The Story of Beer in Switzerland (and Zermatt’s new brew!)

Beer in Switzerland

Although beer has been brewed in Switzerland since ancient times, the traditional emphasis has always been on wine. However, with German influence, beer started to gain mass popularity during the early 1800s’ and with the phylloxera epidemic of the mid 19th century when the country’s wine production all but disappeared, a host of local breweries sprung up across the cantons.

A cartel by any other name

Following the disruption of WW1 and the Great Depression, the Swiss Brewers’ Association was created to form a cartel or “Customer Protection Plan” against foreign competition and in 1936, the Swiss Brewers’ Convention established exclusive rights to the local distribution and sales of beer.

The range of beers that would be produced was also formalised into four specific categories: light, special, dark and strong and all beer bottles were to be centrally produced and in only two special sizes, 29 and 58 cl, which matched none of the foreign produced beers which could in any case, only be imported through a Swiss brewer.

The growth of a beer monster!

Predictably, the effect of the cartel was to stifle competition and adversely effect quality until in the early 1960s when its authority started to crumble with the founding of a new generation of independent breweries, the first of which was BOXER, near Lausanne.

In the meanwhile, many of the established producers disappeared through a series of domestic mergers such that when the cartel finally collapsed in 1991, the Swiss beer market was dominated by the FELDSCHLÔSSCHEN group whilst many of the remaining smaller brewers were swallowed up in the years that followed.

A liberalisation of the market did however present opportunities for a new generation of local micro-brewers whilst imported products from Europe, the UK and the US became increasingly available to Swiss drinkers.


The Swiss beer market today

The majority of the present day Swiss beer market of over 450,000,000 litres is dominated by two multinationals, followed up by some 25 regional producers and less than 100 micro-breweries.

At the top of the tree is the Danish group, Carlsberg, which controls some 45% of Swiss beer production through its domestic brands including FELDSCHLÔSSCHEN , CARDINAL, GURTEN, VALAISANNE as well as CARLSBERG, and KRONENBOURG.

Second, the ubiquitous Heineken group from Holland has about 25% of the market through the CALANDA, HEIDENGUT and EICHOF brands which are supported by its internationally known HEINEKEN and AMSTEL ranges, whilst both of these Titans also have a large number of tied outlets across Switzerland which further strengthens their hold on the market.

Amongst the 25 or so regional breweries, BOXER is the only one based in “Suisse Romande”, all the others being in the German-speaking part of the country, and in most cases, distribution is limited to the immediate locality where they have their own tied establishments and their speciality beers have a loyal following.

From a statistical perspective, identifying commercial micro-brewers is on the other hand difficult as in Switzerland, even home-brewers are supposed to be registered with the authorities.

Beer law

Reminiscent of the cartel days, Switzerland’s beer legislation is noticeably restrictive compared to most EU countries’ and limits are imposed on the amount of additional sugars and starch that can be introduced into the malt.

Also, only hops can be used in the brewing process, to the exclusion of any fruits and aromatic additives and all beer must be pumped using gas pressure delivery systems.


Zermatt’s own beer

To coincide with this year’s celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Edward Whymper’s first ascent of the Matterhorn, a new brewery and bottling plant has been established in the village of Zermatt itself.

The Zermatt Matterhorn Braueri’s first beer is a bottled pilsner-like unpasteurized and unfiltered 5% lager which is produced using local winter barley and spring water and is marketed under the name of “Matterhorn”. Needless to say, stocks of the first brew flew off the shelves in the local bars and shops.

Come and enjoy some Swiss beer with Matterhorn Chalets in Zermatt!


Article by Ed Mannix, owner of www.matterhornchalets.com

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