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Little big city

Laurent Mousson watches beer worlds collide (gently) in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland.

Bienne, rough? Yeah right…’ Paul’s smile turns to a wide grin.

Paul’s from Manchester, so presumably should know about rough neighbourhoods, but has lived in Bienne for more than a year, and knows better than to believe the threadbare cliché by now.

Indeed, Bienne’s got a largely undeserved train wreck of a reputation elsewhere in Switzerland, the cliché being it’s nothing but rundown industrial wasteland. Switzerland’s Sunderland, or something. Yet look around and you’ll see a breathtaking scenery, woodland, green hills, vineyards along a lovely lake, and a colourful, welcoming community which has amazingly bounced back during the past decade, with a solid self-deprecating sense of humour.

Bienne, aka Biel in German, or BNC to the local crowd, stands right on the east-west language border between German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland. Originally German-speaking, ‘Biel’ became ‘Biel/Bienne’, officially bilingual, during the second half of the 19th century, following its industrial development in watchmaking, which caused the arrival of a massive Frenchspeaking workforce from the neighbouring countryside. This was just the first of many immigration waves, the current official figure standing at 123 nationalities and more than 70 languages spoken, so this 50,000-inhabitant city can truly boast the same cosmopolitan feel you’d usually find only in much bigger cities. A little big city indeed.

But what has all this got to do with beer? Well, Switzerland’s east-west language split coincides with an east-west split in beer traditions. From the 1930s, the Swiss beer market had been frozen up by the Swiss brewers’ convention instating a cartel. When the cartel collapsed in 1991, Switzerland was left with two very different beer landscapes...

In the German-speaking east, a beer culture had survived along with 30-odd regional or family brewers. And to this day, the eastern two-thirds of Switzerland equate beer to pale lager, the beer world extending at most to other German beer styles. Many a beer lover would sum this up as ‘boring’, though that would be missing the point: many lagers from regional brewers are actually impressively tasty, pleasant session beers.

Meanwhile, in the French-speaking west, beer culture had been pretty much wiped out; by the late 1970s virtually no local breweries remained. Yet imported specialities, notably Belgian, had been making inroads there since the mid-1970s.

By the late 1990s, when new micros appeared, their idea of beer centred on Belgian ales and strong stouts Standing on the language border, Bienne is the perfect vantage point from which to observe those two, markedly different, beer worlds gently colliding.

Visit Bier-Bienne (a clever pun), the lovely beer shop coupled to the POOC bar, close to Bienne’s train station, and see the beer on the shelves reflect the culture of the city: a wide selection of German, British and Belgian beers, completed by some exotic beers reflecting the presence of diverse immigrant communities. Make your way to the Swiss beer shelf at the back and you’ll find further evidence, with beers from both sides of the country quietly standing side-by side. Local breweries BFM and Aare-Bier being two especially significant examples.

BFM, or Brasserie des Franches- Montagnes, is in Saignelégier, up in the Jura Mountains that unfold to the north of Bienne. Set up in 1997 by Jérôme Rebetez, BFM is one of the most pioneering micros in Western Switzerland. It’s pretty typical in that it produces some excellent examples of Belgian- and British-inspired ales, but with the distinctive touch of the brewer, and the unique packaging, tongue-in-cheek jokes posing as label blurb, BFM is truly original.

The basic range consists of La Salamandre, a sharp, intense wit; La Meule, dry, peppery and hoppy, with a spicy edge from sage leaves; and La Torpille, a spiced strong dark ale.

Yet it’s in the specialty field that BFM has built its worldwide reputation, unique for a Swiss micro. The flagship brew is Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien. A strong dark ale, aged in oak casks having contained various types of wines and spirits before, and then carefully blended in order to yield a balanced brew with a very complex nose and palate, almost flat, not unlike a dry sherry. A huge beer that manages to be subtle and drinkable, though at 11% ABV, not by the pint!

Aare-Bier, in Bargen, south of Bienne, in the area known as Seeland (‘lake country’), Switzerland’s vegetablegrowing farmland, started in 2006 as a diversification plan by a local business operating a drying plant for the manufacture of cattle feed. Its range counts three beers which are widely available locally: Kellerfrisch, a crisp and flowery unfiltered pale lager; Amber, a clean, tasty amber lager; and Aare Weizen, in Bavarian style, with plenty of banana and clove notes.

Yet it’s not all traditional Germanic beer at Aare-Bier. The house beers for Bienne’s POOC bar and the attached Bier-Bienne shop are also brewed there. Bier-Bienne 1 is a fruity, hoppy amber beer fermented at an ale temperature using a lager yeast strain, which makes for a very decent session beer. Bier-Bienne 2 is its blonde sister, a little less assertive in the hop department as it’s meant to appeal to the average lager drinker and entice him or her into trying Bier-Bienne 1 later on, once they’ve realised local beer won’t kill them.

