How the Covid crisis led to a boom in Swiss beer production
Switzerland now boasts the highest density of breweries anywhere in Europe, with the Covid crisis a major factor in transforming the country into a beer hub.
When it comes to food and drink exports, Switzerland is best known for cheese and chocolate. While Swiss wine has carved out a niche on the global stage, it is Swiss beer which has recently started to make its mark on the global stage.
In 2020, 80 new breweries were established in Switzerland.
Switzerland now has 1,212 breweries - which gives it a higher ratio of breweries to people than any of the other big brewing nations in Europe, including Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Belgium.
Just ten years ago, Switzerland had only 246 breweries, while in 1990 there were only 32 breweries in the entire country, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung reports.
Switzerland is getting thirstier
The explosion in brewery numbers is a consequence of a change in the Swiss appetite for beer.
In recent years, the classic lager variety has gradually fallen out of favour, with the share of craft varieties growing by 43 percent over the past five years.
The change is a genuine example of quality trumping quality when it comes to beer consumption.
In 2010, the average amount of beer produced by each brewery in Switzerland was 11,000 hectolitres, while that is now less than 3,000.
According to Switzerland’s NZZ, only 14 breweries produced more than 10,000 hectolitres of beer last year, while more than 1,000 breweries produced less than 50 hectolitres.
While the variety of beers being consumed has expanded - particularly those made in Switzerland - the amount of beer each Swiss consumes has fallen slightly in recent years.
In 2008 the average Swiss consumed 58 litres of beer, with 55 litres being consumed in 2019 - the last year for which figures are available.
In 1980, the average Swiss consumed around 70 litres of beer per year.
The following chart from Statista shows these trends.
This pales in comparison with serious beer drinking countries, with the average yearly consumption in Germany being 140 litres.
Wine still leads the way however in Switzerland. Of those who consume alcohol in Switzerland, 32 percent drink beer while just under half (49.4 percent) drink wine).
While anyone bragging of cheap beer in Switzerland might have had a few too many, for people living in Switzerland the costs are relatively affordable.
In addition to the high wages paid in Switzerland, the Swiss VAT rate of 7.7 percent is the lowest in the OECD, a 2021 study found.
Statistics show that Switzerland has an above average consumption of beer per capita when compared to OECD countries.
Just one in five Swiss abstain from alcohol completely, which is low by OECD standards.
The proliferation of new breweries is obviously welcome for the nation’s beer drinkers, but it seems that Switzerland is coming late to the party.
According to the NZZ, a major reason is Switzerland’s alcoholic drinks ‘cartel’, which meant that all alcohol was sold in standardised form nationwide.
The cartel “regulated sales, prices, quality, recipe and range of products for which the whole country was advertised collectively and uniformly,” with the result being bland, mass market beers in each of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.
The rules were so pervasive that even pub owners were in many cases restricted from choosing which beers they wanted to have on tap.
Created in the early 1900s, this cartel survived until 1991, when it finally fell. In typical Swiss fashion, it was even kept in power by a referendum which took place in 1958.
As a consequence of the change, it is now easier than ever to start smaller breweries - which in turn influenced the Swiss palette to move away from the standardised cartel lager and to more adventurous brews.
Seven beers to try in Switzerland
Whether you’re a beer enthusiast or a sometime sipper, you’ve probably heard of the big market brands like Feldschlösschen, Haldengut and Gurten.
Here are some lesser known brands which will tickle your fancy.
While most of the beers on this list are relatively unique, Quöllfrisch is a standard lager type beer with which most people will be familiar.
However, it’s anything but standard and represents perhaps the best a blonde lager can be. From Appenzell, this beer is relatively easy to find no matter where you are in Switzerland.
In fact, it’s served on Swiss airlines.
De Saint Bon Chien
The L'Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien is a truly unique beer. With a strength of 11 percent, the sour beer is aged in wooden barrels that previously contained red wine.
Highly sought after, the beer comes from Saignelégier in the canton of Jura close to the French border. It is the highest ranked Swiss beer on the beer ranking site ‘Untappd’, with several discontinued beers from the same brewery sitting alongside it.
Relatively difficult to get, it is available in small bottles or 20 litre kegs.
Zurich's Brüll!Bier is one of the city's best microbreweries.
Unlike many other Swiss breweries which tend to focus their efforts on only a few beers, Brüll!Bier brew several varieties touching on traditional styles, contemporary classics and experimental offerings.
While the red ale and the helles are excellent session beers, one speciality is the Prince of Ales Yorkshire Pale Ale, which can only be found at the British Beer Corner in Zurich.
Brewed to resemble a Yorkshire Pale Ale, it's tasty and delicious - and will go down well even if you've never had a YPA before.
Another beer that can be found in most parts of the country, Calvinus has several different traditional beer styles including a wheat beer, a thick dark ale and a Belgian pale ale.
Originally from Geneva, it is now brewed in the mountains of Appenzell using only organic ingredients.
According to legend, it is based on a recipe handed down in Geneva by Calvin the Reformer.
An amber ale with a relatively standard alcohol content (5.6 percent), Ittinger Klosterbräu is bitter but fruity.
The beer is brewed in a former Carthusian monastery on the banks of the Thur river.
It’s also one of the rare Swiss beers to be made with local hops - which are actually grown by the brewery itself - with more than 90 percent of beers made with hops exported from elsewhere in Switzerland.
Bier Factory Rapperswil
Rapperswil, on the outskirts of Zurich, is not only a great place to live if you work in the city - but also a great place to have a few beers.
The brewery has a taproom where you can try many of the beers they brew, including some staples and some experimental favourites.
One of the best is the Wanderlust Pale Ale, a hoppy pale ale which can easily be a session beer.
Another beer from the beautiful Appenzeller region, Appenzeller Castégna is brewed with chestnuts grown in the southern canton of Ticino which give it a “sweet, chestnutty aroma” according to a rather uninventive online review.
Brewed by Brauerei Locher, the Castégna is relatively difficult to find throughout the country other than in Ticino.
It’s a proud vegan friendly beer, whatever that means, and is often served with desert due to its sweet taste.