Daring to Make the Leap: Switzerland Jumps into the Global Beer Revolution

Beer Without Borders by | Aug 2018 | Issue #132
photo by Jochen Gsell

When Christian Langenegger and Mike Jones opened The International, a pint-sized beer-centric bar in Zurich, they received a letter from one of the two corporate breweries that dominate Switzerland offering them start-up money.

“It was essentially a blank check,” says Langenegger. “The big breweries are like banks. They’ll give you $300,000 to fix up a bar, but you agree to sell only Heineken and their products. You’re stuck in a 10- or 20-year contract.”

This isn’t a surprising comparison for a country with a buttoned up, bankers’ reputation. But watch the Swiss hurtle down a steep piste or climb a precarious Alpine peak and the country’s adventurous, independent spirit is clear. It’s this more daring and bold side that’s slowly shaking up the Swiss beer scene.

The two friends passed on the corporate offer, opened a 35-seat bar in 2014, and amassed a cellar with almost 10,000 bottles of beers from all over Europe. Today, they are part of a growing number of beer aficionados who are diversifying what’s on the market.

For generations, the Swiss drank mostly light, inoffensive lagers, passing on the dry, roasty Stouts from Ireland, the cloudy, phenolic Weizen of Germany and the fruity, strong Dubbels and Tripels from Belgium. Instead, drinkers gravitated to wine and brandy. The lack of variety on tap was largely due to the country’s brewing history.

Monks in northern Switzerland established one of Europe’s first known breweries at St. Gallen as early as the 8th century. They shared techniques and best practices, but eventually Swiss brewers became nervous about competition from their neighbors. To protect themselves, they founded what would become the Swiss Brewery Association. After the chaos of World War I and the Great Depression, the brewers tightened control further and established a beer cartel that, under the guise of a customer protection plan, controlled distribution channels and set beer prices for shops and restaurants.

In the 20th century, breweries grew complacent, failed to innovate, and variety declined; most domestic beers were variations on German-style lager. By the early 1990s when the cartel collapsed, foreign beer companies had snapped up many of the remaining Swiss breweries and today international companies like Heineken and Carlsberg claim more than 70 percent of the country’s beer market.

“The cartel falling apart and the explosion of craft beers in the States helped push the Swiss beer scene,” says Langenegger, who credits Swiss who traveled to the US and expats from Canada and the UK with exposing the country to a broader variety of styles and traditions.

The Zurich Bier Festival

The relative ease and fairly modest investment required to start a microbrewery created a boom. Currently, there are more than 700 breweries in Switzerland—more per capita than any other European nation and an extremely sharp increase from approximately 80 breweries in 2000.

Despite the boom in breweries, however, variety remains limited. Most producers are small, hobby brewers, while corporate breweries have kept a stronghold on the market through long-term contracts at restaurants and pubs. In response, festivals have become a popular way to introduce drinkers to more styles of beer.

When Markus Forster began the Zurich Bier Festival in 2015, he decided to approach it like a wine tasting. The first festival featured more than 150 beers, and the more than 2,000 attendees were limited to 1 deciliter (about 3 ounces) per pour to encourage them to sample from a greater variety of breweries.

“Usually a beer fest here is like Oktoberfest,” says Forster. “There’s not much diversity. It’s about filling the cup and how much you can drink. This is about tasting. It’s not up to me to judge if someone likes a beer or not. I just want to give people the opportunity to taste a lot of different beers. If you like the industrial lagers, that’s fine.”

Both Forster and Langenegger are quick to point out that, despite the proliferation of breweries, the gap between brewing a beer and brewing an outstanding beer is huge. Langenegger cites 523, Brasserie Trois Dames and BFM (Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes) as a few of the breweries consistently making excellent beers. And both point to newcomer WhiteFrontier as one to watch. They also suggest that a combination of quality control and consolidation is likely to slow growth nationwide.

Those that remain will either produce good traditional beer, or will be willing to get experimental, predicts Langenegger. He mentions one brewer who played with Shabziger, a pungent cow-milk cheese made with the herb blue fenugreek, in his beer. The resulting ale was golden in color, but had a “fantastic” roasted walnut taste. Meanwhile, in Bern, 523 brewed a wild ale called Project G with yeast collected from a nearby mountain, and in Sainte-Croix, Brasserie Trois Dames has released several beers made with Swiss wine grapes such as Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.

Like the Swiss themselves, the beer scene in this mountainous country appears to be heading toward an interesting blend of classic and daring. “The majority of the brewers will still brew the standard lager and dark lager,” says Langenegger. “The others are completely crazy.”