On an overcast Tuesday afternoon, local brewers, family members and patrons grab a barstool to catch up with Christian Langenegger and taste his beer recommendations. What are his suggestions for a sour beer? One with notes of coffee? Or, maybe an India Pale Ale (IPA) from a small, independent Swiss brewery?
It's here in The International Beer Bar's cozy L-shape, adorned with hues of blue, black and orange, that one can get lost navigating the chalk board of 120-plus brews. Luckily, it's also where you can find business partners Christian (born and primarily raised in Canada by his Swiss parents) and Michael Jones (hailing from the UK and formerly dubbed Zurich's Cheeseman) pushing locals and expats to try new beers. Behind the scenes, their finance director and third partner Gavin Pell (also from the UK) is in the mix helping plot the bar's future.
Over the past few years, the trio have transformed their dream of creating a space for people to enjoy Switzerland's growing craft brew scene into reality.
"Our goal was always to feature independent, small breweries," Christian says over a beer. "And to make people aware of the craft brew scene in Switzerland... something you couldn't do if you are involved with a big brewery."
Nearly two-and-a-half years ago before Michael left his British-import cheese business and small pub, he began looking for a way to expand. At the time, Christian also found himself at a career crossroads when he began losing his passion for teaching English and German at Marathon Sprache, a school he opened in 2009.
When Michael asked him if he wanted to open a beer bar, "I thought ‘why not?'" Christian recalls.
Over the next year-plus, and with Gavin aboard the venture, the Brits and Christian began the tedious process of scouring Zurich for a suitable location. Some spots were "on the wrong side of the tracks" while others simply didn't fit into their vision or budget, explains Christian.
Through a friend, they eventually found a spot in the revitalized former industrial quarter of Kreis 5 and used their collective experiences in finance (Gavin), the food service industry (Michael) and German (Christian) to pull together a winning business concept and finance plan.
When they received the green light to move forward with the beer bar last fall, the trio tackled their next obstacle — maintaining freedom from corporate breweries. By forgoing corporate financial-backing and the associated branding, the men had to "scramble" to pull together investors to cover the associated start-up costs including six months' rent, a six-month security deposit, the tap system, initial beer stock and interior decorating, Christian recounts.
By December 2014, The International's taps were flowing.
With 120 to 150 different varieties of beer — the vast majority coming from small and independent breweries — the choice of beers here can be overwhelming.
One of the trio's goals, as well as challenges, is broadening client palates' by striking the right balance between seasonal, traditional and innovative beers.
"It is a bit of a game," Christian explains. "You can't force your taste on other people. It's like with wine, with food, with art or anything like that. Taste. People have different taste and you can't sell everyone on everything."
But while they work to strike the right balance for expats and Swiss, their wide array of beer has helped them delve into the beer tourism sector. Like the wine-tourism industry, Christian says people seeking out unique brews are finding The International through social media and websites, and making it a must see on their vacation.
Keep your friends close
For those already living in Switzerland, there's no need to travel far to learn more about local beers. As part of The International's beer outreach program, they are holding monthly events — both in English and German — for people to find out more about where their beer is coming from.
"People want to have a connection more with what they are consuming," says Christian. "Clothing. Furniture. Beer. Vegetables. People want to know again ‘where is it coming from? Who's making it?'
"There is something nice about drinking a beer where you (say), ‘I know that brewer, I went to school with him, or he is a friend of my neighbor or she is my ex-girlfriend,'" he adds.
During "meet the brewer" for example, brewers pop by to talk with customers about beer and the brewing process. For those home brewers seeking pointers on how to perfect your own creations, these events are for you.
"We get a lot of, ‘I'm trying to do a really nice IPA and I find it's not coming out as hoppy as I want. Where do you get your hops from?'" Christian explains.
For those looking to get out of the bar, brewery trips are also ongoing. You'll kick off your Saturday morning with a traditional coffee and Gipfeli breakfast before hopping on a mini bus to meet the brewer, see the brewing process and enjoy an apéro or lunch.
Full steam ahead
As with many business ventures, the trio is also exploring expansion plans which include opening a larger, flagship-bar with a kitchen — likely in Zurich or Basel — and rolling out a software to help similar, small businesses open their doors.
"People forget how much work is entailed when you are two or three people and you have to do everything by hand," says Christian. "Those hours add up very quickly…and the first six months you go to bed depressed every night because you feel like you haven't done it all. Then, after that, you start to go to bed and think to yourself ‘I did pretty good this week, (with) 50 percent of what I wanted to.'"
While the men continue to push their business forward, for the expat community they have ultimately created a space to learn about Swiss brews, meet new friends or simply enjoy a cold, sour-beer and watch Zurich pass by.
Photos: 1st & 2nd © Gsell Photography / Jochen Gsell; 3rd © Viewfinder Center / Matt Anderson