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Why doesn’t Sweden have any decent village pubs?

Why doesn't Sweden have any decent village pubs?
The best you're likely to find in most Swedish villages is a pizzeria. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT
In the UK, France and Germany few villages lack their own cosy pub, café or gasthaus, often hundreds of years old. But in Sweden, you're lucky to find a kebab pizza joint. Why is there nowhere decent to eat or drink in the Swedish countryside?

Partly, it’s the deadening hand of regulation, partly it’s puritanism, but mostly, according to the historians The Local has spoken to, Sweden’s lacklustre country pub life comes down to geography and economics. Most of Sweden has simply been too sparsely populated and too poor to support thriving hostelries.

Regulation

According to Richard Tellström, a food historian at Stockholm University, the coaching inns or gästgivaregård set up across Sweden on the orders of King Erik XIV back in 1561, were later forbidden from serving alcohol to locals.

“Of course, since this is Sweden, they were regulated, and they were not allowed to sell drinks to people living nearby,” he tells The Local. “They were only open to those who were travellers. They were not a public bar for locals.”

This meant that although coaching inns were from 1615 required to be set up at intervals of one and a half landskapsmil (about 16 kilometres) along all the major roads in Sweden, they never developed into centres for the local community, like their counterparts did in the UK, Germany or France. 

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This is not to say that there was nowhere for locals to drink in Swedish villages.

“There were, of course, many illegal bars in the countryside. A lot of women, especially widows, were running illegal bars as way of making money,” he says. “You made alcohol at home, and your neighbours came to you and you sold them spirits and beer. They were very simple. You had them in the kitchen.”

Remarkably, given the later Lutheran stance on alcohol, churches were also allowed to sell alcohol to help the local pastor support themselves.

“During the 1600s, we even had church bars in Sweden, not actually in the church, but outside it, so the vicar could make some money serving alcohol before and after the Sunday mass,” Tellström says.

But none of these establishments left their mark on the fabric of villages in the way that historic pubs, cafés and gasthaus have elsewhere in Europe.

“They have vanished, all of them, since they were illegal,” Tellström explains.

As for the gästgivaregård, most disappeared when railways ended the coaching system. It was only really in Sweden’s southernmost county, Skåne, that they managed to repurpose themselves as country restaurants.

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A picture that shows a gästgivaregård the way they used to look. Photo: Johan Främst/Forshems gästgiveri/TT

Poverty and population density

According to Mats Morell, Professor Emeritus of Economic History at Uppsala University, Sweden’s poverty and low population density until the late 19th century meant that there were few villages of sufficient scale to support a restaurant, or café.

“If you go back in history, the villages were more or less hamlets: five or a maximum of ten farms and a few crops, and in many cases, there was a single farm and then you had a kilometre and a half to the next one.”

This lack of rural density was exacerbated by the Great Partition land reforms, which from 1750 onwards split up villages across Sweden, so that each landowner had their land in the same place.

As a result, the Swedish countryside was turned into a succession of large farms, without any agglomerations.

The big exceptions to this were the counties of Skåne and Dalarna. Skåne’s rich arable land meant it could be more densely populated than the rest of Sweden, leaving it with today’s dense network of pretty villages.

Dalarna had bigger villages because the county’s strong tradition of making crafts meant agriculture was not the only source of sustenance, and later because its villages resisted the land reforms.


An old map listing the gästgivaregårdar in the Västmanland region. Photo: Kolbäcks hembygdsförening/Wikimedia Commons

Puritanism

Even in parts of the country where there were no bars, there was still alcohol, however, with Swedes traditionally brewing weak ale, and from 16th century distilling brännvin, at home.

“We had the same ale as you have in Britain in Sweden until the 1850s,” Tellström says. “We didn’t have any pilsner [or lager].”

Tellstöm is sceptical of the idea that Sweden was ravaged by alcoholism until the strict regulation of the early 20th century.

“I think it only became a huge problem during the 1800s. And that is related to how you make brännvin,” he says. “You take the grain and potatoes that you can’t eat to make liquor, so you must have a surplus of grain and potato, otherwise you will starve to death during the winter.”

This put a natural limit on how many bottles of spirits a typical farmstead could make. It was only during the 1800s, when cheap grain started to be imported, and brännvin made industrially, that spirits drinking became a serious problem.

When that happened, however, it triggered a moral panic that still restricts Swedish pub life today.

First came the temperance movement, which paradoxically improved the social life in many Swedish villages, with temperance organisations often building villages’ first community centres, which would then host dances and coffee meetings.

Many of the bygdegård community centres you find across Sweden, which can today be hired for weddings and parties, were set up by temperance organisations or by Baptist or Methodist churches, Tellström says.

“But since these churches are always, I would say, related to a temperance idea, they don’t serve alcohol. That is why we started to drink coffee in Sweden, so coffee becomes the sort of social drink.”

So unlike in parts of Britain, where the temperance movement sometimes took over pubs and converted them to temperance pubs or closed them down, in Sweden it built social centres where none had existed before.

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A ban rehearses in a bygdegård community centre outside Enköping. Many were built by the temperance movement. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Monopoly and rationing

The concerns over alcoholism led the government in 1905 to establish a monopoly over sales of spirits (although many country distilleries continued regardless).

In 1922, the government established a rationing system, with an alcohol ration book, which imposed lower consumption on working class men, than on professionals.

Then, in 1938, it nationalised all ‘third-class restaurants’. Since the 1850s, establishments could only sell alcohol if they also served hot food, so this effectively nationalised everything which might have developed into a working class pub, turning them into drab government-run canteens until the monopoly was ended in 1955.

Urbanisation

According to Morell, by the first half of the 1900s, Swedish country life became much more lively. The country was becoming more prosperous, railways were connecting many villages, causing them to quickly grow into small towns.

“If you go back to the 1940s, there was quite a lot more going on in the countryside,” he says of the 1950s. “In my little home parish, there was a dancing place, and a sort of a community house, which was owned by the Good Templers, a temperance organisation, and it collected rather many people.”

“There was also political engagement, the Agrarian Party, Bondeförbundet, which was much stronger and they fixed a barn dance every week. But there was no pub culture or bar culture.”

It was only when Swedes moved to the cities en masse in the 1950s and 1960s that this village life disappeared.

More often than not, all that remains is a charmless pizzeria.


Member comments

  1. One reason must be the price of alcohol. In the UK, the price of a pint of beer is roughly 10 times that of an equivalent amount bought in a supermarket. Multiply the price of a half-litre of mellanol bought in ICA or Systemet by 10 and what sort of pub is going to survive charging 100kr/pint?

  2. I live close to Alvdalen. I bought an old farm. Many big brown bottles and bags of carbon in the barn. Brannvin is common. There is a bygdegård in every village . some just a couple of Kms apart. Always amusing to read the history.

  3. Extremely interesting article. Does it also have a knock-on effect of why pubs and bars even in Swedish cities are so unconvivial and lacking in atmosphere?

  4. So in the 21st century Swedish towns do not have pubs because history.
    Some people outside of Europe say Europe is too focused on its own heritage and history… I wonder what those people mean 😀

  5. OK so in the 21st century Swedish towns don’t have pubs because history.
    You know, people outside of Europe sometimes say Europe is too focused on its own heritage and history all the time… I wonder what those people mean 😀

  6. Very interesting! These Barn dances sound like a lot of fun! My Swedish husband’s grandparents met at one in the ‘40’s ?

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