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Archive for the ‘Sweden’ Category

There is a very heated discussion in Sweden at the moment, as the government retail monopoly Systembolaget has changed its policy on the distribution of beer from small domestic breweries.

There is a general election coming up, which means that this also is of interest for the politicians.  Lawmakers and bureaucrats are in a bit of a twist – one one side there is pressure for a more liberal approach, allowing direct sales of beer, cider and wine from the producers to the public. On the other hand, this could undermine the monopoly, as foreign producers and their importers won’t have the same possibilities and will probably use legal means to challenge the changes. We are talking about a lucrative market with lots of buying power.

Systembolaget, obviously, want to keep their retail monopoly intact, and they have made some changes from 1 September. Their new rules include: Beer from small scale breweries may be sold in up to ten Systembolaget shops within a 100 kilometer radius from the brewery. The brewery is allowed to do the deliveries themselves. In town and cities, this will mean that the customers will have to visit a number of shops to find beers from different breweries. In rural areas, there will  often be less than ten shops within the 100 km radius.

The breweries will still have the option of listing their beers for specioal order through the Systembolaget shops. But they will then have to deliver the beers to the central depot in Örebro. Systembolaget claims that the depot does not have any warehouse capacity, meaning the breweries have to deliver every order by itself, at the brewery’s expense. This does not make sense economically for most of the smaller ones, who are now withdrawing their beers from the special order list.

A better account than the above is to be found on the BeerSweden site, they have published a press release from small scale brewery Beerbliotek (in English).

But I have a personal story to add. Later this week, I plan to visit a new micro brewery in Teveldalen, a conference/ tourist resort an hour’s drive from Trondheim, a stones’s throw from the border with Sweden. I thought I’d use the opportunity to cross the border to Storlien and buy a few Swedish beers. It is some distance to the nearest Systembolaget shop, but they have a network of ombud, meaning you can order your alcohol from Systembolaget and have them delivered to a local supermarket.

This is a modern, hi-tech Nordic country, scoring well on all the indicators for good living, so there is of course a web order form on the web page of the shop in Storlien. I carefully select four beers from the Åre brewery, 60 kilometers further into Sweden, add a few of the more interesting Oktoberfest beers listed in the Systembolaget app, plus a dozen imports from their special order list. I click send on the form, and hope a week is enough for the delivery.

 Screen dump, Systembolaget

Ten minutes later I get a call. From Sweden. From the man handling the alcohol deliveries at Konsum Storlien. Tyvärr, noen of the beers you have ordered are available through our shop.

-Nor even the ones from the local Åre brewery?

-We don’t get our supplies from Åre. We get them from the regional warehouse in Sundsvall. and they do not carry the Åre beers. And the ones from the special order list – we do not carry them.

One more argument for reforming the system, then. What looks like an impressive network of shops boils down to delivery of Carlsberg and Koskenkorva.

 

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Man in the Moon

Visting Stockholm a few weeks ago, I had a long list of places on my “maybe” list. It was an oval weekend for many, as it included Ascension day, meaning that some places were closed. I managed, however, to try two bars very close to each other. Together they mirror the diversity of today’s beer scene. Ten years ago, I was overjoyed with a diverse beer list and would overlook everything else. Now there is the option of finding the place that suits you most.

We arrived at the Man in the Moon in Vasastan, to the North of the city center, in the late afternoon. This establishment has the decor of an upmarket English pub, or, rather, gentleman’s club. Leather and wood, lots of lamps in different styles. A large room with plenty of space between the tables. Quiet conversation, polite service.

The menu included a numberof aspargus dishes, as they were in season, we both went for the entrecote with asparagus. Not cheap, but a great meal, cooked to perfection.

The beer list was staggering, the bottled list would have been plenty. But, additionally, they are marking their twentieth anniversary this year. This means a special list of draft beers brewed especially for them from the best of the Scandinavian craft breweries:

Amager Bryghus
Beer Here
Beerbliotek
Brekeriet
CAP
Dugges Ale- och Porterbryggeri
Eskilstuna Ölkultur
Mikkeller
Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri
Nøgne
Stronzo
Ängö Kvartersbryggeri

I had to limit myself to a glass each of the Beerbliotek Double IPA and the Nøgne Ø Barrel Aged Imperial Brown Ale, no less. The double IPA was good, the Nøgne Ø beer was great.

