Trying to keep it as short as possible…History
How and when exactly beer came about in Switzerland is not known precisely.
There are assumptions about the Helvetii, celtic tribes living in what now is Switzerland, producing beer, as other Celts have, but no firm evidence. The area was subsequently romanised, and then invaded by Germanic tribes, but again, no firm evidence here.
The infamous 9th-Century plans for St Gall Abbey showing three breweries again do not constitute solid evidence, since they were plans for ideal buildings that would not have fitted the abbey grounds.
Yet there are records about one Century later, of beer being delivered to St Gall Abbey by the local population as a tribute. The same records show beer disappearing gradually from the deliveries in favour of wine by the end of the 13th Century or so.
Switzerland remained a wine country for quite some time, although, during the 17th and 18th Century, with beer becoming a business, not just a household chore, some « seepage » over the Rhine (and the border to Germany) seems to have taken place, and beer production to noticeable scale started again in Switzerland.
The real kick-start to a Swiss beer industry happened from 1860 to 1880, with phylloxera literally wiping out wine production, creating a demand for safe drinks, which was met by creating dozens of local breweries and drafting in specialised workforce from nearby German territories, especially Baden, Würtemberg and Bavaria. As a result, Swiss pale lager usually owes more to Helles than to Pilsner. Most remaining Swiss breweries were created during this era.
Following WWI and in the face of the 1929 krach, Swiss breweries got together into the Swiss Brewers’ Association, and set up a series of agreement which culminated in 1936 with the Swiss Brewers Convention, which did create a beer cartel to ward off foreign competition.
The beer cartel entailed, among other things, the following :
- Every brewer had exclusive rights to the distribution and sales of beer in one given area (i.e. consumers could only get beer from one brewery where they lived).
- It was forbidden to any other brewer to sell beer in one competitor’s exclusive distribution area.
- Four types of beer were allowed: Lager Hell (pale lager, ca. 4.8% ABV), Lager Spezial (special lager, ca. 5.2% ABV), Lager Dunkel (dark lager, ca. 4,8% ABV) and Starkes Lager (strong lager, ca. 5.6%)
- Compulsory bottle sizes were set at 29 and 58 cl, purposedly matching no foreign country’s measures. In the beginning brewers even had to use etched bottles from the cartel’s own pool.
- Foreign beers could only be imported through a Swiss brewer.
This of course killed off competition, giving no incentive to quality, yet fostered concentration, since the only way to grow was to buy a competitor, close it down and take over its exclusive distribution area.
Two breweries famous for being started as acts of resistance to the beer cartel were Boxer in Romanel, near Lausanne, in 1960 and Fischerstube / Ueli Bier – arguably Europe’s first modern brewpub - in Basle in 1972.
When the ailing cartel, whose rules had already been relaxed, finally broke up in 1991, two groups faced one another: Feldschlösschen and SIBRA Holding, the latter being bought by the former before the official end of the cartel on 31 December 1991. Further concentration ensued, as most breweries were unable to compete.
But the liberalisations of the market opened new perspectives as microbreweries started sprouting up
here and there, many disappearing quickly, but some remaining, such as Brasserie des Franches- Montagnes, which started in 1997. And imported beer, at first Belgian and German, and then British and North American also changed the face of the market and consumers perceptions from the midseventies on.
The Swiss market currently consists is held by two multinational groups, plus about 25 regionals and possibly up to two hundred microbreweries.
Carlsberg Switzerland produces about 45% of the overall Swiss beer production, with the following brands: Cardinal, Feldschlösschen, Gurten, Hürlimann, Warteck, Valaisanne, and, of course, Carlsberg, as well as the Kronenbourg brand portfolio, and the likes of Leffe. By mid-2011, the Cardinal Plant in Fribourg will be closed down, and all production - bar a few local specialities brewed at Valaisanne in Sion – concentrated in Rheinfelden. Most of their beers are a bit lacklustre, the usual lifesaver if stuck in a Carlsberg-tied bar being to enquire if they’ve got any Schneider Weisse.
Heineken Switzerland now accounts for about 25% of the Swiss beer production with the following brands: Calanda, Eichhof, Haldengut, and of course Amstel and Heineken. Again, most of the beer is not necessarily very inspiring although the Helvetia / Prix Garantie own-brand they brew for Coop supermarkets is surprisingly good for something that costs one quarter of the price of “green” Heineken. Another plus is the fact that in many areas, Heineken distributes local breweries’ beers. For example, in and around Berne (hint: this includes Bienne), Heineken tied bars very often have a few beers from local family brewers Felsenau.
