Done roamin'

It broke every convention and changed the way we see the relationship between brewer and beer, but now Omnipollo has returned home


It was never guaranteed that Omnipollo’s Kyrka – otherwise known as The Church — would become a part of the brewery’s story. For almost a decade, a brick-and-mortar brewery seemed more like a constraint on freedom, than an enabler of it. Co-founders Karl Grandin and Henok Fentie hadn’t set out to start a Swedish brewery, the joint ambition of artist and brewer had been to build a brand that transcended nationality, proving so fresh and culturally relevant to drinkers all over the world, as to feel local, globally. 

Today, Omnipollo is a playful, amorphous project that blurs the lines between beer and pop culture. With labels and artwork appealing to the curiosity that’s common to all people – irrespective of identity or heritage – and beer that both challenges and fortifies our belief in flavour’s ability to connect us, Omnipollo is now among the best connected and respected craft breweries in the world. What sets it apart from the crowd of ground-breaking breweries in our industry, is the extent to which its craft and reputation were honed while it travelled and transitioned between countries and cultures. 

Contract brewing, or nomad brewing – that is to say, borrowing another brewery’s facility to brew your own beer – worked well for Omnipollo, allowing it to take risks, scale up and down as needed, and ensure the freshest possible beer reached the drinker. If the brewery wanted to connect with a US audience, it would brew in the US, if it wanted to connect with Brazilian beer drinkers, it would brew in Brazil. But where most breweries might contract on occasion, or when they were just starting out, Omnipollo celebrated contract brewing, not as a means to an end, but a way of being in its own right.

“The end consumer has always been our top priority,” says Henok. “We didn’t want to have to bear in mind that we'd spent X amount on an ingredient, and so would need to categorise and market the beer so we can sell it over five months to make back the money we spent brewing it. By contract brewing, we could make more as there was demand for more, and serve the beer within five days of it being kegged. Being able to make these kinds of flexible moves was much more important to us than whether or not we were producing the beer.”

That said, contract brewing was not as well regarded by the brewing community when Omnipollo first started out, in 2010, as it is now. Henok was living in Belgium at that time, and approached 44 breweries about being a contract partner for Omnipollo’s first beer. Only one agreed after extensive negotiations. Back then, many of the breweries he approached thought he just wanted them to brew a beer that Omnipollo could slap its label on, and it was hard to encourage conceptualisation of a dynamic, collaborative process where everyone gets credit for their part in creating an end product that, back then, came with no frame of reference. 

“In the end, I think the selling point was that terroir wasn’t going to matter, techniques weren’t going to matter, because we were making something completely new, that experimented with what a beer could be. Of course the important thing for us in the beginning was ‘where can we brew this beer to the highest quality?’ So, we'd go to a brewery that was famous for brewing dark beer to brew dark beer, but at the same time, we had to prove that we could brew an amazing dark beer in a brewery that wasn't famous, because like, where's your added value? So we were kind of playing on both sides of the court in that regard.”

Over time, more breweries were enticed by the opportunity to brew in ways and with ingredients that seemed incompatible with beer, but warranted intrigue. From whole donuts to lingonberries to ice cream, there was, and is, nothing Omnipollo wouldn’t put in a beer, and the opportunity to collaborate on a project that championed curious, brave brewing attracted people keen to cut their teeth on the challenge. “At one point, and even now sometimes, I kind of felt like it didn't really matter where we brew those kinds of beer, because they’re so unique and extreme,” says Henok. 

“It wasn't until we started drinking and appreciating lager beers in the way that we do right now, and began to ask ourselves where hoppy beers fit into our range, that we started wondering if it really made sense to contract brew to the same extent,” Henok continues. “We started to feel shackled by the contract setup, which is, on the one hand, freedom – because it’s less risk – but on the other hand, less control. We felt it was important to open a brewery when we reached a critical mass of volume, but were also still trying to do something for the Swedish market. I still believe Europe has subpar hoppy beer, and it's the biggest trend in craft beer ever, so I think there's a place for a bunch of European breweries to brew hoppy beer to at least the same standard as they do in the US.”

On one hand, The Church, Omnipollo’s own production facility, slides seamlessly into its story, and on the other, it marks a significant shift in gears for the brewery. “It has tied us closer to the city, and opened up further possibilities for engagement,” Henok says. “It feels like we just invested more in our hometown, which is weird, because in some ways I still feel like we're the travelling band that no one knows of in our home market. This obviously changed a lot during the two to three years that we couldn’t travel so much, but we’ll still have a longer queue outside of our bar in Tokyo than we do in Stockholm.”

Given the project of The Church was, in part, to solidify and bolster Sweden’s place in the global craft beer rankings, it’s hard to consider Henok’s observation without feeling a twinge of disappointment. But there is also something profound about the way Omnipollo – a brewery that might have garnered more enthusiastic support by putting roots down elsewhere – gravitated back to Sweden, where Karl and Henok are from, and where its progress would be slow moving, and only achieved by heavy lifting. 

“I always stress that being from Sweden is great, in a sense, because we're not held down by the burden of legacy,” says Karl. “We don't have Germany’s strict rules about how to make beer, we don't have the Belgian expectation of what a beer should be, and we don’t have traditional styles to follow in the footsteps of, like in the UK. The first time Henok and I met, we actually didn’t talk much about the beer, but were more interested in how we could make craft beer open up… that was going to be about more than making great beer.

“In Sweden, like in many places, there was such a tight knit speciality beer scene; it wasn’t narrow-minded, and it wasn’t static – we could feel that things were happening – but we wanted to listen to great music and meet fun people, and drink great beer, not experience interesting things and then have to go somewhere specific to drink great beer. So that’s how it all kicked off; wanting to develop something that comes from a great tradition but that no one else seems to have done before.”

I don’t get the impression that Omnipollo is trying to define Swedish craft beer culture – definitions don’t strike me as something it’s fond of – but rather encourage people to recognise the role they can play in creating culture, and maybe even a legacy. By bringing better beer to more spaces, and surprising a wider range of drinkers with the weird, wonderful, and pleasantly unexpected, Omnipollo has challenged our understanding of what beer, art, culture and society is, and could be. 

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