Archive for June, 2021

Defining “craft”

The words “craft” and “beer” were probably first used together by the CAMRA and then defined by Vince Cottone in his “Good Beer Guide” (1986)”. This term became later omnipresent and massively over-used and it seems as everyone has his own definition of it.

Craft is sometimes defined as the opposite of industrial, which for me is insufficient and inexact. I am even less convinced either by the definition from the American Brewers Association who looks at it under two criteria: small and independent (an original third criterion – traditional – has been lately abandoned).

The problem of this definition is already pointed by the constant adjustment of “small” (needed to include the Boston Beer Company, 5th biggest brewery in the USA) which has now been fixed at a maximum of 6 million barrels (~ 7 mio. hl). This is about the double of the entire Swiss beer market and it disqualifies only 3 US breweries: Anheuser-Busch, Miller Coors and Pabst. This shows how pointless the size criterion is. And regarding the inclusion of breweries like Yuengling (officially the oldest “craft” brewery in the USA since 1829!) or Spoetzl I do have some troubles to consider this definition seriously.

I prefer by far the definition once given by RateBeer, even if this one leaves some room for interpretation. Here is what it says:

  • Craft Brewing is not a term certifying quality.
  • The business is structured around a brewer/owner and is independent.
  • It distinguishes itself from national traditional brewing by brewing beer styles inspired by a global culture and not just local tradition.
  • The brewer is a visible company figure who is known by many consumers. The brewer has a relationship with consumers and this translates into better serving consumer tastes.
  • Primarily focuses on local consumers, local sales and tastes. A craft brewer will have local spirit.
  • Engages in human-scale rather than corporate-scale business practices.
  • A lack of reliance on a fixed line of products or flagship.
  • Creative brewing or lack of adherence to traditional brewing styles.
  • It distinguishes through the use of quality ingredients and the targeting of complex, highest quality flavor profiles”

Then RateBeer defines some other brewing genre categories which are not Craft Brewing: Industrial Brewing (ex. Anheuser-Busch/InBev, Carlsberg, Heineken), Belgian Traditional (ex. Cantillon, Westvleteren, 3 Fonteinen, Rochefort), English Traditional, German Traditional, …

the evil cartel

While the craft beer revolution made its first steps in the UK (foundation of the CAMRA in 1971) and in the USA (the revival of Anchor in 1965; the first microbrewery in 1976; the legalization of homebrewing in 1978), the Swiss beer landscape remained perfectly “frozen” by the cartel of the Swiss brewers’ association.

In 1935 the brewers regrouped in a cartel and defined three goals:

  1. a regulation of the distribution area of the beers
  2. a definition of the product to very few defined types*
  3. a limitation of the import of foreign beers

(*) the Federal regulations on food defined (until 2005(!)) the beer types that can be brewed by the members of the Swiss brewers’ Association. Here is the list from the last version:

  • Lager beer (10 to 12°Plato)
  • Special beer (11.5 to 14°Plato)
  • Strong beer (at least 14°Plato)

Probably 99% of the beers offered during the time of the cartel consisted of blond lagers, a “normal” (poorly hopped with a very modest bitterness and a 4.8% alcohol) and a “special” which could range from a 0,4% higher version of its “normal” brother to an approximate attempt of a German Pilsner. The strong beers were something going from an Oktoberfest/Märzen to a Heller Bock.

These cartel agreements guaranteed that a customer remains with his supplier, even in the event of a license transfer or closure followed by a reopening of the restaurant. The side effects of this regulation were the disappearance of specificities, the takeovers and closures of the smallest breweries (the only way to grow) as well as a levelling down of the beer qualities because of lack of business competition.

In 1988, Sibra Holding (Cardinal) will precipitate the fall of the cartel. She pulls out so she can better face competition from foreign producers not subject to the agreements. The cartel, therefore, officially broke out in 1991.

