From cartel to craft: A brief introduction to beer in Switzerland
One of humankind's most constant companions, the brewing and drinking of beer is a tradition dating back over 11.000 years. While the history of beer isn’t as long in Switzerland, brewing culture in the alpine nation has come a long way.
Beer culture in Switzerland
For people in Switzerland, beer is an integral part of leisure culture in Swiss cities and mountains. Despite Switzerland generally being known as a more reserved country, from 5pm onwards it is common to see Swiss trains packed with entrepreneurs, bankers and workers travelling home with an open beer in hand.
The majority of beers you will see are what was once known as the “Swiss beer,” which is a lager style golden beer with around 4,8 to 5,5 percent alcohol concentration. Some of the most well-known brands in Switzerland are:
- Feldschlösschen (and the owned brands Hürlimann and Cardinal)
History of beer in Switzerland
While not as celebrated as beer in Germany and the Netherlands, Swiss beer has evolved dramatically in recent years. From every large brewery using the same recipe to having the highest number of craft breweries per capita in the world, the story of Swiss beer is truly a roller coaster.
Humble beginnings of beer in Switzerland
Beer drinking, like most places in Europe, begins with the Gauls in the 1st century BC, although it is likely that smaller-scale brewing was already present beforehand. The first depiction of beer in Switzerland came in the 9th century AD, where the monastery of Saint Gall, the area soon to be known as St. Gallen, was depicted with three separate breweries on site.
Soon, hundreds of breweries were set up by monasteries and cities across the country. Bear in mind that conventional brewing techniques had not been invented yet, meaning the beer may have included pine needles, herbs and spices, creating a characteristically sour taste.
Wine dominated the alcohol market in Switzerland
Despite small scale production in areas of Switzerland, between the 9th and 18th centuries, Swiss people preferred wine over beer. Canton Vaud, Fribourg, Zurich and Schaffhausen were home to large vineyards, which created a supply of cheap alcohol for the population. The wine guilds of Swiss cities kept ruthless control over the supply of wine and beer, and forced restrictions and intimidation on brewers.
This monopoly came to an end during the Little Ice Age in the 1600s. This sudden cold snap, which lasted until the 19th century, caused grapes to freeze and up to 90 percent of vines to die. Due to the drop in production, the cost of wine increased in Switzerland, forcing people to seek cheaper sources of alcohol, which they found in beer.
The origins of the Swiss beer cartel
The fierce rivalry between beer and wine continued long into the 20th century. By that time, there were hundreds of large breweries dotted across the country, leading to strong competition and low prices. This was a cause for concern for the largest breweries, which were unable to monopolise the market.
In response, in 1935, the largest beer producers in Switzerland formed what was called the “beer cartel.” Members of the cartel would set the price of beer across the country, restrict the import of foreign beer and divide each region of Switzerland among them to avoid competition: for instance, Cardinal was only sold in French-speaking Switzerland, Feldschlösschen in German-speaking Switzerland, Falken in Schaffhausen, and so on.
Every large brewery in Switzerland brewed the same beer for 45 years
To maintain the monopoly, the cartel also made sure that every brand of beer they made tasted exactly the same. Every beer made by the cartel was a golden lager of around 4,8 to 5,5 percent alcohol. As a result, people across the country would order a “Swiss beer” as opposed to a brand, as they all tasted the same.
This system lasted 45 years, until Cardinal, Feldschlösschen and Hürlimann left the cartel in the 1990s. However, the legacy of the decision lasts to this day, with a lot of mass-market beers in Switzerland all tasting roughly the same.
What is Swiss beer like today?
Since the 1990s, brewing in Switzerland has flourished. Today, Swiss laws on opening craft breweries are quite relaxed in comparison to places like Germany and France. This openness means that, technically, Switzerland has the highest number of “breweries” per capita in the world.
From sour beers to IPAs to stouts, beer lovers will always be able to find their brew of choice in Switzerland. Today, bars are awash with new, unique and local Swiss beers to suit every taste.