peak brew

Getting a taste for Switzerland's record-breaking beer market

switzerland beer market
If you like beer that doesn't taste like beer. Source: Bread Beer

Swiss cheese, sure. Swiss chocolates, natch. But who can even name a Swiss beer?

The times may be changing: Switzerland now has a thousand breweries, concocting everything from traditional brews to very crafty beers. The Alpine country boasts 4,000 beers, ranging from the familiar to the funky — like bread beer or a scary-sounding absinthe brew.

The total number is still much smaller than Germany, where laws dating back to the Middle Ages decreed that each region should have its own brewery so field workers could have a drink after their outdoor labors. And the Swiss market was long dominated by a legal cartel dating back to 1935, which was broken up in 1992, leaving only 32 breweries.

Once the market was liberalized though, the number of breweries expanded rapidly. By 2015, there were 479 breweries, the most per capita in the world. Just weeks ago Birrificio Fin, a boutique maker of American-, Italian- and Belgian-style pale ales, officially became the thousandth Swiss brewery.

Switzerland’s market is still dominated by the biggest names: The largest 50 breweries make 99 percent of the beers. So you’re still most likely to see brews by the best-known brands: the Carlsberg-owned Feldschlösschen and Cardinal, or Heineken’s Eichhof, Calanda and Haldengut. Only five breweries produce more than 100,000 hectoliters (2.6 million gallons) of beer a year. Carlsberg is Switzerland’s dominant brewer, holding 34 percent of the market; Heineken has 18 percent.

The freshest tastes and boldest flavors are coming out of smaller breweries, ones that use ingredients like hemp and chestnut or rice and pine. That is partially thanks to the international trend for craft beer from the United States. One smokey number, Brewstache by La Nébuleuse, reportedly tastes like liquid bacon.

For newcomers to the scene, Switzerland makes it easy. Brewers don’t need any official training or certification, unlike in Germany. Tax breaks also ease the burden: A legal change from 2007 means small and mid-sized breweries — those making less than 55,000 hectoliters a year — pay discounted beer tax rates. That covers 98 percent of the 1,000 Swiss breweries.

The only bad news for aspiring beer brewers is that the Swiss, like many Europeans, are drinking less. But perhaps the conditions in Switzerland will get that tap flowing again.

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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