Back at POOC in Bienne, both those beers feature prominently along with Aare Weizen on three of the eight gleaming beer taps on the bar. POOC owes its purposefully daft name to the fact that the premises used to be a former Coop minimarket. Its décor is in a class of its own: raw concrete walls, asphalt floor, black-tiled loo, steel-covered bar, television screens underneath the bar stools, 1960s designer furniture and a fishtank haunted by the vaguely threatening bones of a pike. At first, this could be mistaken for a trendy suit lounge, except it’s got far too efficient and knowledgeable a staff, far too mixed a clientele, far too extensive a beer selection... and a solid sense of humour!

From POOC, a pubcrawl around Bienne is easily tackled on foot, due to the compactness of it all. Walking to the north-east, you’ll reach Bienne’s small but impressively preserved old town, with its arcaded houses and century-old cafés.

These sadly mostly serve the rather uninspiring Feldschlösschen range, although some, notably the St-Gervais cooperative café have interesting bottled beers on offer.

Back to the main train station, beer lovers should stop at the Atomic, a tiny bar which is one of the rare Bienne outlets for Egger brewery in Worb near Berne. In particular try the crisp and dry Maximus pale lager on draught.

Crossing the station building and underpass, then by heading south, you’ll eventually come to a small bridge over the river Zihl. Cross here and you’re in Nidau, Bienne’s German-speaking rival.

Further along, towards the lake, you’ll find the Lago Lodge backpackers hostel, home to Seeland-Bräu.

As unlikely the combination may seem, it’s proved a hit with the locals, who love to stop there for tea or a beer after a quiet walk along the lakeshore. The beers are a Helles, a Dunkles and a Weizen, all crisp and well-crafted, if a tad on the sweet side. The Spezial is flavoured with hemp leaves which yields a subtle spicy finish.

Some seasonal beers complete the allorganic beer line-up.

Making your way around the Castle will then lead you to Nidau’s main street. With its untouched architecture, Nidau has the quaint, sleepy charm typical of Swiss- German towns. It’s a different universe, barely half a mile from the bustling centre of bilingual Bienne.

Yet right in the middle of Nidau, you’ll find a true untouched gem, the Kreuz. This co-operative café boasts a splendid, lovingly refurbished early 20th century interior, retaining many original features such as its murals. It’s a quiet, warm atmosphere well suited to long chats and pandering to one’s beer. The food is fresh and tasty, as is the beer, with one Seeland- Bräu beer on tap at all times, alongside the flowery, crisp Junkerbier from Felsenau, another regional brewery based in Berne. And there’s a decent range of bottled beers to round things off, too.

As you leave the Kreuz, look out for the mural next to the front door, a possible reminder that rain falls the same whichever side you’re on…
Contacts
BARS AND BREWPUBS
Atomic Café, Bahnhofplatz / Place de la
Gare 5, 2502 Biel/Bienne
www.atomiccafe.ch
Bier-Bienne / Pooc, Bendicht-Rechberger-
Str. / Rue Bendicht-Rechberger 1, 2502
Biel/Bienne
www.bier-bienne.ch / www.pooc.ch
Kreuz Nidau, Hauptstr. 33, 2560 Nidau
www.kreuz-nidau.ch
Lago Lodge / Seeland-Bräu, Uferweg 5a,
2560 Nidau
www.lagolodge.ch
St Gervais, Untergasse / Rue Basse 21,
2502 Biel/Bienne
www.stgervais.ch
BREWERIES
Aare Bier, Neuenburgstr. 42, 3282 Bargen
www.aarebier.ch
BFM – Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes
Ch. des Buissons 8, 2350 Saignelégier
www.brasseriebfm.ch
EVENTS
Brassin Public BFM
Open day at BFM, lots of beer, solid tasty
beer cuisine provided by the brewer’s
mum, guided tours etc. First weekend of
November (in 2009: 6-7 November) at BFM
in Saignelégier (address above)
Solothurner Biertage, Reithalle, Solothurn
25 km to the east of Bienne (and a 15-min.
train ride), in Solothurn's scenic old town,
the one beer festival to get a good
overview of the Swiss craft beer scene.
Third week in April (2009: 23-25 April)
www.biertage.ch
USEFUL WEB RESOURCES
Switzerland Beer Guide
www.bov.ch/beer/swissbeers.htm
Train timetables (english version)
www.sbb.ch/en/index.htm
To locate any Swiss address on a map
map.search.ch