Freddy Heineken

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The Independent Online

Alfred Henry Heineken, brewer: born Amsterdam 4 November 1923; president, Heineken 1971-89; married 1948 Lucille Cummins (one daughter); died Noordwjk, The Netherlands 3 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 world-wide: Carlsberg and Heineken, both from port cities in small nations with commensurately tiny markets on the edge of northern Europe. Carlsberg, of Denmark, has long lost its founding family. Now, with the death of Freddy Heineken, 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.

The American market has always eluded Carlsberg, but, when the Americans were debating the end of Prohibition, a consignment of Heineken beer was already on the way. Heineken was brewed in Java when the German occupation of The Netherlands cut off supplies. After the Second World 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 stake, secretly, with borrowed money. Freddy Heineken drove the company's success from the post-war period.

In Britain, lager had been brewed in Wales and Scotland from the late 1800s, but the English seemed to feel that it should be "Continental". English brewers started to brew Continental lagers under licence, and Whitbread did such a deal with Heineken. Against its better judgement, Heineken was persuaded to have its beer brewed to a lower alcohol content in Britain. This further blandified the beer. 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.

Heineken's visibility in the United States 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. But no one would dare change the colour; it is a symbol of imported beer, and has been widely copied.

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 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 licence. He was passionately proud of the Heineken yeast.

He was a brave man, as his kidnappers learned in 1983 (he was released after three weeks). He announced his retirement from the chairmanship of Heineken's holding company only in November.

By Michael Jackson