Swedish beer: things can only get better

Sweden comes near the top of many an international league table for quality of life, prosperity and the environment. But as far as its beer goes, there’s a lot of catching up to do. If you’re out on a Friday night, the chances are you’ll find yourself guzzling mass-market Swedish beer which is low on barley, high on water and sharp on the wallet.

This is a country famous for vodka, aquavit and glögg. A trip to the excellent Vin och Sprit Historiska Museet highlights Sweden’s long love affair with spirits: punch was the national drink at the end of the 19th century, quickly replaced by vodka, which was finally overtaken by wine in the 1970s. Beer? Positively un-Swedish.

These are common perceptions, especially for tourists and ex-pats struggling to come to terms with the high price of booze and the rigid structure of the Systembolaget. By and large, these first impressions paint a true – if not complete – picture. Beer has become the big seller, accounting for 70% of all alcohol sales in Sweden, and spirits now lag behind wine in third spot. But when cans like Sofiero, Pripps Blå and Svensk Starköl make the top ten sellers’ list, how sophisticated can the Swedish beer market really be?

The truth is that a new wave of microbreweries, who value quality over a mass market, are in danger of giving Swedish beer a good name. More pubs in Stockholm are now offering a genuine choice of microbrewery and foreign beers on draft. At the forefront is Akkurat in Södermalm. With over 600 varieties in stock, Akkurat is popular with beer-lovers from Sweden and abroad. But does the average Johan really know anything about what he’s drinking?

“Things are only going to get better,” says Sten Isacsson, one of the proprietors of Akkurat. “There is a growing demand for real taste, and the premium beer market is definitely growing.”

Akkurat’s success – it recently celebrated its tenth anniversary – is due in no small part to its Swedish brews. The biggest seller is Hell, from the Jämtlands microbrewery. Although Isacsson states Akkurat’s main purpose as being a place to have fun, he does believe he is providing something of a beer education. Beer tastings are held regularly, and Isacsson prides himself on a highly-trained workforce who can pass on their knowledge to inquisitive customers.

Specialist bars notwithstanding, three brands have a powerful monopoly in Stockholm’s watering holes, and it takes a beer aficionado to root out the quality products which are slowly, but confidently, gaining recognition. Falcon, Pripps Blå and Spendrups rule the roost in bars and Systembolaget alike, and the first two aren’t even Swedish anymore – Falcon being bought by Carlsberg in 1996, and Pripps Blå joining the Danish family soon after. But you get what you pay for; Pripps Blå, for example, uses just 51% barley, the minimum amount required by Swedish law.

“We’re seeing in Sweden what happened in the USA some ten to fifteen years ago,” explains Patrick Holmqvist, brewmaster at microbrewery Nils Oscar. “The only beer readily available in America was made by the mega breweries. There was a counter-reaction which resulted in the market starting to supply more diverse products.”

Nils Oscar is typical of the new generation of independent Swedish breweries – many of them backed by wealthy entrepreneurs – whose aim is to provide a quality alternative. There are some forty taxable breweries in Sweden today. This is nothing like the heyday of the late 19th century, when there were over 500, but considerably better than the low of thirteen in the early 1990s. Holmqvist is optimistic.

“As consumers become more aware, the opportunities for smaller companies are expanding. In Sweden we are slowly getting used to paying more for a quality product with flavour.”

Conversely, Swedes are also getting used to going abroad to buy cheap beer in bulk, a trend which shows no sign of letting up. According to the Swedish Brewers’ Association, who support a relaxation of regulations and lowering of alcohol taxes, 36% of strong beer was bought outside of Sweden in 2005.

Systembolaget spokesman Mats Olsson plays down the smuggling threat from Germany, Denmark and the Baltics. He says Systembolaget’s key aim is to be the number one alcohol retailer in the world. If you ask one of the erudite workers for a great-tasting beer, they’re more likely to point you in the direction of, say, a Zeunerts or Oppigårds brew than their top-selling can, Sofiero, which was the first beer to retail for under ten crowns.

Olssson is keen to point out the company is determined to promote and assist small breweries, frequently launching products from the independents. Nils Oscar relies on them to survive, with Systembolaget making up 60% of all sales, and Stockholm restaurants responsible for most of the rest.

Unlike many of the pioneers of the microbrewery explosion in the mid-90s, such as the ill-fated Gamla Stans Bryggeri, Nils Oscar is financially stable and expanding. Founded by the entrepreneurs behind Sandy’s sandwiches, the first beer was launched in 1998, and all products have been available at Systembolaget from the very beginning. The company is currently based on Kungsholmen, but will move to a new, larger brewery in Nyköping in mid-September.

It remains to be seen if the microbreweries can continue to assert themselves in an increasingly concentrated market dominated by a handful of multinational giants. According to Europeanbeerguide.net, Carlsberg controls 75% of the Swedish beer market. I asked Patrick Holmqvist what characterises “real” Swedish beer. His conclusion offers an insight into why Sweden is, for the time being, propping up the league table.

“Swedish beer culture, like a lot of Swedish culture, is imported. We have a wide array of styles from a wide array of influences, including English, German and Czech. But we have no distinctive Swedish beer style yet.”

Eddie de Oliveira