Swiss beer is rubbish.
That's not really fair of me, of course. For a start, most beer of most countries is rubbish, and I only visited a small part of the German-speaking area of Switzerland for a few days last week. As Laurent mentioned, and Ron has written, the western Francophone parts of the country are a much happier hunting ground. Nevertheless, the first impression I got from drinking in Switzerland is that the beer, in general, is rubbish.
It's not that it's bad per se. Like Ireland's mass-produced beers it's just really really dull. In typical central European fashion, lagers and wheat beers dominate, with transnationals Carlsberg and Heineken duking it out from behind the local brands they've acquired and consolidated.
Hürlimann is perhaps one of the saddest stories. The original brewer of Samichlaus before Carlsberg took over, shut down the Zürich brewery, and seemingly removed anything interesting from the line-up. Hürlimann Lager is a very pale yellow with a full-bodied and slightly creamy texture but with little to be said for its flavour other than a vague sweetness. Sternbräu, from the same stable, is plainer still -- a yellow lager utterly devoid of distinguishing features.
From the same facility, Carlsberg produce the Feldschlösschen range. When I ordered a beer marked on a beerhall blackboard simply as "Urtrüeb" (sic), I assume it was Feldschlösschen Urtrüb I got. The cloudy orange appearance was attractive, like a lovely fruity weiss, but the texture is watery and the taste is non-existent. Can anyone tell me what the point of this stuff is? Things improve slightly with the Dunkle Perle: it's quite bitter and has a certain nuttiness going for it, but not much else. Top of this lacklustre range for me was the Feldschlösschen Winterbier. It's a heavy amber lager with a nice warming maltiness up front. This fades far too quickly, however, with nothing bringing up the rear. I still could have managed more than the 33cl I got, though.
So much for the Danes. What are the other lot up to? Heineken own Calanda, a brand I saw more in ads than for sale. The only one I got hold of was Meisterbräu, a märzen-like heavy gold lager with a hint of north-Germanic bitterness. It's decent and filling, but not terribly exciting overall. Ittinger Klosterbräu is another of theirs, and seems once to have been a well-respected brew. Now it's an attractive limpid dark amber beer with little more than a mild sugariness and an unfortunate chemical aftertaste to say for itself. I drank it in the opulent surrounds of the James Joyce, a swish café constructed from the bar of the former Jury's hotel in Dublin's Dame Street, where the Financial Regulator's building now stands. Its frightfully modestly-clad allegorical figures were far more entertaining than the beer, likewise the handpumps on the bar, which survived Dublin's mass migration to keg beer but are now merely decorative.
Halden Krone Premium is the last Heineken beer I tried. It's softly carbonated and easy to drink, but let down by -- you've guessed it -- blandness. A sunny-day quaffer, but otherwise pointless. Interestingly, Heino have held on to the old Halden site at Winterthur even though production has moved elsewhere. I wonder will they do the same with the Beamish & Crawford site in Cork when brewing ceases there in a couple of months.
Switzerland has retained a couple of its large independents. Müller Urweizen is brewed by one of them, a strange sort of wheat beer, with virtually no head on top of an amber body. The result is something like a heavy, flat, macrolager with a strange rubbery sort of aftertaste. I discovered Eichhof Hubertus in Brasserie Fédéral, the fantastic temple of Swiss beer housed in Zürich railway station. This "spezial dunkel" is another dark amber affair with a spicy cinnamon nose. There's big malt in the foretaste but it leaves the drinker hanging. Promising, but unfortunately unbalanced. Bringing up the rear, there's the best of the big players, Falken Schwarz-Bier. This jet-black lager is remarkably complex, with big milk chocolate and caramel flavours plus a touch of coffee roastiness. It reminds me of nothing so much as a milk stout, its low level of carbonation making for a smooth and tasty schwarzbier with supreme drinkability.
So there's a quick run-through of big Swiss-German beer for you. Far from comprehensive, but I get the distinct impression that most of the large brewers are doing much the same as the others. What the region's smaller operations are up to will follow in the next post.