Brewing the perfect crime

We’re used to the craft beer community being one big happy family, where the worst you might expect is someone getting a bit snippy on Twitter. This wasn’t always the case though...


In these enlightened times, we’re used to the craft beer community being one big happy family (albeit with the occasional creepy uncle) where the worst you might expect is someone getting a bit snippy on Twitter. This wasn’t always the case though; look closely and you’ll find the history of our favourite tipple is littered with rogues, cads and nefarious dealings fit to chill even the most booze-saturated blood. Here are some of our favourites.

An heir-raising caper

Coors beer heir and Colorado royalty Adolph Coors III was only 45 when escaped murderer Joe Corbett Jr. attempted to kidnap him on February 9th, 1960. By all accounts a friendly, family man, this didn’t help him much when it came to Corbett’s choice of victim. He was looking for someone whose relatives would put up the money for an enormous ransom, and “Ad” fit the bill. Although Coors Brewing Company, of which Ad was CEO and Chairman of the Board, wasn’t yet the national concern that it would become in the 1980s, it was the heart of Golden, Colorado, to where Corbett had escaped from a Californian minimum security prison, having been jailed for shooting a hitchhiker in the back of the head in 1951.

Corbett spent 32 months planning the kidnapping - buying leg irons, handcuffs, guns, and even a typewriter for the ransom note. After months of stalking Coors, Corbett seized his chance one morning when a detour forced Coors to take a different route to the family brewery, over a narrow bridge crossing Turkey Creek. Corbett ambushed him at the chokepoint, presumably luring him out of his station wagon by feigning engine trouble. When a milkman discovered the empty estate car blocking the bridge later that morning, the local police confirmed it as belonging to Coors, who hadn’t been seen since he had left the family home at 7.55am. A dark, reddish-brown stain on the dirt and a hat and pair of eyeglasses in the creek below painted a bad picture, but the following day, a ransom letter demanding $500,000 brought hope for the safe return of the brewing magnate.

Eight days later, police in New Jersey discovered a burned-out, bright yellow car similar to one seen around Golden in the months before the kidnapping, and dirt on the underside traced it back to the site of the abduction. This was Corbett’s car, a discovery that prompted the FBI to start a massive manhunt, distributing 1.5 million wanted posters, the largest effort since the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

Tragically, after seven months of searching, the trail leading to Adolph Coors ended when a man shooting targets at a crude dump near Sedalia, Colorado, discovered clothing and an engraved pen-knife belonging to Coors, and a few days later, investigators found his skeletal remains in a nearby forest. A jacket and shirt had bullet holes showing he had been shot in the back, and an analysis of a shoulder bone confirmed this. Meanwhile, an international obsession with the case ensured that Corbett was recognized by two neighbours at a motor inn near Vancouver, British Columbia. On October 29, 1960, police knocked on the motel room door of the man suspected to be Corbett. The voice that answered said, “I give up. I’m the man you want.” Five months later, Joseph Corbett, Jr. was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

A short hop to redemption

You might think Foster’s tastes criminally bad, but Australia’s first hops were cultivated by ex-con James Squire at the start of the 19th century. Squire was convicted of stealing in 1785 and transported to Australia by the British Government in what’s known as the First Fleet, a group of eleven ships that left Portsmouth in 1787 to found the penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia. The first clue that Squire was trying to brew beer was uncovered when he grassed on 2 fellow convicts for stealing six cabbages. Subsequent to this, Squire was hauled before the magistrate and charged with stealing ‘medicines’ from the hospital stores where he worked, one of which was horehound, a herb that imitates the bitter tang of hops. Covering for the real reason he wanted such a herb, Squire claimed it was for his pregnant girlfriend. In fact, since his arrival to Australia, he had been brewing beer that he sold for four old pence a quart (just over a litre) to customers that included Lieutenant Francis Grose and William Paterson (both future Lieutenant-Governors of New South Wales).

When Squire’s seven-year transportation sentence expired between 1790 and 1792, he seized the opportunity he’d been given to make a new life for himself. Having been granted 30 acres of land upon his emancipation, he rounded up his fellow former criminals who had not claimed their own nearby land, marched them into the Colonial Secretary’s office to claim their land rights and then bought each property for one shilling. Enterprising as he was resourceful, by the middle of 1800 he owned ten sheep, 18 pigs, 35 goats, five acres of sown wheat and 45 acres ready for planting maize and barley.

More important than all that, however, was the brewery he had set up in 1798, Australia’s first to make beer using barley and hops (John Boston opened one two years before him but was only making corn beer). The hops were shipped over by the Brits, along with brewing equipment, because the Governor of New South Wales was under pressure to do something about the 1802 revelation that the British Army was trafficking rum. By endorsing the brewing of beer, the Governor provided Squire with a regular supply of bittering agents, which he eventually succeeded in cultivating in 1806 after three seasons of toil. According to the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Squire presented two bines of hops taken from his own grounds to the Governor, who was so impressed by their exquisite flavour, innumerable quantity and fine quality that he “directed a cow to be given to Mr Squire from the Government herd”.

Squire’s death in 1822 was marked with the biggest funeral the colony had ever seen. Squire’s Brewery continued to be operated by Squire’s son and then son-in-law until 1834, when it shut for good. In 1999, food and drink multi-corporation Lion Nathan renamed the previously-purchased Hahn Brewery as the Malt Shovel Brewery (after the tavern that Squire opened in 1798), releasing a line of James Squire beers in his honour.

