06 January 2009

A generalisation

Swiss beer is rubbish.

That's not really fair of me, of course. For a start, most beer of most countries is rubbish, and I only visited a small part of the German-speaking area of Switzerland for a few days last week. As Laurent mentioned, and Ron has written, the western Francophone parts of the country are a much happier hunting ground. Nevertheless, the first impression I got from drinking in Switzerland is that the beer, in general, is rubbish.

It's not that it's bad per se. Like Ireland's mass-produced beers it's just really really dull. In typical central European fashion, lagers and wheat beers dominate, with transnationals Carlsberg and Heineken duking it out from behind the local brands they've acquired and consolidated.

Hürlimann is perhaps one of the saddest stories. The original brewer of Samichlaus before Carlsberg took over, shut down the Zürich brewery, and seemingly removed anything interesting from the line-up. Hürlimann Lager is a very pale yellow with a full-bodied and slightly creamy texture but with little to be said for its flavour other than a vague sweetness. Sternbräu, from the same stable, is plainer still -- a yellow lager utterly devoid of distinguishing features.

From the same facility, Carlsberg produce the Feldschlösschen range. When I ordered a beer marked on a beerhall blackboard simply as "Urtrüeb" (sic), I assume it was Feldschlösschen Urtrüb I got. The cloudy orange appearance was attractive, like a lovely fruity weiss, but the texture is watery and the taste is non-existent. Can anyone tell me what the point of this stuff is? Things improve slightly with the Dunkle Perle: it's quite bitter and has a certain nuttiness going for it, but not much else. Top of this lacklustre range for me was the Feldschlösschen Winterbier. It's a heavy amber lager with a nice warming maltiness up front. This fades far too quickly, however, with nothing bringing up the rear. I still could have managed more than the 33cl I got, though.

So much for the Danes. What are the other lot up to? Heineken own Calanda, a brand I saw more in ads than for sale. The only one I got hold of was Meisterbräu, a märzen-like heavy gold lager with a hint of north-Germanic bitterness. It's decent and filling, but not terribly exciting overall. Ittinger Klosterbräu is another of theirs, and seems once to have been a well-respected brew. Now it's an attractive limpid dark amber beer with little more than a mild sugariness and an unfortunate chemical aftertaste to say for itself. I drank it in the opulent surrounds of the James Joyce, a swish café constructed from the bar of the former Jury's hotel in Dublin's Dame Street, where the Financial Regulator's building now stands. Its frightfully modestly-clad allegorical figures were far more entertaining than the beer, likewise the handpumps on the bar, which survived Dublin's mass migration to keg beer but are now merely decorative.

Halden Krone Premium is the last Heineken beer I tried. It's softly carbonated and easy to drink, but let down by -- you've guessed it -- blandness. A sunny-day quaffer, but otherwise pointless. Interestingly, Heino have held on to the old Halden site at Winterthur even though production has moved elsewhere. I wonder will they do the same with the Beamish & Crawford site in Cork when brewing ceases there in a couple of months.

Switzerland has retained a couple of its large independents. Müller Urweizen is brewed by one of them, a strange sort of wheat beer, with virtually no head on top of an amber body. The result is something like a heavy, flat, macrolager with a strange rubbery sort of aftertaste. I discovered Eichhof Hubertus in Brasserie Fédéral, the fantastic temple of Swiss beer housed in Zürich railway station. This "spezial dunkel" is another dark amber affair with a spicy cinnamon nose. There's big malt in the foretaste but it leaves the drinker hanging. Promising, but unfortunately unbalanced. Bringing up the rear, there's the best of the big players, Falken Schwarz-Bier. This jet-black lager is remarkably complex, with big milk chocolate and caramel flavours plus a touch of coffee roastiness. It reminds me of nothing so much as a milk stout, its low level of carbonation making for a smooth and tasty schwarzbier with supreme drinkability.

So there's a quick run-through of big Swiss-German beer for you. Far from comprehensive, but I get the distinct impression that most of the large brewers are doing much the same as the others. What the region's smaller operations are up to will follow in the next post.


  1. Laurent Mousson8:38 pm

    Ah right, so it's not just us enlightened locals who fond run-of-the-mill beer supremely boring in this country... ;o)

    As a sidenote : as a teenager in teh late eighties, I did not drink any beer at all, because there was no pleasure to be found in drinking swiss beer... I realised there was ome beer I coulddrink in Briatin in 1990, but it's only around 1998, when BFM started producing, that I found I could actually enjoy some swiss beers too...

    And when Swiss people tell me they don't like beer, it's usually because they only ever encountered mass-market stuff, which indeed has very little speaking for it. :o(

    Cheers !


  2. How very Swiss of your teenage self. I drank Harp.

  3. I'll second BFM (Brasserie Des Franches-Montagnes) as quality Swiss brew, based on my limited exposure. I had my first (and to date, only) encounter just a few days ago, when I very much enjoyed their La Mandragore on tap in Baltimore. Sour stout -- now there's a concept I can get behind.

  4. Laurent Mousson8:09 pm

    Yeah Brad, BFM has long been a light in swiss beer darkness. La Mandragore is OK, but do try and get hold of La Meule, which is roughly on similar lines to Saison Dupont, but with sage added, and is IMHO the closest BFM ever came to a classic, along of course, with the oak-aged and blended (and I hear, horribly overpriced in the US) Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien.

    Apart from BFM, another Brewery, Brasserie Trois Dames in Ste-Croix (www.brasserietroisdames.ch), is growing pretty well whilst being the first swiss brewery to come up with decent takes on British and North American styles (an ESB-like thing, a proper IPA, Irish Red, various stouts...) with decent hopping rates (not OTT either), along with a few very interesting experiments (his saisons are really nice, complex takes on the style, his Espresso Stout, available intermittently, has both the tonic, cutting edge of a proper espresso, on the warming, smooth pedestal provided by a 7.5% stout... and there's more in the pipeline, including a very interesting sour experiment)
    So far, Trois Dames beer is not exported at all, and is this country's best kept beery secret, but it won'tlast forever. Keep an eye open for it.