Monday, August 25, 2008

3.5 beer sucks

Sweden is a lovely country, with many fine features to recommend it, as I am discovering daily. Moving to a foreign country is hard. I could expound on both of these topics for awhile...but not today. Today I'd like to discuss a real and pressing problem with life in Sweden: the beer sucks.

This shouldn't have been a shock: most of the places I've been in Europe kinda suck when it comes to beer. The most famous beer from Sweden is Carlsberg, which, yes, also sucks. It's a light lager, just a tiny notch better than American crap beers from Anheuser-Busch & Coors. There is a general dearth of quality ale in this country; a real problem for a country with a long, dark winter.

But it's worse than that.

The Swedish control alcohol very closely -- all alcoholic beverages stronger than 3.5% alcohol are sold only at state-run stores called the Systembolaget. This means that at your local grocer, the only beer available is crap 3.5 beer.

Let me explain my objection: I couldn't care less what the alcohol level of beer is, as long as it's delicious. You can still get drunk on low-alcohol beer; it's what lots of people do, pounding can after can of Coors Lite or some other commodity product. It is, however, very hard to brew a flavorful, mouth-filling ale. Regardless of one's attitude towards alcohol, the sugar content of beer (the brewing term is gravity, I believe, from "specific gravity") which of course determines its alcohol content, is perhaps the main component of the beverage. It contains most of the caloric content, largely determines its mouthfeel, and is the main pillar around which a beer is built. Without sufficient alcohol, most beer styles cannot be achieved: no stouts (Guiness is a relatively low ~4.2% abv) no bitters (Fuller's is higher, at ~5.9%) and certainly no California-style IPA beers, where the massive hopping is only possible because of high alcohol content. Don't even think about Belgian-style dubbels and trippels.

Alcohol is a serious issue: alcoholism is tremendously problematic as a public-health issue, and I think we are all familiar with the possibilities on a personal level. And maybe the Swedish policy does, in fact, help. But it's very odd to come from California, where aside from the high drinking age, alcohol policies are lenient and continental: beer, wine and even spirits can be sold in grocery stores. Sweden, on the other hand, seems to have policies that are even tighter than Massachusetts -- aside from the easy availability of 3.5 beer. Which, by nature, sucks.