Stockholm Craft Beer : an Enigma Explained
Mark Bibby Jackson finally gets to grip with the Swedish capital and its rather awkward relationship with alcohol, while discovering some Stockholm craft beer bars.
One thing I had never understood about Stockholm was its strange attitude towards alcohol. The first time I walked into a supermarket I naturally gravitated towards the wine section, only to discover there was none. This was not some freak experience as I soon discovered the next supermarket was equally bereft of wine, although there were rows of cheap lager with which I could wash down my meal with. Was the concept of quaffing a nice bottle of wine to accompany your meal something the Swedes had never discovered?
Later I learnt that wine and spirits can only be bought in the state-run Swedish wine and spirit shop – Systembolaget – which closes at 7pm each weekday, earlier on Saturday, and doesn’t even open on Sunday. Inconveniently they never seem to be next door to a supermarket.
What I had not understood until my most recent trip was that normal shops such as Pressbyrån, can sell beer, so long as it is under 3.5%.
Craft Beer Stockholm : Folk and Friends
This I learned from Alli and Victor McCleary Olin, the American Swedish owners of Folk and Friends, a bar that only serves beer – on tap and draft – that is 3.5% proof or under.
“We want it to be like a second room for locals,” explains Victor. Folk and Friends has a dog-friendly attitude, with a selection of board games for customers to play, meet and chat – after all they are hardly likely to get that drunk here.
The couple wish to change the stigma associated with beer in Sweden, where men would sit around and drink the relatively low alcohol, cheap industrial lager from stores and drink all day. Both Carlsberg and Guinness have produced 3.5% beer solely for Sweden, the couple inform me.
“We cannot compete on price,” Victor says of the saturated 3.5%-alcohol market. Instead the couple offer a range of craft beers produced by mainly Swedish breweries – although there is the occasional foreign import – which you can either consume on the premises or take home.
One thing they cannot do is prepare food. So instead they sell pies – mostly vegetarian – purchased from a New Zealander they met in Sweden and who shares their common value.
Stockholm Brewing Company
It’s an outlook they also share with Niklas Jakobson, co-founder of Stockholm Brewing Company. The previous day he had shown me around his small brewery in Frihamnen, which he claims is the only one in central Stockholm.
Before the tour, I take a Saison d’etre ale with him, a lovely fresh beer that is served from the tap at the brewery although you can purchase it in many places across the city, including Systembolaget.
Niklas explains that the brewery is both organic and sustainable, with the waste used to fertilise the vegetables that are then served in the adjoining restaurant.
“Everyone is talking about organic and sustainability but when they are going out they just want to have a good time,” he says offering me another beer – this time a pilsner.
Although the brewery cannot compete with the major industrial breweries on price – especially in the congested 3.5% market –, it can hold its own on quality, in particular of the ingredients they use.
A third beer, Stockholm Noir, is placed before me. Niklas explains that dark beers are not that popular in the Swedish capital. But the locals are really missing out on something here. A delightful stout, it has a smoothness that belies its 8.5%.
“That means I’ve done my job,” Niklas smiles back at me, stressing the beer should have alcohol but not taste of alcohol – after all there’s tequila for that.
Despite its relatively small size – they can only brew 200,000 litres per year – Niklas is always experimenting. Last year, he produced 54 different beers, some 10 to 15 of which were new brews. The plan is to expand the brewery’s capacity to some 1.2 to 1.5 million litres per year, although you get the sense that Niklas is more into quality than quantity. An Italian pilsner is the next beer scheduled for running through the pipes.
Although within walking distance from the centre, Stockholm Brewery is close to the ferry to St Petersburg and Tallinn, and the space the brewery has close to the docks allows it to put on special events during the summer.
Quality over Quantity
Despite being a relative newcomer to the Stockholm craft beer scene himself – his background is in wine – Niklas realises that there is a danger of the market becoming flooded with a plethora of craft beer makers at the expense of the quality produced.
Back in 2010 there were only 37 breweries in the country, by 2017 this had grown to 309. Although Nikas has heard there are more than 500 breweries, Ali and Victor, who admit to doing the odd bit of home brew back in the day, believe the figure is nearer 400.
So, where does that leave us? A congested market around the 3.5% alcohol mark dominated by major breweries, and an explosion of Stockholm craft beer, of varying qualities.
As I am pondering all this, I pop into Pub Kloster on Hornsgatan. All around me people are enjoying the cheap beer – you can get a draft beer for 30 krona (£2.50) before 7pm and not much more afterwards. No second mortgage is needed to purchase a quality brew here, and the IPAs and bottled beers from Belgium and Germany are at prices you would be more than willing to pay in London.
A tray of tequila shots is placed in front of me, and as I ask the bar’s owner Ahmet, who originally came from Ankara, how much they cost, I half expect to see a hen party from Billericay burst in through the door.
I realise I have to reappraise my view of the price pf beer in Stockholm. Affordable and quality craft beer in Stockholm, who would have thought it? You just have to know where to look. Maybe the Swedes’ attitude towards beer isn’t so crazy after all.
If you wish to go on a Stockholm Craft Beer Tour then you can contact Joel Hedman, who arranges tours each week. Further information on this and other things to do in Stockholm can be gathered from the Stockholm Tourism Department, where you can also purchase the excellent Stockholm City Pass.