Recently I walked into a supermarket I had not been to for a while to see if there were new beers. Hurray for me! I took home bottles from Hawaiian brewery Kona, Guinness and Monteith from New Zealand. The Kona beer was fine, the Monteith not so much. It made me wonder why bottles from the other side of the world were shipped to supermarkets in Northwestern Europe where there is plenty of good beer to begin with. Then a little bird whispered to me… Heineken. Indeed, this brewery is owned by Heineken and as part of their Beers-of-the-world portfolio they pump even more of their stuff into our supermarkets. Unfortunately for the beer lover these beers are often bad, malty beers that bring absolutely nothing new. I cannot imagine anyone preferring beers like Monteith or Cruz Campo over any of the other beers for sale. Even Heineken itself is better I think.
It made me wonder why this space cannot be used for Dutch breweries, or least quality breweries. Surely if they can sell their beer here this will only be better for local business.
I am not advocating Dutch beer only. Recently the supermarket in my little village got bottles from breweries like Meantime and Goose Island. You cannot say that this is bad beer, and I for one was happy with the new offerings. Diversification is good for beer, more malty water isn’t.
I know that shipping containers from Australia and New Zealand is relatively cheap and not as much as burden on the environment as a plane, but I cannot imagine it being great either.
Heineken has breweries all over the world, driving out competitors and in some cases monopolizing local beer markets. In some cases like Congo even using rebels and armed militia to get things done (Dutch only). And let’s not forget their long history of racism and misogyny.
But let’s stick to what Heineken has done in the last 100 years to make work difficult for smaller brewers.
Heineken’s growth is the small brewer’s demise
Heineken started in downtown Amsterdam as De Hooiberg (the Haystack) but changed the name to Heineken and opened a brewery just outside the canals in the building that today is the Heineken Experience. The early history of Heineken is quite fascinating and is worth checking out.
With some good brewing knowledge and savvy business sense they expanded. Rapidly. To fortify its position in the Netherlands it opened new breweries and started buying other breweries. Not to expand their beer portfolio but simply to close the competition: if you can’t beat them: buy them and close them. Gone were famed breweries De Gekroonde Valk in Amsterdam or De Zwarte Ruiter in Maastricht. This led to (almost?) no stouts being made in this country anymore. No more special beer styles but only lager, only Heineken.
They became a worldwide monstrosity when Heineken made a really big splash when just three days after the end of Prohibition they landed on the shores of the US with Heineken beer; one of the most impressive stories in beer history. After the war most breweries were closed in the Netherlands, but Heineken kept growing and merging (with Amstel and Brand to name just two) to become a giant.
Since the 60s they started to behave like banks. People wanting to open café’s often could not get a loan from a bank. Heineken provided this and often paid for the beertank in the basement. But, as you can imagine they weren’t too happy with beers outside of the Heineken family being sold here and they demanded a minimum of liters to be tapped of their beer. It was hard for a brewery outside of Heineken to get a tap. So there wasn’t much room, not many places to sell.
The contracts themselves… well, you could complain about it. They were hard to get rid of mostly and the bar was stuck to it for a very long time. In fact, the big Dutch brewers were deemed a cartel by the European Committee and were slapped with a E 274 million fine. Things are better these days and it is getting a lot easier to get local or unknown beer in a bar now, but the big breweries still block many smaller ones from entering the market. Sure, this is normal business and not something that happens in beer alone, but it makes for fewer choices for the consumer, and isn’t that really what we deserve?
Does Heineken still buy smaller breweries to then close them? So far that hasn’t happened here yet. Only now have there been some small collaborations between big breweries and smaller, craft if you will, breweries. Duvel Moortgat and ‘t IJ and De Molen and Bavaria are two examples. The only ones so far but more is bound to happen in the coming years. Let’s just hope Heineken won’t resort to tactics from its history to obstruct the increasingly more knowledgeable beer drinker from what is good in the world. And supermarkets, give the small guys a shot. Heineken’s ads for James Bond probably cost more than the entire Dutch craft beer brewers earn. Let’s leave the bottles of mediocre beer in New Zealand and let that nice guy in Haarlem or Utrecht drive his van a few kilometers to your store.