Across the street: Mikkeller & Friends Stockholm. Welcome to Hipsterville. True to the original concept in squeezing everything into what must have been a tobacconist or another type of shop with a modest need for space. Afternoon was giving way to early evening. the front room was filling up, but there was still seating in the back , where you feel like you are a part of a art installation and graying beer geeks struggle to . The usual blackboard with Mikkeller beers and a few of their collaborators. The house geuze is rebranded as Vasastan Spontanale. The beer is served in small glasses – encouraging the customers to go for quality rather than quantity. Their crowd is young and beautiful.

I have to say that this does not appeal much to me – but then I’m not in their target group, either. That does not mean there is anything wrong with the bar or the concept. This is the flavor of the month, where people in their twenties can brag with their newly acquired knowledge about beer styles. But I don’t think anyone has any illusions about this becoming an institution on the Stockholm beer scene. This is a place that will stay open and popular for a year or two, there is no big investment involved. No kitchen, barely a fridge. They did not even have ice cubes when I asked for a glass of tap water. But the gueze was fine, so was the Omnipollo double IPA.

I think the Man in the Moon will be there for its thirtieth anniversary, too. But for craft beer to continue to grow, there has to be beer spots that appeal to other groups than the grumpy men past fifty. Concepts will come and go. I will look in, have a (small, if that’s the only option) glass of their most interesting beer before I walk on to somewhere else.

But we adapt. London pubs that were gutted and redecorated in Scandinavian pine and large windows seem almost cozy now. We’ll get used to the bare brick, steel and concrete, too. If we don’t get too grumpy.

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Quite a heritage!

Though I’ve visited Stockholm many times over the years, my knowledge is to a large extent limited to the central areas, the most renown beer bars and the tourist attractions.  When I was in the southern commuter town Södertälje, I managed to find a micro brewer. This time around I stayed mostly in the northern suburbs, but there is local beer to be found there as well.

I found a reference to Sundbyberg Köksbryggeri in a web discussion. Köksbryggeri means kitchen brewery, so the name suggested that this was just a hobby. A quick search told me that they had indeed started out as a amateur outfit, but that they had gone professional earlier this year. As I was spending an oval weekend in a hotel just a few minutes away, I sent off an e-mail inviting myself for a visit and received a positive reply.

When I arrived at Friday lunchtime, it turned out to be a rather busy day, as they were delivering their first consignment to Systembolaget, the governmental retail monopoly shops for alcohol. I am greeted by Thomas, one of the three brewers. He shows me the setup of the brewery. I later sit down with Per for a chat about the brewery and the Swedish beer scene.

While they are taking a big step these days in delivering to the Systembolaget shops, they have been available in local bars and restaurants for some months. Sundbyberg today is a commuter town just a few minutes from central Stockholm by train or Underground. It has, however, its own identity, to a large extent linked to its industrial heritage. A century ago, the breweries and distilleries of this town supplied the Stockholm are with much of its beer and aquavit.

The new brewery tries to be a part of this heritage, and the ambition is to stay local, to cooperate with local companies and associations. The local market is big enough, they already have problems keeping ut with demand.

They also plan to open a pub on the first floor of the brewery, where there is already exhibition space for local artists. And the building is of particular interest. Because this is also a part of the Sundbyberg heritage. But it does not have an industrial pedigree. The brewery is located in an old church. For marketing purposes, they should have named themselves Church Brewery, not Kitchen Brewery.

The building had been abandoned for years before it was refurbished. All religious elements have been removed. There are stained glass windows, but these are abstract, so they do not carry any Christian message. The new inhabitants have been in touch with the congregation when they stared up, and they even have had the pastor coming in to taste the beers.

As for the refurbishment of the building, there were a number of challenges. There is a blog about this for those particularly interested.

The three friends who run the brewery – Per, Peter and Thomas – do not have any formal qualifications in the field, but they are experienced home brewers. Two of them share a flat, the kitchen in the name is the kitchen of their flat, where they have brewed lots of beers.

The aim, now that they have gone professional, is to brew balanced beers, often in a British style, but also with nods to Belgium and Germany. The beers being distributed now are an English bitter, a Kölsh and a Saison. These are beers with moderate amounts of alcohol – and moderate amounts of hops. Everyone else brews American style IPAs, they prefer to go for something else.

The Kölsch – Halvlager – has become very popular for those who want an all-round alternative to lager to serve with food. Fruity, with a pleasant dry mouth feel. The saison is brewed with a fair amount of coriander, and wehat malt and passion fruit is also added. The saison yeast makes it a saison rather than a wit, but it blurs the distinctions between the two styles.

