The Lowdown: Quality Swedish beer

Sweden is not a country renowned for its beers. But when Darren Packman has a nose around, he finds there's more to the country's brewers than meets the gut on a typical night out.

The Lowdown: Quality Swedish beer

What comes from Sweden, is mass-produced, easy to assemble, pretty to look at but often lacks real substance? No, it’s not furniture from IKEA. It’s… Swedish beer.

The effects of over a century of frenzied anti-alcohol politics, a devastating Government-backed rationalization of the Swedish brewing industry in the 60s and 70s and some of the highest levels of alcohol taxes anywhere in the world have all taken their toll on this once ambitious beer producing nation.

In a recently published guide to the world's top 500 beers, Sweden gets a single solitary mention (even Namibia gets more). Ironically it is for Carnegie Porter, a rugged, tasty stout which until the 1950s was commonly prescribed by doctors and which brand owner Pripps tried to scrap in the late 1970s until public protests bought it back to the shelves.

But perhaps the most telling measure of how low the expectations of Swedish beer drinkers have sunk for their own beer is by the way they order it – automatically asking for a 'stor stark' (quite literally a 'big and strong').

Having given up years ago trying to differentiate their beers by taste, many Swedish drinkers simply do it by strength and price – the higher and cheaper the better.

However, as Bob Dylan – who allegedly likes a beer of two – once so famously put it, the times they are a-changing.

Encouraged by a renaissance in craft beers that has blown in from the west coast of America, a new generation of Swedish microbreweries have sprung up offering people the chance to drink ‘handmade’ beers in a host of exciting international styles.

The Nils Oscar Brewery is typical of this new generation of craft beer revivalists. Started in 1996 in Kungsholmen, Stockholm, by six beer enthusiasts, it claims to be the only brewery in Sweden that grows its own barley and roasts its own malt.

The brewery’s best-selling God (‘Good’) Lager is a 5.3% straw yellow, hoppy lager with a big barley bouquet. But arguably the brewery’s finest beers deviate from the widely copied pilsner style and demonstrate Nils Oscar’s brewery versatility.

Nils Oscar Imperial Stout is a wonderful example of a deliciously dark, richly roasted stout which makes an ideal companion to oysters and other shellfish as well as sweet deserts. The brewery’s Barley Wine won its category in the 2000 World Beer Cup in New York, which featured 1,100 different types of beer from 370 breweries around the world.

Another of Sweden’s most respected microbreweries is also one of its smallest. With just a handful of staff, Jämtland Brewery based in Pilgrimstad manages to produce an impressive range of bottle conditioned beers.

Since starting up in 1996 the brewery has been busy collecting awards for its beers. During the past eight years at the Stockholm Beer Festival, Scandinavia’s premier beer event, this tiny privately-run brewery has been awarded more bling than a New York rapper; a staggering 61 gold, 29 silver and 17 bronze medals.

And it’s not just the brewery’s beers that are unconventional. Head brewer David Jones is an Englishman who calls brewing beer “more of a passion than a profession”.

He is largely responsible for creating what has been called the new Swedish lager style with Hell, a 5.4% copper coloured lager with a strong hop finish and a distinctly British fruity aroma.

“Hell is a lager that has all the virtues of an English ale,” says David.

If drinking Hell is considered too sinful, there is a more saintly alternative in Heaven, a somewhat darker beer with distinct chocolate and coffee tones. Mixed together they make a potent drink affectionately known as a ‘God damn it’.

Another notable Jämtland beer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a nutty, malty English ale called Pilgrim, winner of seven gold medals and a testament to how Swedish drinkers are increasingly willing to embrace new styles from around the world.

David is very positive about the future of Sweden’s microbreweries. “The monopoly of the big Swedish brewing giants has actually opened the door for us to provide people searching for something completely different – craft beers with exciting tastes”.

Inspiration from a trip to the US led to the opening in 1995 of another of Sweden’s emerging micro-breweries – Gamla Slottskällans Bryggeri in Uppsala.

Based around 50 kilometres north of Stockholm, the dedicated team at Slottskällans produces an impressive range of unpasteurised beers with no-nonsense names such as Pilsner, Pale Ale, Kloster and Imperial Stout.

