Seeking the Aurora Beerealis

As some of the regular readers of this blog may have realized by now, I stem from the country of Norway, which is situated way north of most sensible latitudes in Europe. Sharing a border with my home country is another country called Finland, also a weird place, covered in snow and saunas. However, should you happen to look really carefully at the map, you may find a third country stuck between the two aforementioned ones – and if you can be bothered to look up the statistics for this country you’ll also find that it is both bigger and more populous than either. This, dear beer lover, is the country of Sweden.

Sweden is a country with a long history of aggressive behaviour. A few hundred years ago, the king would round up an army at regular intervals and go marauding down in central Europe, mainly to escape the long winter nights and the endless supply of pickled herring back home. The army would pillage, rape and murder, but eventually they’d meet someone who could actually fight and promptly retreat homewards. Finally, after many years of such expensive tomfoolery, they simply decided that they preferred pickled herring and long winter nights and declared themselves forever neutral.

Having finished the mandatory history lesson, you now know pretty much all that’s worth knowing about Sweden – except what the beer situation is like. It’s really lucky that I’m writing this blog entry now and not 10 years ago, because back then it would have been summarized in a single word: simply awful. The sober ones amongst you may have realized that this was three words. Never mind. My point is: Sweden’s beer scene has actually improved massively, and can now be summarized in four words: not as awful as it used to be.

Sweden, like most countries, used to have loads of local and regional breweries that would output stuff suitable to quench the thirst of the local populace. The story continues as expected: as transport improved and capitalism started to bite, breweries got bought out by others, and the beer scene steadily converged on a handful of national brands, which then got bought out by the big international you-know-whos. The unusual thing about Sweden, though, is that the politicians decided to add a bureaucratic twist to the story by banning the sale of beers above a certain alcohol percentage from being sold in normal stores – more or less exactly what was done in Norway, too. The depressing thing about Sweden is that they set the limit at 3.5% instead of the Norwegian’s more sensible 4.7% - which means that all normal beer styles can no longer be sold in normal shops.

What followed was a disaster for people who like good beer. The 3.5% limit meant that all breweries focused on alcohol percentage rather than taste – the stuff in the normal shops was weak and undrinkable, whereas the stronger stuff sold in the state-controlled shops known as “Systembolaget” was, well, stronger – but still pretty much undrinkable, even though it at least did a decent job in getting you drunk. In fact, for many years Swedes would simply order "en stor stark", which translates as "a big strong", in this case meaning beer, completely without regard to which beer style or brewery was behind the alcoholic beverage that would subsequently appear in your glass. Luckily, the story does not end here. Slowly, but surely, the Systembolaget shops started to put foreign beers on the shelves, and discerning Swedes (and foreigners in Sweden) realized that there were other types of beer than just “weak” and “strong”.

Rewind forward a dozen years or so, and the Systembolaget stocks hundreds of imported beers as well as a reasonable selection of new Swedish beers made by recently established breweries keen to join the beer revolution. Since my arse is currently sat on a lovely Swedish wooden chair in the far-north city of Luleå, and since I have just had the pleasure of trying 3 of these Swedish beers, I thought I’d write an insanely long introduction before getting to the main point of this blog entry: beer.

Typical Swedish strong beer - nowadays brewed by Spendrup's
Oh, before I forget, since I may have been slightly unkind to Sweden at the beginning of this text, I will now try to balance this by saying that I find both the beer selection and the prices in the Systembolaget (conveniently situated around the corner from my hotel) excellent, especially seen with my Norwegian eyes. Both Norway and Sweden have a reputation for eye-wateringly high taxes on alcohol, but the beer is still about HALF the price in Swedish shops. This, of course, reminds me of the Great Scandinavian Beer Relay: Norwegians pop across the border to buy cheap Swedish beer, the Swedes pop across to Denmark to buy even cheaper beer, and the Danes to the same thing in Germany. I took the shortcut straight to Germany.

So what have I been drinking today to inspire such a wonderfully eloquent entry? Well, I started off with a St Eriks IPA. This brewery is situated in the wonderful capital of Sweden, Stockholm, a city worth visiting for many reasons, not least the chance of visiting the former pride of the Swedish navy, the Wasa, a ship so fantastic that it capsized in calm weather about 1300 metres (yes, metres - less than a mile for the lovers of imperial units) into its maiden voyage and then spent the next 300 years on the bottom of the sea before being salvaged and put into a rather magnificent museum. The St Eriks IPA certainly did not capsize, although I have to say that it didn’t massively impress either – good, but not great.

Next up was the Organic Ale from Sigtuna brewery. Sigtuna is a small town situated just outside Stockholm, and was apparently founded by the Vikings more than 1000 years ago. The brewery is considerably newer, having been founded in 2005. As it happens, their internet pages have just told me that this brewery shares its premises with St Erik. Oh well, I guess this might explain why this beer was also good, but not great. It’s a pleasant beer but without anything to set it apart from the bunch.

The final beer was from a brewery called “Oppigårds”, and the very promising label said “Thurbo Double IPA”. My expectations were unsurprisingly sky high, and in this case the beer did not disappoint. This was a hoppilicious beer, a bit like hopping on a hop field whilst chewing hop gum and being generally hoppy. In fact, I have already thought about immediately planning to write to them and suggest that they change the brewery name to “Hoppigårds”. If you’re now chuckling to yourself, rest assured that you have the same crappy sense of humour as the author, also known to myself simply as “I”.

OK, what’s the conclusion? Well, don’t go to Sweden just because of the beer. The same can be said about the food, the scenery, the weather and the skiing. However, Sweden is a bit like the Volvo – safe, without being terribly exciting. You might find that it’s the combination of many things that makes Sweden a worthwhile place to visit. That, and the Wasa ship. Imagine making one of the world's greatest museums out of your biggest, most embarrassing naval disaster. This alone is worth a trip, and when you’re in Stockholm you might as well drink a few tasty beers from the new breweries that have sprung up in the last decade or so. Have fun, and don’t forget to skål with the locals. Skål!