The Sumpen (slang for Sundbyberg) ale is closely related to an English bitter, a fine session beer.

Their beers are, as I said, widely available in the area, there is a map on their web site showing where to find them. The bottles can be delivered to any Systembolaget shop, I don’t know if you have to order a minimum number of bottles.

A well hidden brewery

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Sometimes you get to go to new places. Not new places on the top of your list of where you’d want to go given time and money, just mundane places. Places you have passed by on a train or in a car, places you would not consider as a destination in their own right.

Södertälje is one of those places. A commuter town for Stockholm, a traffic hub, industry, population about 65.000.

We went there last weekend for a youth sports event, and I did not expect much in the way of beer. But then I started googling.

It seemed there was one decent beer bar in town, and their Facebook page told me they even had their own beer.  Well, there is no lack of pale lagers where you can get your own label, but this looked more promising.  Photos showed the bottle and the label. The Fellowship of Hops Brewing.

A new google search gave me a blog of a home brewer, including an e-mail address. I sent of a question: -Do you brew beer for the 137:ans Kök  & Bar? I got a reply back from brewer Thomas, confirming that he had indeed brewed the beer. The beer was brewed in the pub, which has its own licence.

So. We have a new gypsy brewer and a new brewpub, not registered on BA or ratebeer. I like that.

!37:ans is located in the town center, just a few minutes from the railway station.  It is small, I’d estimate it is full with less than fifty customers. This is a sit down kind of place, and on an early Friday evening, most of the guests were eating. A very comprehensive beer list plus blackboards showing the more rare and exclusive offers – but also a few discount bottles.

The 137:ans India PAle Ale has an alcohol content of 7.4.

Light bodied, pleasant malt character. Nice blend of hops – Citra, Amariallo, Nugget and Hallertauer. Grass. white pepper and herbs. Bittersweet. A very decent all around IPA, not trying for the extreme. I hope to see more beers from Fellowship of Hops in the future!

There are plenty of beers to choose from, the list claims 500. Lots of exotic countries for the tickers, a good selection of trappists, and a number of rare American bottles.

You’ll find it on Oxbacksgatan. Well worth a visit, especially if you are staying overnight.

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Peter M. Eronson runs the Swedish beer blog Fat & Flaska, and he has published a list of the 100 best sellers in Sweden’s Systembolaget. The ranking reflect sales in Swedish Kronor, but the right column shows the volume in liters. The category includes beer, ciders and alcopops.

This shows, that, for all the talk about craft taking over the world, it is all about pale lagers. The only exceptions, Newcastle Brown Ale (64), Falcon Bayersk (65), Brooklyn Lager (74) and Innis & Gunn Oak Aged Beer (88) are not something I’d go out of my way for, either.

This also show the contrast between the Swedish and the Norwegian markets. The beers below 4.7 % would be sold in Norwegian supermarkets, so you’ll not find them in the Vinmonopolet stores. And the super strength lagers are hardly to be found here.  I suspect the Norwegian tramps either smuggle strong beer from Sweden or stick to vodka.

Call me a snob, but I pass on the red rhubarb flavoured cider (82).

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It used to be more easy. When I was young, everything was black or white. I won’t claim more wisdom now, but at least I have rubbed off some edges, most of them probably for the better.

But my reflexes are more or less the same. I have no love for monopolies – public or private. This means I have never applauded the Nordic way of organising alcohol retail sales in governmental monopoly retail stores, either.  But a recent briefing at the headquarters of Swedish Systembolaget made me think things through.

Four of the Nordic countries have these governmental shops, Finland (Alko), Sweden (Systembolaget), Norway (Vinmonopolet) and Iceland (Vínbúðin). Finland and Norway allowed the sales of beer (and alcopops) below 4.75 % ABV in supermarkets, In Sweden and Iceland the limit is lower. This makes a significant difference: In Sweden, the bulk of pale lagers is sold in Systembolaget shops, in Norway, the bulk is sold in supermarkets.

Things are slowly changing. There used to be monopolies of imports, wholesale and distilling, too, but they are history, largely do to European legislation. The retail stores used to be forbidding places with long lines outside the front doors and all bottles being hidden on shelves behind the counter. The strict Lutheran view of this being the devil’s dring hung like a dark cloud over the shops. There is one, frozen in time, at Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo if you want to have a look.

The public health concerns are the same as they used to be, but the drinking habits have changed. We drink less hard liquor and more wine, the pale lagers are stagnating while craft beer has an impressive growth.

