One tour option combines the Heineken Experience at the old brewery with a canal cruise of Amsterdam on a custom boat — Photo courtesy of Heineken USA
Amsterdam’s trio of major art museums – the Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk, and Van Gogh museum – draw tourists all year round, but it’s a very different attraction near the Museum Quarter that really packs them in (and it’s the only one that includes free beer with admission).
Located in the original city center (and now decommissioned) Heineken brewery, the Heineken Experience is not just the Netherlands’ number one site for visitors. It’s also one of the premier brewery tours on Earth, rivaled only by Dublin’s similarly elaborate Guinness Storehouse tour.
Today, Heineken – still run by the original founding family – owns more than 165 breweries in 70-plus countries worldwide, and its portfolio includes more than 300 beer brands, from Dos Equis in Mexico to Murphy’s Irish Stout in Ireland to Jamaica’s Red Stripe and Singapore’s Tiger.
But in 1867, it all started on the banks of a canal just off the Amstel River, when Gerard Adriaan Heineken built his first brewery. It would be expanded again and again, remaining in operation until 1988, and every drop of Heineken beer ever exported to the U.S. was made here until production moved to a new state-of-the-art brewery near the city’s suburban airport.
Three years later, it re-opened as the brand’s visitor center, but in 2008, it was completely rebuilt as the interactive Heineken Experience – now open 365 days a year.
The Experience spans several floors and is divided into thematic sections focused on the company’s heritage and history, brewing process, innovations and sponsorships, most of which are related to sports. It combines elements of a museum, a traditional brewery visit and high-tech theme park, passing through the original brewery to learn about the beer-making process.
There’s even a quick walk through the attached stables where the company’s fleet of eight English Shire horses – The Dutch counterpoint to the Budweiser Clydesdales – are kept in high style. Once a day, the horses still parade an antique Heineken wagon around downtown Amsterdam, and are also used for special events and festivals.
The Experience includes a tour of the stables where Heineken’s signature English Shire horses are kept — Photo courtesy of Heineken USA
Much of the history is presented with antiques, memorabilia and signage, including a recreation of the first shipment of Heineken to the States. It was the very first imported beer to arrive immediately after Prohibition, cementing Heineken’s longstanding status as America’s first deluxe import.
The more technical aspects of the tour, such as the brewing process and creation of Heineken’s signature “A-yeast,” are explained in videos. There are also games, interactive touchscreens and many photo opportunities such as special effects-laden selfie booths and email kiosks throughout.
Some stations are staffed by live Heineken employees, such as a perfect draught pouring competition, and the opportunity to taste the wort after exploring the brewhouse, home to Heineken’s original four copper boilers. Wort is the liquid extracted from grains during the mash process, concentrating the sugars that will then be fermented into alcohol.
Visitors learn about the brewing process in the original 1867 brewhouse, home to Heineken’s first four copper boilers — Photo courtesy of Heineken USA
It’s very sweet and tastes like the milk leftover after a bowl of breakfast cereal. Staffers hand out half-pint beer samples after the premier attraction of the Experience, a virtual reality trip inside the beer-making process in which visitors are “brewed and bottled” to experience it firsthand. This theme park-style ride loads guests in groups of eight into private “bar” capsules made of 360-degree video screens, including floors and ceilings, for an intense sound and sight immersion.
The final area of the tour is the sponsorship section, which showcases the brand’s bi-annual Olympic House undertaking, and its partnerships with Formula One racing and soccer, including virtual reality sports challenges and selfie stations.
Finally, it’s down to the bustling, casual basement bar where each guest can use two tokens they were given for draft beers or soft drinks, in addition to the small draught presented along the way. Of course, you cannot leave without passing though an immense gift shop featuring every type of logo-bearing item you could imagine.
Part of the tour includes a museum-style exhibition of antiques related to the company’s past — Photo courtesy of Heineken USA
The Heineken Experience is offered in four versions. The most popular is the basic self-guided tour, which typically takes about an hour and a half to reach the bar. The ticket price is €21 in person, but €18 when booked online – and you should always book online to beat the sometimes very long queues, as you can get an assigned time. All the videos and presentations are in English, but they have an app for Dutch, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Russian, with free Wi-Fi to download.
The VIP version (€55) is an actual guided tour with a live ambassador, lasting two and a half hours and adding a guided tasting of five other beers from the portfolio, such as Affligem, Brand (only sold in the Netherlands), Amstel and Lagunitas.
Depending on the tour chosen, visitors get two or three opportunities to experience fresh beer on draught — Photo courtesy of Heineken USA
This is accompanied by a fine Dutch cheese tasting and incredibly delicious bread made daily with Heineken’s proprietary yeast. The beer and cheese tasting is done in the private Freddy’s Bar, and easily stands in for lunch. This tour also includes a souvenir personalized bottle of beer with your name on the label to take home, but non-VIPs can buy these for €6.50 (or two for €9.50).
The third option is the “Rock the City” package, which combines the regular tour with a canal cruise of the city on Heineken’s own boat led by an Experience guide, ending at Amsterdam’s signature high-altitude observation deck, the A’DAM Lookout, with admission included. The cruise departs from immediately outside the Experience, which sits right on the canal (€32.50).
The “Perfect Match” package is aimed at football fans and combines the Experience with a bus trip and private tour of the Johan Cruyff soccer arena, and Heineken’s Sky Lounge at the stadium (€39.95).