Outsiders

During those dark ages of standardization, there was almost nothing worth noticing in terms of beer innovations and only very few breweries dared to stay outside of the cartel.

The Boxer brewery was founded in 1960 in Romanel-sur-Lausanne with the deliberate intention to fight the cartel. Despite the pressures, the brewery succeeded pretty well, mainly in the German speaking part of the country as an alternative to the cartel-beer. Ironically, after several takeovers (the French brewery “les Enfants de Gayant” (1982), the group Sharma of Bombay (1994), Löwengarten (1997) and eventually Doppelleu Brauwerkstatt (2017)) Boxer finally rejoined the Swiss Brewers’ Association indirectly.

Founded back in 1918 as “Luzerner Private Obstverwertung”, Lupo started to brew beers in 1963. Now owned by Ramseier Suisse, they are brewing beers for discounters like Denner or cooperatives like Landi. Not many people know that this is nowadays the 4th largest brewery in the country (about 250’000 hl yearly)

Forced by the Swiss beer cartel to sell Anker-Bier from Frenkendorf instead of the beloved local Warteck in his restaurant, Hans Jakob Nidecker chose to react and started brewing his own beer (Uelibier). It was 1974 and this made of Fischerstube the first brewpub of modern times. It was the first brewery in the country to sell Weizenbier on tap (1977).

Another brewery standing outside of the cartel – for a reason I ignore – was the Kronenbrauerei from Herisau (founded 1875). It was destroyed by fire in 1978.

Pre-craft era

Before the start of the craft beer revolution in Switzerland, some (mostly) shy innovations took place.

1976 saw the birth of the first Swiss Hefeweizen, a creation of the Aktienbrauerei Frauenfeld (1904-1996): the Weizentrumpf.

1979:  Sonnenbraü commercialized the first Lightbier

1980 saw the apparition of the only reason for an international beer geek to mention Switzerland on the world beer map for the next 17 years: the Samichlaus Bier!  The brewery Hürlimann, which had especially developed skills in the breeding of yeasts, used a new culture to make an experimental Christmas beer. This Doppelbock, showing 14% alcohol, was listed in the Guinness Book of Records in 1982 as the strongest beer in the world. It was brewed on December 6 and spent almost one year in maturation before bottling. The Swiss giant, Feldschlösschen, after having merged with Hürlimann in 1996, promptly announced they would stop brewing the expensive Samichlaus. Therefore, the last vintage was bottled in December 1997. Considering how such a beer could nowadays been marketed, this was probably one of the worst move ever from Feldschlösschen.

1980 was also the year of Einsiedler Maisgold from Rosengarten, the first corn beer (with 30% part) in the country. However, this claim is challenged by Fizbier from Rothenburg (1978-1994) …

1981: Ittinger Klosterbräu, a beer developed by Martin Wartmann and first brewed at Actienbrauerei Frauenfeld, was the first Amber beer in Switzerland. In 1996, Heineken first steps in and moved the beer production to Haldengut. Later, in 2004, Martin Wartmann decided to let its baby live its life and sold all the rights to the green giant. Using the beloved concept of abbey beers, this beer is brewed partially using hops harvested near a former Carthusian monastery in Canton Thurgau (Kartause Ittingen). And no matter if it was dissolved more than 150 years ago…

1992: Wädi Bräu (Wädenswil) was the first Swiss brewery to produce organic beers and 4 years later, the first worldwide to brew hemp beer commercially. Here, too, the picobrewery of la Houblonnière (more about this pioneer further) could beg to disagree as it brewed (and sold) hemp beer since 1993.

the Röstigraben

Before we dig further, I have to say some words on the beer “Röstigraben”. Probably known by everyone living in Switzerland, this term (meaning “Rösti ditch”) is used to refer to the cultural boundary between German-speaking and French-speaking parts of the country. And this applied to beer too! In 1973, Jacques Amstein, based near Vevey, started importing beers from Belgium, then United Kingdom and so on. So, while the east part of Switzerland was swimming in an ocean of blond lager of Reinheitsgebot’s obedience, the West slowly but surely changed its perception of what beer can be. This difference strongly influenced the microbreweries opened after the closure of the cartel, slowly fading out between 2005 and 2012 and has almost disappeared nowadays.

