Swedish and English cider: How do you like them apples?

State alcohol retailer Systembolaget claims to be committed to stamping out underage drinking. Why then does it describe its range of ciders in terms best understood by connoisseurs of children's candy? wonders cider aficionado René Rice .

Swedish and English cider: How do you like them apples?

There has long been a stigma attached to the consumption of cider in England; it has a reputation for attracting teenagers not yet old enough to legally drink.

Merrydown cider, with an ABV of 7.5%, was the staple for teenagers where I grew up – despite the fact that I lived within five miles of two distinguished Kentish cider makers; Biddenden and Kenny Cramp’s.

Biddenden’s range of ciders all have an ABV of 8% and Kenny Cramp’s produced the infamous Double Vision, with an ABV that ranged from 8% to 12%, depending on whether you believe the man himself or the label on the bottle.

Is it absolutely necessary to make these ciders so strong? By naming your brand Double Vision you are certainly catering for the type of person that will drink it with one goal in mind. Is it really any wonder then, that the kids are more interested than the serious cider drinkers?

It seems that Sweden’s cider producers are also unsure about their target audience.

Firstly, let's consider Swedish cider’s exclusive retailer and prominent reviewer Systembolaget. Believe it or not the words 'pärongodis' (pear drop), 'skumbanan' (foam banana), 'gelégodis' (jelly baby), 'smultronkarameller' (wild strawberry caramel) and 'tuttifrutti' (erm, tutti-frutti) are all used by Sweden's state controlled alcohol store to characterise the flavours of the Kopparberg and Hanna's range of ciders.

Does anybody else find this just a little disconcerting?

Perhaps you have become accustomed to the fact that Systembolaget currently has a monopoly on the sale of alcohol in Sweden. Maybe you are able to ignore the way in which they have used sugary confections to describe these drinks – near blasphemy for cider aficionados.

However, can you honestly tell me it doesn't insult your intelligence that while you have to be twenty years of age to buy alcoholic cider in this country, the only store legally entitled to sell it is proudly telling you it tastes like kids' candy?

This brings us to my next point: the Swedish breweries. By producing sickly sweet, carbonated ciders with names like strawberry desire and flavours we have already mentioned, what exactly is their target demographic? If it's anyone actually old enough to purchase their products then they are way off the mark.

Carlsberg Sweden's Xider brand even produce a bottled special edition Xider X-mas, which claims to have 'Julstämning med snö i flaskan' or 'Christmas spirit with snow in the bottle'. The drink is 'Christmas red', flavoured with ‘mistletoe and orange’ and the 'glittery snowflakes' are created using a harmless artificial colouring called Candurin.

Maybe Carlsberg have struck gold here – you can just imagine the queues at Systembolaget during the festive season; young professionals, newly-weds, fathers-to-be, housewives, pensioners – all keen to get their hands on a red sugary drink called Xider that tastes like Fanta and thinks it's a snow globe.

This brings us to my third and final point: the question of responsible marketing. Is it really socially acceptable to give alcoholic drinks frivolous names and childish gimmicks, whilst comparing their flavours to children's sweets?

This is definitely where England’s hypocrisy shines through – I recall from my days as a pub landlord the birth of the 'alcopop' market and the political backlash it created. One of my best selling bottled drinks in 1995-1996 was Hooper's Hooch but brewers Bass were forced to re-launch the product with a new label – the words 'Alcoholic lemonade' were replaced with 'Alcoholic lemon drink' – and a lesser sugar content, following fears that it was encouraging underage drinking.

Fair enough, but do they honestly think that Kenny Cramp’s Double Vision is aimed at the discerning adult cider drinker?

I’ll leave you with my personal favourite of Systembolaget’s cider reviews: Kopparberg's imaginatively named Cider Super Strong (with a formidable ABV content of 8.5%) apparently tastes like a 'svartvinbärsvingummi' – that’s a blackcurrant wine gum to you and me.



Why alcohol-free beer is having a moment in Sweden

Almost one in every ten beers sold in Sweden is alcohol-free, and it's young people in cities who are the biggest consumers. So what's driving the popularity of the booze-free beverage?

Why alcohol-free beer is having a moment in Sweden
Young people in cities are driving the trend for more alcohol-free beer. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad / TT

The popularity of alcohol-free beer is growing fast in Sweden, thanks to technical progress which has improved both the quality and variety of the beverage. It was the drink category that saw the biggest rise in sales in Sweden during 2018, with a 41 percent growth, according to figures from the Swedish Brewers Association.

“We see an increase in all areas; [state-run alcohol monopoly] Systembolaget has increased its sales, restaurants now have more than one variety and the beer selection in supermarkets [where only drinks with an alcohol content below 3.5 percent may be sold] has become noticeably more interesting to consumers,” the association's CEO Anna-Karin Fondberg said.

Swedish brewery Spendrups, one of the major players in the market, has seen a 30 percent increase in sales of alcohol-free beer since 2018, and last year was a record year.

“It's a trend in society that we're turning to alcohol-free products more and more, but I think that more than anything it's about the taste,” commented Spendrups head of press Rose-Marie Hertzman.

“There is now a really good alternative for those who for some reason want to abstain from alcohol, and that has not always been the case. When we manufacture alcohol-free beer, we first make a strong beer [with high alcohol content] and then take away the alcohol, so you keep all the flavours,” said Hertzman.

Making beer free from alcohol is a complicated and expensive process, requiring manufacturers either to cut off the fermentation process or remove the alcohol afterwards. Alcohol is a flavour carrier, but modern techniques mean that it's no longer the case that alcohol-free beer means a flavourless drink.

Anna-Karin Fondberg of the Swedish Brewers Association agrees that product development has been important for the increased interest in alcohol-free beers.

“Swedish breweries got in there early and put a lot of resources into development, and it's paying off now. Consumers are choosy and alcohol-free beer today is a high quality product,” she said.

While the major breweries have played a part, a large number of microbreweries have started up over recent years, and helped draw attention to the wide variety when it comes to beer. This has meant that there are no longer only alcohol-free lagers, but also IPAs, ales, and porters. 

The biggest market for alcohol-free beer is young people living in Sweden's major cities, and as alcohol-free beer has risen in popularity, sales of low-alcohol beer or lättöl have fallen. Since 2018, more alcohol-free beers have been sold than lättöl, which has long been a popular choice for lunch and the only alternative outside Systembolaget's opening hours, and is most popular with middle-aged men.

Another of the reasons for booming sales of alcohol-free beer could well be an increased interest in healthy eating and drinking habits. While healthy food and exercise have long been important to Swedish consumers, and this has been reflected in sales figures within those sectors, there appears to be increasing attention paid to drinks and particularly alcohol.

“I think people want to drink different things at different occasions. We see in our surveys that many people don't only drink alcohol-free beverages, but earlier when someone for some reason didn't want a beer with alcohol, they would turn to water or soda,” said Fondberg.