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From Sweden to Germany in search of cheap booze

From Sweden to Germany in search of cheap booze

Published: 14 Oct 2011 11:20 GMT+02:00
Updated: 14 Oct 2011 11:20 GMT+02:00

Tired of Sweden's high alcohol taxes and the state run liquor monopoly? Come along with contributor Patrick Reilly as he details a recent journey to Germany in search of cheap beer.

Debt crisis. What crisis? Judging by the hordes of Swedes hopping the liquor line to Germany the economy is in fine health. Well, the one across the channel anyway.

Joining a southern Swedish booze cruise is a de facto Scanian tradition up there with slagging off ‘them in Stockholm.’ After some mild convincing - make that three minutes - I’m roped into joining four authentic Skåningar for the ride from Trelleborg to Sassnitz.

Let the adventures begin even if it's just past 6am and the day's copy of Sydsvenskan has already been doused with coffee.

Our quartet is an unusual bunch made up of pensioners or gamla gubbar as they cheerfully refer to themselves.

Comprised of an ex-journalist, former athlete, an accountant and a sports museum director, the group makes the short drive from Malmö to nearby Trelleborg to catch the 7.45am sailing.

Germany awaits, birth place of Nietzsche, the Brandenburg gate and Bayern Munich. But who cares about all that. We’re here for cheap beer, lots of it.

“Going to Germany to stock up on alcohol has been very popular in southern Sweden ever since the Berlin wall came down. The reunification of Germany opened things up,” says retired journalist Ulf R. Johansson.

Johansson, who worked for the Sydsvenskan and Dagens Nyheter dailies during his long career, has enough journalism anecdotes to fill a small library. More on that later.

“It’s mainly for tax reasons as alcohol is so much cheaper in Germany than in Sweden with the Systembolaget. You can save a lot of money and it’s a good day out too,“ adds the former scribe.

Aah yes, the glorious Systembolaget, the bête noire of newcomers to Sweden who can’t get their head around a shop that bolts up for the weekend at 3pm every Saturday.

Swedes though can see the pros and cons of the state controlled liquor stores.

“There are some benefits to it as we don’t have the alcoholism problems of other countries because of the Systembolaget. In fairness to them you can get a fantastic selection of wines which aren’t available elsewhere.

“Obviously it’s annoying when you can’t buy a good bottle of wine late on a Friday night but I’m convinced the Swedish laws on alcohol will change. It’s inevitable,” Johnasson explains.

Retired sports museum director, Anders Hammer, is more succinct, “I rarely go to Systembolaget. It’s too expensive and you can get a better selection of alcohol in Germany.”

Hammer’s friend Johannsson quips, “Tell them to keep the taxes high in Stockholm! If people from the capital want to buy cheap beer they have go a lot further to Finland. In the south we are at the centre of Europe.”

Behind us a man opens a beer. It’s just after 9am and we’re not due to arrive in Germany until just before midday.

Let’s hope he isn’t driving.

Even though today’s sailing is on a weekday the boat is heaving with thirsty Swedes. Scandlines staff informs me that bookings are higher than ever.

Up on deck a large group, of Scanians are enjoying a beer as the sun beats down on our approach to Germany.

Not a bad way to spend a weekday is it?

The captain signals we are due in Sassnitz shortly, so our quintet amble down to the jeep ready for take off. In true Swedish fashion the seatbelts are on a good 20 minutes before we’re given the green light to leave the ship.

Our destination is a cut price supermarket with rumours of untold amounts of imported booze behind the revolving doors. Before we can reach the promised land there is the small matter of handling the trolley which steers like a 70-year old German tank.

Any booze veteran will tell you that the first point of call is to drop your empties off. You can lob in the whole crate just to make life easier and speed up the passage for the fresh batch.

“These bottles have been accumulating in my house for months, “ says Anders Hammer, before he pockets a handy €6 ($9) for trawling them across the border.

Something tells me the Germans have a “sense von humour” as the sound of Abba Gold greets us when we push our trolleys through. It’s true the savings are incredible as we scan the crates of beer available with pictures of smiling monks (Mönschof) there to lure us in further.

A six pack of Budweiser Budvar - if you pardon the pun - checks out at €3.69! The difference in price can be as much as 70 percent with the tax on spirits 15% lower in Germany than in Sweden.

For example a can of beer like ‘Sofiero’ would cost around 9.40 kronor ($1.44) in the Systembolaget compared to 3.80 kronor in Germany. It’s no wonder the supermarket is thronged with Swedes filling their trolleys to the brim.

Johansson has stashed up on some wine, spirits and the cursory Bratwurst. He spots a giant bottle of whiskey which costs a mighty €80 and would likely last several lifetimes. The sight of the massive bottle prompts a memory from his days covering the beat for Malmö FF, the beloved club of Sweden's third largest city.

“Brian Clough brought Nottingham Forest to Sweden about a year before we played them in the European Cup final in 1979. He was great fun for journalists and we presented him with a big bottle of whiskey like that one,“ he says pointing at the oversized Paddy.

