Cheers to Mungga Wätterguoge and Häusträffel
This building used to house a cheese dairy. That was 110 years ago. Then it stood empty for a while. Until, in October 2000, a few young men naively decided to have a go at brewing their own beer here. That idea soon blossomed into a success story: the highest-altitude brewery in Switzerland, high up in Davos Monstein at the far end of the valley.
If you take the historic red post bus, a vintage Saurer vehicle dating back to 1948, from the cosmopolitan setting of Davos Platz up the long and winding road to the hindmost corner of the valley, you don't exactly embark on a journey to the moon. Instead, you arrive at Monstein, a sun-soaked location where the Walser people once established a typically scattered settlement. Not much going on here, you might think. But not for long. For the magnificent aroma of roasted malt wafts through the air. Which means beer, the amber fluid, cannot be far off. We are looking for the highest brewery in Switzerland, set up 14 short years ago by a few courageous friends – at a village celebration where the beer was flowing freely, it is rumoured.
Basti from Germany at the helm
The Pro Monstein Association had fixed on the idea of turning the vacant cheese dairy, a gem of a building in the middle of the village, into a microbrewery that – if everything went to plan – would soon be the talk of Switzerland. 250 guided tours now take place each year. Brewing seminars for seven to twelve people, stag and club nights are held here – under the watchful eye of Basti, from Middle Franconia in Germany, the home of beer. Sebastian Degen, to give the current master brewer his proper name, was here once before, from 2007 to 2010 – and returned 'home' to Monstein in June 2013. Back then, he knew nothing about Switzerland or Davos. The only thing he did know about this corner of the world was that it isn't part of the EU. And so he decided to take a job here in Monstein after seeing an ad in the "Brauwelt" magazine one year after completing his apprenticeship. This is where he now lives and works, in the Bermuda triangle between the brewery, the restaurant and Hotel Ducan.
«Visitors often ask RhB at Davos Monstein station where the brewery is. Another 280 metres up the hill, is the answer.»Sebastian Degen
German purity law takes top priority
"The soft water up here is exceptionally well suited to brewing beer," enthuses Basti. As can only be expected given his heritage, he produces beer in accordance with the German purity law. Only four ingredients are permitted: malt, water, yeast and hops. First, he inspects the local organic malt from Gran Alpin by hand. Burying his lower arms deep into the sack, he retrieves a handful of malt, lifts it to his nose, sniffs, takes a close look, puts a few grains in his mouth. "Brewing has a lot to do with instinct, gut feeling – and I naturally mean during the actual process, not just when you taste the finished product. A good brewer knows his ingredients and his suppliers. Only the best is good enough for a really fine beer." Basti is very strict in that respect. He tells us that, in the Middle Ages, women were considered the best brewers. If they didn't make good beer, they were simply burned at the stake. Bakers also frequently proved to be good at brewing beer, as they were used to turning cereal grains into tasty end products. The brewing process takes around seven hours, then the liquid is left to ferment for eight to nine days at a temperature of just under twelve degrees. That's when Basti comes back into play: he takes a small sample of beer direct from the barrel using a special syphon – and downs it. He nods contentedly, fresh froth still on his upper lip.
Always on a Monday
Monday is the day the beer is put into good old-fashioned swing top bottles for the catering industry and non-returnable crown cap bottles for retail sale. One or two varieties are generally produced at the same time. 2,800 bottles an hour go rushing by on the conveyor belt and are meticulously labelled. That amounts to quite a lot of beer in a year: some 150,000 containers of swing top bottles and 190,000 crates of standard bottles leave Monstein for all parts of the canton. And the amber liquid from Graubünden apparently has some VIP fans: Bill Clinton loves to drink Monsteiner whenever he attends the World Economic Forum in Davos. Other big names include Swiss Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer and multiple Olympic Champion Dario Cologna, who treats himself to a small beer after altitude training in the dry air of Davos. World Champion bobsledder Reto Götschi even has shares in Biervision in Monstein. The beers all have local names – there's the 'Wätterguoge' (which roughly translates as 'Alpine salamander'), the 'Mungga' (after the marmot) and the new wheat beer dubbed 'Häusträffel', or grasshopper. At one time, the brewery even tried its hand at a Röteli beer. Röteli is the local cherry spice liqueur — mixed with Monsteiner it created a heady brew. And the brewery's creations have even been flown round the world: a barrel of Monsteiner Single Malt Whisky flew to Chicago and back in 2004 on board an MD-11. The great iron bird circled over the eagle's lair of Monstein three times – all in homage to a few mad men who made a (beer) vision come true.