Friday, July 15, 2011

Swedish Beer Drinking

Every time I go to Sweden I learn something. Sometimes it is useful. Like how to integrate into society by sharp intakes of breath as an affirmative response. Or staring at the sun. Or sitting in complete silence on public transportation. Other times it is not at all useful. Or useful in a different way. Like drinking Swedish beer.

A quick run-down of Swedish beer though. The big brands are not good. Falcon. Pripps. Norrlands. They are your classic stor stark version at the bars. Expensive and not worth the money. But more important is the different classes of beer. Lätt, folk, stark. This is where it can get tricky.

Lättöl is beer with 2.25% alcohol content or less. It is considered to be alcohol-free and so anyone can legally buy this. In theory. In reality, many stores won’t allow anyone under the age of 18 to buy anything that could be confused with beer.

Folköl is the stuff you buy in the grocery stores when you remember you’re stuck in a country that stops selling actual alcohol at three in the afternoon on a Saturday. It’s also the stuff that has an alcohol content between 2.25% and 3.5%. Usually it is 3.5%. Technically and in reality you have to be 18 or older to buy folköl.

Finally, the strong stuff. Starköl. This is any beer with an alcohol content of 3.5% or more. Because this is Sweden and the general population obviously can’t be trusted with alcohol, starköl is only available at Systembolaget or at bars and restaurants with the proper licensing. Of course, you need to be 20 to buy starköl at Systemet, but only 18 at a bar. I don’t know why. Probably because, again, the average Swede can’t be trusted with alcohol and so the impetus falls on the bars, restaurants, and thus the bartenders to police every individual’s alcohol intake. Or something like that.

Never mind that though, now we know how beer works in this country. It will get you damn drunk when out drinking because that starköl is just that, stark. Strong. And just the other day I was well on my way to a night of drunkenness that my liver would have regretted in the morning. You know that perfect state of drunkenness? The one where you are charming, smart, funny, and not really drunk? It’s a façade. You’re probably stupid drunk by that point. But right before that point, that’s when actual good ideas can smack you across the face. And I was smacked across the face by just such an idea as I walked myself to the bar to buy the next round. I was getting too drunk. But social convention suggests that I need to return with a beer in hand. I’m in Sweden! Folköl! Lättöl! They’re both available!

I ambled my way to the bar at this point with a new found sense of purpose. And self-confidence. I ordered starköls for my friends and a folköl for myself. Not only was it less alcohol, it was less money. A win-win for any thrifty (that’s a nice way of admitting to being cheap by the way) university student. More importantly though, as the night dragged on, instead of pouring several strong beers down my gullet, I switched to lighter and lighter beer.

Let’s be honest, I was drunk by the end of the night. This is just a relative way of avoiding different degrees of drunkenness. But I was not stupid drunk. And in the morning I was not hurting nearly as bad as I have in the past after nights out with the same group of guys. After thinking it over, I couldn’t help but wish that I could find similar options in the US. Of course, I’m not willing to accept Systemet back home. I have some limits.

Welcome to Sweden. And degrees of drunkenness.

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  1. Actually, after folköl there is mellanöl and it's 3.6-4.9%. Usually it's around 4.3%. Starköl is 5.0-5.9% (most commonly 5.2%) and after that we just call them by their percentage. Like "sjunolla" (sevenzero) for 7.0% or "elva" for the half-toxic 11% beer.

    Alcohol percentage is very important for Swedes. Most swedes know pretty well what to buy to get the best APK (alkohol per krona) value.

  2. We call them by percentage? I think you mean "you" call them by the percentage. I've never heard anyone say that, and I've never heard of that definition of mellanöl either. :P

    Btw, "social convention" hairy? Come on. The hell with social convention. You drink whatever you want whenever you like. If you don't want to get drunk, then don't buy alcohol. Friends who don't accept you for not drinking, are ignorant and not really friends in my opinion.

  3. @Tuxie - technically mellanöl no longer exists as an official classification. some breweries still use it, but is no longer used by the governing bodies.

    @Senchanholic - Ive heard plenty of people define them by percentages, although I think it is more common to use the names. and in terms of social convention. agreed. and I am well aware that my friends could care less. but it is without a doubt, especially in sweden, social convention to have a beer. if you do not drink you are interrogated as to why. the same with coffee.

  4. I love your blog.
    I just got back from Sweden and I definitely witnesses a lot of the commentary you have posted so far!

    I ended up bringing back two bottles of beer for my boyfried, but I forget which ones. Except that one of them was 10% alcohol and was a recommendation by the man next to me in the liquor store haha

    I'm posting my travel diary! I would love for you to read it :) I will definitely be reading yours to keep in touch with the amazing culture I was apart of!


  5. I love beer and I love Sweden, so this was a great article to read. And I loved your observations about staring at the sun (I call it the Stockholm Trance) and the intakes of breath. Great observations. Flying to Stockholm next week for a few weeks, including Stockholm Pride.

  6. @tori - very cool, Ill definitely check it out!

    @james - oooh, I like the term Stockholm Trance! I might work that into my vocab.

    Ive got a couple of good friends very involved in Stockholm Pride. They have a great book store in Stockholm called Hallongrottan that focuses on hbqt (I always mess up the letters here...). You should check out their facebook page: or website (which doesnt seem to be working as I plug in this link):

  7. As a non-beer drinker I find it hard to believe that some beers actually taste good (like, objectively good, as opposed to tolerable), but the world of 'spirits' is fascinating nonetheless, b/c everyone has personal preferences :o)

    Btw, I wish more people in the States would adopt the 'complete silence on public transportation' habit. That would be a welcome change!!

  8. Haha, that's a good tactic I'll have to try it next time I'm out, which I'm sad to say isn't as often as I like at the moment. But soon.

    I was quite surprised to find that American light beers are not far off alcohol content wise to Swedish light beers, that's part of how they cut the calories.

  9. @Samantha – I find myself torn, sometimes the silence on Swedish public transportation is just creepy. Clearly I just cant be pleased.

    @Surviving Sweden – yeah, give it a shot. It’s a nice little technique that works quite well.