Beer Monopoly




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Posted January 2013

Skol! to the IKEA way

Craft brewing in Sweden │Swedes are on first name terms with Billy, Malm and Hemnes. They come in birch veneer, black-brown, oak veneer and white and are sold by IKEA. Ever since IKEA was founded exactly 70 years ago, it has not only changed the way Swedes furnish their homes – perhaps eight in ten people sleep on an Ikea mattress, and it's even been suggested that most babies are conceived in Ikea beds – it has also changed the way Swedes run their lives. If you can assemble an Akurum kitchen without going mad, you won’t be daunted by the task of building your own brewery. Don’t get me wrong. Not every Swedish homebrewer has turned to brewing full-time, but quite a few have. Therefore, today’s 70 or so craft breweries owe their existence, at least in part, to the prevalent IKEA can-do approach.

Ever heard of Söderbärke? No? That’s a big omission if you are a beer lover. Because Söderbärke is actually the new Denver of beer. Yes, Americans eat out your hearts. Ok, for you-as-yet-blissfully-ignorants, Söderbärke is a village of perhaps 1,000 people up in Darlana county, 200 km to the northwest of Stockholm, where Sweden looks most picture-book: a cluster of red wooden houses in between two lakes, surrounded by pine forests.

The reason you should know about Söderbärke and perhaps even pay it a visit is that it’s host to SMÖF, the annual two-day Söderbärke Mikro Öl Festival (öl is the Swedish word for beer and not to be confused with oil!) at the end of October, which for the past decade has been organised by Malte, a local beer appreciation club. When I attended SMÖF in 2012, I was probably one of a handful of non-Swede among the 2,000 or so local attendees. I was brought along by a girl friend whose family is from the area and who had told me that the much more famous Stockholm Beer & Whisky festival was way too commercial. If I wanted to get the feel of Swedish grassroots craft brewing, SMÖF was it.

I had no idea where they would hold such a big event in a village that size. A local barn? You can image – no, you cannot – my surprise when on an icy, but sunny Saturday morning I joined an already long queue outside the village’s Folkets Hus (People’s Hall). The Folkets Hus is actually a very Swedish thing. These halls were set up in the 19th century all over Sweden to provide workers with a place to meet and organise. It’s very much part of Sweden’s labour movement. Serving as an assembly hall for a huge range of associations, including Free Churches and temperance societies, a Folkets Hus would have been a “dry” place until the not-too-distant past. Hence my surprise over how much more liberal Sweden has since become.

As the Söderbärke Folkets Hus could not cope with the number of SMÖF visitors, the organisers had also taken over the public gym next door and turned both venues into two large beer halls, replete with tables and benches, band stands and food stalls. In the Folkets Hus they had set up cooler cabinets with bottled speciality beers from mainly Belgium and Sweden. But, if you really wanted a taste of just how far the Swedish beer scene has progressed in recent years, you had to move on to the gym, where they served Swedish micro brews on tap.

Unlike the Denver beer festival, SMÖF provides visitors with proper beer glasses and not just thimble-sized tasters made of plastic. Alas, you have to pay for your beer, which I did not mind so much as I was at SMÖF to sample the atmosphere rather than all of the beers. However, I did taste a few and therefore I can say with conviction that what has been held against Swedish craft brewers only a few years ago – that, in terms of beer styles, they seem to limit themselves to European beer styles – is not true any longer. Several of the 17 or so Swedish micros present had an American IPA available too.

Alcohol – a touchy subject still

As Swedish micros have moved on, so have consumers. In the gym I got to sit next to a group of four men, all Best Agers from a village nearby, who seemed to take beer tasting very seriously. Ever practical Swedes, I was told that one of the men had a pregnant daughter-in-law who had volunteered to take them to SMÖF and pick them up later by car which meant they did not have to drive and could really enjoy the beers. While I tried not to look too nosy, they studiously scanned the list of beers on tap for unusual brews, of which there were many, before sending one off to have their glasses filled. After some muffled and seemingly expert discussion, one took out his smart phone. When I asked him what he needed the smart phone for, I was told he was checking Systembolaget’s beer list to see if the monopoly alcohol retailer had this beer in stock. It did. I pressed on with another question, asking the four if they only drank Swedish craft beers. This drew some embarrassed looks. Finally one plucked up enough courage and replied no, he still bought Pripps Blue, err Pripps Blå (which tastes as unexciting as its name suggests), a mainstream beer brand brewed by Carlsberg. However, if he wanted to treat himself to a nice beer, he shopped for a Swedish craft beer. Realising that my shy Swedish quartet of men felt increasingly uncomfortable with my quizzing for their drinking habits (did they fear I would ask them next how much they drank?), I smiled and left them to it.

With the afternoon wearing on, the place got decidedly fuller and the visitors younger. Soon the assiduous connoisseurs were outnumbered by hipsters and locals out to have a good time. It was time for me to leave.

Beer in Sweden is a fascinating issue. You may think it should be possible to discuss beer in polite conversation. No, you cannot. Sooner or later you begin to sense that it’s a touchy subject. I would not say that Swedes are hung up about beer and alcohol but the overriding public discourse of alcohol as the bane of Swedish society is still so powerful that eventually any beer conversation drifts to Swedish alcohol policy and the role of Systembolaget in it.

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