The first steps
Even if all historical traces have disappeared, it is very likely that beer was brewed in the Celtic and Gallo-Roman Switzerland. After the barbarian invasions, the brewing knowledge was reimported in Europe by the Irish Benedictine monks who founded the Abbey of St. Gallen. The first Written evidences of the existence of brewing centers dates back to the 8th century. Throughout the Middle Ages, the manufacture of beer remained confined to this region. It is only in the 17th century that the phenomenon amplified, particularly in the cantons of Bern and Zurich. The first license for professional beer production was issued in 1635 in the canton of Bern.
Until the middle of the 19th century, beer consumption remained marginal in Switzerland. At this time, it was very difficult to brew in the summer and the quality was frequently questionable. As it was not possible to transport the beer over long distances, this limited the outlets and contributed to market fragmentation. In addition, prices could go from single to quadruple in a year, depending on the results of the barley harvests. Wine was cheaper and beer was remaining a luxury drink.
A dazzling development
In the second half of the 19th century, the Swiss brewing world saw an unprecedented expansion and this thanks to two factors. First, the grape phylloxera as well as discovery of fraudulent practices by certain winegrowers, led to an increase of the market demand of beer. At the same time, a serie of technical innovations revolutionized the production of beer. Pasteur's discoveries in the field of yeast conservation, the advent of the railroad and the invention of refrigeration machines then transformed what was a modest manufacturing into a real industry. It was around this time that the Swiss brewers agreed to adopt the new bottom fermentation brewing method as well as the German purity law, the (too) famous Reinheitsgebot.
All this led to a real explosion of the annual beer consumption per capita which increased from 4.8 l in 1850 to 36 l in 1885. The number of breweries increased during the same period from 150 to 530 and the production from 120'000 to 1 million hectoliters.
Faced with increasingly fierce foreign competition (imports rising from 14'000 hl in 1867 to 69'000 hl in 1874), the Swiss breweries united and in 1877 founded the Swiss Brewers' Society.
the hectolitre hunt
In 1885, the majority of the breweries sold their products in restaurants. But these being in limited number, the competition to supply them was extremely lively: this is what was called then "the hectolitre hunt". To bind the innkeepers, the brewers placed them in a relationship of dependence by granting them loans or guarantees. This ferocious competition caused a hecatomb of breweries. While there were 530 in 1885, 60 had to shut down between 1885 and 1890, then 210 more succumbed until the dawn of the 20th century.
In 1895, the Swiss Brewers' Society obtained an increase of the customs tax on imports of foreign beers. The latter, which had increased significantly during the last 25 years, recorded at the time 8% of total consumption.
In 1907 the brewers buried the hatchet and signed contracts regulating the competition between breweries.
the market foreclosure
World War I hit the Swiss brewing industry hard. Lack of material involved a rationing of production. Alcohol levels were cut in half and around forty breweries had to close for bankruptcy. In 1920 Switzerland did then have only 93 breweries left.
In 1935, the brewers regrouped in a cartel, regulating the territory of diffusion of the various beers, reducing the product to a dominant type and considerably limiting the importation of foreign beer. 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.
This practice froze the market and severely limited the possibility of new outlets. Therefore, the only possibility of expansion was to buy out competitors, not to take over their facilities but rather their client portfolio. The champion in this field is the brewery Feldschloesschen who took over a total of 35 breweries in his long career. The market protection ultimately turned against the small breweries...
In the meantime, World War II brought its share of problems with, among other things, a halving of production and a forced lowering of the alcohol content.
The post-war period allowed only a slow increase in production and it was not until 1956 that it finally reaches that of 1931.
The 1950s were characterized by a marked shift in the direction of consumption in bottles, in part because of the growing trend to drink at home. The brewing industry was then undergoing radical change, the production centers having to be modernized and the bottling capacity increased.
the end of the cartel
Following the incessant takeovers made by the major breweries, the number of members of the Brewers' Society fell from 58 in 1966 to 21 in 2000, then to 16 in 2008. This trend was broken in 2015 by the entry of Doppelleu followed by more breweries to reach 29 members nowadays (2021).
In 1988, Sibra Holding (Cardinal) will precipitate the fall of the cartel. The company pulls out so she can better face competition from foreign producers not subject to the agreements. The cartel therefore officially broke out in 1991.
