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Beer in Sweden: it's not as bad as you think

Darren Packman · 17 Feb 2011, 10:35

Published: 17 Feb 2011 10:35 GMT+01:00

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I want you, if you would, to join me for a quick session of word association to discover whether your brain has been ‘wine-washed’.

If I say the word ‘wine’ what images, memories and associations are conjured up? Chances are we’ve never met before but I’m guessing dinner parties with friends, fine-dine restaurants, cheese, vineyards and chateaux in France are among the thoughts dancing across your brain’s hippocampus right now.

Ok, let’s switch the word to beer. What happens then?

Again we’re all very different but I’ll bet that images of ferries to Finland, saunas, pizzas, football matches, belching, farting, fighting and general bad behaviour are lighting up your neural pathways like fireworks right now.

It’s a fact that for many of us beer is considered the working class member of the drinks family. If wine drives around in a Bentley beer sits behind the wheel of a clapped-out transit van.

Beer’s bad image and wine’s elevated status is the result of a combination of several historical, cultural and social factors. But the gap between beer and wine has widened more rapidly than ever with the advent of mass marketing, with the wine industry doing a textbook job of associating your thoughts about wine with elegance, fashion, food, social status and health.

The beer industry on the other hand has done a spectacular job of dismantling its once gleaming reputation as a drink that built empires and one that graced the dinner tables of royalty.

Profit-hungry modern-day beer conglomerates have opted to spend vast chunks of their promotional budgets below the belt rather than above the line, with beer having been represented by everything from frogs to men dressed as bears using more sexual innuendoes than you’ll hear from a dressing room full of rugby players. Sometimes the sex sell is obvious, other times it creeps in, like this Carlsberg ad currently airing on Swedish TV.

Over the coming months here at The Local I’m going to attempt and press the reset button on many of the things you might consider beer to be.

It’s not my aim to make beer out to be more wine-like – after all one of the things we all love about beer is that it can be enjoyed without any pomp or ceremony – but I will be trying to showcase beers that take the fight to wine in terms of enjoyment, flavour, complexity and as a partner to food.

To illustrate this I’m kicking this column off with an extreme beer that really does challenge the concept of what beer is and how far we can stretch the boundaries of what can be done with water, yeast, hops and malted barley.

Samuel Adams Utopias was once the world’s most expensive beer (it’s now ranked 4th). Around 70 bottles of the 2009 vintage were released at the Systembolaget this month for the ‘can-that-be-right’ asking price of 1,150 kronor a bottle.

That’s a lot of money for a beer, putting it on a pricing par with a vintage Borolo or a rare single malt whisky. So is it really worth it and more importantly what does a beer that costs more than a return flight to London really taste like?

Utopias comes packaged in an ornate copper-plated replica of a brewing kettle. The beer itself is a whopping 27 percent ABV and brewed using quality malts and the ‘old world’ noble hops varieties of Hallertau Mittelfruh, Spalt and Tettnager.

The 2009 vintage I’m trying here contains a blend of batches, some having been aged up to 16 years in the barrel room at the brewery in a variety of woods. A portion of the beer has also been aged in hand-selected, single-use bourbon. Another batch has spent time in Portuguese muscatel finishing casks, as well as sherry, brandy and cognac casks.

Story continues below…

The beer pours a shimmering fiery copper. At this level of alcohol there’s absolutely no carbonation in the beer and hence no head, giving it the appearance of a fine cognac.

The similarities with cognac don’t end there either, with giddy aromas of rum-soaked raisins, vanilla, oak and maple syrup. It is sweet and sticky in the mouth, with dense flavours of toffee, honey and dried fruits. Despite its strength it finishes with a satisfying warmth rather than running ‘hot’ like other high strength drinks sometimes can.

All in all very elegant and complex stuff and light-years away from the industrial fizz many of us consider beer to be.

Which is why every now and again I like a beer like Utopias to come along, because it reminds us that beer is every bit at home being gulped ice-cold straight from a bottle while flipping burgers on the BBQ as it is being sipped from crystal glasses at the end of a gourmet meal.

Darren Packman started writing about beer in the UK in the mid-90s. Now based in Umeå in northern Sweden, Darren now writes about the beer scene in Sweden from the inside out on his "decidedly un-lagom beer blog" BeerSweden.se.

Darren Packman (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

23:45 February 17, 2011 by mikewhite
Straight from the bottle ? No flavour !
11:02 February 18, 2011 by HYBRED
Utopias is very much over priced. There are many other reasonably priced Barley Wines that are excellent. Although Barley Wines are not very plentiful in Sweden.

I don't much care for beer that has been aged in casks from wine and whiskey. It is not what beer is meant to be. If I want wine or whiskey, that is what I will buy.