“Clough was delighted with the bottle and immediately challenged whoever was the best squash player from the journalists to a match. After taking a drink we followed them to the hotel for the contest and of course Clough won!”

With the shopping complete there’s enough time to venture into the small town of Bergen for a meal and a chance for the gamla gubbar to show off their Deutsch.

“We’re old enough to remember when it was German and not English that was the second language to learn,” quips one of the gubbar eyeing up the Schnitzel on the menu.

Our sailing departs Sassnitz at 5.45pm which leaves us with just enough time to pop into the Border shop beside the boat where Swedish krono and euros are accepted.

Despite most of the shoppers having stocked up in the previous store there is lots of cash being spent. One Swede elects to pay his €447 bill with wads of notes. Bizarre.

As we wait in line to board the ship many passengers have their car boots open revealing a mighty amount of alcohol in each one. It’s a long traffic jam with each passenger having at least a couple of crates in the back.

The return sailing takes four hours before we are back on Swedish soil. Tens of thousands of Euro has been pumped directly into the German economy courtesy of Sweden. What’s more it will happen again tomorrow and the day after that.

“We’ve done our bit for Germany. I won’t need to go to the Systembolaget at least until the day after tomorrow,” laughs Johansson.

By the time we return to Malmö it’s getting late. It’s been a long day. Time for a drink...

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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Your comments about this article

07:28 October 15, 2011 by TJSmith
I am still wondering, how is alcoholism curbed in Sweden by the Systembolaget closing at 3 PM on saturday???? You can still buy the low power beer elsewhere...you just need to drink more! Or, just buy more alcohol when it is opened! I wish that the government would quite telling me what is best for me and let me, an adult, make decisions for myself!
12:23 October 16, 2011 by EtoileBrilliant
My advice if you drive to Germany via Denmark and use the Putgarden ferry. Do not, I repeat, do not use the last minute booze boat before you get on the ferry. First they're about 20% more expensive than the average German Supermarket and (ii) they insist on recording details from your Swedish ID card (talk about Big Brother) operating outside their borders!!
13:27 October 16, 2011 by Rick Methven
@EtoileBrilliant

The other border shops such as Calles also check your Swedish ID so that they can deduct the German deposit on beer cans. You fill in a form with a Swedish address and show ID and you save a lot of money. The alternative is to keep the empties and make another trip to get your pant back
19:31 October 16, 2011 by EtoileBrilliant
@Rick

I don't doubt you're right (as you're one poster I watch on this site). But as someone who only buys hard liquor I'm not sure this follows. I buy a lot of stuff in Metro Kiel with a Swedish Credit card and never have this line of questioning.
09:52 October 17, 2011 by wetback
fuel, ferry, time... what's the net? Is it a hobby or a lower cost alternative to systemet?
16:15 October 17, 2011 by Rick Methven
@EtoileBrilliant

I was in Calles 2 months ago and bought wine and spirits only so I did not need to fill in the form or show ID. Unless you want to avoid pay the can deposit or you do not have a pin code for a credit card, you will never be asked for ID.
22:15 October 17, 2011 by dizzymoe33
Here in Washington State we have what we call liquor stores like your Systembolaget. Open 7 days a week 11 am to 7pm. And you can buy all the hard alcohols there. You can buy beer, wine and some champagne and hard ciders at all grocery stores and gas stations until 2 am after that you can't buy alcohol again until the morning I think it is 6am but I don't remember. It is easy and back in the days you could even buy some beer or whatever from the bar you were at to take home before the bar closed but now you can't do that. Well you would think that Sweden would smarten up about all the money going to Germany instead for the cheap alcohol?!!
22:31 October 17, 2011 by iulian_fun
Why get into so much trouble? Take a flight to Romania and spend some quality time in a rustic home with all the drink you can in total anonymity.
13:53 October 18, 2011 by lilsocks
'Joining a southern Swedish booze cruise is a de facto Scanian tradition up there with slagging off 'them in Stockholm.'

Interesting.....08ers hold nothing back mouthing off about the rest of the country either...
20:54 October 18, 2011 by HYBRED
@iulian_fun

If I want to take a flight to do something in "total anonmity", it will be to Amsterdam, not Romania.
10:42 October 22, 2011 by chantal11
"There are some benefits to it as we don't have the alcoholism problems of other countries because of the Systembolaget."

I think this statement is incorrect- having lived in Canada, Germany and now Sweden I was shocked with the alcohol intake here. In theory not making alcohol available at all times is a good idea. But as society shows, the more you restrict something the more people want it. Every week at my work and at my husbands work we hear story after story about someone getting totally wasted on the weekend. It is a regular occurrence.

I have yet to see someone walk out of the Systembolgat without a bag(s) full of booze. I'm not sure which is worse- getting drunk out of your mind every weekend or planning to get drunk every weekend.

There are a lot of Swedes that I know that live to drink. I thought Canadians and Germans like to drink... that is nothing compared to Swedes. Back in Canada I thought we liked our booze when people would have 4 or 5 beers during a hockey game... but here... its a normal thing to get " faced".

If you are putting that much time and effort (driving to Germany) to get alcohol... I think there is a problem.
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