A Weekend In Switzerland Part II: Tradition
When The Secret Agent and I decided to visit Basel and Zürich, two cities in German speaking Cantons, one of which, Basel, located practically across the street from the German town Freiburg, we expected to encounter a beer culture similar to that of Germany: large beer halls that’s been around for centuries and serve one or two dirt cheap, fresh house-brewed lagers on tap. Sounds boring? That’s the setting that The Secret Agent idolizes; he’d rather sit in a bierhall and chat in pidgin with local retired men over visiting any cutting-edge multi-tap bar.
However, his Bavarian fantasy didn’t come true over our Swiss weekend. The market is dominated by Feldschlösschen, once family owned that’s been a Carlsberg subsidiary since 2000 that brews pale lagers. With the help of Ratebeer, we visited 3 beer halls that have the patina we’ve been craving.
Located in the heart of Old Town Basel, a minute from the Rhine, is Restaurant Fischerstube, a lively brewpub in a 15th-century building that serves traditional Swiss dishes and the house beers on tap as well as bottled seasonals and specialties. As expected from a microbrewery in a town know for its winter carnival, Ueli Bier‘s icon is a (thankfully not intimidating) jester. Fischerstube is a packed, yet cosy place. Filled with chatter and clutter, a welcoming atmosphere and crowd that consists of locals and foreigners at once. We sat next to two women who were having a drink after a shopping spree and exchanged looks with them, over the loud Americans who occupied the opposite table and bragged about the thriving microbrewing scenes of Colorado and Idaho. In the corner there was a large table of 60-70 years-old women, celebrating something over wine glasses.
We loved the atmosphere and enjoyed the beer we sampled – 5 different beers in total, as those on tap are offered in different size glasses, from 100 or 200 ml. to 3L jugs. The spicy, almost-chewy Hefe Weizen was our favourite with the roasty dunkel a close follower. There was nothing really outstanding about the beers in Fischerstube, but their freshness and the lovely, lively happening around us added to our enjoyment.
You can buy Ueli Bier in Drinks of The World in Basel, which we mentioned in the first entry in the Swiss weekend series, but I’m afraid that outside the restaurant they’re just simple lagers, so if you can (and if you’re in the teeny-tiny town known as Basel, you can), drink it on location.
There must be other traditional beer halls in Basel, but we had only one evening in the city and opted to visit brewpubs (yes, in plural. Wait for part III). We arrived at Zürich on Friday evening, dropped our luggage at the spacious room we found on AirBnB and returned to the crowded train station, for a taste of Christmas Market and beer. Located in the main hall of Zürich Hauptbahnhof, Brasserie Fédéral that specializes in Swiss beer, attracts quite a few of the 400,000 passengers that enter the station every day. The menu offers more than 100 Swiss beers, almost all of them bottled, most of them conservative; beer from new Swiss micros wasn’t spotted on the menu. We were seated in a corner table and were served by an impatient waiter that was somewhat irritated that we read the menu and didn’t just opt for some Feldschlösschen. The prices were high, we were tired and wanted to switch to our pajamas so we ordered two bottles of hard-to-find stuff that’s in the 1001 book. Felsenau Bärni Dunkles Spezialbier an unfiltered dark lager thathails from Swiss capital Bern pours clear dark bronze and smells of honey and diluted caramel. Tastes rather sweet with a little sting, its body is light and the carbonation quite soft for a lager. This is not a bad beer. It is properly done, but you can lead a peaceful life and die happily without trying it. Rosengarten Einsiedler Hell is another rather difficult to find beer. That’s a pale lager that, according to the book “is a must-try beer for scholars of the Swiss beer landscape”. Beers like that is the reason the 1001 book pisses me off so many times. There’s one Israeli beer in the book, a hard-to-find, tap only seasonal and then there’s this mediocre Swiss pale lager? Gee, Goldstar is much more worthy! Even Tuborg Red that has an interesting story behind it is worthier than Einsiedler Hell. Clear Golden with a quick dissolving white head, honey and mineral aroma, bitter, malty and roasty taste, light body and way-too-soft carbonation. Something was wrong with the bottle, as the flip-top opened without any resistance. Mediocre.
Our Classic Beer Hall craving was satisfied on our last day in Zurich. Restaurant Zeughauskeller, a huge, busy place in the heart of Old Town, has been in business since 1926. Before that the building that was constructed in 1487 was used as arsenal warehouse. The restaurant website tells that “[legend] has it that the crossbow from William Tell […] was issued here.” It comes as no surprise that the walls are decorated with all sorts of armor. It’s a touristy place and as such is expensive and offers multi-lingual menus, but when we visited on Sunday noon, it also boasted of dining Swiss families. Menu is full-on Swiss traditional dishes, has limited vegetarian/ vegan options (but the bread is to die for!) and a small, but alright beer menu: a few Swiss beers on tap and a bunch of “international” bottles (Schneider Weisse, Chimay and more Swiss beer). Draught beer is offered in 300ml and 400ml glasses. We opted for the small ones and finally drank some beers from the aforementioned Feldschlösschen: Feldschlösschen Urtrüb that’s in the menu is called Naturrüb that was alright, with grassy, vegetal aroma that’s quite typical for unfiltered beer. We also drank Dunkle Perle that was a bit too watery for me, Oberländerbier Amber that was quite nice, bitter and malty with some caramel and the house beer that was brewed by local brewery Turbinenbräuhaus that was quite nice as well, with spices and biscuit in the nose and soft herbal, slightly dry bitterness.
I would highly recommend visiting these 3 places but more for the atmosphere than for the beer. Meanwhile, Felsenau Bärni and Einsiedler Hell are beers #158 and #159 *I* Must Try Before I Die. You, however, don’t have to.