Never look a gift church in the belfry

What does a Theakston’s beer have to do with adultery, fornication and incest? No, it’s not George R. R. Martin’s favourite pint, though the story does involve knights, specifically the Knights Templar, who paid the ransom of one Roger de Mowbray when he was held captive during the Crusades of the 12th century. De Mowbray was so pleased to be home that he gave the church of Masham, his estate, to the diocese of York. There were two problems with this: one, York’s church tax-collectors would now have to journey to Masham under danger of kidnapping and two, the Archbishop of York would have to preside over Masham’s ecclesiastical court every month, which dealt with a wide range of important misdemeanors such as wearing a hat during communion, “bidding the church wardens to do their worst on being asked to go to church” and “carrying a dead man’s skull out of the churchyard and laying it under the head of a person to charm them to sleep,” (apparently, a local custom).

To avoid taking on such a burden, the Archbishop granted the town of Masham, through its church, the right to govern itself, establishing the ‘Peculier Court of Masham’ – peculier meaning ‘special’ or ‘particular’, rather than ‘odd’, and now the name of Theakston’s best-known beer. The court was made up of 24 men (or in those days, Four and Twenty, another Theakston’s line) who presided over all matters mostly pertaining to the church and adherence to Christian rituals from the 12th to 19th centuries. Nowadays, the court still exists and has the right to make rulings, but mainly exists as a charitable organisation. To be fair, it probably peaked when one man from nearby Ellington was excommunicated for not providing bread and water for a village walk.

Mob ties

Something even worse befell Freddy Heineken, chairman of the board of directors and CEO of the brewing company Heineken International and one of the richest people in the Netherlands when, along with his driver Ab Doderer, he was kidnapped in Amsterdam on 9th November 1983. As they left Heineken’s office at Weteringplantsoen following a luncheon to thank local law enforcement officials for foiling an attempt to extort his brewery for millions, a group of three masked men wielding semi-automatics bundled Heineken and his driver into a minibus, and in a highly-organised operation planned over two years, took them at speed down a cycle path to a pre-prepared safe house in the city’s port area. For three-weeks, there was a stand-off between the police and kidnappers during which rolling news covered the country’s own true crime drama to rival the tale of the Great Train Robbers in the UK. All five of the kidnapping gang were eventually caught and jailed - because of a Chinese takeaway.

The ringleader of the gang was Cor van Hout, who – with his former classmate and now brother-in-law Willem Holleeder – worked as a heavy for landlords who needed muscle to evict squatters. Along with their accomplices Jan Boellaard, Frans Meijer and Martin Erkamps, van Hout and Holleeder had prepared two soundproofed cells accessed via a hidden door in a walled-off section of a galvanized steel hangar, used by a wood-manufacturing company in the harbour area of Westpoort known for its auto-wrecking and carpentry shops. It was still in use by joinery workers during the time of the hostage situation, and although the works made the 42-meter long steel hut four metres shorter on the inside, no one noticed. Outside working hours, the kidnappers would provide for their prisoners, who were tethered to the wall with chains, feeding them four slices of bread and a cup of coffee in the morning and a local takeaway in the evening.

The group demanded a ransom worth 35 million Dutch guilders (today, about 30 million Euros or 26.5 million GBP) in four different currencies. But a key breakthrough came before it was paid when the police received an anonymous tip off on 16 November that they should pay attention to people running the auto-wrecking and carpentry businesses of Amsterdam. It wasn’t specific, but the tip was enough for police to watch the right area of town. From there, surveilling cops saw someone order two meals from a local restaurant and then take them to a warehouse - a pretty fishy activity that pointed to the presence of people at night where there shouldn’t be. There was no immediate reason to fear for the safety of the hostages, but when the ransom was finally paid in the early hours of 29th November and they weren’t released, the cops went in. “I could’ve hugged the rescue team,” Heineken said later.

The kidnappers initially escaped with and managed to hide the ransom, after an absolute fubar with an ultraviolet night camera on a helicopter meant that the Netherlands police lost track of the gang. (Incidentally, it was rented out by the British police for what amounts to 45 thousand euros today.) “The gyroscope attaching the camera to the helicopter came loose and was no longer controllable, leaving the camera pointing fixedly at the night sky. “You can hear the helicopter crew swearing at the camera on the audio recordings,” revealed former Justice Minister Frits Krothals Altes.

The police set about tracking down the men who were named on the lease of the building - our friendly neighbourhood kidnapper-men - arresting Jan Boellaard and Martin Erkamps almost immediately. Meijer handed himself in after hiding out in Amsterdam for a few weeks, but in a cinematic twist, escaped after being placed in a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Nine years later he was found by crime reporter Peter R. de Vries hiding out in Paraguay. Eventually, he was extradited to the Netherlands to serve a twelve year prison term. Meanwhile, Willem Holleeder and Cor van Hout fled to Paris straight after receiving the ransom money. They stayed in an apartment until French police caught up with them almost four months later on February 29, 1984. Following two years under house arrest in hotels in Paris, they were also extradited to the Netherlands and given eleven years in prison.

Of the 35 million guilders ransom, 8 million has never been found. Some say it explains the opulence of van Hout’s funeral cortege, who in 2003 was assassinated and received a send-off fit for a Mafia king. Willem Holleeder is presently on trial for his old friend’s murder. Freddy Heineken, who died at the age of 78 in 2002, was portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins in the 2015 film Kidnapping Mr Heineken. Perhaps Heineken/Hopkins was right when he told the kidnappers, “There are two ways a man can be rich in this world, he can have a lot of money, or he can have a lot of friends. But he cannot have both.”

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