Winter is coming. For most of us, that means we start settling in for a long winter's nap. But for our Scandanavian brethren, nothing really slows down. They hit the slopes, the natural hot springs, and the sauna. Winter is still an outdoor adventure. But that's not to say they aren't dreaming of warmer days.
Pelle Stridh, for example, thinks about the summer almost year round. That's because he's the founder of one of Sweden's most important beer gatherings, the Allt om Öl Festivalen in Eskilstuna, about an hour train ride west of Stockholm. This past June, I had the foresight (read: luck) to book a trip to Sweden at the beginning of their summer, just slightly ahead of tourist season, which happened to coincide with the festival. Every brewery I was hoping to visit on the trip, such as Nynashams, Nils Oskar, and St. Erik's to name a few, all had the same response when I contacted them — "We'll be at Allt om Öl Festivalen, come say hello!" And so train tickets were bought.
Pelle owns Cafe Sylvia in Eskilstuna, a well-known craft beer destination for the small city, split in half by a major tributary that empties from the system of massive waterways cutting in to Sweden's rural interior from the Baltic Sea. With a local brewery, and a growing beer culture, it seemed obvious to Pelle that there should be some sort of official gathering to celebrate. And so the first annual Allt om Öl Festivalen was born, and Pelle had no trouble getting participating breweries to line up and serve their brews.
The festivalen started 2011. I just felt like having an outdoor festival during summer time, much like in the states — bringing a lot of good craft beer to a lot of happy, beery people. The first year we had a bit more than 100 different beers from 8 different breweries/importers. I think we had more than 1200 visitors.
Allt om Öl was officially a draw. In planning for the second annual, Pelle aimed even higher.
This year we promised to double the beers and participants, and so we did. Of course we also expected double as many visitors. Unfortunately we didn't, competing with the world championship in soccer and Sweden - England playing on that friday evening. After we lost that game everyone stayed at home on the Saturday — sobbing!!
While many Swedes may have stayed home under the covers that day, the festival showed no signs of fatigue. As our train pulled into the Eskilstuna station, a light, chilly rain misting down across the glass dome of the passenger car, the entire station emptied out toward the festival as a single organism. Tucked between a few industrial buildings, Pelle and company had raised a number of tents, smartly placed throughout the drinking paths to keep people dry. We grabbed our glasses, beautiful, full-size Rastal ware, and started finding our way.
Having been in the country for a week by this time, I knew many of the participating breweries by their flagship recipes found in many bars, restaurants and the System Bologet. So when I sway Nils Oscar, I felt quite at home already. Known for their traditional styles, with small twists of smoke, hop and sweet malts, Nils Oscar is always at the top of my list. While many breweries across Europe have gotten carried away with the extreme beer craze coming out of the states, Nils Oscar always seems to strike for an artful balance of flavors, both sweet and bitter. On this still-sleepy Saturday morning, they were pouring Rökporter, a dark, reddish top-fermented beer with toffee and dried fruit characters. 80% percent of the malt is smoked over beechwood along with roasted caramel malt, hopped with Fuggles and Amarillo. It's a beautiful blend.
Sweden sits at the intersection of three major brewing influences — the real ales of Britain, the Belgians, and the American hop-forward varieties. And most breweries choose to experiment with more than one of these in their portfolios. Pelle has seen it all. Apart from operating as one of Sweden's most prominent beer experts and speakers, he's the chairman of the Scandinavian Beer Writers Guild (Skandinaviska Ölskribenters Förening in Swedish), and his understanding of the culture, production and shifts in the European beer industry runs deep. Amazingly, he even finds ways to bring that educational component to Allt om Öl. In between the endless sampling, many festival-goers shuffle off to a dedicated room for lectures, special tastings and deliberations. As an outsider, this was perhaps the best part of the festival. I got to meet brewers and fellow writers, and really dig in to a few portfolios in a more intimate setting. Festivals in the States could stand to do far more of this.
Jessica Heidrich from St. Eriks brewery was one of the main events for me. She told the story of how she and and small team set out to re-invent the old Swedish brand for a craft beer culture. While we sampled the IPA, APA and the well-regarded Raspberry Wit (pictured above in the Allt om Öl glass), she talked about what it takes to re-invent a brand from the ground up, including recipes, production, relationships, tenacity, and even unique bottling choices for which the brand is often known. With her storytelling and expertise, she held the attention and imaginations of a rather jovial table. It was delightful and incredibly informative.
The festival featured a number of beers from Norway, Denmark and France represented by regional distributors. Allt om Öl is a rare opportunity to expose the still-growing craft beer crowd in small cities to a wide range of brews, both new and traditional. The largest distributor in Sweden, Carlsberg, happens to represent Brooklyn, an American label who's largest market outside NYC is Stockholm. Their bottles and drafts frequent restaurants and bars around the country. It's the American import of choice. At Allt om Öl, their rep poured higher-end bottles, such as Brooklyn Local 1 and 2, as well as a few rares, called Ghost Bottles. These batches of Local 1 were left to open fermentation and picked up wild yeast strains that soured the beer ever so slightly. The irony of coming all the way to Sweden for an American rare beer inaccessible in the states was not lost on me. In fact, the Swedes have a long tradition of obtaining rare American bottles that we often can't get for ourselves. A tour of the beer cellar at Akkurat is enough to understand the lengths they will go.
Another Swedish highlight includes the smoked porter from Strömsholms Brewery, a microbrewery in Kolbäck, Sweden, Northwest of Eskilstuna. A small, rare batch form them produced yearly, the smoked porter was rich in leather and peat flavors, with a dry finish rather than malty. But the beer that got my vote this day was Sigtuna's Triple Hop Weizen — with all the viscosity and flavor of a Hefe, and all the bite of a well balanced pale ale.
Swedes have always had a passion for their beer. But to get anything ambitious, they had to take a day trip across the bridge, or by ferry, to Denmark to load up. One of the reasons that Swedish beer has gotten such a lift of late is its dedicated blogging and forum culture. And at Allt om Öl, that community was out in force.
Darren Packman, a self-described English expatriate lured to the lap lands by a Swedish blonde, took root quickly and started Beersweden.se, one of the country's most important craft beer voices. His blend of video reviews, journalism, speaking engagements and wining sense of humor (he's blushing, I can tell) rallies significant audiences. He's also, last we talked, planning to toss his hat in the ring and start brewing up north in Umea. I also met Johan Lenner (red shirt above), the writer behind the blog, Portersteken (Porter Roast) where he focuses on beer and food relationships with his incredible palate. He led a small group discussion at the festival.
And I can't say enough about the BeerSweden.se forum. As my first resource while preparing for the trip, the community there was responsive and welcoming. They provided the intel on almost every stop I made on the trip, and when they saw me out, whether at Akkurat, Oliver Twist, Allt om Öl or otherwise, they always said hello and made the adventure more memorable. Good luck to Pelle in his preparations for the 2013 festival. The world is a better place for it. Watch here for next year's announcements.