08 January 2009

Swiss roll of honour

It wasn't all doom, gloom and dodgy pils in Zürich. Up at Bar Andorra, the barman was waxing lyrical about the proprietor of the Bier Paul brewery -- a man who could talk all day about beer, apparently. Imagine! He's evidently too busy yakking to think up clever names for his beers, as they all seem to go by two-digit numbers instead, starting with 01, a lager. This is a clear and slightly bitter helles, with hints of aniseed through it. Unexciting and well-made, though a step down from 02, a schwarzbier with an acidic nose, a touch of bitter coffee in the flavour, and a really interesting strawberry-like aftertaste. As a special treat, Bar Andorra was also serving 07, the winter beer. It's a rose-gold hue and packed with burnt sugar caramel flavours. Full-bodied as a winter beer should be, but still light enough not to become difficult to drink.

There's a much more imaginative approach to naming at Appenzeller. Their standard helles is called Quöllfrisch and is as light and refreshing as the name suggests. It's far from as clear as a mountain spring, however, having a definite haze to it, even from a can. It's sweet, easy-going, but not very interesting otherwise. For a bit more oomph there's Vollmond, a similarly-hazy, but heavier, blond lager with a hoppy aroma and an almost greasy fullness to the body. Appenzeller really excels, however, when they abandon the 'gebot and bung some hemp in. Hanfblüte is remarkably pale but gives off enticing herby aromas. The flavour is pungent and reminds me most of freshly cracked black pepper, the sort where you can still feel the oil in the corns. It's one of those one-taste-wonder beers, but I loved it.

And Appenzeller aren't the only ones playing with Mary Jane. Down on the shores of the Zürichsee, the Wädenswiler brewery are making their own Hanf, served in the brewery's trademark 33cl swingtop longnecks. I brought one home with me, where the stopper came off with a thundering pop. It pours a dark ruby shade and has a similar peppery aroma to Hanfblüte. The flavour is still peppery, but in a more vegetal way, like green bell peppers. It's a bit thin, mind, but insanely tasty. I've had a couple of different hemp beers at this stage but I don't think I've ever encountered this pepperiness before. More of this sort of thing for me please.

I got to know a couple of the other Wädenswiler beers in a dodgy pseudo-alpine theme pub where a band were determinedly churning out their accordion-based folk music against some nerve-jangling amateur yodelling from a single pissed-up punter who hadn't noticed no-one else was joining in. Wädenswiler Ur-Pil's (yes, that's where the apostrophe goes -- live with it) is a translucent straw-coloured lager with a sharp lemony bitterness giving it an interesting edge over the other ur-type cloudy lagers I found in Switzerland. Lastly, their Dunkel is a wonder: sweet, smooth and loaded with chocolate flavours. Three great beers, and all of them organic.

Zürich's two brewpubs are both situated a tramride out from the city centre. Steinfels is one of the most self-consciously retro-chic bars I've ever been in, and the brewkit almost looks out of place among the '70s-esque furniture and fittings. With typically Swiss precision, four beers are always available, one of which is a seasonal that rotates between four different brews. Like so many brewpubs, there are a couple of attempts at making something like the mass-market swill which punters expect, and their Lager and Pils are just this. The former is the better one, having that dry and grainy character I quite enjoy in brewpub lager. The Pils is powerfully, cloyingly, bitter and laced with a quite nasty bleachy flavour which put me right off.

Steinfels Weizen is a bit more civilised and comes in a cool heavyweight straight-sided glass. It's strongly fruity, with banana oil flavours in the ascendant sitting on a heavy, almost chewy, body. Harder work than your typical weissbier, but well worth the effort. Winter dictated that Weinachtsbier was the seasonal on tap. It's a strange beast -- dark amber and heavily spiked with spices that give it an artificial, almost aftershave-like, character -- more Old Spice than fresh spice. There's lots of ginger, but it's of the sweet, baked, gingerbread variety rather than sharp and zingy. There's cinnamon as well. I still quite liked it for all its oddness. It's definitely a warming beer, and I always enjoy finding a beer to think about in amongst the brew-by-numbers pale lagers.

