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Posted March 2015

Broaching the Swedish retail bottleneck

Beer in Sweden │Holy cow! Did the earth shake and no one noticed? In Sweden a microbrewer is nominated for the award “entrepreneur of the year” by the independent conservative newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. In other parts of the world this accolade would hardly raise an eyebrow because the most talked-up entrepreneurs in recent years have either been craft brewers or internet whiz kids. But in Sweden the nomination of Björn Falkeström, who set up the Oppigårds Brewery in 2003, indicates that something close to a cultural revolution has taken place.

Not only has the newspaper ranked Björn amongst Swedish business luminaries of world-renown like the founders of Spotify, an internet music streaming service, which is already a billion dollar business. Björn also happens to be an ALCOHOL PRODUCER (the capitals are for greater emphasis). Don’t forget, this is Sweden, where a majority of people still think that beer and booze are the devil’s, intent on ruining Swedes’ bodies and souls, destroying relationships, breaking up families and tearing apart the fabric of society.

A decade ago Björn’s nomination would have been nothing short of a miracle. No, upon second thoughts, it would not have happened full stop. That a brewer is now being feted as a shining example of entrepreneurism shows that Sweden has finally made its peace, if not with alcohol, at least with beer.

For this Sweden’s estimated 200 microbrewers need to be thanked. With a little help here and there, Sweden’s microbrewers have pulled off a massive feat: they have put a positive spin on beer by resorting to a well-tried Swedish strategy: grinding away at opposition through quiet toil and uncomplaining perseverance. No devious guerrilla warfare for them. None of that brash “hoopla here we come” either. They just stubbornly minded their own business as they built breweries in their necks of the woods and began producing different beers and beer styles that eventually won over the authorities and consumers.

Of course, this was not lost on the media which over the years have seconded brewers’ strife by churning out reams of stories on beer, all featuring microbrewers looking and sounding as Swedish as Smörgasbård and Midsommarstång. Guess why Björn is wearing a traditional Swedish sweater on his photo in Svenska Dagbladet? In the end, all these subtle efforts paid off. Beer has come home to Sweden. It has stopped being a fearful spectre of social degeneration, instead becoming an icon of national pride. True, despite the media razzmatazz about beer, Swedes have not become big beer guzzlers. Heaven forbid. In 2014 per capita consumption of beer was 44 litres and total consumption 4.6 million hl, down from 56 litres and 5.0 million hl in 2003, according to data by Canadean, a market research company. This drop will please temperance activists. Nevertheless, it should not have given brewers many sleepless nights. As Swedes have developed more expensive tastes in their beer, the drop in volume has probably been made up for by a rising beer market value.

 

Dogma and how to avoid it

To an outsider like me, Swedes’ relation to alcohol has always been contradictory. Invariably, on all my visits to Sweden, the official line that “booze is bad” was soberly reiterated by all and sundry – as they cheerfully devised ways and means to get around it. For example, in the last century, middle-class Swedes prided themselves on offering cognac in antique glasses the size of thimbles so that guests would not overindulge, while making sure their personal supply of moonshine (appropriately nicknamed “stars of the woods”) did not run dry.

Or later, in 1995, when Sweden joined the EU and the monopoly of the state alcohol retailer Systembolaget seemed in danger of abolition, Swedes rallied behind it - although they also took to the ferries in droves and made the most of the free personal import quotas to stock up on cheaper alcohol in Denmark and Germany. Quotas have since been dropped: there is no restriction on the amount of alcohol you may bring in, but it must be for your personal or for your family’s use.

Personal import volumes tend to spike when there is a hike in beer excise – like all good citizens Swedes don’t like paying high taxes -, but for as long as you are one of Sweden’s big brewers these imports are not a real worry: it’s the majors’ previously exported beer that loyal Swedish punters bring back into the country in the back of their cars. Personal imports are estimated to be huge, standing at perhaps 600,000 hl beer annually with the bulk of official exports going to Germany (490,000 hl).

Swedes’ skilful manoeuvring between alcohol dogma and practice is perhaps best illustrated by Stockholm’s Alcohol Museum (“Spritmuseum”). Far from displaying quease-inducing anatomical specimens pickled in glass jars to serve as a warning against alcoholism, Spritmuseum is an extraordinarily elegant venue with wine and beer tasting facilities, featuring exhibitions whose pedagogical purpose is merely to make the visitor “reflect on alcohol as a cultural symbol and … think about our complicated relationship to alcohol in our everyday lives.” Their words. If you think this mission statement a bit “wet” in view of the country’s general stance on alcohol, be reminded that the museum has to generate revenues for its upkeep.

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