Heineken and Carlsberg have been changing the Swiss beer market by buying up the country’s independent breweries. But in an Alpine village, a small company dedicated to artisanship and good design is standing firm.
Those of us who enjoy a tipple are well aware, sometimes painfully so, that altitude plays havoc with the body’s tolerance for alcohol. Anyone who has chugged an abundance of on-piste liveners or knocked back too many glasses of white in a bid to settle into a flight will attest to that. It would seem, however, that the contrary could be said for the effect of altitude on alcohol production.
Nestling 1,533m above sea level halfway up the Engadine valley sits the Alpine village of Tschlin, where a small brewery – or bieraria in the local Romansch language – is pumping out a tasty beer from a converted dairy building. The Swiss beer market is dominated by Carlsberg and Heineken, which have spent the past two decades buying up Switzerland’s largest breweries and in turn taking control of the nation’s favourite brews. In the face of global onslaught it is certainly a refreshing change to find an artisanal microbrewery producing fine beers in one of the most remote settings in Switzerland.
For such a small brewery in such an isolated location – Bieraria Tschlin brews just 1,500 litres a week and employs four people – the operation is surprisingly tight and typically Swiss. Owner Angelo Andina installed state-of-the-art brewing equipment from the Czech Republic and Hungary. A fully integrated computerised system, supplied by electronics specialist Rockwell Automation, controls temperatures and timings to the milli-measure.
With such small quantities being distributed to just a handful of bars, restaurants and retail outlets in Switzerland, one wonders what the ultimate motivation is. “I am intent on putting Tschlin on the map but there is an inertia here in the surrounding area,” says Andina. “Traditionally we are in an agricultural region and if we don’t market ourselves then all this is destined to disappear. I am trying to promote local produce, from the brewery I started four years ago to the small dairy and meat farmers in the village. I am not a brewer by trade, I just enjoy beer and thought it would be an interesting draw for the region.”
Andina, an Upper Engadine native, instigated a scheme a few years ago to regenerate the region in his former role as secretary of the Tschlin “commune”, or village council. He assembled a group of local producers – including Che Chaschöl cheese and Bio Janett meat – and branded them under the “Bun Tschlin” moniker as a way to promote the village as an artisinal gourmet destination. Chur-based design agency Süsskind developed an umbrella website and colour scheme for all the companies, including the design of Andina’s Biera Engiadinaisa bottle, and there is a shop in Tschlin that sells all the produce. Andina is keen to develop a new retail concept but he remains tight-lipped about his plans. He does, however, reveal that he hopes to secure space in St Moritz for, “a shop selling Swiss-only produce from sausage and cheese to our very own Biera Engiadinaisa”.
Something that Andina is less secretive about, however, is his love of brewing. “It’s the water that makes all the difference,” says Andina, “Look at this. That glass of water has been sitting on the window sill for a month. You’ll notice there is no residue, which denotes almost zero calcification during evaporation – that’s because we take the water from the spring just metres from the brewery. The most important factor in creating a tip-top beer is choosing the highest-quality ingredients,” he says.
Biera Engiadinaisa’s full flavour is generated by steeping Swiss barley malt in the local spring water producing a sweet wort solution to which Florian Geyer, Bieraria Tschlin’s master brewer adds yeast. The beer ferments for six weeks and is then poured by hand into 33cl and 50cl brown flip-top bottles, left to settle for a day before it is ready to drink. Biera Engiadinaisa has an alcohol by volume of 5 per cent and has a smooth taste and pale amber colour similar to a classic Czech pilsner.
For now Andina has no plans to expand the brewery because he simply doesn’t have the space, so if you want to taste the beer for yourself we suggest you head for the Engadine or make an appointment with the man himself – he’ll be more than happy to escort you around the brewery and treat you to a bottle or two of his beer – just remind your legs of the altitude before you quaff the crate. As the local toast goes – Prosit!
Although Switzerland is still dotted with small breweries, the big players seem intent on monopolising the market. Until 2000, when Carlsberg acquired the business, Feldschlösschen was the largest independent brewery in Switzerland. Calanda, another big Swiss brewery, was bought by Europe’s largest brewer Heineken in the 1990s and the Dutch company announced plans to buy Switzerland’s third largest independent brewery, Eichhof, in April. This move will give Carlsberg and Heineken a 63 per cent majority share in the Swiss beverage market.