Dutch hometown brew

The Gulpener brewery in southern Netherlands gets all of its ingredients–and inspiration–locally.

Marco Visscher | May 2005 issue

As we walk to the café in the southern Dutch village of Gulpen to drink another beer, Paul Rutten points to a new bank building that’s just been completed. It’s adorned with a digital display indicating the current value of the stock exchange. “In Gulpen,” Rutten smiles, shaking his head. “A little over the top, really.”

Rutten embodies a far different approach to business, one built on serving the local community rather than riding the ups and downs of multinational corporations. His celebrated Gulpener Brewery employs 80 local people and provides a livelihood to another 70 farmers in this province of Limburg. Each year the brewery invests part of its profit on village fairs and various local associations, such as the choral group, the rifle club, the church. In Rutten’s opinion, these groups play an important role in keeping the community—and his business—healthy.

Even the water used in Gulpener beer is produced locally; it flows from a natural source beneath the brewery and is remarkably pure. While other Dutch breweries import their hops, Gulpener grows its own. The same goes for the barley, which was not grown in Limburg until 15 years ago. Rutten wanted to bring these products closer to home: “Otherwise you’re selling beer from Limburg, when you’re in fact an assembly plant.”

Rutten makes an effort to be connected to the farmers who grow these ingredients. “The farmers used to be anonymous,” he notes. “They did their work and a major trader simply hauled away their produce. Now farmers are more involved in the end product. They know which beer it will be used for, the bottle it’s marketed in and they can talk to one another about it. That gives them a much greater sense of satisfaction.”

But there’s also another vision behind Gulpener’s shift to using regional materials. “I think our society should return to a higher degree of self-sufficiency,” Rutten explains. “There’s a whole lot of transport around the world from A to B. In planes, trains, trucks. It would be good for people and their environment if food—milk, meat, bread—was made and consumed locally.”

Rutten is a major believer in the stakeholdership concept of business, whereby not only the shareholders must be kept happy, but also the others involved in and around the company. It is actually very easy to allow yourself to be guided by the stock market, he says, because it’s easier to have only one focus rather than several. “The challenge for contemporary entrepreneurship is to find a balance, within the discipline of the market, between profit and participation. The trick is to recognize the equal role played by shareholders, staff and customers.”

Gulpener’s deep grounding in the local community even contributes to the introduction of new specialty beers. One example is the Gulpener white beer, or “Korenwolf”, named after a wild hamster unique to Limburg, which is threatened with extinction. Rutten was asked for a generous donation to protect the animal and came up with the idea of making a multigrain white beer using the grains gathered by the korenwolf. A portion of the profits goes to the campaign to save the hamster while increasing numbers of local citizens are made more conscious of their region’s ecosystem.

This article is adapted from one appearing earlier in the Dutch edition of Ode. Paul Rutten has since been succeeded by John Halmans, who is pursuing the same local vision in his role as Gulpener’s managing director. Under Halmans’ leadership, the company was awarded the national prize for stimulating corporate social responsibility by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture and the Netherlands’ Food Industry VAI.

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