The brewery’s philosophy is refreshingly simple – to brew beer that the brewers themselves enjoy drinking in the hope that enough Swedish drinkers will share their enthusiasm for their traditionally-made beers to keep the business alive.

Add to these three pioneers the names of Dugges (with their funky logos and provocative brand names such as Bollox and Idjit), Örebro’s Närke Kulturbryggeri, which has achieved worldwide cult-like status for its hard-to-get porters, and newcomer Ocean Brewery from Gothenburg with brewer Thomas Bingebo’s creative takes on traditional beer styles, and it’s clear to see that Swedish microbreweries are coming out fighting in the battle against bland beer.

And it’s a fight they appear to be winning.

The breweries mentioned in this article are:

Nils Oscar Bryggeri och Bränneri. Fruängsgatan 2, 611 31 Nyköping, Sweden. E-post: [email protected] Microbrewery Founded 1996.

Jämtlands Bryggeri, Pilgrimscenter, S-840 58 Pilgrimstad, Sweden. E-post: [email protected] Microbrewery.


Gamla Slottskällans Bryggeri, Märstagatan 10-12, 753 23 Uppsala, Sweden. Microbrewery Founded 1998.

Dugges Ale och Porterbryggeri, Möbelgatan 3, 431 33 Mölndal, Sweden. E-post: [email protected] Microbrewery Founded 2005.

Närke Kulturbryggeri, Box 360, 701 49 Örebro, Sweden. E-post: [email protected] Microbrewery Founded 2003.

Ocean Brewery AB, Skårs led 2 Lokal 12C, 412 65 Göteborg, Sweden. Founded 2006, Microbrewery.

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How the Covid crisis led to a boom in Swiss beer production

Switzerland now boasts the highest density of breweries anywhere in Europe, with the Covid crisis a major factor in transforming the country into a beer hub.

How the Covid crisis led to a boom in Swiss beer production
The Feldschlösschen brewery. While Feldschlösschen might be the country's best known beer, there are hundreds of smaller breweries worth checking out. Photo: Wikicommons.

When it comes to food and drink exports, Switzerland is best known for cheese and chocolate. While Swiss wine has carved out a niche on the global stage, it is Swiss beer which has recently started to make its mark on the global stage. 

In 2020, 80 new breweries were established in Switzerland. 

Switzerland now has 1,212 breweries – which gives it a higher ratio of breweries to people than any of the other big brewing nations in Europe, including Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Belgium. 

Just ten years ago, Switzerland had only 246 breweries, while in 1990 there were only 32 breweries in the entire country, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung reports. 

Switzerland is getting thirstier

The explosion in brewery numbers is a consequence of a change in the Swiss appetite for beer. 

Reader question: Can you drink in public in Switzerland?

In recent years, the classic lager variety has gradually fallen out of favour, with the share of craft varieties growing by 43 percent over the past five years. 

The change is a genuine example of quality trumping quality when it comes to beer consumption. 

In 2010, the average amount of beer produced by each brewery in Switzerland was 11,000 hectolitres, while that is now less than 3,000. 

According to Switzerland’s NZZ, only 14 breweries produced more than 10,000 hectolitres of beer last year, while more than 1,000 breweries produced less than 50 hectolitres. 

While the variety of beers being consumed has expanded – particularly those made in Switzerland – the amount of beer each Swiss consumes has fallen slightly in recent years. 

In 2008 the average Swiss consumed 58 litres of beer, with 55 litres being consumed in 2019 – the last year for which figures are available. 

In 1980, the average Swiss consumed around 70 litres of beer per year. 

The following chart from Statista shows these trends. 

Beer consumption over time in Switzerland (per capita). Image: Statista

This pales in comparison with serious beer drinking countries, with the average yearly consumption in Germany being 140 litres. 

Wine still leads the way however in Switzerland. Of those who consume alcohol in Switzerland, 32 percent drink beer while just under half (49.4 percent) drink wine). 

While anyone bragging of cheap beer in Switzerland might have had a few too many, for people living in Switzerland the costs are relatively affordable. 

In addition to the high wages paid in Switzerland, the Swiss VAT rate of 7.7 percent is the lowest in the OECD, a 2021 study found. 

