Picture Alpine mountain passes, snow-capped mountains, cows with brass bells littering grassy fields, vast networks of idyllic lakes. For such a small country, Switzerland supports a wide range of diversity, from its varied scenic settings to the culture within its cantons. Split into 26 member states, which are not too unlike statehood in the US, the famously neutral nation has four official languages and borders five countries. Those borders give way to distinct regions, each with equally distinct tastes in beer. For example, Belgian-style ales are highly favored in Geneva, closest to the French border, but lagers are much more in demand in Zurich, a preference no doubt due to its proximity to Germany.
As the biggest city in Switzerland, it’s a driving force when it comes to trends and taste. And while there’s been an increased interest in all things local and craft in Zurich, given the country's small size, that concept is rather fluid. “Define local,” quips Jonathan Jacobson, co-owner of the Alehouse. An hour away in any direction Switzerland is often a whole different world. I booked a flight to Zurich hoping its beer would provide a window into what local means in Switzerland. Over the course of just a few nights, I discovered a visit to three of Zurich’s prominent beer bars can afford a glimpse into Switzerland at large by way of its beer, offering a taste of old guard and new wave, Swiss heritage and a city’s unique flavor.
Established twenty years ago, Brasserie Federal sits in the heart of Zurich’s main train station. Throngs of commuters whizz by, where patrons are relaxing under large umbrellas in a setup meant to mirror the patio of traditional French cafes. In any other locale, it could be assumed the bistro’s primary customer base would be tourists, but Federale has a legion of loyal locals. In a country of 8 million, the main train station in Zurich sees an average of 450,000 passengers per day, many of which stop for a beer at Federal. The bar has all the fixings of your major metropolitan commuter bar—high ceilings with ornate wood detailing and arched floor-to-ceiling windows surround a central bar—with a decidedly more impressive beer list.
While foreign beers are available at other restaurants and bars in the station, Federal is committed to an exclusively Swiss offerings. That means 100 different Swiss beers spanning the map from Basil to St. Gallen, Geneva and beyond. The menu caters heavily to its German-speaking population with a long list of pale lagers and over a half dozen dark lagers to go with minced beef with mountain cheese or sliced veal with mushroom sauce. Leberkäse, a sausage that translates to “liver cheese” pairs especially well with Falken Schwarzbier. Other items—such as Ittinger Klosterbräu and St. Galler Klosterbräu Amber from Schützengarten, the country’s oldest brewery—celebrate Switzerland’s trappist tradition. The best way to try Federal’s extensive selection is with meter of beer, a tasting option that includes seven of the nine beers on tap. It gives the drinker insights into popular Swiss styles such as panache—also known as a radler—a mixed beer traditionally made lager with lemonade or Sprite. Federal’s version is a bit more upscale, created with fresh lemon juice.
Just down the road from the station, Eldorado sits on Limmatstrasse as a beacon to craft beer drinkers. Under dim light, silver bottle openers adorn the walls and are inscribed with the names of patrons who’ve completed the challenge of drinking all 101 beers on offer. With a menu organized by geographical location, the bar showcases beers from around the world, including a Swiss-specific section that draws mostly from breweries in the French-speaking region. These include dark and amber lagers as well as belgian ale. However, the only beer you will find on draft is from Turbinenbräu, Zurich’s only brewery.
After over a hundred years in business spanning five generations of the same family, Hürlimann Brewery previously stood as Zurich’s only brewery. In 1996, it was on the cusp of closure after it was absorbed by Feldschlösschen, a brand that was sold to Carlsberg in 2000, and production was moved out of the country. Cue Turbinenbräu, which formed with the sole purpose to preserve and anchor a brewery in Zurich. As a brewery, Turbinenbräu is the largest in the region and makes three different beers including a Spezialbier—Switzerland’s answer to the pilsner—as well as two seasonal varieties crafted to compliment swimming and ski season respectively.
Sitting in the heart of the University district, The Alehouse is a representation of the craft beer revolution happening in Switzerland. What started as a bottle shop called Beers n’ More—which still exists next door—has since expanded into a craft beer bar as well as an import and distribution arm for various craft breweries across the country. In some ways, The Alehouse is the epitome of the city and the University District in which it sits. You’re likely to hear the chatter of multiple languages upon entry. The building itself belongs to a fraternity, which still holds occasional meetings in a back room. Up front, thanks to its rich wooden interior with long tables and pew-like seating along the walls, The Alehouse offers up the feel of a pub through and through. It’s a great spot for large group gatherings, especially in combination with its back patio that acts as a viewing hub for sporting events. The laid-back atmosphere is by design, according to Jacobson. “I wanted to make the kind of place where I would feel comfortable drinking,” he says.
Taps are continuously rotating with beers from Beavertown in the UK to Omnipollo in Sweden and Blackwell, a brewery operated by a pair of brothers in Bern, Switzerland. Other Swiss offerings include Trois Dames of Sainte-Croix, a small-batch brewery based next to the French border in the Jura region, and White Frontier in the southern town of Martigny. But no matter how experimental, craft or micro things appear on the beer list, the bar always has a German lager on tap to cater to the deep-seated regional preferences of their locale.
Despite this diversity, Jacobson wagers that Zurich “is five years behind London in terms of craft beer,” but is being driven forward by expats. By hosting takeovers and uplifting fringe microbreweries, The Alehouse is helping to move the needle. It doesn’t take more than a visit to The Alehouse, Eldorado or Federal—or other burgeoning beer destinations such as the International, a bar often referred to as the premiere spot for all things beer in Switzerland, or farm-to-table restaurant Fork & Bottle—to see the broad range of taste and experiences this Swiss city has to offer by way of beer.