Switzerland is an old country. It was founded August 1st 1291 when a bunch of sturdy mountain-loving fellows met for a few beers in a hidden valley in the middle of the Alps. They started drinking, and before they knew it they had united their three Cantons to form a country, conveniently named after the only canton anyone could remember after several beers, namely Schwyz. Eventually several more cantons joined this jolly party, including ones where they didn’t understand a word of what they were saying in the others, but despite such minor communication problems this strange mixture of mini-fiefdoms somehow survived to become the only country in Europe that votes no to everything every three months whilst simultaneously having trains that run on time.
No single country in the world has more stereotypes associated with it than Switzerland. Be it secret bank accounts, yodelling alp-horn blowing peasants, big holes with cheese around them, being incredibly neutral, complicated army knifes, triangular chocolate, expensive watches, picture-perfect villages clinging to impossibly steep mountainsides or the aforementioned trains that run on time, the Swiss have it all. It’s just a pity they can’t brew beer. This blog post could have ended right there, if it wasn’t for the fact that the last sentence isn’t entirely true. It’s mostly true, for sure, but not entirely. Read on, and ye shall learn a couple of secrets – but let’s first look at some background information.
There used to be hundreds of breweries dotted around this small country. However, unlike their big German-speaking neighbour to the north, but pretty much not unlike the rest of the world, the vast majority of these breweries were either bought up, shut down, or bought up and then shut down, during the years following the War. This resulted in two or three big players in the market, which were then unsurprisingly bought up by big multinational brewing conglomerates – yes, we’re talking about Heineken and Carlsberg. The biggest selling brands in Switzerland such as Calanda and Feldschlösschen consequently tastes pretty much like bland lager does everywhere else: boring and predictable. Luckily, a few of the independent regional brewers have survived, and, in the last few years, a range of small new breweries have opened.
Last weekend’s big occasion in Switzerland was the visit of Muse, which is a very good band from England. The wife and I managed to get hold of a couple of tickets at great expense, and consequently headed off on an on-time train towards the capital of Switzerland, a place known as Bern, Berne or Berna, depending on which official language you choose. You might think that the capital of a country with almost 8 million inhabitants in the middle of Europe would be a big city, but no: not wishing to make a dent in any of the aforementioned stereotypes, the Swiss chose a small city with a cute old town that would fit comfortably inside some of Paris’ biggest roundabouts.
After our on-time arrival, we obviously wasted no time in tracking down a brewery, and we were lucky – in 1998, an enterprising soul or two had converted an old tram depot beautifully located next to a colony of bears and a winding river into a brewery. They brew three standard beers: an unfiltered helles, a darker märzen, and a wheat beer. Additionally, they frequently do special beers, usually to suit the season. I tried the helles and the märzen, both of which were lively and full of flavour – great drinks to accompany the unseasonably late arrival of summer.
The next day was the concert day, so after a pit stop at the tram shed again to remind me how good the märzen was, we headed towards the 45000-capacity Stade the Suisse, where the aforementioned band were due to play in a few hours. To avoid eating the overpriced food usually found at such massive venues, we had a pizza on the way, which I washed down with a couple of remarkably tasty beers from the local independent survivor Felsenau, founded in 1881.
What followed was a delight from a music lover’s perspective, but a disaster from a beer lover’s ditto. Why oh why is it so in this world that a poor drinker can only buy not second rate, not third rate, but rock bottom rate lager at big events such as these? Carlsberg was the beer in this case, and though I ought to have known better, I still went ahead and bought one. It did one good thing – it confirmed my long-held opinion that Carlsberg is one of the few beers whose taste actually improves as it passes through the body. Probably the best piss in the world, though.
The weekend was, in other words, like experiencing the Swiss beer scene in a nutshell. There are the new, usually very small breweries that make decent – and sometimes very good – beer. Then there are a few surviving regionals, most of which can conjure up a couple of very drinkable beers. Then we have the nationals, which have been bought out by the multinationals, that make the bland, boring stuff that everyone drinks and most bars and pubs stock. Finally, there are the multinationals that sponsor all big events and have the nerve to charge an arm and a leg for a plastic cup of vile-tasting yellow liquid that is, to quote an earlier blog post of mine, almost, but not entirely unlike beer.
So, in summary: Switzerland is a nice country, and if you’re concerned that someone may have a serious throat problem when they speak to you, don’t worry – this is just the local dialect – speak back in your own language and they’ll immediately switch. The scenery is stunning and the skiing, especially in winter, is usually very good, so the Swiss can be forgiven if they don’t have the best beer in the world. Having said that, it’s certainly not the worst beer in the world either, and things are rapidly improving. If you’re in a bar, ask for a beer from a local brewery, and if they don’t have one, suggest that they should organize a referendum to ban mediocre beer. You never know, perhaps they’ll vote yes one day.