shakeout

The traditional breweries had very hard times during the nineties as the beer consumption per capita drastically fell from 71 liters in 1990, to 60 (1995) and 57 (2000). This and the end of the cartel led to important take-overs and closures: Warteck (1991), Löwenbräu (1991), Gurten (1996) and Hürlimann (1997). At the same time, two global beer brewers took control of the majority of the Swiss market. Heineken, which was already acting as a major importer since 1984, took over Calanda-Haldengut in 1999 and closed the production plant in Winterthur two years later. The green giant continued its Swiss expansion, buying Eichhof (third biggest producer in the country) in 2008. The Danish Carlsberg, on his part, stepped in with the control of the biggest brewery in the country: Feldschlösschen (2000).

the start

In the meantime, about 50 new breweries started during the nineties. Far more than a passion for new beer styles, the motivation in those times was mainly a reaction to the many closures and the wish to produce and drink local beers.

Many years after the first one in Basel, a good number of brewpubs opened, following usually the same pattern: solid German-style beers in the east side of the country and … well … quite dubious stuff in the west part (at least in the early years). The reason for it was, that while on the one hand mostly experienced German brewers were hired, on the other hand, the whole equipment was purchased ignorantly and a random staff person suddenly promoted as brewer, producing beers named by their color and from a recipe attached to the supplied brew kettle (I do not even really exaggerate…). This, too, was an early consequence of the “Röstigraben” splitting people seriously bound to a tradition and others thinking of brewing like a new way to make money.

Here are the brewpubs that opened until the end of last century:

1986 – 2008: Frohsinn (Arbon). This brewpub still exists but the beers are brewing at Huus-Braui.

1989: Back & Bräu. This brewpub existed up to seven places (Zürich, Lichtensteig, Thun, Langenthal, Rapperswil, St-Gallen and Winterthur), all closed between 2001 and 2007.

  • 1992: Wädi Bräu (Wädenswil)
  • 1993-2005: Kreuz (Spiez)
  • 1997: Brasserie Artisanale du Château (Lausanne)
  • 1997: les Brasseurs Genève
  • 1998: Altes Tramdepot (Bern)
  • 1998: Rathausbrauerei Luzern
  • 1998-2002: Gonzen Restaurant (Sarganz)
  • 1999: Burgdorfer
  • 1999: la Croix Blanche (Posieux)
  • 1999-2006: Scottish Pub (Fribourg)

The most successful of them nowadays are Burgdorfer (> 8’000 hectoliters yearly) and Altes Tramdepot (> 3’000). The latter was the first of all new brewpubs to show signs of “craft brewing” in a way of the definition given at the beginning of this article and this, a few years already after its start.

The very first microbreweries in the countries were good examples of the cultural beer differences between the German- and French-speaking parts.

Werner Ledermann started back his Herzbräu (Hombrechtikon) in 1992 as a home brewer and registered officially 6 years later. Brewing almost exclusively bottom fermented beers in German-styles and experimenting with different cereals, this brewery that remains nowadays a hobby for the founder’s son (30 hl of yearly output) counts as the pioneer in the east of Switzerland.

