Drinks – know what you’re ordering

Ordering drinks in a bar or restaurant should be easy, you would think. Armed with a basic phrase book, it should be pretty easy to order something to drink. Somehow, in Dutch it’s not that simple. The limits of your language mastery may go no further than “Two beers please,” but in the Netherlands, you may get blank faces or further questioning may be necessary. In France, “Deux biere, s’il vous plaît” or in Germany “Zwei Bier, bitte” should be enough. Not in the Netherlands. The language is out to trip up unsuspecting Dutch learners. Not only that, but café culture is different in the Netherlands to pub culture in the UK, adding to the culture shock and general confusion.

A selection of Dutch beer bottles gleaned from our cellar. How did that Bavaria bottle get there?
A selection of Dutch beer bottles gleaned from our cellar. How did that Bavaria bottle get there?

Culture shock in the café

Back in my youth, most young men I knew drank beer or beer-based drinks like shandy and they only drank stronger drinks at home or at friends’ houses to keep the cost down. Wine bars were yet to have reached the provinces and cocktails were too fancy by half. The thing for women to drink was mixed drinks: Martini & lemonade, Bacardi & coke, rum & black(currant), vodka & orange, Pernod & black or the notorious Babycham, etc. Either that or cider. When I was studying, my main drink was cider & black, a mix that had the advantage of being cheap, appealing to my taste buds and lasting a long time due to sheer volume of liquid. The disadvantage was its incredible sweetness and ability to reach all the parts other drinks couldn’t reach: a few months into student life and I had to have a filling replaced.

So it was quite a culture shock when I came to the Netherlands and discovered that it would not be at all socially acceptable to drink mixed drinks when out on the town because spirits were so expensive; everyone drank beer. Aged 23, I had never even tried beer beyond the odd sip of someone else’s drink, followed by a grimace at the bitterness. Fortunately for me, pilsner lager – pils – is the most commonly-drunk beer and it’s served so cold that it doesn’t have much flavour. I soon gained a taste for it, especially on hot days, sitting on a terrace watching the world go by. As for flavour, I discovered there were differences after all and my clear favourite is Grolsch; I’ll drink Heineken at a pinch, Amstel if I must, but I’ll pass if you offer me Bavaria. Living in Eindhoven, I also soon discovered that there were other beery delights to be had. One of our friends was very keen on Belgian speciality beers such as Duvel and Trappist, but these were too strongly-flavoured for me. Regularly visiting one of the favourite expat hangouts in Eindhoven, the Café Centraal, I was delighted to discover the sweet and fruity Kriek, a cherry-flavoured beer sold in appealing oversized wineglass-style beer glasses. Kriek, incidentally, is dialect for cherry.

The language pitfalls of ordering a beer

Take those 2 beers I mentioned. Beer is beer. Simple, toch? No, not in Dutch. The beer most people drink is Pils, so you have to ask for “Twee pils, alsjeblieft.” At which point the waiter may ask you something incomprehensible. What could it be? Believe it or not, it’s the size of glass you want it served in. I can honestly say I have never been asked this anywhere else I’ve ordered beer. In the UK, you ask for a pint or a ‘half’ of the beer or beer sort of choice (lager, bitter, shandy, Guinness, fill-in-name-of-beer-here). In a Dutch bar, they may ask you if you want an Amsterdammer or a fluitje (also known as a buisje, pijpje or piepke – all of these 3 mean pipe). I can never remember which one is which, so I generally just say “ja” to whichever they suggest and take what comes. Extensive internet research (thank you, Wikipedia) shows that a fluitje is narrow and tall, made of thin glass and contains 20cl in the Netherlands, but 25cl in Belgium. The Amsterdammer (aka Rotterdammer, presumably in Rotterdam, emmer or boerke – bucket or farmer) is a tall tapered glass with straight sides and the contents vary from 23 cl, 25 cl, 30 cl or, if you’re really lucky, 33 cl. In other words, you’ll probably get more beer if you order an Amsterdammer, although it will be priced accordingly.

The pitifully inadequate 23 cl is usually used at festivals and other places where you will probably spill half your beer and have to pay over the odds because you don’t have any choice. Not to mention the fact that in this case, the ‘glass’ will probably be plastic, for safety reasons. Having said this, I was pleasantly surprised at an ACDC concert in the Gelredome recently – yes, I never expected to be at an ACDC concert, either – to discover that the plastic beer glasses were truly enormous, easily a half pint size. Plus we didn’t have to worry about returning the empties because it was the done thing to drop them on the floor where they were crunched to smithereens.

If you want to be more adventurous in your beer ordering, there are multitudes of stronger, yeastier, more flavoursome beers to try, many of them Belgian, and almost all with their own beer glass. My personal favourites are Hoegaarden and Wieckse Witte, both wheat beers that taste slightly lemony. Much to my surprise, Wieckse Witte has only been brewed since 1988, so I’ve been longer in the Netherlands than it has!

