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Mr Heineken dies

His family business created the most international beer

Freddy Heineken, under whose leadership the family brewery became internationally famous, died this week, at the age of 78, in The Netherlands. His death was announced on Friday, and I was asked by The Independent to write an obituary (below). A slightly shorter version of this article appears in The Independent, Saturday, 5 January, 2002.

The international spread of Budweiser beer, still made by the founding Busch family, is a phenomenon of the past decade. Until then, only two lager-brewers were recognised worldwide: Carlsberg and Heineken, both from port cities in small nations with commensurately tiny markets on the edge of northern Europe.

Among the world's biggest brewing companies, only Busch, arguably its currently expansive American rival Coors, and Heineken have been managed with the single-mindedness that derives from not only an owning family but also an individual.

Carlsberg, of Denmark, has long lost its founding family. Now, with the death of Freddy Heineken, at 78, the Dutch brewing company has lost its leader. Busch, Carlsberg and Heineken all trace their origins to the mid 1800s, and all are best known for golden lagers that are distant derivations of that first made by the Czechs in the city of Pilsen in 1842.

Between them, Carlsberg and Heineken created a mild version of Pilsner lager that is today's international, everyday, beer. Carlsberg made it consistent in character by isolating the right yeast strain, but Heineken's buccaneering salesmanship did even more to popularise the style.

In Denmark, the original Carlsberg brewery is on an island, but the Dutch are already up to their knees in water, born to travel, to be salesmen and entrepreneurs.

The American market has always eluded Carlsberg, but has been the beachhead of Heineken's success as the most international of beer brands. When the Americans were debating the end of Prohibition, a consignment of Heineken beer was already on the way. A Dutchman called Leo van Munching, who had been the bar manager on the Holland-America line was the first importer.

Heineken was brewed in Java when the German occupation of The Netherlands cut off supplies. After the war, shortages meant that exports could not be resumed for some years. The Heineken family, who had founded the company and run it for more than three quarters of a century, sold their controlling interest. That abdication was in the year that Freddy, still a teenager, joined the business. His spent his early days there carrying sacks of barley.

A dozen years later, still only 30, he bought back the family's stake, secretly, with borrowed money. Freddy Heineken drove the company's success from the post-war period. During this time, it acquired Amstel, and took stakes in about 100 other brewing companies around the world. While working with his importer in the U.S., he met and married an American, Lucille Cummins.

At a time when Americans drank Bud or Schlitz, ate TV dinners, watched "Father Knows Best" and drove Detroit gas-guzzlers, imported products were few, and a foreign beer like Heineken was conspicuous.

Its visibility was heightened by its use of a green bottle. It was not known then that green glass is far less effective than the more common brown in protecting the beer against deterioration, especially supermarket lighting. "Light struck" beer can smell cabbagey -- the Americans say "skunky". Cardboard six-pack holders offer some protection, and in recent years Heineken has experimented with an invisible plastic lining. No one would dare change the colour; it is a symbol of imported beer, and has been widely copied.

For years, the wisdom in the American brewing industry was that people drank Bud or Schlitz, and more recently Miller or Coors, during the week, and an import -- i.e. Heineken -- at weekends. The young man taking a girl on a date had to have a green bottle on the table. The word "import" on the neck label had a cachet. No other import challenged Heineken's sales until younger drinkers took up the sweeter, lighter, blander, Corona, from Mexico. By then the notion of quality was shifting toward micro-brews, often ales.

In Britain, with its ale tradition, there had also been lager brewing in Wales and Scotland from the late 1800s, but the English seemed to feel that the style was only valid if it was "Continental". English brewers started to brew Continental lagers under license. Whitbread, at the time also run by the founding family, did such a deal with Heineken.

The Whitbread company had been famous for Porter in the 1700s and Pale Ale in the 1800s, but in the second half of the last century gradually starved its own products of support in order to put ever more time, effort and money into Heineken -- a brand it could never own.

Against its better judgment, Heineken had been persuaded to have its beer brewed to a lower alcohol content in Britain. This further blandified the product. A series of ads claiming that Heineken "refreshes the parts that other beers can't reach" was built round a central truth. All that can be said for international-style lagers is that they are quenching. The candour of the ads probably appealed as much as their witty illustrations.

Meanwhile, Whitbread neglected its own traditional products to such a degree that it had to buy an ale brewery with a more current reputation, Boddington's, before itself being acquired by Interbrew, of Belgium.

Freddy Heineken had his own article of faith: that a proper lager cannot be made in fewer than 60 days, while most of its rivals worldwide would settle for 21 or even 14. He insisted that, in the American market, the beer remain a true import, and not be brewed under license. He was passionately proud of the Heineken yeast.

Today's wisdoms argue that managers are interchangeable from one industry to the next. In the brewing industry, their record is no less destructive than elsewhere. I meet brewery bosses -- far less sophisticated men -- who don't seem to drink beer. There are few beers labelled with the boss's name. Freddy Heineken drank such a beer, preferably in a studenty "brown cafe" called Hoppe, not far from the site of his forbears' "Haystack" brewery, in the heart of Amsterdam. A "pils" in the local: a typically democratic Dutch touch from the richest man in The Netherlands, a billionaire with a history

of fast cars, private planes and beautiful women.

Only last year did he finally retire from Heineken's holding company, in favour of his daughter Charlene, after suffering a stroke.

He was a brave man, as his kidnappers learned in 1983. Yesterday morning, I received an email regarding a beer event I am due to attend in Amsterdam next week. It said simply: "Our next pint with Freddy will be in Heaven." I could think of only one Freddy, and how much the industry will miss him.

Now Heineken will find itself surrounded by predators. In the past few months, Interbrew has secured control of Beck's and Bass, and Coors has acquired Carling.

Interchangeable managers make for interchangeable beers.


Published: JAN 4, 2002
In: Beer Hunter Online

- Editorial

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