

“It’s just the mindset. Philosophy teaches you not to take things for granted, to ask yourself why things are the way they are. The same goes for beer. The same kind of curiosity pushes you to want to know why a beer tastes like that or why these hops give a certain flavor.”

“Is it your piece of advice for philosophy students?” Ted asks.

“Yes,” – Alex says turning towards him – “just make sure to keep the philosophy mindset, always be critical, ask questions and keep thinking. There will always be new things to discover. Oh, and keep drinking beer.”

We all laugh again. I do not have any other questions; I am quite happy and satisfied with the material I have. Ted stops the recording. Alex asks us if we want one last beer before leaving. This time I accept as well. Alex stands up, goes to the fridges and comes back holding a Studio beer with a beautiful blue and yellow label. It is Studio no. 35 (6.5% ABV). Wiard, the curly-haired, joins us again. We chat for a while, with the same easiness and pleasure that you feel when you are talking to your friends. Yet, it is getting dark and it is time for us to leave.

In case you included trying out new beers among your new year’s resolutions, let Splijtstof help you! There already are quite a few names of good beers here and there throughout the article. Yet, in case that was not enough, here are two top 5 lists of Oedipus beers made by Alex (who wants you to know that he is a very sour person, which explains why his lists are mainly composed of sours).

Alex’s all-time favorites (some of them might not be available anymore):

  1. Studio no. 20 (Wild Riesling Ale, 7% ABV)
  2. Studio no. 23 (Saison BA, 6% ABV)
  3. Studio no. 18 (Grisette with Brett, 4% ABV)
  4. Unreal (Golden Sour Ale, 6% ABV)
  5. Gaia (IPA, 7% ABV)

Alex’s normal-everyday favorites (available all year round):

  1. Gaia (IPA, 7% ABV)
  2. Swingers (Lemon Gose, 4% ABV)
  3. País Tropical (session IPA, 4.5% ABV)
  4. Rubberen Robbie (Smoked Porter, 6.5% ABV)
  5. Polyamorie (Mango Sour, 5% ABV)
  1. See the scandal that involved Heineken a few years ago about the exploitation of women working in its African breweries