Is Sweden a Beer Country?

Is Sweden a Beer Country?

If you're old enough, think back to the year 1991. Wherever you're from, you'll agree that a lot has changed since then. In 1991, there was no genuine affordable lightweight laptop computer, the internet didn't exist, cellular phones were an item enjoyed by the very few.

And beer choice was poor.

Nowhere was the choice more dismal than Sweden.  I should know. I lived in Sweden from July 1991 to January 1993.

Sweden is the size of California, but its population back in those days was 8.6m. Now it's closer to 10m, still less than a third of California's. The liberal nation's ascension to the European Union was four years away. 

That meant a lousy selection of brews. 

It doesn't help that Sweden has been governed by a state-run alcohol monopoly since 1955.  Only the System Bolaget may legally sell alcoholic beverages over 3.5% by volume. In the early 1990's, the beers on offer were Swedish mainstreams alongside well known mainstream imports, with everything being hawked for outrageous prices.  Some things never go out of style. A present tear-inducing example: a bottle of Köning Pilsener sells for €1.07 in Sweden, three times the price it sells for in its native Germany.  Absolut Vodka, produced in Sweden, costs €27 a bottle. Export it to Germany: just €12. 

Even though Sweden is now a part of the European Union, the alcohol monopoly persists. Individuals coming in overland from neighboring European Union nations can bring in up to 200 liters of alcohol, and many do just that, usually taking trips to Germany by ferry and carting in pallets from German stores setup to satiate Scandinavian alcohol tourism demand.

In 1992, beer in Sweden, even at the local pub, meant Spendrups, Pripps, or Falcon, all lagers, none close to remarkable. "Twenty years ago Stockholm was a beer desert," says Jorgen Hasselqvist, manager of one of Stockholm's oldest beer bars. To give you an idea about the "high quality" of these mainstays, Pripps Blå, then about as ubiquitous a Swedish beer as you could find and now produced by the Carlsberg group, contained just 51% barley, the absolute minimum required by Swedish law. Each of these brands of dreck sold for the equivalent of $6-7 (in 1992 dollars) per "stor stark." A stor stark literally means a big strong one. Big and strong are all relative. Big in Sweden means 400 ml, not even the size of an American pint;  strong means 5% ABV. 

It should be mentioned at this point that because of Sweden's government alcohol monopoly, breweries manufacture versions lower than 3.5%, known as people's beer. These can be freely sold in supermarkets. Beer consumption in this low alcohol category was stagnant between 1983 and 2004 and fell by 60% in the light beer category of under 2.5%. "Stor stark" beer more than doubled over the same period. 

The System Bolaget's mandate, they insist, is for public health. Alcohol-related problems are reduced if alcohol is sold in the absence of a profit motive," states their web site.  Current rates of alcoholism and diseases from alcohol are estimated to be 4.4%, about the same percentage seen in the USA which has no alcohol monopoly in place. So the System Bolaget's claims may be spurious … or deluded.

The beer shift affecting Sweden came about initially much like it did in most other countries.   A few disgruntled beer drinkers, having tasted more finely made beers abroad, took the gamble and established local breweries.  Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri, one of the first, set up shop in 1997, offering the usual suspects of bitters, India pale ales, mild ales, porters, stouts, etc. Others followed -- slowly. In 1993, there were 13 breweries in the country.  By 2006, a time when craft beer was already well underway in the USA and Britain, the total had only grown to 33 breweries.  

1990's Sweden was very bland and not just on the beer front. Swedes weren't looking for anything exotic. In 1993, every pizza you ordered wherever you ordered it tasted almost exactly the same. Swedes liked that predictability. Paying a premium for something crafty wasn't a way to build demand.

The slow proliferation of microbreweries in Sweden is probably not what tipped craft beer into acceptability for mainstream consumers. A better explanation is the increasing imports of American craft beers.  Canada is the USA's largest export market for craft beers followed by Sweden. As of 2013, more than 15% of all craft beer exported from the USA goes to Sweden, just slightly less than the amount the USA exported to the UK, Australia, and Japan combined, and Sweden's population is less than 5% the total of those other export markets.   

As American craft beers became more palatable, the System Bolaget responded in kind by upping the varieties of beers it stocked, currently amounting to about 3,300 over its 400+ stores. At a certain point, around 2011 or 2012, craft beer had become an acceptable worldwide phenomenon, such that even beer wastelands with huge alcohol import taxes like Thailand featured greater varieties.  It was finally deemed okay, even in a homogenous place like Sweden, to drink craft beer and on weekdays, too, without being classified as a rebel. The number of craft breweries in Sweden quickly surpassed a hundred. 

Craft beer hasn't exactly gone mainstream here. Only 4% of the beer consumed by volume in Sweden is craft beer. Compare that to 11% in the USA.  Sofiero Original (lager, 5.2%), manufactured by Kopparbergs Brewery, one of Sweden's trusted mainstream, goes down the most mouths followed by Mariestads Export (lager, 5.3%) and Norrlands Guld (lager, 5.3%) from Spendrups.  American craft brewery Brooklyn Brewery may boast a 39% share at the System Bolaget in the expensive brew category, but its lager only rates as the 69th most consumed brew in all of Sweden.

Everyone is betting large on Sweden.  Mikkeller opened one of its pubs in Stockholm. And  Brooklyn Lager, Sweden's most popular American craft import, teamed up with Carslberg to create the New Carnegie Brewery that plans to export beer back to the US.  Breweries like Omnipollo are seeing their beers exported. 

Sweden may have gotten to the craft party late, but they're acting ever so eager to catch up with everyone else. 


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