Grin and beer it in Sweden

Zac o?Yeah | Updated on January 20, 2018

Ale and hearty Walhöll beer selection with Lake Barken in the background   -  Zac o' Yeah

Zac O' Yeah   -  BUSINESS LINE

Not less than 230 microbreweries in a country that has fewer people than Bengaluru, the beer capital of India. That’s how much the Swedes love their beer

The morning mist drifts ashore from Lake Barken and makes the road hazy, so when I see two deer ahead of me I take them to be an optical illusion. But they stop to stare at me, as if they too think they’re hallucinating. Then they dash off into the dark green pine forest.

I’m on the outskirts of a village called Söderbärke in central Sweden and it looks much like a picture postcard: a white medieval church on the blue lakeside, red wooden houses everywhere. But the place I’m searching for looks, when I find it, like any modern garage except for the sign that beckons: Walhöll Brewing House.

The tall, bearded Viking-looking fellow who answers the doorbell doesn’t sport a beer belly. The garage with its stainless steel vats and crates of beer doesn’t smell boozy even though Gunnar and his wife Karin, who has a spiky haircut, are about to bottle some 600 litres of a refreshing thirst quencher called Balder, a Belgian-style beer named after the invincible Viking god. Summer is approaching and they expect to sell by the thousands — all of it brewed, bottled and labelled by hand.

Karin is the cookery expert in the family, trying out different ingredients to develop new beer flavours, while Gunnar explains the more practical matters of brewing. Beer is their passion: they’ve invested about a quarter million Swedish kronor (1 SEK = ₹8 approximately) on brewery equipment. And though their Walhöll beers cost twice as much as factory beers (SEK 25-33 per bottle in retail shops) there’s hardly any profit. Definitely not enough to hire helpers.

“We started brewing for our use,” Karin says, “and once I got into it, I began experimenting with malts and hops. Even the smallest variations can result in big differences in the taste.”

Malt can be roasted or smoked to get unusual flavours. The combination of hops and the exact time of their adding affect the outcome. The beers are unfiltered and unpasteurised, so a natural fizz is created when the liquid ferments in its bottle. However, it is only after sampling the mature beer, weeks later, that Gunnar and Karin know if it can go on the market or not. In the beginning they had to empty a whole batch into the sewer!

Whenever they come up with a new beer, they name it after a Norse god or something out of Viking mythology. For example, a particularly smoky 6.3 per cent beer is known as Ragnarök (‘the end of the world’). The brewery itself is named after the Viking heaven, where slain warriors feast on booze that gushes from the udders of a goat.

Swedish microbrews, such as Walhöll’s, are distributed worldwide through www.swedbeer.se/en/shop, but by and large the market is very local. Walhöll beers are served in a dozen restaurants within a 20-km radius of the brewery. In the village itself, which has a population of 924, about 175 inhabitants are members of the beer appreciation society, which hosts an immensely popular microbrewery festival every October.

Walhöll is just one among many rural microbreweries that spearheaded a revival of sorts. Which is great, I think. For beer is a marvellous food for the soul, a rich source of calories and vitamin B (the latter prevents male baldness, I often point out to my wife). Beer is also among the most ancient beverages known to man. The Sumerians worshipped a beer goddess, to whom poets wrote hymns that are actually microbrewing recipes. Just the other day in China a 5,000-year-old microbrewery was unearthed by archaeologists (as reported in BL ink on May 28). The oldest beer sample in Scandinavia has been dated to 1500 BC. But by the 1990s, Swedish beer had turned into a bland factory product, monopolised by a handful of brands.

Things were different in olden times, where farmers’ wives often brewed beer, which was used as currency of sorts; a Swedish nun could, for example, receive a salary of 14 barrels per year. Before the World Wars, Sweden had 900 official breweries, but with hardening government control over sales and the arrival of brewery corporations, there were just 30 left in the ’90s, with the trio of Pripps, Falcon and Spendrups ruling the 400 million litres per year market. (According to statistics, 93 per cent of Swedish men and 73 per cent of women drink beer; the average annual consumption is estimated to be 57 litres per person.)

Then microbrewing happened around the turn of the millennium. Nowadays breweries open at the rate of one per week in disused basements and abandoned barns. At last count there were 230 microbreweries, which is a lot considering that Sweden’s population is smaller than that of Bengaluru, the beer capital of India.

When I went bar-hopping, I found it impossible to sample the three old brands mentioned above: Pripps, Falcon and Spendrups were simply not available in many pubs. Instead I had to choose from a mind-boggling array of local IPAs, ales, meads and craft beers.

Meanwhile, at the Walhöll Brewing House, Karin and Gunnar are happy to pour me samples of the nine beers they currently make, and as I tipple they describe the work that goes into each. There’s, for example, a stout called Freja (7.3 per cent), named after the goddess of love, which has an aftertaste of coffee thanks to the way the malt has been roasted.

When I finally stumble out of their garage, I observe four deer galloping across the road. I stop and recount them to make sure that I’m not seeing double.

Published on June 17, 2016

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