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Posted March 2012

Heidi and Peter do it

Beer in Switzerland | Think Swiss, think high mountains, chocolate, cheese and watches, spick and span villages with cuckoo clock houses where ZZ Top lookalikes play the Alphorn while the little gnomes of Zürich shunt their gold to and fro in the vaults under Bahnhofstrasse. Don't we all love these tired and trite clichés about Switzerland, which give us a healthy dose of patronising amusement at the twee-ness of it all? Swiss stereotypes capture much of what Switzerland was and still is – but miss out what it has become: a nation of garagiste brewers. In a country of 7.8 million people there's over 340 of them already - and rising. When it comes to putting the romance back into the beer, these newly converted show great stubbornness and perseverance. But isn't that another typecast?

If popular perceptions of Switzerland range between fiction and folklore, blame it all on "Heidi". Remember " Hollerei, holldilariao .... Heidi, Heiiiidiiii" (would you believe that they actually yodel in the title song to the Japanese animation movie "Heidi" produced in 1974)? "Heidi" is the classic 19th century Swiss juvenile pastoral by Johanna Spyri which has entranced kids around the world for more than a century.

Set in the beautiful pastel colours of snow-capped mountains and sylvan valleys the orphaned Heidi, her gruff but kindly grandfather, her goatherd friend Peter, and Clara, the ailing, rich girl from Frankfurt, are the principal good companions involved in uncomplicated adventures.

When re-reading "Heidi" recently I was in for a bit of a shock. I had quite forgotten how gratingly didactic and preachy it was. Good girls do this, good girls don't do that. I admit that I have always had more of a soft spot for the goatherd Peter, that adorable unruly rascal, than for all-too-saccharine Heidi. Even as a child reader I found her irritatingly perfect.

The thing about children's literature is: what would these exemplary child prodigies do if they were suddenly propelled into our time and age ... and got older? Would they turn into pretentious gits (as did Adrian Mole whom the English writer Sue Townsend follows from the age of 13 3/4 to 40)? Or would they move from goodness to greatness?

My guess is that the childhood sweethearts Peter and Heidi will eventually get married, Peter will take a course in brewing and together they will set up their own small brewery in their native canton. Can you imagine my delight when I saw a photo of brewery-owner Marianne Hasler, who runs the Huus Braui in Roggwil with Walter Tobler, in a Swiss newspaper? Standing next to several stainless steel tanks, she wears a dirndl and an Edelweiss-shaped pendant round her neck. I was right after all: Heidi is alive and brewing. And she has developed a self-deprecating sense of humour. On Ms Hasler's homepage you will find the Huus Braui's self-description: "internationally unknown and domestically rather insignificant".

Here I beg to differ: Insignificant Ms Hasler and her fellow Swiss microbrewers may be when it comes to beer volumes produced. But they are far from irrelevant. For years, every setting up of a new brewery has made a big splash in the Swiss media. So big that other down-to-earth Swiss microbrewers begin to feel embarrassed by the attention they get, calling it "totally out of proportion". Modesty is fine and noble, the Pietistic Ms Spyri would have argued. Alas, in our age of global beer, the microbrewers' modesty is quite uncalled for. As anonymous big corporate brewers play it by the book, as they try to push more and more volume towards the retailers, all the while thinking of SKUs and profits, it's the small brewers with their ardent faces and passionate commitment to their product who keep the public's interest in beer alive and prevent the category from sinking deeper into the maelstrom of FAST MOVING CONSUMER GOODS. This is the micros' story all over the world and the small Swiss brewers - including the few remaining medium-sized privately-owned ones - are adding yet another chapter, albeit with its own twists and turns. Read on

 

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