Interview with Emil Underberg, producer of the legendary herbal digestive.
Emil Underberg prepared himself well for the journey into the past. The day before, he asked his former secretary, a woman who retired years ago, to come back to the office one more time and ferret out some documents from the 1960s. From the time when the family-run business delivered the first bottles of its herbal digestive to the newly opened wholesale company METRO Cash & Carry. "We were there almost from the very beginning," Underberg remembers. He speaks while sitting in the library of the historic company headquarters in Rheinberg, a peaceful town located in northwestern Germany. A small green folder is lying on the table in front of him. "50 Years of METRO" is written on the cover. The man of the house sips on a glass of mineral water, opens the folder – and heads back in time.
Emil Underberg recalls a partnership from the very beginning. He represents the fourth generation to lead his family’s company.
Underberg leafs through his documents. He kept very exact records. In 1967, his company generated sales of DM 1.2 million with METRO. The next year, sales nearly doubled. By 1971, the company's sales had risen to DM 8.6 million. The company's business with METRO "exploded," Underberg says. The sales figures at the family-run business in the Lower Rhine region grew in lockstep with the new company's expansion of its store network in Germany and its step-by-step entry into international markets. "METRO opened the doors to new markets for us," the company's leader says. Today, the digestive known as Rheinberger Kräuter that the Underberg family makes according to a closely guarded secret recipe of choice and aromatic herbs from 43 countries is sold in more than 100 countries. And thanks to acquisitions and partnerships, the former one-product company has become one of Germany's largest makers of spirits. The products range from the whisky liqueur drambuie to the sugarcane schnapps Pitú and the brandy Asbach Uralt. Many of these beverages are also on the shelves of METRO stores. "The head of procurement Karl-Heinz Dittmann was always open to innovations," Underberg recalls. Underberg says that every time he came up with a new product, the METRO buyer said: "Let's give it a try. We'll put on the shelves." He adds that they never talked about the terms of the business arrangement until the innovation had proved itself.
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Of course, METRO employees wanted to get to know the spirits that were stocking their shelves and asked about the having a "free degustation", according to the documents contained in his green folder. "We always had our tastings in the next room – and we still do," he says. He then whips out the key to the room and opens the door. But this is hardly the setting for a big bash. It looks more suitable for lab work. A round table is standing in the middle of the room. It is set for eight people. But not with plates, knives and forks. Rather with more than a half-dozen schnapps glasses at each place. The glasses are filled half way with a dark liquid. Several water glasses have been set up next to them. A questionnaire has also been placed at each setting. Testers can use it to describe how the beverages tasted to them. Underberg presses a button, and partitions arise from the tabletop – now, no one can see what the person sitting next to him or her has written on the form. After Underberg has quietly lowered the shutters, the room grows dark, and the senses have nothing to divert them. Full attention can be directed to the beverages about to be tasted.
Underberg quickly puts everything back into place and closes the door to the tasting room. He does not want to divulge too much about the practices of a company that has been in business since 1846. But he willingly lets his guest leaf through correspondence conducted between his company and METRO. One thing becomes clear in the process: Dittmann may have indeed been a "one tough customer" during negotiations. But Emil Underberg was also pretty sly himself: "In the early years, I was promised that no other maker of herbal digestives would be sold by METRO," he says – with a smile.
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