'As long as you hook Swedes on the first try, they'll be back'

Lee Roden
Lee Roden - [email protected]
'As long as you hook Swedes on the first try, they'll be back'
Kerryn Beattie (left) and Craig Donovan (right), founders of the Nordic Kiwi Brewers. Photo: Nordic Kiwi Brewers

It takes a brave type to tackle the world of alcohol production in Sweden. The country’s laws in the area are notoriously tight: the only shop allowed to sell anything over 3.5 percent alcohol is state monopoly Systembolaget. Despite that, Kiwi expats Kerryn Beattie and Craig Donovan felt confident enough to launch their own Stockholm brewery in 2014, and so far, things are going well.


The Nordic Kiwi Brewers' origins can be traced back to when Beattie became bored of the selection Sweden's monopoly offered. A carpenter at the time, he decided to do something about it.

“I’ve been here 16 years now and had a carpentry company for ten. Not so long ago Systembolaget was a tough place to buy beer,” he tells The Local.

"There was no variety, it was expensive, so my idea was to brew my own beer. Me and my friend who was living in New Zealand had a competition to see who could brew the best stuff. I won – thanks to the great water here in Sweden, which helped.”

Originally Beattie was only brewing beer for personal consumption, but when he offered some samples to friends, a eureka moment occurred.

“I started doing tastings at home with friends, putting little tasters out to get feedback. I have a few friends who work in pubs and they said to me ‘we could sell this’.”

“I realized it was worth pursuing. So then I came up with a name and decided I really wanted to do it.”

Photo: Nordic Kiwi Brewers

With the then amateur brewer settled on pursuing his hobby more seriously, he opted to bring in fellow New Zealander Craig Donovan to help with the logistics.

“I had met Craig a bit earlier, and when I looked into starting the brewery it turned out to be a big deal. It’s a lot of investment, equipment, and it’s hard to do on your own. Then there’s the labour, pulling it all together. I knew I could brew beer but I didn’t have any experience in sales, for example” Beattie details.

“So Craig and I did a whole business plan, all the numbers. We even went to business school to learn more about selling. In the end we done a good year of background work. When we went to get financing it was hard, but we got it because we had such a solid business plan. A lot of brewers go in and say ‘I can brew beer’, but the first thing the banks say is ‘you can brew beer, but can you sell it?’. They only want sales.”

Solid planning ensured the brewers successfully tied down financing, but one of their biggest early dilemmas was over arguably the most important aspect of the business: its name.

“There was a big design issue over whether we should call ourselves Kiwis, because most Swedes think that’s a fruit,” Beattie laughs.

“‘Are you making a fruit beer?’, stuff like that. But we decided to go with it, because at least it’s a talking point, and then we have to tell them a story, teach them what Kiwis are. We decided to take the risk.”

It turned out to be a smart move. Early feedback showed that customers in Sweden were particularly keen on the brand – an important thing to get right in a crowded Stockholm marketplace full of young microbreweries.

“We were actually worried we were too late. We started the business plan three years ago but have only been brewing for almost two years. Even now after that time we can see some brewers dropping off because they don’t have the brand for it. Before we hit the green light and took financing we made sure to get that right, and we discovered that the brand is the most important thing,” Beattie reveals.

The cautious start wasn’t entirely by choice though. There was also the challenge of making sure to adhere to Sweden’s strict alcohol laws.

“It took us six months to get the necessary paperwork done before we could even brew the beer. We had all the malt, hops and stuff going, but we couldn’t do anything until all the paperwork was done. It was quite full on.”

Photo: Nordic Kiwi Brewers

There are both pros and cons of having a state alcohol monopoly, the brewer feels:

“The pros are they have a great selection. They hold good quality, it’s one client, once you’re in, you’re in, and you can deliver so long as you can keep up the quality of your products.”

“The bad thing is they’re one client,” he laughed. “They have Carlsberg and all these big breweries who earn them all the money, so they put all their effort into those guys, and the smaller guys get pushed a little bit to the side.”

Then there is advertising. The tight controls on the promotion of alcohol in Sweden are no small matter for a new company whose only product happens to contain alcohol.

“You can advertise the brand, and have a bottle with the logo on it, but you have to have a big warning sign on it. You can’t say it’s cheap, or encourage people to buy it, you can just say you have it,” Beattie explains.

“In a way it’s quite good though because there are no discount prices. We can hold our prices. We decide them. It’s the same price everywhere, and you’re just competing against the other brands. You just have to worry about delivering a good product.”

Another positive of the state monopoly is the information it can provide. The Kiwis found Systembolaget to be one of the few sources of tailored assistance for brewers, who aren’t offered the same level of advice as startups in more common fields like IT.

“We had a meeting with Systembolaget before we started. The great thing about that is because it’s a monopoly everything has to be on paper and everyone has the right to read it,” Beattie says.

“They have all the stats and you can read it all. What they’re going to do, thinking of doing. When we chose our bottle we had a meeting with them, and they let us know that they’re moving towards lightweight glass, so we’ve already chosen a future bottle for that. By 2017 they want all bottles to be lightweight. Then there’s the ecological push, which we know we have to be ready for too.”

The extensive preparation clearly helped. Now into their second year of brewing, the company is doing well.

“We’ve hit a few benchmarks and we’re getting good feedback. The Systembolaget offer lasts one year, then they review your numbers and decide if you’ll get another year or not. If you see products disappearing in Sweden, it’s not the producer disappearing, it’s the demand. But we have our first beers reinstated now for another year. We got our numbers right,” Beattie says proudly.

Photo: Nordic Kiwi Brewers

An opportunity to reflect on all the positive progress will come at the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival at the end of September, where the brewer will be given a much bigger allocation than the one they received in their first outing at the event last year.

“We were there last year in what they call the 'new brewers corner'. This year we’re getting our own license to push our brand and make it big – we’ll have a bigger stall.”

Asked what the company’s plans for the future are, Beattie is cautious, but does say a bar where people can come and try the product directly is in the pipeline.

“Our first business plan was a three-year one. Now we’ve got our first real year of numbers to work with and can make a more realistic second year plan. It’s a little bit under the original plan but the numbers add up,” he says.

“The idea is to grow as big as we can in the brewery we’re at. We’re looking to a future move to get a brew-bar or restaurant in the brewery. That would have a nice local feel, and people could come to us much easier.”

Another goal is to send the beer out to other markets, including the possibility of reconnecting with the company’s roots.

“We’re looking to export to Finland, Denmark and Norway to broaden our horizons. We’re doing a collaboration with a New Zealand brewer at the moment too for the beer festival in Stockholm. We’ve brewed a beer together, so hopefully it’ll go well and they’ll want to take it back to New Zealand.”

For now, the Nordic Kiwi Brewers is managing to keep itself afloat in a competitive Swedish market for microbreweries. So do they have any advice for other amateur brewers in the country thinking of taking their hobby further?

“Swedes are naturally pretty cautious, but they’re getting more and more into this. When they go and buy stuff now, they want to buy one of each and try new things. So as long as you hook them on their first try, they’ll come back. That’s the trick.”


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