As everyone knows, beautiful, sunny Sweden is also the country of a state monopoly for selling alcoholic beverages stronger than 3.5 vol per cent of alcohol. In the ordinary supermarkets, there are only three kinds of beer available: light beer, which is basically water; somewhat less light beer (“middle beer”) which is water trying to do the beer thing, but failing, and something called Class II, which is very, very shy beer.
Common beer is called “strong beer” or class III and can only be bought at the dedicated boozery, or Systembolaget.
When I came to Sweden, the main Systembolag in Borås was a huge intimidating store with queue numbers, number beepers and multiple counters that were occupied by dour people who looked dispassionately at you while you tried to remember the four-digit code of the product of your choice. Why the digits? Because nobody would understand the properly pronounced names of any of the drinks apart from some local beers (This cuts both ways. Only last week, I saw that the cafe on Landvetter airport is selling Famouse Grouse).
Since, a few years ago, the Systembolag has become modern and snazzy, the state monopoly turns out to be not the worst of arrangements after all: the shops are nowadays most of the time organized like supermarkets, so you can choose and pick (and not shake) your goods at leisure. Most of them have plenty of choice to begin with, and much more can be ordered from some central store – depending on where you are, this takes perhaps a few days, but the service is usually prompt and pleasant. They also participate in an annual national competition for the best Systembolag in Sweden. Choose your fanciest Alcohol Pharmacy…
Our own Bollebygd’s Systembolag almost won the last competition – it was surpassed by the one in Gällivare. Gällivare is as far away from here as Northern Italy, only in the other direction – a two-day trip by car. Whoever compared all these stores seems to be in good physical shape. Our almost-prize-winning booze-store is run by a group of amiable young ladies, who – some of them – lighten up every time we managed to find the new kinds of beers right away, or whenever we choose organic wine. Sometimes we order special products – for instance Timmernman’s traditional cherry beer, a Belgian specialty.
Cherry beer is an acquired taste, and most people never actually acquire it because they start with the cheap, industrially produced kinds that sport a fake cherry flavor – these are pretty horrible. The small-batch handcrafted cherry beers can, on the other hand, be very good, if you are at all into trying something else than Heineken or Budweiser. Now. Robin ordered twelve bottles of Timmerman’s traditional cherry beer, to be delivered within one day. I returned yesterday, but the beer had not come, for one reason or another. The boss-lady joined us at the computer to help the sub-boss-lady replace the order. “But DO take care to cancel the old order, or we’ll have to deal with all those extra bottles!”
“Why, you can sell them in your store, would be nice to have them all the time anyway” said I.
“Oh goodness no, nobody buys those. This stuff is disgusting! It is this cherry beer, you know – absolutely undrinkable!”
Sais The Lady To Me Who Actually Ordered The Stuff. I mumbled something to make her aware of the differences between the various kinds and qualities of Belgian cherry beer, but she smiled and didn’t listen. I think I now can imagine how Gällivare Systembolaget won that competition.
Today they called, our twelve bottles of disgusting beer have arrived. I’ll remain their faithful and dedicated customer, but I’ll quit discussing their products with them. Sheesh.