Lingering at the "last beer stop before heaven"

Andreas Aergerter has reached the top of the beer business

If the beer lives up to its promise and is as good as the view, why go any further?

This content was published on October 3, 2005 - 09:36

The brewery in the mountain village of Monstein above Davos is a paradise on earth for anyone with a head for hops and heights.

Unlike wine, beer can be made anywhere. All you need is water, malted barley, hops and yeast.

Add a talented brewer if you want good beer, and to market a new brand successfully, you might need a gimmick. The Monstein brewery has both.

"It's the highest brewery in Europe," says Andreas Aergerter, the manager and one of the founders (see video).

"We are not as serious as most Swiss. We have a sense of humour and try to incorporate that into our brewery," Aergerter adds.

"That's why we call it the 'last beer stop before heaven', because it adds to the brewery's appeal, especially among English speakers who like the slogan."

But brewing at 1,600 metres above sea level does present problems. Aergerter had to install a special kettle to account for the difference in atmospheric pressure, which makes water boil at a lower temperature. He also had to find a yeast that would work in the thinner air.

Having overcome these hurdles, the brewery started producing two styles of beers, both bottom fermenting. The first is a pale lager.

I found it refreshing, served chilled in the brewery's cosy cellar.

Smoked malt

The second is a dark variety, given its colour and flavour, as Aergerter explains, from a small proportion of smoked malt.

The renowned British beer critic, Michael Jackson, tried it during his visit to Monstein describing it as having a "creamy aroma...[with a] palate offering suggestions of walnut, and a touch of sweetness, the finish drier and appetising".

I enjoyed it as well, even if my taste buds were not discerning enough to detect the walnut.

I likened the colour of this beer to the darkly tanned wooden houses in the sleepy village, and marvelled at Aergeter's marketing savvy for coming up with the idea to start a brewery here.

When he hatched the plan, he realised he would not be able to live on beer alone, especially since the microbrewery only produces 1,500 hectolitres annually, and would therefore have to promote its unique setting.

Hops, skip and a jump

A visit to the brewery is as essential to understanding the vital interplay of malt and hops as a stroll is to discovering the charms of life in an alpine village.

More than a backdrop, the mountains supply the local beer here with its key ingredient – water from a stream winding through Monstein. You can also drink as much as you want of the latter – unadulterated - flowing freely from the fountain in the village square.

Aergerter has put together a total of eight different packages, including a ride up from Davos on a vintage bus, visiting an alpine cheesemaker or abandoned iron ore mine or working up a thirst on a guided mountain hike. The highlight of each is - of course - a stop at the brewery.

The old dairy that Aergerter converted into "Europe's highest brewery" is outfitted with state-of-the-art brewing kettles and vats.

The tour usually ends in the clean, vaulted cellar with a glass of the pale "Huusbier" or the dark "Wätterguoge" (salamander), and a plate of thinly shaved cheese and air-dried beef.

Brewer's cheese

Aergerter says he drew inspiration for the "brewer's cheese" and beef, both of which are salted with beer and hops, from the stories of monks who not only produced beer, but fed their livestock with beer by-products.

Aergerter has won prizes for the cheese, and has expanded into making beer schnapps and liqueur. He is also producing a single malt whisky.

Events and merchandising account for an intoxicating 45 per cent of the company's annual turnover, and have boosted the village's modest economy.

"As part of its budget cuts, the cantonal government could decide to close the local school and post office," Aergerter tells me.

"It could also spell the end for the restaurants and hotel here, so I think the brewery gives the village a fighting chance," he concludes.

In the near future, Aergerter plans on introducing a "Monk's Beer".

"This will be the first Swiss beer completely made from 100 per cent local ingredients," he boasts.

Up until now, the brewery has had to import all of its malt from Germany since there is no malt factory in Switzerland.

"We're involved with a new venture," he reveals, "which will allow us to brew the beer with malt and hops from the area."

"Brewing beer is the best thing in life next to making love," he smiles. "Monks were celibate so they compensated by making beer. We owe them our thanks."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Monstein

Key facts

Monstein is a small mountain village located at 1,627 metres above sea level near Davos.
There is a regular bus service from Davos Platz.
Beside the brewery, the village has two restaurants and a hotel.
The brewery is open all year round for visits by groups and individuals.
Reservations can be made directly at the brewery or at the Davos tourist office.

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