Posted December 2018
Taking pride in Unser Bier
Localism and beer│Developing a beer culture is a slog. It takes decades rather than years. Switzerland is no exception here. On turning twenty, Basle’s microbrewery Unser Bier shows that a new beer culture can take hold, that is made up mostly of people creating beers they earnestly care about, and consumers who may find the idea of craftsmanship important, but for whom flavour rules supreme.
Stereotypically the Swiss are perceived as being rather slow, both physically and mentally. A joke goes: Two Swiss are walking in the woods. Suddenly one turns around and squishes a snail. “It was irritating me! It has been following us for half an hour.”
I was reminded of this – and numerous other jokes to this effect – when reading that after two decades, the Basle brewery Unser Bier (“Our Beer”) still only sells 6,000 hl beer per year. Unser Bier celebrated its 20th anniversary in September 2018 and over 5,000 people attended the party.
Compared with craft breweries elsewhere on the continent, selling 6,000 hl beer annually in a city of 200,000 inhabitants would be considered modest. But Unser Bier’s co-founder Istvan Akos contends (see interview) that this is a major achievement, given that Switzerland, a country of 8.4 million people, did not have a beer culture before Unser Bier – and a host of others – came along.
Mr Akos’ claim may seem contentions. After all, in the 19th century Basle alone had nearly two dozen breweries. And did not Switzerland decide to protect its breweries with the help of an official beer cartel (1935 – 1991), which did everything trustbusters will abhor? Under the guardianship of the brewers’ association it set prices, determined how far breweries could distribute their beers, which beer styles they could brew and how. Not enough, it even banned individual brand advertising for generic beer ads. The cartel was meant to protect its members by stifling competition, not least from imported beers, yet failed grandiosely: while ringfencing the breweries, their number halved to 32 between 1935 and 1990.
Contrary to Mr Akos, it could be argued that Switzerland did have a beer culture. Albeit, it was of the variety that Americans call the “BMC culture”, an acronym for Bud-Miller-Coors. As brewers flogged technically perfect yet inoffensive tasting beers to consumers with the help of TV advertising, brand promotions, and big profile sports sponsorships, they managed to establish an “unconscious groupthink” (my preferred definition of “culture”). Shared by beer drinkers across the country, they would see beer as a social lubricant, but did not discuss it, care how it was made, or make it the centre of any social situations. It was a culture alright, even though today many in the US and elsewhere look back on it and think: “Phew, what a relief it’s gone!”
Switzerland’s beer cartel eventually came down. However, its sad legacy lingered on. Unconscious groupthink deemed domestic beer a uniform product, undifferentiated by styles and therefore boring. It was not something they hankered after, unlike imported beers, which immediately took off: from over 600,000 hl in 1991 to 1.2 million hl in 2014, the year they peaked. Over the same period, Swiss brewers combined lost 700,000 hl beer in output. In 2017, they produced about 3.4 million hl beer, down from 4.1 million hl in 1991.
Currently, imports represent 30 percent of beer consumption. This is shockingly high and a prime indicator that most Swiss do not hold domestic beers in high esteem.
Unfortunately, the rest of this report is exclusive to subscribers of Brauwelt International. Read on