Switzerland is a small country that has had an outsized role in brewing history. Few modern beer enthusiasts may realize that the Swiss brewing tradition dates back to at least 754 ad, the earliest documentary mention of brewing at the monastery of St. Gallen in what is now northern Switzerland.
St. Gallen disseminated early brewing knowledge and brought Swiss brewing into the European mainstream. From then on Swiss brewing largely followed the same path as Central European brewing until the second half of the 18th century, when brewing in Switzerland experienced a type of Renaissance; by 1890, there were about 500 domestic breweries slaking the thirst of tiny Switzerland. To protect themselves from competition of imports from neighboring Germany, Swiss brewers founded the Swiss Brewery Club, forerunner of today’s Swiss Brewery Association, in 1877. In 1935, Swiss brewers went one step further by establishing a Swiss beer cartel to control distribution channels and set beer prices for restaurants and retail outlets. Publically, the Swiss beer barons called this cartel a “customer protection plan.” Each restaurant, henceforth, could deal with only one distributor, who supplied the premises with beer on a long-term contract basis. Selling beers from distributors outside the region was strictly forbidden and led to draconic repercussions by the cartel, including delivery boycotts. Within this system, foreign beer had no chance whatsoever. Even at the end of the 1980s, the market share of foreign beers in Switzerland, therefore, was no more than 1%.
Behind the comfortable protection of the cartel, Swiss breweries failed to innovate or put any effort into exports, and beer drinking declined among the population. Eventually, the cartels collapsed and foreign beers quickly made inroads. In subsequent years the big, but weakened, Swiss brewers became easy prey, one by one, for the takeover strategies of the large international concerns such as Heineken and Carlsberg, which together now hold about two-thirds of the Swiss beer market. Although there were still 45 Swiss breweries in 1990, there were only 24 by 1998. Most hops used in Swiss beers come from Germany; most malt came from Germany and France. More than three-quarters of all Swiss beers nowadays are international blonde lagers; about 15% are specialty beers, including rice, corn, spelt, and wheat beers; and dark beers amount to less than 1%.
However, there is a new beer movement afoot in Switzerland these days, with dozens (more than 100) of new craft breweries opening up. There are the Wädi-Bräu and Turbinen-Bräu in Zurich; brewery Unser Bier (Our Beer) in Basel; Öufi Bier in Solothurn; Luzerner Bier in Lucerne; the idiosyncratic and creative Brasserie Franches-Montagnes in the Jura, and Brasserie Trois Dames in French Switzerland. Many of these new players are financed by their own beer-drinking patrons who purchase shares in these start-up companies. In fact, collecting stock certificates of microbreweries has become a veritable and organized Swiss pastime. By 2010, there were 7.6 million people in Switzerland and a staggering 254 breweries registered with the Swiss beer tax authorities. A new Swiss beer culture is evolving, largely as a reaction against decades of abuse by the “big bad guys,” and the Swiss media are taking an ever greater interest in stories of the small breweries and their brewers—stories that seem to resonate more in the Swiss public than the slick advertisements of the big players. As craft brewing rises, it has touched people’s hearts, reconnected them with homegrown breweries, and injected new life into the once moribund Swiss beer scene.