Jan-Erik Janko Svensson shook his head in near disbelief as the words came out of his mouth. The Swedish journalist and beer judge was standing outside a brick building in a commercial part of Stockholm, on break from judging a homebrew competition that grows in size each year. He once knew all the brewers in his country, which is roughly the size of California but is home to fewer than 10 million people. Today, he learns almost weekly about new breweries started by people he’s never heard of.
“The first craft brewery opened in the 1990s, and we had steady and slow growth until about three years ago, and now we’re in an explosion,” Svensson said. “Now we have more than 100, and another 10 to 20 are ready to open.”
The Scandinavian country’s history with beer is not dissimilar to others: Lagers from larger breweries dominated the landscape until imports began to come into the market in droves, followed by a handful of pioneers that took the plunge and opened their own brewing operations in an effort to bring local beer to the people. It was slow to take off, but now is like a juggernaut that cannot be stopped.
What makes Sweden different from some other countries where the modern beer culture was slow to grow is that the customer base has seemingly jumped on with little reluctance but plenty of enthusiasm and a taste for bold flavors that’s buoying the brewers.
On a Saturday night this past spring, a woman approached the bar at Akkurat, one of Stockholm’s premier beer bars and simply asked, “Do you have an IPA?” There was no mention of a particular brand or style. Just an IPA. The bartender began to walk the woman through the options, taking his time despite the quickly forming line.
Sweden is an unfailingly polite country with a worldly thirst for knowledge and one that prides itself on personal relationships and savoring the moments. The education and time spent by beer professionals in the country—like the scene at Akkurat—is just one example of how the industry is growing.
“Swedes in general are open-minded with beer,” says Jörgen “Jugge” Hasselqvist, manager of Oliver Twist, the granddaddy of Stockholm’s beer bars. “I’m not saying we’d drink anything, but [we] are craving more than the 5% mass lager; we want something big and strong.”
That something is American beer. The Swedes love American beers. The Brewers Association (BA), the trade association representing craft brewers in the United States, announced this summer that beer exported overseas by its members through the export development program increased by 49 percent in 2013, representing 282,526 barrels and an estimated at $73 million.
“Canada remained the industry’s largest export market, with shipments increasing 92 percent by volume (up to 131,511 barrels) in 2013. Sweden (15.5 percent) and the United Kingdom (7.9 percent) remained the next two largest markets, with Australia (5.4 percent) and Japan (3.2 percent) following,” according to a release.
Sweden, a country with a population smaller than that of the New York Metropolitan area, is importing 15.5 percent of exported American beers, and that’s just ones offered by the BA. Plenty of other U.S. breweries are exporting their beers without the aid of the BA.
While a long-time embrace of imports from Germany and the United Kingdom remains, and helped inspire both brewers and customers, the relatively new influx of American beers into the culture has helped Sweden blossom into the beer country so many interviewed for this article have long hoped it would become.
Why all the interest?
“For one thing, it’s the hops. We love IPAs; we love American IPAs,” says Fredrik Broberg, a Stockholm-based beer blogger behind the site Ölhunden (www.olhunden.se). “Our beer culture is still pretty young, but our brewers are starting to get it.”
Embracing the Past and Future
It’s hard not to admire a country that cannot only admit its historical faults, but also place them on display. Take the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, which houses the Vasa, a Swedish warship that despite great fanfare and royal pride sailed only 1,400 yards before sinking in 1628. Design flaws and more contributed to the wreck, but when it was unearthed in 1961—the hull largely intact—it was placed on display in a museum until it received a home of its own, today one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.
This is a country that remembers its heritage but also seeks to grow and embrace new things. This is evident walking around Stockholm, starting in Old Town, a historic part of the city, complete with the royal castle, then wandering into the city proper, where sleek glass buildings mix with high-end shops and restaurants.
“It’s an international town, the New York of Europe,” says Per Hellsten, the owner of several hotels throughout Stockholm. “We have design firms, operas, businesses of all kinds. The food is excellent; we now have multiple Michelin star restaurants, and they are fantastic.”
The thriving restaurant scene is, perhaps more than anything else these days, getting the most attention. “Twenty years ago our food had no taste. Now our cuisine is more fine-tuned,” said Hellsten.
At nearly every restaurant—high-end or not—there is a modest beer list with at least one local beer on offer, usually suitable to accompany everything from classic dishes like creamed herring, elk steak and reindeer sausage to more modern fare.
This in turn is helping the beer industry. The big hurdle in bringing beer change to the country, says Svensson, was the monopoly that the larger brewers had on the local beer culture. There were also laws that made it difficult for smaller brewers to compete in the marketplace, including the need to produce a certain amount of beer annually if a brewer wanted to be sold in state-owned stores.
There was also reluctance by some bars and restaurants to sell bottled beer, preferring draft only. All that is becoming a distant memory, and the restaurant and customer embrace of new breweries has them working to keep up with customer demand, and the customers in turn are ratcheting up their requests. It’s a vicious cycle that no one is complaining about.
At Oliver Twist, Hasselqvist, who is Sweden’s unofficial international beer ambassador, takes the mantle thrust upon him very seriously.
“Twenty years ago Stockholm was a beer desert,” he says. “We had to educate the clientele, and that’s a long process. The difference with today is like night and day.”
As he spoke, over his shoulder a bartender worked furiously to fill taps from one of the bar’s signature “tap towers” as orders came in rapid fire.
“There is so much happening here, it can be tough to keep up,” says Hasselqvist.
John is the editor of All About Beer Magazine and the author of three books, including The American Craft Beer Cookbook. Find him on Twitter @John_Holl.