Two interest groups are currently involved in setting up the first commercial malting in Switzerland; Regiomalt, a three-person team around Johannes Hunkeler, Project Manager Nutrient Management at the Federal Office for Agriculture in Switzerland and IGMittellandmalz, an interest group of Swiss farmers and brewers, that was established in 2013 and has meanwhile 110 members.
Under the slogan “Regiomalt - Swiss grain malted in Switzerland”, Hunkeler and his team wants to set up a malting plant in central Switzerland. “Our primary concern is to close the value chain in Switzerland. Our goal is to produce a credible, local product that is competitive on the market despite slightly higher prices, »says co-initiator Johannes Hunkeler.
IG Mittellandmalz shares the same vision of regional cultivation of malting barley and its local processing. The longer existence and the larger number of supporters have given the IG Mittelllandmalz so far a certain advantage.
A large number of microbreweries have sprung up in Switzerland in recent years. While the country still counted around 300 breweries in 2010, the number has almost quintupled to date: The Swiss Brewery Association currently lists a total of 1432 taxable breweries. They do offer a local product but the ingredients come from abroad which opens up a potential market for local ingredients. Malt is imported mainly from Germany and France.
Switzerland needs about 66,000 tons of malt a year, which is about the size of an average commercial malting in central Europe. In order to grow malting barley for this amount of malt, about 10,000 to 12,000 hectares of farmland are needed. This corresponds to around 14,000 soccer fields.
The Schützengarten brewery in St. Gallen, the fifth largest brewery in the country with an annual production of 170,000 hectoliters of beer, grows Swiss barley for almost 20 years. "We wrote to farmers, went to the seed breeding cooperative in Flawil (SG) and tried growing there," explains brewmaster Richard Reinart. “We then passed certain varieties on to the farmers. And they grew them on our behalf.
We see it as our duty and our unique selling point to promote the cultivation of Swiss raw materials here," says Reinart. The hope is to to open up new customer groups in Switzerland with special beers. An approach that is also followed by the majority of the new microbreweries.
The Appenzeller Locher brewery made its first attempts to grow Swiss malting barley in the early 1990s. "It was not a marketing idea, nor was it a reaction to customer requests," says Karl Locher, Chairman of the Board of Directors. "We wanted to promote mountain agriculture and more ecological alternatives to imported barley." Locher's experiments at 800 m above sea level located in Appenzell were so successful that soon several mountain farmers came forward who wanted to grow barley for the brewery. In 2003, the brewery finally entered into a partnership with the Gran Alpin mountain farmers' cooperative. Today already over 50 producers from the Swiss mountain regions are growing barley for the Locher brewery. However, they cannot meet the entire needs of the brewery by far.
Still, growing malting barley is not an easy task since malting barley is a specialty crop that needs special attention especially in terms of careful fertilization and handling of the grain after the crop.
Aargau farmer Christoph Hagenbuch has planted this year brewing barley on his farm in Oberlunkhofen, Switzerland. He expects a yield of about ten tons of barley from the two and a half hectare field. This will be brought to Germany after the crop to be processed into malt there. Hagenbuch knows that the ecological footprint of transporting the barley forth and back is negative, but he wants to demonstrate that barley growing in Switzerland as such is possible.”It would be desirable that we would also process the malting barley here into malt. Unfortunately, there is still no malt house in Switzerland, “says Hagenbuch.
Aargau is the predestined region for cultivation of malting barley in Switzerland, according to Aargau agriculture director Markus Dieth. On Saturday during a media event in Oberlunkhofen he said that barley is currently only planted on 7.5% of the 40,000 hectares in Aargau and only because of the needs of crop rotation. This barley is mainly used as cattle feed. However, if there was a higher demand from a local malting, framers could easily extend the acreage of malting barley.
Some smaller Swiss farm maltings have already started a local malt production in the last years like the farm distillery Lüthy in Muhen or the Vez family malting in Bavois, canton of Vaud. However, these micro maltings can hardly satisfy the growing demand for local malt.
Regiomalz and Mittellandmalz therefore want to fill this gap by building a malting plant in Switzerland in the medium to long term. However, potential customers must be prepared to pay a higher price for the locally produced malt because it seems to be clear that the fragmented Swiss agriculture will hardly ever be competitive enough to match the lower price of imported barley and malt.