He conceived the idea for the most famous bitter liqueur in the world in the port of Antwerp
HUBERT UNDERBERG (1817-1891)
Underberg, the brown 20-milliliter bottle with bitter liqueur, was born 150 years ago in Rheinberg, a town on the Lower Rhine, just north of Duisburg. The man who invented it wanted to create a unique drink that also looked unique.
Its composition was and is kept more strictly secret than that of CocaCola and Heinz ketchup. Enthusiasts all over the world together drink a million bottles of it every day.
The firm's founder, Hubert Underberg, was 9 when his father died in 1826. His mother ran a colonial goods store and a small vinegar factory. She had big plans for her son and sent him to Liège when he was twelve to learn French.
He spent his apprenticeship in firms and banks in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and especially Antwerp. In the latter city he discovered the custom of softening the taste of jenever with a dash of herbal extract.
The taste differed from cafe to cafe, according to the composition of the spices and the amount added. The young Hubert conceived the idea of composing a herbal drink that always had the same taste.
Because he later bought herbs from 43 countries, it is suspected that he learned part of his herbal knowledge from sailors in the port of Antwerp.
On his wedding day on June 17, 1846 – he was then 29 – Hubert also founded his firm in Rheinberg.
Everything shows that from the very first moment he wanted to bring a product to the market that stood out: through the 43 herbs, by infusing them in heated liquid, by the high-quality alcohol (44 degrees), by the shape of the bottle, the packaging (yellow straw paper), his signature, and so on.
Only one element was not so unique, namely the label itself.
He simply took over from an existing Antwerp distillery, called Boonekamp, including the Dutch text. He would regret that later. Underberg saw it big. He advertised in newspapers all over Europe, which was not very obvious in 1846.
And in no time was purveyor to the Prussian king, the Russian tsar and the Japanese emperor. He presented his drink at all fairs and world exhibitions and won awards at a rapid pace. Especially the medicinal qualities were praised.
Ten years after its foundation, Hubert was able to display 14,974 letters that underlined how special his product was. In 1854, according to customs, he paid tolls on land shipments weighing 460,000 pounds. So the orders via the Rhine are not included.
Hubert knew business. For decades, all travelers who arrived in Rheinberg by stagecoach were served a free 'boone camp' on the spot.
Due to its success, his drink was widely imitated. He had to fight continuously against counterfeits. To this day, the trial records are kept in Rheinberg: seven thick books, gold on the edges. In the meantime, new material is available for two more parts.
It was not until around 1870 that legislation in Germany provided means to protect not only a company name but also a brand name. But by that time 'het boonekamp' had already become a generic name, precisely because of its success. Protection was not possible.
Certainly not after Underberg's competitors discovered that the name had been brutally stolen from an Antwerp company. Gradually the word Boonekamp disappeared on the bottles and was replaced by Underberg.
All these years, Hubert Underberg and his wife kept the secret of the composition to themselves. When Hubert's wife died in 1882, he ordained his only son, Hubert ii. Hubert ii (1861-1935) had twelve children of whom Emil i (1904-1958) became the successor.
It was Emil I - a man with a dwarf stature of 1.43 meters - who came up with the genius idea after the Second World War to distribute the drink only in sample bottles.
Incidentally, to the great dismay of cafe owners and restaurant owners. Alcohol was still rationed in those days, you had to come up with something about that. Incidentally, the quality of the bottles could be guaranteed right up to the consumer.
Previously, the company had employed an army of tasters to check that the drink had not been tampered with in cafes and restaurants.
Precisely because of the small packaging, the stomach bitter was spread in wider layers of the population. In the 1950s, the same Emil I had coupons distributed in six million households for which you got a free bottle in the store.
The fact that the test bottle was identical to the real one turned out to be an additional selling point. "Due to the bingeing and drinking that arose after the economic recovery in the 1950s, the Germans placed such high demands on their stomachs that the Underberg bottles often had to come to the rescue," said a German journalist.
Between 1958 and 1983 Emil's wife took the helm. Today Emil ii (o1941), the fourth generation, is in power. Emil ii developed the family business into an international concern with a turnover of 500 million euros, of which the herbal drink only makes up 20%.
Underberg today has 1800 employees, 450 of whom work in Germany.
The extreme secrecy of the recipe, which founder Hubert Underberg decreed 150 years ago, is still respected today.
The advertising campaigns only mention 'natural herbs, natural vitamins, natural sugar, high-quality alcohol (44 degrees) and spring water.' Now not only Emil II, his wife and his eldest daughter know the secret, but also four Catholic priests.
“They are our company insurance policy,” says Emil. "Should disaster strike our family, the priests will give up the secret to Emil II, the current Underberg chief." The prescription can only be transferred orally.
So it only exists in the minds of those involved and has never been put on paper. The transfer may also only take place in the herb room, where only the initiates have access. And only in that spice room can the spice mixture be put together.
Of course, the usual weights do not apply there, but the Old German weights of founder Hubert I, which are kept under lock and key.