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Davos: Home of the 'last beer stop before heaven'

Wednesday, 22 Jan 2014 | 8:38 AM ET
CNBC's Joe Kernen shares his 'peak' beer experience at Davos
Wednesday, 22 Jan 2014 | 6:37 AM ET
CNBC's Joe Kernen hikes up the mountain to check out Switzerland's highest-altitude brewery.

At 5,118 feet above sea level in the quiet Swiss Alps village of Davos-Monstein sits the highest-altitude brewery in Switzerland and the second highest in Europe. BierVision Monstein AG, once a 100-year-old dairy that at its peak produced more than 50,000 gallons of milk a year, is a full-fledged brewery that produces a variety of freezing cold beers, offers guided tours of its facility, and cozy get-togethers with the brewer himself. In fact, even former President Bill Clinton reportedly threw back a few cold ones here.

Although BierVision is not the only high-altitude brewery in the world—Denver, Colo., which lies more than 5,200 feet above sea level houses dozens of craft breweries and, of course, is home to Coors—but there is something special about beer being brewed high up in the Swiss Alps. Perhaps it's the scenery; perhaps it's the surprise that, yes, Switzerland has more to offer the culinary world than just chocolate and cheese; or maybe it's the fact that every year, when the top leaders of business and politics gather in Davos, this is likely the beer of choice. When asked what Clinton thought of BierVision's traditional recipe of crystal clear spring water, Swiss hops and aromatic malt, the brewery's CEO, Carlo Wasescha, told CNBC, "He liked it, of course. He didn't tell me personally, but I heard about it."

According to Julia Herz, publisher of craftbeer.com, it isn't easy brewing at such high altitudes, because the water must be boiled in order to produce "the glorious bitterness of beer." But high up in the Swiss Alps, where BierVision sits, boiling is a balancing act, she said, and brewers in the sky need to be masters of the process. "Brewers commonly boil for 60 to 90 minutes or more. As the altitude increases above sea level, the temperature needed to boil liquid decreases," she explained. "Without boiling hops, it would be compared to simply adding herbs to a beer, and we would miss the bitterness that balances the sweetness of malt."

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Joe Kernen enjoying a cold one in Davos, Switzerland.
Justin Solomon | CNBC
Joe Kernen enjoying a cold one in Davos, Switzerland.


The carbonation challenge
Herz said that high-altitude brewers also face another, more pressing, challenge: carbonation. "[Carbonation] is measured in volumes of C02 and helps to balance bitterness and round out the sweetness of malt." So what does that have to do with altitudes, you might say? "The higher up in the atmosphere, the less the atmospheric pressure," she explained. "Think astronauts in the Space Station, with less gravity than on the ground. For every 2,000 feet above sea level, beer servers need to increase their draught system gage pressure by 1 psi. So a 5,000-foot-elevation brewery would want to add onto their dispensing pressure 2.5 additional psi. Those bars, restaurants or home draft masters who don't account for altitude end up with an unbalanced draught system and foamy beer."

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You won't find any foamy beer at the BierVision Monstien brewery, however, as the brew masters in this alpine resort have perfected their craft and are currently turning out 350,000 bottles annually—and that doesn't include the kegs.

So if you long for a taste of the Alps, a cold Monstein beer may be in order. The only problem is, you will have to visit Switzerland—something Wasecha welcomes. "Come here, taste all the beers, and see what is going on at our brewery," she said.

—By CNBC's Justin Solomon. Follow him on Twitter @JsolomonCNBC.

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