Statistics show that Switzerland has an above average consumption of beer per capita when compared to OECD countries. 

Just one in five Swiss abstain from alcohol completely, which is low by OECD standards. 

Why now? 

The proliferation of new breweries is obviously welcome for the nation’s beer drinkers, but it seems that Switzerland is coming late to the party. 

According to the NZZ, a major reason is Switzerland’s alcoholic drinks ‘cartel’, which meant that all alcohol was sold in standardised form nationwide. 

The cartel “regulated sales, prices, quality, recipe and range of products for which the whole country was advertised collectively and uniformly,” with the result being bland, mass market beers in each of Switzerland’s 26 cantons. 

The rules were so pervasive that even pub owners were in many cases restricted from choosing which beers they wanted to have on tap. 

Created in the early 1900s, this cartel survived until 1991, when it finally fell. In typical Swiss fashion, it was even kept in power by a referendum which took place in 1958. 

As a consequence of the change, it is now easier than ever to start smaller breweries – which in turn influenced the Swiss palette to move away from the standardised cartel lager and to more adventurous brews. 

Seven beers to try in Switzerland

Whether you’re a beer enthusiast or a sometime sipper, you’ve probably heard of the big market brands like Feldschlösschen, Haldengut and Gurten. 

Here are some lesser known brands which will tickle your fancy. 


While most of the beers on this list are relatively unique, Quöllfrisch is a standard lager type beer with which most people will be familiar. 

However, it’s anything but standard and represents perhaps the best a blonde lager can be. From Appenzell, this beer is relatively easy to find no matter where you are in Switzerland. 

In fact, it’s served on Swiss airlines. 

De Saint Bon Chien

The L’Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien is a truly unique beer. With a strength of 11 percent, the sour beer is aged in wooden barrels that previously contained red wine. 

Highly sought after, the beer comes from Saignelégier in the canton of Jura close to the French border. It is the highest ranked Swiss beer on the beer ranking site ‘Untappd’, with several discontinued beers from the same brewery sitting alongside it. 

Relatively difficult to get, it is available in small bottles or 20 litre kegs. 


Zurich’s Brüll!Bier is one of the city’s best microbreweries.

Unlike many other Swiss breweries which tend to focus their efforts on only a few beers, Brüll!Bier brew several varieties touching on traditional styles, contemporary classics and experimental offerings. 

While the red ale and the helles are excellent session beers, one speciality is the Prince of Ales Yorkshire Pale Ale, which can only be found at the British Beer Corner in Zurich. 

Brewed to resemble a Yorkshire Pale Ale, it’s tasty and delicious – and will go down well even if you’ve never had a YPA before. 


Another beer that can be found in most parts of the country, Calvinus has several different traditional beer styles including a wheat beer, a thick dark ale and a Belgian pale ale. 

Originally from Geneva, it is now brewed in the mountains of Appenzell using only organic ingredients. 

According to legend, it is based on a recipe handed down in Geneva by Calvin the Reformer. 

Ittinger Klosterbräu

An amber ale with a relatively standard alcohol content (5.6 percent), Ittinger Klosterbräu is bitter but fruity. 

The beer is brewed in a former Carthusian monastery on the banks of the Thur river. 

It’s also one of the rare Swiss beers to be made with local hops – which are actually grown by the brewery itself – with more than 90 percent of beers made with hops exported from elsewhere in Switzerland. 

Bier Factory Rapperswil

Rapperswil, on the outskirts of Zurich, is not only a great place to live if you work in the city – but also a great place to have a few beers. 

The brewery has a taproom where you can try many of the beers they brew, including some staples and some experimental favourites. 

One of the best is the Wanderlust Pale Ale, a hoppy pale ale which can easily be a session beer. 

Appenzeller Castégna

Another beer from the beautiful Appenzeller region, Appenzeller Castégna is brewed with chestnuts grown in the southern canton of Ticino which give it a “sweet, chestnutty aroma” according to a rather uninventive online review. 

Brewed by Brauerei Locher, the Castégna is relatively difficult to find throughout the country other than in Ticino. 

It’s a proud vegan friendly beer, whatever that means, and is often served with desert due to its sweet taste.