Your "industial fizz" analogy is a pretty acurrate discription. You can sit at your dining room table with a Soda Stream and some dog urine and make better beer than what these mega breweries make.
12:53 February 18, 2011 by flintis
I was brought up in a pub in the UK where my father had the proud honour of being reknowned for having the best beer (ale) in the city & up until the late 70's Barley wines were usually drunk by women (with a dash of blackcurrant)

Unfortunately there are very few good beers in Sweden & even fewer decent ales, the Swedes forgetting the lessons of brewing in the 19 century. Even the "lager" beers are nowt to write home about.
14:51 February 18, 2011 by Great Scott
Where do the Americans actually get the idea they can make good beer. From the American beers I have tasted, none come up to scratch. I have to laugh when I hear this "Worlds best beer". The competition is run by Americans and held in the USA. It's a bit like American football, the USA are the world champions. When it comes to beer it's almost the same, Americans believe that no one else makes beer. Even though Americans have to import hops etc to try and clone European beers they just can't get there. The "Rate Beer" web site is another joke, the way it's laid out is if the USA is the main contributor of beers in the world, and every other country follows.
15:47 February 18, 2011 by Luap Yenned
Hold on a minute I drive a clapped out transit van!

Having travelled a lot I have to say that the best beer in the world is from Belgium. English beer can be good if you avoid the mass produced stuff.99.9% of American beer is to be avoided at all costs! There are one or two good micro breweries in California however. As for Swedish beer the only experience I have is of a bottled beer I bought in IKEA which for a larger was actually not bad (far better than any larger we brew under license in the UK). Hopefully I shall be in Sweden this summer and provided I can obtain the necessary loans I may buy some beer!
16:13 February 18, 2011 by HYBRED
@Great Scott

Actually, when I look at Rate Beer, there top rated beer for the 2011 award goes to a brew from Sweden. Second place is a beer from Belgium. The remainder of the top ten is made of beer's from USA micro breweries. Most, if any are not avilable available in Sweden. Some are available in Denmark.

And most of Rate Beer's contributors are actually Swedish and Danish.

Although the American mega brew beer's like Bud and Miller are nasty, Spendrups and Falcon are no better, and possibly worse.
16:34 February 18, 2011 by Graham Brodie
Actually I think Sweden is probably the best of the Nordic countries as far as beer is concerned as long as you avoid the larger breweries such as Spendrups and Pripps. Products from Jämtlands Bryggeri AB for example (Heaven, Hell, Fallen Angel etc) are well worth checking out.

And the availability of quality beers from Britain (including real ales) and other European countries like the Czech Republic and Belgium has improved a lot since I came here in the 1980s when things were admittedly pretty dire. It's much more common now to order a beer by name rather than the generic "stor stark".
17:17 February 18, 2011 by Civical
Well this is an interesting column appropriate for 'The Local'. In my opinion beer is much more a matter of taste and preference than wine which to make a very sweeping generalisation can be categorised as red/white, good/bad. (please no flaming, I said sweeping generalisation).

Which brings me to my point, Swedish lager is O.K. but my view is that good lager producers are Czech, German or Belgian. Shame you can't buy more than 40cl in Sweden without a mortgage.

I tried some draft Sam Adams in the U.S. thought it fell into the category I would call a brown lager, similar to Australian and Irish 'bitter ale' not much like real ale such as Shepard Neames whose last advertising campaign I did like, not sure how it would play in some parts of Europe though ;)

Can't imagine what a 27%ABV beer would taste like but if it tastes of maple syrup I would immediately go YUK! As I said it's all about taste and preference where I would venture that beer with ABV much above 5% tend to be too heavy and sweet how about anyone else?
18:12 February 18, 2011 by Wireless.Phil
Looks like the same bottle that our Sam Adams Utopia is bottled in, but at a price a bit more if I remember correctly.

Trouble is my US State won't allow it into stores because of the high alcohol content.
18:17 February 18, 2011 by Hakanry
You are very right most of the beer in the USA is crap. This began in the 1800 when mostly german immigrants begam brewing for commercial purposes. They found that by adding corn,rice and wheat you could create cheap alcohol. Like the crap white bread they make over here thats not fit to feed to livestock. In the 1970's small microbreweries began to open up due to a gradual change in the laws. Now we have on a small scale many localy brewed beers that are very good and much like the old worlds beers. I however go to the liquor store and buy European beers I like the flavor and quality better.
18:19 February 18, 2011 by Wireless.Phil
My goof, I should have read the article first!

18:38 February 18, 2011 by HYBRED
Systembolaget usually comes out with new beer's at the first and middle of the month. Many are special edition micro brews. And once their gone, their gone. I like looking at different beer websites to get the style and flavor profile of the brews. Just to see if It sounds interesting, not really putting much faith in the ratings because everyones taste varies.
21:34 February 18, 2011 by Twitcher
Beer in Sweden is actually very good. I moved to Gothenburg 3 months ago and have been blown away by the quality of beer produced by Swedish micros like Dugges, Narke, Ocean, Sigtuna etc.....