And the monopolies are adapting. Bright and cheerful stores with the full stock on display. Special release days for rare wine and beer. Apps for your smart phone. And while you won’t find any promotional material as such in a Systembolaget shop, the bottles, boxes, cans and wrappings for the six-packs do the job.

In theory, you could argue that the Norwegian threshold of 4.75% means there is a better choice of everyday beers for the consumer. But that is not the case. We have four supermarket groups controlling 98% of the grocery market, and, while there are some shops who are now jumping on the beer bandwagon, the range available is limited to about one hundred beers in the very best shops. Three quarters of these will be pale lagers, for Christmas some of them will have som caramel coloring added.

Sure, there are huge stacks of canned lagers in the Swedish shops, too, but the best of the shops have a large number of fine ales prominently displayed. And if you don’t find your favourites in your local shop, you can order them from the web site and have them in a week or so.

Sure, you might argue, but what’s the option for those who live out in the sticks and don’t have a Systembolaget store in the neighbourhood? Simple, there is a large network of grocery stores who act as agents or ombud and where you can pick up your order. Like the post offices who pop up as shop within a shop nowadays.

One major difference between Norway and Sweden is that the Swedish model is put under strong external pressure. As European Union citizens, the Swedes are free to bring home alcohol bought in other EU countries cor their own consumption. That means cheap booze from Denmark, Germany and Poland. Which means that Systembolaget have been forced to give a better shopping experience, better service – and to keep their prices down. Sur, they cannot underbid the prices of Polish vodka. But they can make sure that you can get a six-pack of lager for an affordable price without getting on a ferry. That means the price level in Sweden is often between thirty and seventy per cent of the prices in Norway for beer and wine. A decent can or bottle of BrewDog beer will typically be ten Norwegian kroner at Systembolaget but close to thirty in a Norwegian supermarket. Going into how we end up with this difference is a blog post of its own.

So. Accessibility and price are two factors which make the Swedes smile all the way to the shop and back. But it’s also a matter of quality.

When we visited Systembolaget HQ, we were attending a simulation on how they conduct their product testing.

Their buyers try to follow the trends in the beer world, to stock Swedish beers and imports, to try to have a sensible mix of beer types, price levels etc. The beers that sell well get to keep their place on the shelves, others are replaced. And there is a steady flow of calls for tender, stating the type of beer, possibly area of origin and stating something about the price level, say, 15-20 Swedish kroner for a half liter bottle. Depending on the product, importers and wholesalers then give a quote and send a certain number of samples. The labels will be checked, the price will be considered, and, for a number of beers, they will be tested blind. Our simulation was related to a call for German Kristallweisse, and, as two of the six samples were unfiltered, the test in not flavour alone, several senses come into play.

The tastings take place in laboratory conditions, and the tasting teams spend a lot of time calibrating themselves, trying to avoid personal preferences and arriving at a common standard of quality that is appropriate for the beer in question.

Tasting at Systembolaget

This is serious business. We are talking about the biggest retail chain in the world in this sector, if I’m not completely mistaken. And while there might be various views from the suppliers on how the system might be tweaked to be better and more fair, there does not seem to ba any loud voices asking for major reforms. Sure, there are discussions on how to allow farms to sell their beer and wine, and small-scale brewers might  want better access to shops in their area than the present system that guarantees them shelf space in the three shops closest to the brewery.

Is there a conclusion to this?

If you want to give the public good access to a splendid range of quality products at affordable prices, this makes sense. Sure, I love Ølbutikken, Johnny’s Off Licence and all the other speciality shops across Europe. But that is for a tiny crowd of aficionados. And a quality system that avoids the worst of the crap makes sense, too.

But I leave this open. I cannot praise a monopoly. But almost….

BTW, the visit to Systembolaget was a part of the annual meeting of the Scandinavian Beer Writers Association. A great bunch.

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I’m on my way to Stockholm. A city I used to visit several times a year. A beautiful place, both summer and winter. And a city that has a number of beer pubs with a splendid reputation. I have hardly visited since I started blogging, and not at all since I moved over to the WordPress platform.

A train journey this time around. Then I finally have the time to read Pete Brown’s book.

The blog homebru net Scandinavia has counted 400 new Swedish beers in 2012. (Check out their blog. A great resource for documentation on new breweries).

Add that to the figures for Norway and Denmark, and we end up with about 1400 new Scandinavian beers last year.

Who’s gonna drink it all?

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