By the book?
Robyn Gilmour visits Gothenburg, to meet the constantly evolving brewery that plays by its own rules
Saturday 13 January 2024
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A second coat of fat white flakes falls and settles on the street as I exit the tram. It’s quieter though still largely residential on the outskirts of the small estate Beerbliotek calls home. The bright, patterned border running along the base of the brewery’s wide, corrugated exterior sets it apart from the surrounding businesses, and distinguishes it from the 90m² space where it started life. Beginning with just four 1000L tanks in a space next to the old Carnegie brewery, a relic of the city’s brewing history, Beerbliotek is now much bigger but still holds onto the enthusiasm for experimentation that united its three co-founders.
Coming from a design background, Darryl De Necker took charge of brand and design, while avid homebrewers Richard Bull and Adam Norman, having previously run an espresso bar in Gothenburg, focused on hospitality and product development. Like most people gauging their leap into the industry, the friends travelled a lot, helping out at different breweries, and connecting with as many brands and producers as they possibly could, before starting out on their own.
“Back then, and particularly in the UK, you kind of saw this attitude around making do with what was available, which is something that really attracted us to The Kernel,” says Richard. “They had [and still have] their brown labels just listing the names of the hops used, and they’d brew with the best of whatever malt was available on the day. So what was available dictated what they’d produce, which we just really loved. So when we started Beerbliotek, we took some inspiration from that, and wanted to invoke the idea of a kind of beer library. When you go to the library, you don't take the same book out all the time, you want to explore different things, and learn something new each time.”
In its first year, the nascent brewery produced 40,000 litres of 40 different beers, kegging each and selling them locally. Since then, Beerbliotek has grown with Gothenburg’s beer scene, and where it was once the city’s fourth craft brewery, today it’s one of 40. Richard considers the brewery fortunate to be based in such a well populated and supportive beer city, but he also acknowledges the strength that comes with numbers is necessary in Sweden, where licensing laws are among the strictest in the world.
Since 1995, when Sweden joined the EU, breweries have been free to produce beer and distribute it through the on-trade network it can organically cultivate, but they’re not legally permitted to sell it directly to consumers. That means breweries can’t operate online shops within Sweden, the only beer they can sell to supermarkets has to be under 3.5%, and anything over that ABV has to be sold through the state-owned monopoly, the Systembolaget. While this governing body sells beer throughout the country, it also operates a local arm, known as “the local assortment”, which will distribute a wider variety of beers through up to 10 retailers within a 40-mile radius of the brewery.
With the Systembolaget setting out to regulate, and not profit from the sale of alcohol, its procurement criteria are conservative; the beer it buys and sells needs to be attractive to consumers nationwide and, like most supermarkets, it requires a shelf life which gives the monopoly a fairly wide window in which to sell it. While these requirements don’t exclude craft producers from Systembolaget listings, they do stifle the creativity that yields some of craft beer’s weirdest and wackiest brews.
Perhaps the local assortment’s faster turnover aims to cater to the short shelf life of New World hops and some adjunct-heavy beers, or maybe it recognises the public appetite for locally made produce, and lower carbon footprint it comes with. But for all it offers craft breweries a route to their local markets, there’s no getting around the fact that a limit of just 10 retailers within a relatively tiny radius limits the development of craft beer within Sweden, and requires the growing number of producers to compete for strictly finite shelf space.
We're focused more on just making great beer and, aside from export, selling it to bars and restaurants
Adding insult to injury, Richard tells me that recently, the monopoly took a Danish wine retailer to Sweden's highest court to contest its sale of wine directly to Swedish consumers, from Denmark. The monopoly lost its case, thereby setting the patently absurd precedent that international alcohol producers are permitted to sell directly to Swedish consumers, while domestic producers remain barred from doing so.
All that said, while bureaucracy and regulation almost seems to encourage rivalry within Sweden's craft beer industry, Beerbliotek refuses to engage in anything but friendly competition with the many other breweries that make Gothenburg such a fantastic beer city. As much as the monopoly is omnipresent, Richard says he tries not to agonise over it any more than is conducive to encouraging progress.
“We’re focused more on just making great beer and, aside from export, selling it to bars and restaurants. Our initial plan was not to be a big brewery, and while we’re bigger now than when we started, we’re still not a big brewery. We’re doing around 370,000L a year right now, and could probably get up to 600,000, but we’re not really aiming to get any bigger than that. Obviously, we’re a business and we have to make money, but outside of that, we want to make sure that we have a good solid team that are happy.
"Lots of our ‘competitors’ have focused more on the monopoly and been very successful with it, and created a really big following for their beers. But we want to be able to experiment and do different things, and you just can’t do that when you've got to produce the same five beers in massive volumes, it’s just not possible to be as agile.”
For now, Beerbliotek’s bread and butter is its on-site taproom, and the on-trade community that stock and support it. Encouraging footfall, not just at its own brewery, but at microbreweries around Gothenburg is a priority for Richard, who’s hoping to revive a hop-on hop-off bus tour that craft breweries around Gothenburg collaborated on before the pandemic.
“We also used to organise dog walks that started here and would stop at various different bars around town,” says Richard. “I think we had almost 100 dogs involved at one stage, which is mental and looks completely crazy, but it sticks out, and helps to build community.” Like almost every other country’s craft beer market right now, Sweden’s had barely finished licking wounds inflicted by the pandemic before inflation, a cost of living crisis and the rising price of raw materials dealt further blows to the industry.
“We all succeed by helping each other,” says Richard, “and continuing to do that has never been more important. That's how craft beer has always been and that's why Gothenburg has created a city with 40 breweries. Yes, we've got to work on the monopoly, but we also need to take the low-hanging fruit first and build interest in our small community, and drum up support for locally produced goods. If we're going to come out the other end of this tough period, and still have 40 breweries, then it will be because we've worked together.”
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