If you drink alcohol, you’re probably aware that the rules on alcohol sales vary. In the US, of course, they vary from state to state, county to county, or even town to town. I grew up in a dry county in the state known worldwide for producing bourbon. Here’s a great blurb about how the crossroads where I grew up voted to go wet last year by a vote of 103 to 101! I went to college in a dry (well, damp) town. I lived in Bavaria and in central Germany, where it was all up for grabs. I went to grad school at a party school where the student union sold beer and where liquor stores closed at 9pm, creating panic every weekend. We moved to North Carolina, where you can buy wine and beer in the store, but the state owns the liquor monopoly, and people are still celebrating the “brunch bill” that just passed allowing alcohol sales starting at 10am on Sundays. And unless you grew up there, you don’t stand a chance of understanding the beer and liquor laws in Sarah’s childhood home of Pennsylvania.
Coming from the US, I’m used to odd and varying cultures around drinking alcohol. Having lived in Germany and Spain, I have a background assumption that Europe is much more liberal in this regard.
That assumption remains, despite the fact that I know that Sweden has a very different alcohol culture. There are probably other places like it, but I’ve not yet been to those places. At the center of it is the state alcohol monopoly, the Systembolaget. If you’re inclined to imbibe, you get used to looking for this little green sign wherever you are:
You also try to memorize the opening hours, which are odd: 10-7 on weekdays (normalish); 10-3 on Saturdays (always-catches-you-off-guard early); closed on Sunday (surprising, but I’m still used to the idea). The state owns the sole right to sell liquor, wine, and beer above 3.5%. Anything at 3.5% or below can be sold in the grocery stores.
As usual with restrictions on alcohol sales, the goal originally was to promote temperance. Alcohol sales were fully liberalized (all restrictions lifted) in the late 1700s. Not long after, the industrious Swedes apparently were drinking homemade hooch with abandon. Temperence societies popped up, the Church of Sweden jumped on the bandwagon, and by 1850 the state had taken over sales. In 1860, the state opened its first bar and the Systembolaget was born. Rationing kicked in during WWI and lasted until 1955, at which point even the unemployed and married women (!!) were allowed to buy alcohol. Until 1990, you had to go to a counter and ask for specific products by name, it seems.
When rationing went out, though, the state turned to taxation to control consumption. It began (and has kept) taxing alcohol at high rates based on the alcohol percentage: the higher the alcohol, the higher the tax. But the system isn’t allowed to favor any product over another and all products must be sold at the same profit margin. The system also makes the state of Sweden one of the world’s largest buyers of alcohol. For those keeping score, what this means is that all alcohol is expensive. But relative to other places, the middle- and high-end stuff seems like a bargain compared to cheaper versions of the same category. One strategy is to drink less, but drink better.
So has all of this worked? It seems to have an effect. Yes, Swedes love to drink schnapps (not that nasty cinnamon stuff that still makes you shudder from that time in high school, but the high quality distilled liquor that comes in a ton of regional variations). And when it’s time for that (e.g., midsommar, Christmas, etc.), they go to it, with lots of schnapps songs to go along with them. Overall, though, Sweden has one of the lowest per capita alcohol consumption rates in the developed world. They take the question of drinking and driving very seriously. Despite the wide availability of what in the US would be called near-beer (beers in the 2-3.5% range), if you’re driving you’re expected to have alcohol-free beer or some other option. There’s really an incredibly low tolerance for it. They also have a lot fewer driving fatalities, although other factors play a role in that, too.
What surprises me is the lack of high-quality, low-alcohol beers: those “session” beers that have become so popular in the US. They’re coming around, but Sweden doesn’t have the microbrewing craze that been spreading in the US for a couple of decades now. It seems like there’s an opportunity, since they can be sold in supermarkets. So to my North Carolina brewing friends, come to Sweden and explore your market options. For everyone else, if you come to Sweden, keep your eyes peeled for that little green sign.