It’s 5:00 PM in Amsterdam. The workday is done, dinnertime is not for a couple of hours, and you’re ready to crack open a pilsner. Like many other places in the world, this is a familiar late-afternoon ritual in the Netherlands: happy hour, or borreltijd in Dutch.
To understand the Dutch tradition of after-work drinking first requires a lesson in the Dutch language. Borreltijd loosely translates to “drink time.” The word borrel may refer to a small glass of a spirit, traditionally a Dutch gin-like spirit called genever, but more broadly describes a social gathering centered on having drinks and snacks in a non-restaurant setting. These snacks, primarily finger foods, are known as borrelhapjes. A borrel can occur anywhere, anytime. Borrelen, on the other hand, refers specifically to post-work, pre-dinner drinks.
In cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, you may hear yet another word used to describe post-work drinks: vrijdagmiddagborrel, or vrijmibo for short, which translates to “Friday afternoon drinking.” Dutch professionals originated vrijmibo as a way of socializing with colleagues at the end of the week. Often, these gatherings occur in-office. It’s a newer phrase, if a relatively timeless phenomenon, that’s also been co-opted by non-professionals who borrel on Friday afternoons. According to Benjamin Vanderveen, a Dutch student and server currently living in Amsterdam, the practice is still more popular among friends than colleagues.
Borreltijd is a happy time in the Netherlands. People gather in bars, living rooms, and, weather permitting, gardens across the country to drink, snack, and socialize. Biterballen, a type of meat-based croquette, is almost always present. Other popular borrelhapjes include kaasstengels (deep-fried cheese sticks), ossenworst (raw beef sausage), french fries, salted peanuts, bites of cheese with mustard, and borrelplank, which is a Dutch take on the charcuterie board. Beer is often the drink of choice though beverages, typically alcoholic, vary.
Borrelen is not synonymous with happy hour, however. Unlike happy hours elsewhere, which may be facilitated by bars to promote drink specials, borrelen is an entirely socio-cultural phenomenon, according to Vanderveen, and it’s a relatively universal one at that. This is his favorite thing about the tradition.
“There’s an element of intergenerational contact and cohesion happening because everybody is drinking at the same time,” he tells me via email, adding that it’s customary for groups to crowd around a bar rather than isolate themselves at a table when they borrel. Even still, the tables in Dutch bars are generally pushed close together, he notes.
Though many Dutch people partake in borrelen weekly, not all partakers borrelen the same. As a server in the Jordaan neighborhood in west Amsterdam, Vanderveen has come to learn that “borrelen has a very personal connotation that varies quite a bit.” For teenagers and young adults, late-afternoon beers may snowball into nights of heavy drinking. The older crowd generally breaks for dinner around 7:00 or 8:00 PM, after which they might head back out for evening drinks, which would no longer qualify as borrelen. It all depends on the individual and the day. “Everybody borrels differently, so to speak,” says Vanderveen.
For travelers, borrelen has the advantage of being a quintessentially Dutch experience that requires no invitation, no ticket, and very little planning. Wander into any bar in any Dutch city at that magic hour and you’re likely to see borrelen in action, particularly during summer. In heavily touristed cities like Amsterdam, post-work drinks also more accurately reflect the Dutch drinking culture than bar hopping at night, an activity that’s largely driven by non-locals.
If you do find yourself in Amsterdam one late afternoon, Vanderveen recommends heading outside of the city center to borrel. His picks are Pllek, de Verbroederij, and Noorderlicht in Amsterdam-Noord, in the north, or Café ‘t Smalle, Café de Prins, and P96 in Jordaan.
Wherever you end up, simply sidle up to the bar, order a pint of Hertog Jan and a plate of bitterballen, and settle in for a few rounds. The concept of post-work, pre-dinner drinks may not be unique to the Netherlands, but the Dutch borrelen is happy hour at its finest.