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Over the moon in the steps of brewing monks

In the ruins of St. Gall we have the earliest layout of a brewery in Europe

When Irish monks reintroduced civilisation to Continental Europe after the Dark Ages, they probably took beer with them.

St Gall, who gave his name to a hilly little town in Switzerland, founded an abbey there that made beer in the 800s and had at least three brewhouses over the centuries.

From the ruins we have the earliest layout of a brewery in Europe. The town of St Gallen describes its abbey precinct as one of the world's cultural treasures, perhaps with some justification, but most of today's buildings date from the 15th to the 18th centuries.

The town is said to have had eight breweries a century ago, though I bet there were more.

The 1895 Schützengarten brewery still makes its own electricity, from turbines on a nearby river. It had electricity before the town boasted the first lorry in the area, and is the last surviving brewery.

Open fermenters are still used, but their days are also probably numbered.

It still has a maltings but that has not worked for some years and is to be removed. Open fermenters are still used, but their days are also probably numbered. Well, at least I saw them...

In front of the brewery, at 35 Jakob Strasse, is a public bar and restaurant, the Braustube. I sampled the beers there, and particularly enjoyed a malty but rounded Dunkel (dark lager), made according to the German Reinheitsgebot and by double decoction.

What I really would have liked to do next was take the 45-minute journey to Appenzell by the tram-like, narrow gauge cog train that links the two towns.

Sadly, it had taken a car journey to reach these parts, and I still needed my driver, Paul Häring, of the Das Feine Hofmark brewery.

As we drove up hill and down dale, the train followed us, criss-crossing the road to make the gradients.

Appenzell is in a river valley in what was once forest. It was a base for hunters of bear and boar, and then the monks from St Gallen built a chapel there in 1071. The names derives from "abbot's cell". Farmers grew malting barley around Appenzell as a tithe to the monastery.

Appenzell is one of Switzerland's better-known cheeses: medium-hard, in a wheel, scattered with just a few small boles.

If you find the name vaguely familiar, you may have encountered the cheese made there. Appenzell is one of Switzerland's better-known cheeses: medium-hard, in a wheel, scattered with just a few small boles. It has a delicate, quite fruity flavour.

The narrow streets of the car-free town are full of timbered buildings, painted in tan or yellow, elaborately decorated, and displaying gilded signs announcing their business. The shops sell cheese, wine, fruit brandies and the local beer.

By the river, the Locher family brewery is painted with a fresco showing medieval beer makers, and there is a small hop garden outside. The hops grown there are used in a Christmas brew.

The brewery has existed since the 1700s. The Locher family, who were already brewers, took over in 1886. Brewer Karl Locher, who is the fifth generation, has worked in the company for five or six years.

Now in his mid to late 30s, he recently took over the management, with his cousin Raphael, the commercial director. Karl's father still works in the brewery.

The original buildings are now offices, and I was surprised to see a pram in the entrance hall. It turned out that the local lawyer and his family, friends of Karl, were living in the brewery while work was being done on their house.

Locher has an ugly, 1980s block brewhouse, but still uses open fermenters and classic horizontal lagering vessels. The beers are not pasteurised.

I enjoyed an unfiltered (Naturtrub) lager; a lightly malty Special, lagered for six months; and a toffeeish, tawny, Dunkel; and heard an amusing story from Mr Locher.

He told me that tour parties are given, without being informed of this, beers with different lengths of lagering. He watches to see who consumes the most beer.

Invariably, it is the people who were given the samples with the longest lagering time. The periods vary from seven to 20 weeks.

One of my motives in going to Appenzell had been to sample the Full Moon Beer (Vollmond Bier).

One of my motives in going to Appenzell had been to sample the Full Moon Beer (Vollmond Bier). This is brewed only when there is a full moon.

The mashing begins at 10 in the evening, and the yeast is pitched at 6 in the morning, so that fermentation begins under a full moon.

Does it make any difference? Mr Locher says the fermentation is visibly quicker, but he is not sure of the influence on the finished product. The Full Moon is a golden lager, produced at two strengths.

I found a version at 4.8 per cent ABV, lagered for seven to ten weeks, smooth and dryish. A 5.2 per cent interpretation, matured for 12 weeks, was bigger, smoother, maltier and sweeter.

I would be hard put to say whether either differed from its mid-month counterpart, though a New Moon beer, alcohol free, was surprisingly tolerable.

All this mooning about is said to reflect the beliefs of farmers in this isolated valley. Some of them feel that certain phases of the moon are propitious for sowing seeds or harvesting crops, for example.

These beliefs, suggesting that the moon's pull benefits living organisms, are central to bio-dynamic farming, which draws upon the teachings of Rudolf Steiner.

If you think this tale from the rural Alps has the resonances of New Age, you are right. The Full Moon beers were created for an eccentric bar called El International, in Zurich, about 75 miles away.

The beer has made enough of an impression to persuade the big Zurich brewery Hürlimann that it needs a Full Moon product.

The monthly regime has been applied to an existent product, the earthy, nutty, chocolatey dark lager Hexen Brau (Witches' Brew).

I thought for a moment that this was typical of Martin Hürlimann, who once told me that he had experimentally home-brewed in the company's lab with hallucinogenic plants and malted cannabis seeds.

"If I attack you, lock me in the lab," he instructed his secretary.

"If I attack you, lock me in the lab," he instructed his secretary. However, Mr Hürlimann, who is 71, has retired. The family still has 25 per cent of the equity, and three members are on the board.

Meanwhile, Mr Hürlimann's son Philipp is one of the principals of a newish national chain of brew pubs called Back und Brau. As its name suggests (Bake and Brew), this chain offers hot-from-the-oven baguettes, quiches and suchlike with freshly-brewed beer.

The first Back und Brau beers I tasted were a little too fresh. I did not feel that they had fermented properly. They were in the Back and Brau adjoining the 10-screen Cinemax complex, in a former Steinfels detergent factory in the Hard Brucke area, north of downtown Zurich.

Wort from this brew pub is taken to a second Back und Brau which retains the remises' original name of Taverne Linde, in Oberstrassse, in the direction of the airport.

This is a cosier place and the beers, an unfiltered lager and an Altbier, were more rounded.

The lager, called Huus ("House Beer") was smooth and pleasantly malty. The Altbier was toffeish and fruity.

In a corner near the door was the Stammtisch ("club table") of Zurich University's students' union.

They wore peaked caps and sashes. I didn't see any duelling scars but I was pleased, all the same, that the moon was slumbering.

Where to drink

Back und Brau Steinfels. 267 Heinrich Strasse.
Taverne zur Linde, 91 Universitäts Strasse, both in Zurich.

There are Back und Brau branches in several other cities.

Published Online: MAY 11, 2000
Published in Print: MAR 1, 1996
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Beer Review - Historical

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