Born in Amsterdam Three – Murder of the Falcon

 Once upon a time….there was a blooming beer brewery, Thew Crowned Falcon, employing hundreds of employees at the Hoogte Kadijk in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  It started in the early part of the 18th century. As described in “Geloof in de Brouwerij” by Rolf van der Woude (“Faith in the Brewery”, 2009, an excellent book on which much of this material is based, but unfortunately only available in Dutch),  Jan Messchert van Vollenhoven, a businessman from Rotterdam origin and a known literary personality and poet, bought the small brewery in 1791. Together with his wife, the wealthy Elisabeth van der Poorten from Amsterdam, they were eminent ancestors in my family. The brewery became “Van Vollenhoven’s Beer”, and The Crowned Falcon became its trademark.


Though brewing beer proved a tough business with small margins, The Crowned Falcon survived competition and heavy taxation.  In the second half of the 19th century, following consolidation in the industry and more favorable tax liabilities,Van Vollenhoven’s Beer turned more profitable.

Brewery 18th CenturyThis etch of Van Vollenhoven’s Beer in the 19th century hangs in my dining room.

Jan Messchert and Elisabeth had six children. One of those children, Antoni, had a  daughter, also called Elisabeth,who married Hendrik Hovy. Their son, Willem Hovy, starting as an apprentice in the family brewery at the age of 18, became one of the prominent directors of The Crowned Falcon in the 19th century, establishing social benefits, including pension, and fixed wages for the brewery’s employees, which was rather innovative for that period. A man of strong Christian conviction, he ran the brewery in an atmosphere of  managers and employees forming one family working for its common good.

Another daughter of Antoni, Cornelia, married Carl A.F. Schwartz, a prominent reverend of the Free Scottish Church in Amsterdam and the great grandfather of the Schwartz family. One of their sons, John Schwartz (my grand father), became co-director with Willem Hovy, thus keeping management fully in family hands. His other son, Joshua van der Poorten Schwartz, became a member of the board, but left this position to devote himself to writing (under the pseudonym of “Maarten Maartens”, 1858-1915, authoring some 30 books in English – see my blog “A Prolific Ancestor”), successfully applying the talents he had inherited from his great-grandfather Jan Messchert.

The Crowned Falcon started the production of Van Vollenhoven’s Stout, a dark beer that was promoted, among others in France (“Bière brune du Faucon”), as a  “healthy, highly nutritious beer  with curative elements, recommended by doctors”. In French hospitals, it was admitted “by decision of The Public Assistance” (“Consult your doctor”!). An article about the famous stout was published in “Moniteur Illustré”, issued at the World Exposition in Paris in 1889, for which the Eiffel Tower was built. As you can imagine, sales shot up. Think of seeing an ad like this on today’s TV!

The popular stout was made in accordance with a special recipe only the Falcon brewers knew of.

 In 1891, to attract capital for renovation, modernization and expansion, The Crowned Falcon became a public company, a decision that turned out a fatal mistake, as the brewery exposed itself to growing robber-competitors such as neighboring Heineken and Amstel, who were out to take over or destroy competition in the industry, as they wanted to be the only chiefs in town.   But in the latter part of the 19th century, The Crowned Falcon was the largest beer brewery in The Netherlands.

Tile view of VVB

Composition of Tiles of Van Vollenhoven’s Beer by Distel Cy., Dutch Tile Museum, The Netherlands.

 As a result of World War I (1914-18),  and the great depression of the 1930s, The Crowned Falcon – and many other family breweries in Holland – began to face economic hardship because of sluggish demand. In 1908, some 380 breweries populated The Netherlands and by 1930 this number was reduced to 63, employing on average about 85 workers (source: “Faith in the Brewery”, 2009). Consolidation of breweries became unavoidable due to falling market shares and bankruptcies. In one bankruptcy of a small brewery, Heineken and The Crowned Falcon shared the booty, but that’s the only time they worked together.

Modernization followed, but operating costs, including wages, continued to soar and forced The Crowned Falcon to greater expenses.

Production stagnated and competition from Amstel, which produced a cheaper Stout, reduced the Falcon’s  market share. Marketing too many labels proved also uneconomic. During the 1930s, Heineken and Amstel grew rapidly, among others by producing “cheaper” beer (that is, of lesser quality by shortening the period of fermentation that determines the beer’s good taste, in order to get quicker turn around in sales), leaving The Crowned Falcon behind. It struggled to regain its leading position, especially maintaining its lead in the export market to South-Asia,  the Far-East and the Middle-East that Director Ferdinand Schwartz (my father) had developed. Many movies and pictures evidence this achievement.

Directors Van Reede and Ferdinand Schwartz seated from left. Mr. Körner, Technical Director, seated far right.

An effort to seek collaboration with Heineken failed. The Falcon was forced to obtain loans from Amsterdam Bank, which demanded a seat at the brewery’s board. This  brought in The Troyan Horse. Heineken, Amstel and The Falcon started discussions over a possible take-over, with Amsterdam Bank luring eagerly in the back. Heineken was particularly interested in The Falcon’s export market. Sneakingly, Heineken set up director Van Reede, recruited earlier from another brewery, against Ferdinand Schwartz, the last Van Vollenhoven’s family member,  by offering Van Reede a position at Heineken’s if The Falcon would  go under in its financial quagmire. Heineken clearly wanted the last Mohican of the Van Vollenhoven/Hovy/Schwartz family “out”.

Bottling and Labeling

World War II (1940-45) became the final blow. Though the brewery was allowed to continue after Nazi invasion (Hitler would have said that “beer must stay”), its revenues did not match costs, while it carried a substantial loan liability with Amsterdam Bank. Through stock manipulations, the origin of which was never uncovered, Heineken and Amstel strengthened their grip on The Crowned Falcon through the appointment of board members sympathetic to their views. Differences over national industry production agreements in Holland soured the relations further. Quarrels in the board between Heineken appointed members and The Falcon’s Executive Officers (Ferdinand Schwartz and Van Reede) about the brewery’s management were at the order of the day.

Shipping for local delivery and export

 The Crowned Falcon began to operate notably better after the war during 1945-46, among others by increased export deals secured by Ferdinand Schwartz, but Heineken remained utter negative about the brewery’s future. Then fate struck. Ferdinand died in a car accident in January 1946, when a truck hit him while biking to the brewery, as he had done many years due to the lack of transport during the war. Van Reede died mysteriously a year later.  Were these murders or was it just coincidence?

Mr. Körner, son of The Falcon’s master brewer, replaced Ferdinand Schwartz, but despite his heroic efforts to keep the brewery going, he was stabbed in the back by Heineken and Amstel, with help from Amsterdam Bank.  The trio grabbed their chance, took over, and finally closed the brewery in 1949, rendering some 400 employees unemployed and cutting three Schwartz kids (14, 12 and 10) loose from a long-held family tradition. The matter was raised in parliament but to no avail. The kids wouldn’t touch Heineken beer with a long pole. I drink Samuel Adams in the USA, which I think is closest to the unmatched Falcon taste.

A grandson of Willem Hovy had The Falcon lifted from its column at the entrance of the brewery and took it as a souvenir to Johannesburg in South Africa, where he moved, leaving a naked column standing at the Hoogte Kadijk. End of story for the glorious Falcon, once renowned over the world. Amsterdam Municipality was planning to remove the column in a reconstruction of the brewery’s neighborhood.


 But some inventive people living on Hoogte Kadijk remembered.

Next issue: The Return of the Falcon.




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