Sometime in the 1990’s when average Americans began experiencing a new prosperity an exigency to acquire foreign goods emerged as a way to proclaim status. It was like a new Imperialism, but instead of rare spices and furs, we wanted brands with difficult to pronounce names, and with this came Heineken, and with Heineken came carbonated cat piss.
If you’ve not had a Heineken before, perhaps you’ve had a house party. During the course of this house party people went outside with beers and either misplaced them in the dark, accidentally put a cigarette in them or decided against them. In any case, by Sunday evening they’ve been sitting in the sun for a full day and now you need to clean them up, more out of that sinking feeling that something went wrong and you need to tidy everything up than from any real personal connection to cleanliness. You grab a black garbage bag. It smells weird, yet it will provide the chemical smell necessary, when mixed with these sun-baked and cigarette-infused beers in your bag to exactly mimic the taste and aroma of a Heineken.
While Heineken’s smell could outstink a garbage skiff heading north over the equator from Haiti, what I really want to uncover here is how this international Jedi Mind-Trick was played on everyone.
McStagger on Beer Advocate expands on the appearance and flavor:
Appearance: Jaundiced yellow with two fingers slight off white head. Retention is moderate. Extreme clarity with ample carbonation. Moderate retention.
Smell : Slight skunk smell of cooked veggies. Malt sweetness is there. Euro lager smell (duh) but with a bit more going on. As it opens, the flaws become more apparent. Hop adjuncts, borderline corn sweetness.
And the consumption of Heineken in the 1990’s, this wasn’t the humiliatingly necessary national shift to small roller skate shaped shitbox cars of the 1970’s with names like: Toyota, Datsun, Daihatsu and Hyundai. We chose these cars because they were cheap to buy and cheap to run gasoline through; they filled a need. We chose Heineken because it was expensive (and for a time, it was expensive) and like many things that are expensive but hideous, the myth began to take shape, the unwashed desperately trying to enjoy something that they felt was above them.
The mythical reputation of Heineken is what’s really important here, and that it has continued, the same way that any embarrassment or shame will continue to be propped up rather than admitting that, once upon a time, we were very very wrong about something.
Heineken’s popularity is one of the greatest marketing accomplishments the world has ever seen, and I think there are a few reasons for it, namely lack of choice.
Remember in the 1990’s there were few beer choices available to express your sophistication and upward mobility.
Budweiser came in a short neck bottle that was so ugly, it was nearly wiped from history. Perform a Google image search for Budweiser Short Neck Bottle, or any variation thereof. You won’t be able to find it. This is probably because this particular beer was the drink of choice of rapists and murderers in pretty much every 80’s and 90’s movie as well as in real life. Marvel as this monstrosity:
Michelob also came in a similarly ugly bottle, and was aimed at an upmarket buyer with it’s foil label that reached all the way to the cap, which was also covered with a foil label that must be peeled off, though could be removed while twisting. This was the Ferrero Rocher of beers during the 1990’s. Soon though, consumers realized that it was made in Missouri and not some foreign country as the name suggested it and turned their back on it.
Henry Weinhard’s was more foreign branding, ala Haagen-Dazs (which was made in NYC, while Weinhard’s was made in Oregon originally) and a stab at a micro-brew type vibe, though it tasted pretty much like the rest of the swill on the market. You probably feel the tension building here, and so did the American beer consumer. I have a sense that Henry Weinhard’s was more expensive than the other beers, though i’ll have to check with my beer historian (my Uncle) on this.
Of course there were other shitty beers, that are still around today, but nothing so gut wrenching and peculiar-tasting enough as Heineken had appeared yet. There was still no definitive way to really prove your sophistication and refined beer tastes yet.
You could talk about once having a beer that most unwashed rednecks would find vile in Europe, but you couldn’t yet put on this display at your corner bar. The bird was on the wing.
Above we see an early Heineken print ad. Study the ad closely:
- Premium Quality
- “Give yourself a good name”
- Character that glows in the dark. Hey you know that sophistication you’ve been looking for? That je ne sais quois? Here it is.
- Neon 90’s green light that screams privilege and sophistication (no really, neon lights were a thing in the 90’s)
- Eastern Bloc communist typeface and red star that made the drinker think this beer had traveled great distances and at great expense from some chaotic yet proud hellhole to his hand in Marin City, California.
And strangely, sadly, this was enough. Like people pretended to like Quiche and any dish prepared with pine nuts or a tarragon sauce, they pretended to like Heineken. Kurt Vonnegut said, “We must be careful what we pretend to be, because we are what we pretend to be”.
