To understand the rigidity — and some would say absurdity — of Sweden’s alcohol laws, step inside a Systembolaget, a government-run liquor store, on a Saturday afternoon. It’s predictable chaos because these shops are the only retailers permitted to sell beverages containing more than 3.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). At precisely 3 p.m., the doors will shut until Monday morning, and anyone hoping to buy a bottle of wine for a spontaneous dinner party or a few beers for a Sunday cookout will be out of luck.
But increasingly, Stockholmers have other palatable options.
Grocery stores are allowed to sell what is known as folkol (“people’s beer”), containing 2.8 percent to 3.5 percent ABV. Long maligned as tasteless, watered-down pilsners, these low-ABV beers are now getting a reboot by craft brewers seeking to shake up the Swedish market. At the same time, a wave of new folkol-focused bars and bottle shops — all opened in the last two years — is fueling interest in this formerly low-prestige beverage.
In a country known for its innovative craft beer, often high-alcohol IPAs and sour ales, this emerging trend in the opposite direction is being driven by Swedes’ interest in healthier living, but it’s also a way to skirt Sweden’s strict alcohol laws. Whatever the reason, it’s making the city’s drinking scene notably livelier.
First up was Bottl3.5hop, which opened in June 2016 as a low-alcohol bottle shop, a designation that necessitates neither a liquor license nor a kitchen (Swedish regulations require that bars also serve food). Located in a trendsetting neighborhood in the Sodermalm district, the shop doubles as a bar with low-ABV beers on tap and a rotating assortment of about 120 different bottles from around the world, including the occasional collaboration beer with small Stockholm breweries.
“When people find out that good beer doesn’t have to be high ABV, I think we will see a difference in the drinking patterns,” said co-owner Martin Jamtlid, who noted that the number of producers brewing low-ABV beers has grown exponentially in recent years.
“It’s all about the talent of the brewer,” he said.
At the forefront of the trend in Stockholm is Omnipollo, a beer producer founded here in 2011 by Henok Fentie and Karl Grandin.
“For us, it’s always been about getting as good beer as possible into as many hands as possible, to be frank,” Mr. Fentie said. “We want to replace your average beer for something that’s more unique.”
One of the top folkol options available right now is Omnipollo’s Bianca Mango Lassi Gose — “an Indian-beverage-inspired German-style sour beer, which sounds quite far-fetched but it worked really well,” he said.
“I shied away from low-ABV beers for a very long time because part of the truth is that flavor does go hand in hand with higher ABVs,” continued Mr. Fentie, who has a reputation for brewing potent I.P.A.s and sublime stouts with double-digit ABVs.
“But as we progressed as brewers and also as consumers, it’s become more of an enticing challenge to try to create a lower ABV beer that has a lot of flavor,” he said.
“The other part of it is that we’re parents,” he said, and lower-ABVs make early mornings easier.
The ability to enjoy a beer without the attendant side effects was also part of the appeal for Alli McCleary Olin, a Tennessee native who in December 2016 opened Folk & Friends, a dog-friendly folkol cafe on Kungsholmen, with her husband, Victor. A second location is scheduled to open later this winter in western Sodermalm.
“I think everybody has this mind-set that they want to drink for pleasure, not for effect,” she said, echoing the sentiment that folkol is well-suited to Swedes’ increasingly active and health-conscious lifestyle.
The couple, both former homebrewers, had noticed an uptick in quality of low-ABV beers, especially among Swedish craft brewers such as Poppels, Oppigards, Brekeriet and Omnipollo.
“I realized there was a big trend going on with the folkol,” she said. “More brewers were brewing it and the quality was becoming better and better, and it still is to this day.”
Folkolsbutiken, another bar and bottle shop that opened on Sodermalm in August 2016, is focused on promoting Nordic, and primarily Swedish, brewers.
Despite increased buzz, many fledgling craft breweries still struggle to get their beers to consumers, said owner Johan Palo, noting the difficulty of landing a spot in Systembolaget’s inventory.
To introduce flavorful folkol to a wider audience, Folkolsbutiken also has a beer bike pouring sour beers and low-ABV IPAs at Hornstulls Marknad, a popular weekend market open April through September.
“It’s a coincidence that we opened at the same time,” said Mr. Palo of his fellow folkol-focused establishments. “But it definitely says something about how Swedes want to drink now.”
That Scandinavian credo — in ABV, as in all things — is moderation.
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