Those two groups account for close to 70% of the beer produced in Switzerland, but they above all account for 90% or so of the tied outlets, effectively making it very hard for microbreweries to find outlets, especially for draught beer.
The 25 or so remaining regionals are all, bar Boxer, in German-speaking Switzerland. They usually deliver in a radius of 50 km around the brewery, often have a healthy local tied estate and are usually deeply rooted in local identities. Their beer range often is very much the four basic types from beer cartel days, plus the occasional unfiltered pale lager (Zwickelbier) or Hefeweizen (Locher in Appenzell, a brewery which increased its output fivefold since the end of the cartel, being a notable exception with its wide range of specialty beers). But even their basic pale lagers often are a few notches up the character scale compared to the beers of Carlsberg and Heineken, as they tend to be produced without such shortcuts as high-gravity brewing and fermentation; and they usually are unpasteurised.
Regarding microbreweries, things are a bit more complicated. The official list of breweries as published by the Federal Customs Administration actually shows all companies and individuals paying duty on beer. Problem is that homebrewers distributing part of their production beyond their close relatives are required to register and pay beer duty. All in all, looking at brewpubs and micros from which people draw at least part of their income, i.e. part and full-time, there could be 70 or 80 “proper” brewpubs and micros in Switzerland.
For a detailed guide of breweries, brewpubs and micros, look up Philippe “Bov” Corbat’s excellent
online Swiss beer guide: http://www.bov.ch/beer/swissbeers.htm
A split beer landscape
The main feature nowadays of the Swiss beer landscape is the east-west split.
The eastern two-thirds, that is roughly the German-speaking part, and more so that countryside than the cities, is very much pale lager country, with very few deviations from the Germanic norm. Even micros and brewpubs tend to produce little else than unfiltered pale lagers, a few dark variations and the odd Weizen. Which makes it difficult for them to get a decent added value to their product, and does little for the actual beer diversity.
The western third, roughly the French-speaking part, with neighbouring areas, has seen its beer tradition pretty much eradicated under the cartel, the long rebuilding of a beer culture starting in the mid-seventies thanks to imports. It means that micros on the Western side tend to look more towards Belgium, Britain, and more recently the USA for reference points, rather than Germany. Which is in turn richer in terms of diversity, even if quite a few of those micros suffer from quality issues, such as recurrent bacterial contamination, or, in the case of brewpubs, green beer. Yet it’s on this side that you’ll find the handful of brewers who are putting Switzerland back on the world beer map, the likes of Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes in Saignelégier or Brasserie Trois Dames in Ste-Croix.
A slightly worrying trend these days is the large number of beers produced elsewhere in Switzerland or even abroad yet sold as local beers, often very heavily so. Notorious cases include Calvinus in Geneva, brewed by Locher, at the other end of the country, and the bottled output of La Brasserie du Château in Lausanne, which is brewed in Québec, yet touted to local bars as “local produce”. Similar cases are quite common on the German-speaking side.
Switzerland’s Legislation on beer is slightly outdated and still bears the stigmata of the cartel era.
According to the Federal ordinance on alcoholic drinks (SR 817.022.110), beer sold in Switzerland can contain up to 10% sugars and 20% starch as adjuncts in the malt grist. But spices, fruits and aromatic plants other than hops are not allowed in beer. And beer delivery can only be made using pressure founts with CO2 or mixed gas.
In reality, the restrictions in the law are very rarely enforced (usually following snitching from a competitor), and beer recipes or dispense systems which do not abide to these rules can be homologated by the Federal office for public health against payment (CHF 800.- apiece last time I looked).
The Federal law on beer duty (SR 641.411) and its ordinance (SR 641.411.1) are more modern pieces of legislation came in force in 2007 apply a sliding scale to beer duty, breweries producing less than 55’000 hl/year benefitting from duty refunds at the end of the year. It taxes beer in three classes : up to 10° Plato, from 10° to 14° Plato and from 14° Plato up.
And then there’s the 1973 Bilateral treaty with Czechoslovakia on geographical denominations (SR 0.232.111.197.41), which is still in force. In terms of beer, it states that names such as Pilsner (also Pils or Pilsener), Budweiser and Velkopopovicky have to be produced in the Czech Republic to be allowed. Which means Swiss pilsner-like lagers are usually called "Spezial", all those German pilsners are called “premium”, and Anheuser-Bush got their fingers burned badly in front of the Federal court back in 1999, now having to sell their B*dw**s*r as “Anheuser-Busch B”.
That’s pretty much all you need to know for a start...
Vice chair of EBCU