My mother’s second husband worked at a winery in the Sonoma Valley area of Northern California during the 80’s and 90’s, and this put them in the position to be on the front lines of this fashionable disregard for ones own senses. My Mom tells a story sometimes about a fancy party to uncork a vintage bottle of wine. Everyone was there not necessarily because they were wine connoisseurs (even this term, likely popularized during this era, seemingly couldn’t have been expressed without the aid of a French noun) but more because they badly wanted to be wine connoisseurs.
So the bottle is uncorked and all of these pursed lipped, skinny necked, scarved, wannabe yuppies have their glass filled, smell and then take a sip and then practically begin having audible orgasms at the taste of this vintage bottle of wine. My Mother, who was likely a member of this group but had actually had a lot of wine due to my stepfather’s job, immediately knew that the wine was corked and tasted probably very much like acidic vinegar. She said this and the winemaker (who was hosting the party) rushed over to have a drink and told everyone to stop drinking the wine. Had my Mother or the winemaker (not sure where my Stepfather was in all this, though I can say he would also be able to tell bad wine) this group of Northern California yuppies probably would’ve been falling all over each other to get a second helping of this wine that probably literally scalded their throats with titratable acid.
Another time I was at a fancy oyster bar in Shenzhen, China which flew in oysters from around the world. It was inside an international hotel where the rooms were $400-500 per night. I didn’t realize that the Oysters would cost $6-8 each . I chatted with the Oyster Expert a bit who was garrulous educated overseas and very enthusiastic about oysters. Even though the prices were ridiculous (for reference, locally harvested oysters, which are delicious, cost about 35 cents each, raw or barbecued with garlic and peppers) after sitting down and talking with the oyster expert like I did, I felt déclassé popping up like a Jack In The Box after seeing this menu. So I ordered a few cheaper oysters and one expensive one from France. I wasn’t sure if i’d had oysters from France before. I really love oysters. Anyhow, the man cracks one open and serves it with all kinds of nice accouterments and even gives me a shot of Finnish vodka on the house to bring out the flavor, he said. I added some of the sauces and vegetable bits and bit into the oyster and it tasted like a sewer. Uh, this one is not good. Give me another one, I said. Embarrassed he gave me two more, for free he said, hushing me. Keep in mind eating bad oysters can at the least make you very sick and at the worst kill you. Bit into the next one. Also bad. The next one I just smelled, and it had a smell that would make a freight train conductor jump the tracks and take a dirt road.
While I was talking with the oyster expert some rich Chinese people had seen me there (it was fairly early in the evening and the oyster bar was empty) and began sitting down and ordering the most expensive oysters as well, the French ones. One weird cultural quirk in China is that if Chinese see a foreigner eating somewhere, they assume the place must be good or cool, and will also eat there. This information will come in handy soon. I used to eat at this empty filthy seafood barbecue place 4 times per week and when I arrived it was empty and when I left it was full.
So i’m at the Oyster bar and i’m sending back French oyster after French oyster and the oyster expert goes over to the Chinese customers who are eating and swallowing, visibly reluctantly, these rotten oysters. The oyster expert asks them “Are the oysters ok?”, in Chinese. They say “They’re good”. He asks if he can smell one, and after smelling it tells them he will give them some other oysters as these smell “not so good”.
Fact: Chinese are experts when it comes to food freshness, necessarily.
Fact: Chinese are experts on Seafood, ingesting creatures from the sea that no westerner would ever consider eating.
Fact: Heineken is a very popular beer in China, which has some very tasty, inexpensive and highly drinkable beers.
Fact: I witnessed Chinese eating rotten oysters, because the oysters were from France.
So we already know that Heineken conquered the hopeful yuppie market with their ipecac beer by appealing to a newly prosperous American need to conspicuously consume. How did they became the #1 import beer in China? Well have a look below:
The first ad says “Get Connected”, since the Chinese concept of ?? Guanxi is so important to life (Guanxi is connections, personal, business and otherwise– connections that are absolutely necessary to attaining any station whatsoever in China) this is a very direct appeal at that sensibility: drink Heineken, become successful.
The second ad says “A Great Serve”, a play on words in English but literal in Chinese, appealing to the upper crust (and largely unknown in China) sport of Tennis.
Finally the back of the bottle bears a label, and the two characters you see there say ??, literally: Happiness Power.
In short, Heineken is a vile, vile beer and those who drink it and pretend to enjoy it only enjoy it out of some pathetic need for refinement, but in fact is just about as ridiculous as this hideous bag, which enjoyed exponential (1000x) growth based upon a very similar principle, in my estimation, in the millennial years:
If you’re holding a Heineken, you may as well be holding one of these.