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So, I’m half way through this Bill Bryson book “Neither Here Nor There” about his travels in Europe, and it is really interesting to read his observations about Sweden. With some of them I disagree (he thinks that driving even during sunny days with the headlights on is stupid) and with some I totally agree (like what’s up with all this public drunkenness in this country?). Yeah, what’s up with that?
Yes, there are plenty of drunks in public places all over the world, I know that. However, in most countries you also can get alcohol stronger than 3.5% in supermarkets and you don’t have to mortgage your house to buy a bottle of vodka, so you kind of sort of expect people to wander around totally sloshed at odd hours of the day. But not so in Sweden. Here, for anything stronger than 3.5% you have to go to a special government store called “Systembolaget”, alcohol is expensive, yet you can stumble over totally drunk people at 10 in the morning. And Systemet doesn’t even open until 10!
So, what is this Systembolaget anyway? Simply put, it’s a government-controlled monopoly on the importation and sale of alcoholic beverages. And while 2.8% or 3.5% percent beer and cider can be purchased at a local supermarket, anything stronger than that can only be found at Systemet. Say, if you’re making risotto and the recipe calls for half a cup of white wine (as mine does), you can’t just saunter over to a nearby supermarket and pick up a bottle. Oh, no. You need to go to Systemet. Which closes at 6PM. So if doing any gourmet cooking in Sweden, it’s best to be prepared. Consider yourself warned.
And how did it all start? Well, in 1850 alcohol began to be regulated by the state. Apparently, earlier in history Swedes had become famous for their drinking prowess, and things started to get a little out of hand. Back in the olden days, almost every household made their own booze, too. And the state realized that wow, not only people are walking around drunk, but we’re missing a superb revenue source. So let’s take over alcohol making and selling and tell people where and when to buy it and drink it. The scheme was so successful that by 1870 there was a chain of stores selling booze and all profits went to the government. And it’s been going on like that until now.
Sometime in the mid 1950s, it was also decided that alcoholic beverages should be taxed according to their alcohol content, which makes beer and wine (relatively) cheap.
Systemet looks like a normal supermarket inside, except that all it sells is alcohol. You get a basket, or a cart, and walk around picking up whatever you want. No brand can be favored over another, so everything is lined up on the shelves, or in crates on the floor, and bottles are not refrigerated (because according to the rule, you have to either refrigerate all of them, or none.) And oh yeah, you need to be over 20 to buy stuff there.
And remember what I said about drinks with less than 3.5% being sold in normal stores. Here’s something that may confuse English speakers. Such beer is known here as “lätt” which translates as “light”, but not in the American sense. It has all the calories of a normal beer, and the adjective “lätt” refers only to its alcohol content. And to buy “light” beer you need to be over 18.
Systemet even has an English language webpage, and this is one of the gems I found on there:
Systembolaget, the Swedish Alcohol Retail Monopoly, exists for one reason only: To minimize alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without profit motive.
Oh yeah? If that is so, then they’re not doing a very good job of it, judging by all the drunks in the streets.
You can read more about Systemet on their website.