La Houblonnière in Vuadens (canton of Fribourg) deserves the same status for the Romandy. Started back in 1992 by Jean-Pierre Bertinotti – describing himself as a beer alchemist and historical researcher – this brewery was producing mostly forgotten beer recipes from medieval times. He got a gold medal at the World Beer Championship from the Chicago Beverage Testing Institute in 1997. The legend says that despite its closure in 2001, Jean-Pierre and his Houblonnière are still concocting some mysterious beers somewhere…

The next pioneers include the Brasserie Artisanale de Fribourg (since 1993; nowadays named Fri-mousse), Sauhofbräu (Laufen, 1995), Richie Bräu (Rheinfelden, 1995-2012), Brasserie Artisanale de Porrentruy (1996), Felsenkeller (Stäfa, 1997-2008), Rütihöfler-Bräu (1998), Bäre-Bräu (Bern, 1998-2004), Turbinen Bräu (Zurich, 1997), BFM (Saignelégier, 1997), Sierrvoise (Sierre, 1997), Unser Bier (Basel, 1997), Officina della Birra (Bioggio, 1999) and Haldemann (Sugiez, 1998-2018).

Turbinen Bräu was founded by Adrien Weber as a reaction to the shutdown of Hürlimann and counts as the first new industrial brewery in the country.

If I had to name the most “crafty” breweries from the list above, I would go for the Bäre-Brau of Markus Bühler, the BFM of Jérôme Rebetez, the Officina della Birra of Eric Notari and the brewery of Freddy Haldemann.

the associations, the contests and the festivals

The SIOS GmbH – a business for consulting and selling of brewing equipment and ingredients – was founded by Richi Leder (co-founder of the Swiss Homebrewing Association and homebrewer pioneer in the country) is hosting the SIOS trophy (a competition of homebrews) since 1995, the oldest contest in the country.

The Swiss Homebrewing Society (SHS) was founded in 1994 by enthusiastic people eager to share their knowledge and spread their passion. The society quickly grew and many members eventually started their own commercial or part-time breweries. The annual beer contest of the SHS was organized by SIOS between 1995 and 2005. Since 2006, both contests are separated.

The «Interessengemeinschaft unabhängiger Schweizer Brauereien» (Interest Group of Independent Swiss breweries) was founded in 1990 with two goals: the preservation of the indenpendence of its members and the promotion of the regional beer diversity. Among the 32 members, we can find 12 traditional breweries (the largest being Locher) all of them also members of the Swiss breweries association.

The ABO – Association des Buveurs d’Orge – was founded in Vevey back in 1991. Originally just a group of students wanting to party, this association earned gradually some credit due to the dedication and knowledge of a handful of members. Clinically dead since more than 10 years, the central section of Vevey closed in 2020. Only the section in the canton of Valais remains, refusing for now to unplug.

La Fête de la Bière, the first beer festival in the country took place in 1992 in Vevey and was initiated by the ABO. At first a showplace of the international beers imported by Amstein, it made place progressively to the new Swiss microbreweries.

The «Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Biervielfalt» (Society for the promotion of beer diversity) was founded in 1992 and is actually Swiss member of the European Beer Consumer Union.

the «premieres”

I would like to finish this post on a list of first happenings. Of course, I am aware that before being produced commercially by registered breweries, most beer styles mentioned below have probably been brewed by home brewers in the nineties or even during the late eighties. Nevertheless, this list will show some important milestones and probably recall memories to some of you.

  • 1999 first Stout: Brasserie Artisanale de Fribourg Old Cat
  • 2000 first Porter: Faiseurs de Bière Sido’s Porter
  • 2002 first IPA: Bäre-Bräu Hopfenbombe (for more details on this style, see https://bovbeers.wordpress.com/2015/02/07/top-swiss-beers-by-style-ipa/)
  • 2005 first Sour: BFM Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien
  • 2008 first Berliner Weisse: BeSte Knut
  • 2010 first Swiss collab, between Hegaustross and Brauage du Garage à la Plage: Scheissbier.
  • 2010 first Grape Ale: Trois Dames l’Amoureuse
  • 2011 first international collab, between BFM and Terrapin: Spike & Jérôme
  • 2014 first Gose : Bodensee Julchen
  • 2017 first New England IPA : Barbière NEIPA

Please feel free to comment or contact me if you have seen any mistake or if you feel I missed some important matters for this initial timeline of craft beer in Switzerland.

Cheers!