Variety is the spice of life with Dutch beer glasses
Variety is the spice of life with Dutch beer glasses
All the glasses you could want in the secondhand shop
All the glasses you could want in the secondhand shop

Soft drinks – what do you call Coca Cola in the Netherlands?

You would think that the names of soft drinks wouldn’t cause too many problems. Coca Cola is known all over the world, isn’t it? Well, it may well be sold everywhere, but it’s not called the same everywhere. In England, I would ask for a coke, so hilarity often ensues when our Dutch-steeped children hear this; for them, coke reminds them of cocaine. In France it’s Coca, in the Netherlands it’s Cola. Then there’s the question of what to call low-calorie Coca Cola. In the English-speaking world it’s Coca Cola Diet, but in Dutch the same thing is known as Cola Light. Interestingly, if you think it tastes a bit different to what you’re used to in another country, you could be right; according to trademarkologist.com, “the sweetener blend used for Coke/Coca-Cola light is formulated for each country based on consumer preference.” In the Netherlands, ‘the real thing’ is sweetened with real sugar, as opposed to the USA, where high-fructose corn syrup is used, except at Passover in some areas with a large Jewish population, when sugar temporarily takes over for a while (who knew?).

7-Up, orange juice and lemonade

The confusion doesn’t stop there. Another international beverage, this time from the PepsiCo Group, is 7-Up (or Seven-Up). Now, here I would anticipate problems, because how would you pronounce the 7? Should you use the English pronunciation with the s-sound at the start, or the Dutch word zeven (pronounced zay-vn)? To be honest, either will probably get you what you want, but to get around this difficulty, I’ve heard it referred to as Up-drank. I’m not sure how widespread this is, or whether it was just somebody having a laugh at the expense of a new expat. If in doubt, you could always ask if they have Sprite.

An orange by any other name

Another common non-alcoholic drink is orange juice. Surely there will be no problem there, in a country so obsessed with the colour orange? Again, there’s no accounting for the vagaries of language. The colour orange in Dutch is oranje. The fruit in Dutch is sinaasappel. So the juice should be sinaasappelsap, shouldn’t it? Well, yes, it is if you buy it in a carton in the supermarket, but if you order it in a café, the correct word is the French name, jus d’orange (zsjoo-dor-onsch). To further muddy the waters, one of the most well-known supermarket brands is called Appelsientje, turning round the syllables ‘sien’ and ‘appel’ from sinaasappel. Not to mention the appeltjes van oranje (apples of orange) mentioned in a certain Sinterklaas song.

If you thought that was odd, what about the humble grapefruit? The fruit is grapefruit, pronounced as in English (so ignoring the Dutch pronunciation of fruit to rhyme with English out). The juice on the other hand is often sold as pompelmoessap, the French way of saying it, but spelled in Dutch. I’m beginning to see a pattern here. At least ananas (pineapple) stays the same, though you’re unlikely to find it in a bar here unless it’s a juice bar.

Lemonade, limonade, ranja and water

For the children, you could try ordering lemonade, but the similarly-sounding limonade (leem-o-na-de) is not what you might expect, as it has very little relation either to freshly-prepared sugary lemon drinks or fizzy lemonade . Limonadesiroop is a sugary syrup used to flavour water, sometimes shortened to limo. Sometimes that’s lengthened to aanmaaklimonade, which is rather ironic as it has to be literally lengthened – aangelengd – with water. That in itself can be shortened to aanmaak. There’s even yet another name for this dentist’s nightmare, ranja, presumably because the flavour most used at large gatherings of small people is orange, with the glow-in-the-dark orange colour peculiar to artificial orange food colouring. Full circle to oranje / ranja; on further investigation, Ranja was originally a make of orange drink. Limonade is now available in various flavours, some makes of which contain 10% fruit, others merely hinting at a fruit connection. In some places, you may also see diksap, literally thick juice, i.e. concentrated fruit juice, used in the same way as limonadesiroop.

If you want lemonade, ask for Spa groen. Fizzy water is Spa rood. Plain bottled water is Spa blauw, and if you want tap water, ask for kraanwater, but most places may be reluctant to give you any. A carafe of water on the table is seen as an extra service, not the normal state of affairs. Spa is a company that bottles natural spring water near the imaginatively-named spa town of Spa in Belgium, incidentally also the home of the Belgian F1 Grand Prix.

I haven’t even touched on wine or cocktails. Nor coffee, tea and chocolate, but unless you go to Starbucks, those beverages should pose fewer dilemmas. Too many choices! Needless to say, most people manage to order themselves a drink without the slightest problem. It’s only when I start overthinking it that I get confused. Proost!