“Skål!” – understanding Swedish alcohol mentality
Publish date: 20 November 2020
Swede's drinking habits die-hard but have become more sophisticated through a rather boozy history. We had a talk with Eva Lenneman, curator at Spritmuseum, about drinking habits in Sweden, and how Swedes went from a nation of snaps-drinkers to bag-in-box lovers.
For a long time Sweden, placed firmly in the north-European liquor-belt, is what you could call a “booze nation”. Towards the end of the 19th century, as much as 90 percent of all consumed alcohol in Sweden was brännvin.
Almost 120 years later and the landscape couldn’t be more different. A recent study by CAN ["Centralförbundet för alcohol- och narkotikaupplysning", an organization that monitors alcohol –and drug use in Sweden] showed that spirits and liquors made up only 21 percent of all sold alcohol in Sweden. With over 42 percent of all alcohol sales in Sweden, the typical Swedish drink recreational of today is a glass of wine.
"And a big portion of it is bag-in-box wine", explains Eva Lenneman, curator at Spritmusuem in Stockholm. "Swedes are in fact the biggest BiB-drinkers in the world".
But historically Sweden hasn’t been a big producer of wine. Has that changed?
"There was actually quite a lot of wine produced from fruits –and berries in the 19th to early 20th century. Today there are only about 50 vineyards in Sweden, most of them in Skåne County. Since people’s interest is growing and the quality of Swedish wine is getting higher, the picture might look different in the future. Production of real cider is another growing trend".
While Swedish wine production might be modest, beer production is not. Roughly a third (32 percent) of all alcohol sold in Sweden is beer. There are about 300 breweries in Sweden – large-scale producers and craft breweries alike – which means that outside of Great Britain, Sweden has Europe’s highest number of breweries per capita.
"Swedes have a storied relationship with beer, one of the oldest alcoholic drinks known to man, and that relationship has gone through many changes", Lenneman explains. "In the Middle Ages, everyone drank low-alcoholic beer. Young and old, rich, and poor. When hard liquor rose in popularity in the early 1800-hundreds beer dropped in popularity, but became common again when German lager was introduced. Since then “En stor stark” [shorthand for “A pint of lager” in any Swedish bar] has been the dominating beer. The kind of beer culture we see today, with a breadth of knowledge and a panoply of labels, started growing in the ‘80s and has literally exploded in the last years".
To understand Swedish alcohol-mentality we have to take a few steps back and look at Sweden in the early 1900-hundreds. As was the case in many industrialized countries, cities were growing, fast. An able-bodied workforce was needed to meet the demands of large factories and massive infrastructural undertakings. People left the safety of the idyllic countryside and moved into cramped and densely populated urban areas, which in turn formed a new working-class.
Life in the city sure wasn’t easy, with long working hours and large families cramped in small apartments, and it wasn’t cheap. Well, except for one thing, that also was readily available: booze. Regular over-indulgence and a staggering growth in alcohol-related deaths became a problem, to put it mildly.
At the same time, a temperance movement advocating abstinence and teetotalism was gaining political ground. Alcohol was being associated with heavy intoxication and shame, with negative effects on health and family life. Instead, sobriety and diligence became the norm.
In the United States (as in our Scandinavian neighbors), this led to the 18th Amendment and a prohibition on all forms of alcohol. Period. Swedish politicians tried a different avenue to sober up the people, and in 1919 the Bratt System (“motboken”) was enforced.
This meant, in theory, that any responsible adult wanting to buy alcohol would be able to. First, by filling out an application for a “motbok” – a logbook of your alcohol rations, as approved by the authorities. Secondly, the “motbok” was to be brought to the store any time you wanted to buy alcohol. The practice though, was a thinly veiled class marker of your social standing, explains Eva Lenneman.
"The idea was to allow those that society deemed responsible enough, to be able to buy alcohol. But the amount varied from case to case. A married, middle-aged man, with a good economy, got a big ration. Women, the unemployed, people with economic problems or addictions didn’t get a “motbok” at all. It was essentially a sign that you were a 'good citizen'".
The system was scrapped in 1955 and was replaced by Systembolaget, a chain of liquor stores run by the government with a monopoly on all sales of alcohol stronger than 3,5%. But its legacy can be felt to this day. Lenneman continues:
"Sober ideals of the temperance movement, enforcement of strict laws, and the problematization of alcohol during the Bratt-years meant that liquor became associated with feelings och guilt and shame. This can still be seen in Swede's attitude towards alcohol, especially older generations".
What effect has Systembolaget’s monopoly had on what we buy and how we drink?
"The effect has of course been huge since Systembolaget has had exclusive rights on alcohol sales and controlled the supply for a long time. Their policies on age-restrictions, opening hours, and the number of operating stores have also had a fundamental impact. But also the fact that the staff is trained and highly knowledgeable to give you tips on what goes best with what".