The other micro, like a lot of Zürich's businesses, had closed down for the whole Christmas season. Turbinenbräu looks quite industrially funky from the outside. I caught up with three of its beers at Zeughauskeller, a city centre beerhall renowned for its eye-watering sausage menu, including the house speciality sold by the metre. Goldsprint is the bog-standard pils, though served remarkably warm. Its full body and intense bitterness meant this worked quite well, and there was a touch of cask lager about the whole experience. The weiss is called Start and is a complete contrast to Steinfels's -- though still putting bananas to the fore, it's very light and zesty with it, easy drinking and really inappropriately served by the little 33cl bottle.

Zeughauskeller celebrated its 70th birthday in 2007 and had Turbinenbräu make them a special beer to mark the occasion. The result is Jubiläumsbier, a malty amber affair which I found a bit bland at the end, and definitely behind the brewery's other offerings. There was one last item on the menu that intrigued me. As pictured left, customers were given the option of enjoying a half-litre of Hövels Original "flambéed with firewater". What with all the metric sausage fun I'm afraid I never got round to stumping up the tenner-or-so it would have cost to find out, on your behalf, what this is like, and for that I can only apologise.

And that pretty much concludes my explorations of Swiss beer. There is just one more but it's still in my fridge with the cap on. I'll include it in a later post. Specially big thanks go to Ron for his ever-useful European Beer Guide -- a great starting point for beer expeditions in the cities of Europe.

12 comments:

  1. Blimey - What a comprehensive post. It left me breathless! Sounds worth a visit - when the pound recovers that is.

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  2. Enlightening.
    How is the price level?

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  3. Fairly filthy, Knut. Beer tends to come in either 33cl or 40cl measures and will start at about SFr. 7 for local swill, up towards 9 for anything more fancy in terms of beer or locale.

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  4. Laurent Mousson3:58 pm

    Yeah, but Zurich is horrendously expensive to Swiss standards anyway, as is Geneva. 33cl of draught pale lager should not set you back more than SFr. 4.50 in places where real people live... ;o)

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  5. Laurent Mousson4:02 pm

    By the way, as far as Swiss beer is concerned, the one web page not to miss (as it is both comprehensive, reliable and regularly updated) is Philippe "Bov" Corbat's Swiss Beer Guide : http://www.bov.ch/beer/swissbeers.htm

    Cheers !

    Laurent

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  6. Hi John

    I am surprised that there was no bock available?

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  7. I really like the Bier Paul branding and packaging, although, having had a look at the website, they could probably do to colour code as well as numbering. What a lot of turquoise.

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  8. Laurent Mousson10:53 pm

    Oblivious, Bock biers are a pretty rare thing in Switzerland, even in the german-speaking lagerland part of the country. There are a few seasonals such as Egger's or some brewpubs' (Altes Tramdépôt in Berne has produced one a few years back, IIRC).
    Shows how unimaginative brewers in that part of the country are... mind you, up to the late 70s, unfiltered beer was illegal (protectionist measure indeed), and Weizen still is considered with suspicion by many swiss-german drinkers.
    I guess this can be traced back to the days of the swiss beer cartel (1936-1991), during which, among other things only a handful of beer styles (pale lager, dark lager, spezial, and strong lager) were allowed to cartel members, thatis vitually every brewery in the country (notable exceptions being Boxer and Fischerstube)...

    Cheers !

    Laurent

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  9. Hi Laurent Mousson

    Yea I always though bock to be just a German thing and most popular in Bavaria.

    But in Holland they do the versions of tradational and Mai, even in part of eastern Europe do. I hungry they have an interesting one and they called then Bok. It just seems any country thats close to Germany or has been influenced in the past its not uncommon to find one?

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  10. There was one beerhall selling draught Salvator, but I didn't see a whole lot of bock otherwise. Not that I would have been seeking it out, mind.

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  11. nice post mate - v. informative -not to mention delicious-looking.

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  12. Cheers. And you like your beer to be on fire, do you?

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