There are also some fantastic bars. I can get a lot of good beers from the best US breweries and other great brewers like Nogne and Mikkeller.

I'm glad of this blog to as I hadn't come across your site. I'm a huge beer geek and a keen all grain home brewer so its good to know there are things going on in Sweden. Now I just need to find a homebrew club.
10:50 February 19, 2011 by calebian22
Saying American beer is crap is ridiculous, especially if you are basing your opinion on American beer (Macrobreweries) that is available abroad. Regional beers are excellent in the US but are rarely exported. I would venture that most of the haters, would be surprised and impressed if given a Deschutes, Full Sail or Bridgeport selection out of Portland, for example.
11:22 February 19, 2011 by HYBRED

I agree. There are also a lot of micro breweries in the USA that don't even bottle their product for outside sales. It is just served in their pub/restaurant.
17:26 February 19, 2011 by Michael Whitfield

Quite true! Our mass produced beer is nothing to write home about, but the microbrewing industry has provided our beer connoisseurs some superb selections from which to choose. In Colorado microbreweries are quite prevalent. The only problem is that one becomes a beer snob when you start tasting what real beer is all about.
19:59 February 19, 2011 by Haubits77B
Well, if you want to drink good Swedish "pilsner", (a lager brewed like they do it in the Check republic) you may try Zeunert´s Original, or Zeunert´s Merke. Also the brewery "Nils Oscar" produces high quality "pilsner". But it´s verry importent to remember that the Swedish brewers are influenced by the Bavarians and the Checks, not the Britts....
22:21 February 19, 2011 by Smiling Canuk
We all know the Danes make good beer, but I'll agree that Belgium is probably at the head of the class. The U.K. makes good beer also. In fact it was my time in the U.K. that made me realize that the traditional Canadian standards like Molson's and Labatt's are horse pee. Ever since then I've only purchased micro brewerie beer at home. There are a lot of excellent beers being produced in micr breweries in both Canada and the USA, plus all the foreign beers are generally available over here. My favourite American beer is Samuel Adams.
08:57 February 20, 2011 by BeerSwedenDarren
Great to see so many comments and really interesting to see the different attitudes towards beers from different countries. If I've learnt anything in my 17 years in the beer business it's that you should never try to pigeon-hole beer by where it comes from as there are always, always plenty of exceptions that will prove you wrong. For example Belgium does have probably the most diversified, complex range of beers on the planet but the biggest selling beers there are the altogether more average Jupiler and Stella Artois.

America has an undeservedly bad reputation for its beers. OK, so about 95% of it might be deserved in a market dominated by BMC beers but those glorious 5% more than make up for it in my book. You should never write of US brewing until you try some of their amazing craft beers that have reshaped the modern beer landscape. The Swedish beer scene is also undergoing a renaissance but although it takes inspiration from the 'old' beer countries like Germany and the Czech Republic influences from the UK and predominantly the US are what's driving the market right now.

Regardless of where a beer comes from and what 'style' it tries to follow the question I recommend you always ask yourself is: "Does it taste good"?

If the answer's yes you're drinking great beer :)
10:31 February 20, 2011 by HYBRED

I agree with your overall view; If it tastes good, drink it. But I think it is very important not to to get stuck on one brand of brew. Trying new brew's can be a very rewarding experience for the palate. And obviously there will be some disappointments as well.
10:41 February 21, 2011 by Luap Yenned
Variety is the spice of life it gives it it's very colour.

William Shakespeare
01:40 February 23, 2011 by billstewart3
Beer brewing is a craft you can practice in your kitchen, or to make enough for a single pub, or in industrial-sized quantities. Some of the world's best beer is made in America, and so is some of the world's worst beer, and China now makes a bit more beer than America. And the kind of beer you'd drink depends on what you're eating with it and on what climate you're drinking it in. A pint of Guinness or a heavy ale or a peaty malt whisky works well in cold rainy climates like San Francisco in the winter or Scotland in the summer, but in the American south, on a 40C day with 90% humidity, that ice-cold watery swill people think of as American beer is really just about perfect. My memories of beer in Sweden are limited to watching people get off the ferry-boat with duty-free cases of it while I was on my way from Denmark to Norway; I might have had some in G"oteborg, but I remember the look of the city more than the dinner there.
13:28 February 24, 2011 by Brandon Marc
Love what you're doing for beer! We have more in common than you may think ;)


Brandon Marc

My Wine Cellar

12:00 February 26, 2011 by BeerSwedenDarren
Luap: spot on!

billstewart3: You make a great point. One of the many amazing things about beer is its variety, its seasonality and the fact that anyone can brew amazingly tasty beer using the most basic equipment in their kitchens.

Brandon: We do, and although I often take a gentle swipe at wine over at my blog (www.beersweden.se) the truth is wine can be a perfect partner to many foods. It's just that I think beer can often be its equal and has qualities (like carbonation and malt/toffee flavours) that can take it places most wine can't follow.
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