However, the current situation has not really changed. Indeed, the major players in the Swiss market Swiss (Carlsberg, Heineken) lend money to the innkeeper who wants to open his business or make equipment available to them. (the installation for draft beer, for instance). In return, the restaurant owner agrees to only sell their products. This practice has been denounced to the competition authorities in 2004 by certain small brewers and an investigation been open. The result fell in 2005: the competition commission ruled in favor of the large breweries ...
the market evolution
In the 1960s and 1970s, the takeover of small regional businesses by the large breweries reached its peak worldwide. The beer market turned into an ocean of uniform blond lager, the number of breweries fell to its lowest and several styles of beer almost disappeared. In Great Britain, these large breweries abandoned traditional wooden barrels in favor of filtered, pasteurized and tasteless beers, in order to lower the production costs. A small group of consumers was formed in 1971 under the name of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) to defend tradition and protect small breweries. This English campaign is at the origin of a true world renaissance of beer.
Like a tsunami, this brewing revival finally reached Switzerland in the mid-1990s. In 1994, only about thirty breweries remained in our country. Since then, more than 1200 new breweries have been opened! - please consider that this number has to be put in perspective: the Swiss legislation (mandatory declaration for a yearly production above 4 hectoliters) as well as the extreme simplicity to register (motivating many tiny homebrewers to get their names officially recorded) are strong reasons for this inflation and the proportion of professionnal breweries represents only about 12% of this impressive total - At the same time, the annual consumption per capita dropped from 71 liters in 1990 to 52 in 2020 and imports of beer increased from 13.6% of the market in 1991 to 26.7% in 2013 (the trend inverted somewhat since then to reach 24.3% in 2020). More breweries, more foreign beers, less consumption: no need to be a mathematical genius to understand that someone must lose market share in this game. A quick calculation shows that in 1992 the breweries Feldschloesschen, Cardinal and Valaisanne produced 64% of the beers in our country. Some thirty years later, and although in the meantime having absorbed the customers of Gurten and Huerlimann whose installations were shut down, these two production centers (Cardinal has been closed in 2011) only control 39 to 43% of the market (+ 5% of imports).
All of this is hardly surprising. Many consumers, tired by decades of drinking tasteless products that all look the same, are now heading more and more towards beers with character that the major Swiss brewing groups are surprisingly incapable of to offer, those who are desperately trying to sell their beers at reduced alcohol content, Radlers or otherwise pseudo-premium through major advertising campaigns. And they are also unable to take part in the increased trend of drinking local products.
All this is of course a chance for microbreweries and the near future will tell us if they will be able to seize it. The key for this to happen is the access to the distribution channels of supermarkets and most importantly to restaurants. The breakthrough of new breweries like Doppelleu, Dr. Gab's and WhiteFrontier shows that this is possible.
A closer look to the beginning of craft beer in Switzerland (and just before)
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:
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:
(*) 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:
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/Maerzen to a Heller Bock.
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.
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), Loewengarten (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.
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: Sonnenbraeu 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 Huerlimann, 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, Feldschloesschen, after having merged with Huerlimann 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 Feldschloesschen.
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 Klosterbraeu, 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: Waedi Braeu (Waedenswil) 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 Houblonniere (more about this pioneer further) could beg to disagree as it brewed (and sold) hemp beer since 1993.
Before we dig further, I have to say some words on the beer "Roestigraben". Probably known by everyone living in Switzerland, this term (meaning "Roesti 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.
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), Loewenbraeu (1991), Gurten (1996) and Huerlimann (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: Feldschloesschen (2000).
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 "Roestigraben" 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 & Braeu. This brewpub existed up to seven places (Zuerich, Lichtensteig, Thun, Langenthal, Rapperswil, St-Gallen and Winterthur), all closed between 2001 and 2007.
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 Herzbraeu (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 Houblonniere 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 Houblonniere are still concocting some mysterious beers somewhere...
The next pioneers include the Brasserie Artisanale de Fribourg (since 1993; nowadays named Fri-mousse), Sauhofbraeu (Laufen, 1995), Richie Braeu (Rheinfelden, 1995-2012), Brasserie Artisanale de Porrentruy (1996), Felsenkeller (Staefa, 1997-2008), Ruetihoefler-Braeu (1998), Baere-Braeu (Bern, 1998-2004), Turbinen Braeu (Zurich, 1997), BFM (Saignelegier, 1997), Sierrvoise (Sierre, 1997), Unser Bier (Basel, 1997), Officina della Birra (Bioggio, 1999) and Haldemann (Sugiez, 1998-2018).
Turbinen Braeu was founded by Adrien Weber as a reaction to the shutdown of Huerlimann 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 Baere-Brau of Markus Buehler, the BFM of Jerome 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 unabhaengiger 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 Fete de la Biere, 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 Foerderung der Biervielfalt" (Society for the promotion of beer diversity) was founded in 1992 and is actually Swiss member of the European Beer Consumer Union.
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.
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.