A brewery in Zurich had no idea that choosing a former Nepalese king to grace a seasonal beer would cause a diplomatic row with the former Himalayan kingdom.
Imagine you bite into a chilli pepper or peppercorn in a curry and the heat sets your tongue on fire. Luckily you have a cold beer at hand and take a gulp to provide relief. The resulting flavour combination is the unusual taste of the Birendra beer, produced by Zurich-based brewery Turbinen Bräu.
“One of my brewers was cooking at home with Nepalese pepper and thought it might be good to use it in beer. We tried it out and it worked,” Adrien Weber, founder and owner of Turbinen Bräu, told swissinfo.ch.
It took three trials until they found the right combination of ingredients. They decided to produce and sell around 12,000 bottles as a special spring season beer. But what to call it? After a weekend spent doing research on Nepal, Weber settled on the former king Birendra Bir Bikram Shah.
“I thought he was an important figure in Nepalese history. I was worried he might have a bad reputation but my research showed his legacy was more positive than negative. I would never put anyone who has a bad reputation on the label of our beers,” says Weber.
But there was one small hitch.
“The main problem with him [Birendra] was that he was always so serious in photos. I couldn't find any picture of him laughing. I told the graphic designer to make him more sympathetic,” says Weber.
Besides a hint of a smile, Weber also wanted to depict the king with a beer in his hand. That is what caused outrage among some royalists in Nepal as well as members of the diaspora in Switzerland, who took offence at seeing the former king depicted with an alcoholic beverage in his hand. A Nepalese expat came across the beer in Zurich and wrote a blog about it. This was then taken up on social media, igniting onlineexternal link petitions to stop the sale of the Birendra beer.
“They thought that we were making fun of the former king, which wasn't the case at all,” says Weber.
Last Friday, Switzerland’s ambassador to Nepal, Elisabeth von Capeller, called Weber and asked him to take down advertising from his distributor’s website.
“She said there were protests against Switzerland and I had to do something about their security. She begged me to stop the advertising,” said Weber.
“The Head of Mission contacted the company Turbinenbräu on Friday, asking them to remove the information on that beer from their website,” a foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed to swissinfo.ch.
Weber complied but he doesn’t feel he had done anything wrong.
“The Swiss ambassador told me that it is not seen well that the former king is drinking a beer but I don't know what the connection is. There are two breweries in Nepal producing beers called Everest and Gorkha, so I find it strange they object to this,” he says.
According to him, the controversy surrounding the Birendra beer will have no impact on sales.
“The fuss in Nepal has no impact here, as most people in Switzerland don't know who Birendra is. We shall sell the whole batch within two to three months, then it is done. It is just a seasonal beer,” he says.