March 2022

We Finns are not Vikings”

Beer market Finland ǀ Although Finland is part of the Nordic countries, it is not only its language that makes it stick out. The Finns also go their own way when it comes to beer and alcohol. As beer consumption is in decline and the pandemic has hit craft brewers particularly hard, the pressure is growing for further curbs on the state monopolist retailer, Alko.

There is an easy way to rub the Finns the wrong way. Just mention their western neighbour, Sweden and ask them how they compare. Say something like: “In Sweden they do … What’s the situation in Finland?” Being mostly reserved and quiet types, their reaction will invariably be a deep sigh of the “here-comes-another-wise-guy” variety. It happened to me, so I know.

Actually, I had tried to congratulate them on a more liberal alcohol policy than Sweden’s. I said I found it remarkable that Finland had legalised cellar door sales for microbreweries (prohibited in Sweden). Moreover, I thought it incredible that the state-owned alcohol retailer, Alko, had seen its monopoly eroded in 2018, when supermarkets were allowed to sell beer with an alcohol content of up to 5.5 percent. Swedish grocery stores can only sell beers up to the 2.25 percent ABV threshold.

My Finnish friend proved unimpressed, and patiently explained to me that although Finland customarily tends to be included in the club of Nordic countries, together with Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, the Finns see themselves as nation apart: distinct in more ways than one and unique unto themselves. If any comparison makes them prickly and suspicious of intra-Nordic domination, be it Swedish or latterly Danish, it is for reasons to do with language, history, and culture.

Finns do not share the same linguistic or ethnic roots with other Nordic nations. Most northern Europeans speak Germanic languages; Eastern Europeans use Slavic tongues. But nestled between them are 5.5 million Finns, whose language belongs to Finno-Ugric branch, with only Estonian coming close.

Like all peoples, who were colonised and annexed, the nation’s history and its embattled culture are never far from people’s minds. Finland’s capital Helsinki/Helsingfors was founded by the Swedish King Gustav Wasa in 1550, and its coastal regions were under Swedish rule for centuries, before the country was ceded to the Russian Empire in 1809. One of the Nordic’s oldest and still operating brewery, Sinebrychoff (now Carlsberg), was established in Helsinki in 1819 by the Russian merchant Nikolai Sinebrychoff, which explains its Russian name.

Call it one of the quirks of history that when Finland finally gained independence from Russia in 1917 during the turmoil of the Bolshevik Revolution, its new parliament had nothing better to do than to vote for prohibition in 1919. The ban was only repealed in 1931, and Alko was established in the following year.

Even though it is unlikely that foreigners will seriously insult anybody in Finland, given the relaxed culture, certain topics of discussion can be slightly sensitive. On my recent visit to Finland in the late autumn of 2021, I stopped by the Sahti brewery Hollolan Hirvi Kivisahti (stone Sahti) in the village of Hollola, some 110 km north of Helsinki. I was curious to learn about Sahti and taste it.

After he had shown me his brewery, the brewer, Ilkka Sipilä, whipped out a copy of Mika Laitinen’s book Viking Age Brew (2019), which records the history of Nordic farmhouse brewing, including Sahti. Pointing to the word “Viking” on the cover, he said with emphasis: “We Finns are not Vikings!” in case I was yet another foreign wisenheimer. Knowing full well that the author, Mr Laitinen is Finnish, he added grudgingly: “This must have been done because anything with the label ‘Viking’ on it sells well. But Sahti brewing is far older than the Vikings.”

For a while, I could not get my head around where the Danish figure in all this. My elderly Swedish friends would scold me for buying anything Danish, like Arla cheese or Anthon Berg chocolate. “It’s Danish!”, they would sneer. But when I saw how the Danish media had boasted that the “Danish liquorice genius”, Lakrids, would “take on the Finnish market” in 2018 – Finns tend to be very finicky about their salty sweets – I remembered that Finland’s major brewers Hartwall and Sinebrychoff are owned by Danish companies Royal Unibrew and Carlsberg respectively. Then I began to understand.

Hygge is so yesterday

Surprisingly, all the brewers I spoke to talked about alcohol and public health freely, but no one ever mentioned the word “kalsarikännit”, pronounced Kawl-SAW-ree-KAHN-eet. It is a compound word of kalsari (long underwear) and kännit (to drink). One internet entry coyly refers to it as a “Finnish relaxation technique”. Others translate it as getting “pantsdrunk”. The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2017, defined it as “the feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear with no intention of going out.”

Although kalsarikännit is not an urban myth but a common practice, it is probably un-PC to mention it in polite conversation, since the line between enjoying a cold one on your own and engaging in problematic drinking behaviour can be fluid.

All Nordic countries tend to view alcohol consumption as a public health issue and have strict alcohol regulations. Finland’s alcohol laws are no exception. It does not help that the public discourse on alcohol is beset with contradictions. It is one of the legacies of the temperance movement that alcohol consumption is usually cited in tandem with “abuse” and “alcohol-related harms”. Those need to be prevented through high alcohol excise taxes (“sin taxes”). If the government thinks that alcohol consumption is too high, it will raise taxes. There are also restrictions on pricing (quantity discounts are prohibited), the physical availability (the drinking age is 18 for bars and 20 for Alko), and the marketing of alcohol.

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