New traditions, old songs
As this trickle-down economy of alcohol-knowledge has made the average Swede more grape and hops-savvy, so have new traditions made their way to our shores, explains Eva Lenneman.
"In many ways, we have adopted a more continental drinking habit. Today, Sweden is a diverse society, and our culture is constantly changing. There’s still a big interest in beverages here, but we’re more curious about the taste, country of origin, and production process instead of alcohol strength".
The differences in attitude towards alcohol, between southern and northern Europe, go back a long way, says Eva Lenneman. In countries like France, Italy and Spain wine has been a part of everyday-life since at least the Middle Ages. Up north, alcohol has been closely tied to holidays, dinners, vacations, weekends, and other festive occasions in general. It’s been concentrated on fewer occasions, but the main goal has been – more often than not – to get wasted, to put it bluntly.
"Traditions are hard to change, though. Even if we have a more continental mindset nowadays, we’ve simply added our old habits to the southern European everyday drinking".
Are there any significant local differences around Sweden?
"Definitely. Stockholm, Skåne County, and Halland County are the biggest drinkers. Counties where the temperance movement has been historically important – Jönköping, Västernorrland, Västerbotten, and Norrbotten – drink the least".
Speaking of traditions, one that might seem especially exotic for visitors is “snapsvisor”. If you’ve ever been a table of grownups ceremonially holding their tiny shot glasses in front of them, singing about Helan doing the “fallerallan lallan lej”, this might ring a bell or two.
The tradition of singing drinking songs is at least 500 years old in Sweden, according to Lenneman. But the snapsvisa – a short, familiar melody with a humorous twist, bellowed before gulping down a toast of snaps (a “nubbe”) – was born in bourgeois and academic circles during the 18-hundreds. In later years they became almost a ceremony to treasure every drop of snaps as your last.
"They were a signal: no one is to drink until the snapsvisa is finished! They became widely popular and a traditional custom about 100 years ago when liquor was rationed under the Bratt System".
Do's and don'ts
On the flip-side of traditions, there are taboos. As much as there are customs – ceremonies even, as in the case of snapsvisor – there are also unwritten rules that are frowned upon, if not stigmatizing or illegal. Some are more or less universal. Like drinking around children or letting them have a taste, and while you’re pregnant or still breastfeeding.
Eva Lenneman explains that in Sweden, getting drunk alone has always been viewed as a sign of someone's drinking problem. But perhaps a more casual continental mindset has made it okay to at least have a glass after a long day of work. The bag-in-box has at least made it easier.
"Throughout history, drinking has been about socializing, about fellowship and acknowledgment, and of course about toasting. Refusing a toast could during the Middle Ages lead to fighting, even result in a deadly outcome. It’s not as sensitive today of course but still considered impolite if you don’t have a legitimate reason not to drink. If you’re pregnant or if you’re the designated driver for example".
Naturally, there are many traditional alcohol-free options in Sweden as well. Some, like coffee, are imported to our corner of the world but have over time become ubiquitous. With an average of 3,2 cups a day, Swedes are the second biggest coffee-lovers in the world. Only the Finns drink more.
Then we have the typically Swedish beverages, made from available Nordic ingredients. Lingonberry juice, juniper juice, “Pommac”, “Champis”, elderberry juice, and birch syrup, to name a few. Some have fallen out of fashion, and some are beloved to this day. And no beverage, alcoholic or not, is more ingrained in the Swedish soul than julmust.
The traditional seasonal soda, with a taste reminiscent of root beer or sweet non-alcoholic beer, is only sold for a short period each year. But Swedes sure know to make up for lost time. Approximately 40 million liters (over 10.5 million gallons) of julmust are sold every December, dwarfing all other soda and soft-drink sales. It’s gotten to a point where big-name international brands trying (and failing) to outmaneuver the julmust has essentially become a Christmas-tradition of its own.
"Many Swedes are raised on julmust and can’t imagine a Christmas dinner without it", Lenneman says. "Everyone can drink it since it doesn’t contain any alcohol and has a flavor that both kids and adults can enjoy. It tastes like nothing else, with a full-bodied tang that perhaps suits our Nordic taste buds and works really well with the kind of food we have on our Christmas tables".
Buying alcohol in Sweden and Systembolaget
The minimum drinking age in bars is 18, though some bars and nightclubs might have a higher age limit for entry; 20 or even 25.
The minimum age to buy alcoholic beverages containing over 3.5 % alcohol by volume is 20, and they can only be bought at Systembolaget. Commonly referred to as just “Systemet” or “Bolaget” (“The System” and “The Company”, respectively), Systembolaget is a chain of liquor stores run by the Swedish government, recognized by their green sign with yellow lettering.
Systembolagets main objective isn’t to sell alcohol though, but to contribute to a lowering of alcohol-related deaths and diseases. This is why Systembolaget never has any special deals and never favors some brands over others in their stores.