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Stick It To The System(et) Posted by on Sep 21, 2008 in Culture

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.

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Comments:

  1. ceci:

    hej! a question…more or less..how much it cost a bottle of a medium red wine? it can be found on systembolaget? have a nice week anna!
    ceci

  2. Charlie Anderson:

    Systemet sounds quite familiar to residents of Washington State.

  3. Anna:

    Hi Ceci,
    I went to Systembolaget and had a look at red wines, and it seems that they range in prices from 50 to more than 100SEK for a bottle.

    Hi Charlie!
    I thought it was only Utah that had a state liquor monopoly thingie going on. I learned something new, too! Thanks! 🙂

  4. ceci:

    oh yes! because i use a lot of wine when i am cooking…we used to make differents kind of meat, and we put on red wine! but, we can use the less expensive! thank you anna!
    ceci

  5. David from Oregon:

    Your blog is excellent. Thank you. I look forward to all of your postings.
    Maybe you could write something about the Swedish allemansrätten I always thought that was a great concept. And maybe something about basic rules of private fishing and hunting in Sweden.
    I know the king goes on a yearly moose hunt. Maybe he could go with Sarah Palin next time. They could have a great time together killing and gutting their mooses.

  6. Prince Palinor:

    Hmm I don’t know where all these drunks in public are, I never see them. There’s a park in my city where these drunks usually hang out but they are like 20 people and usually the same bunch all the time and that’s in a city of 120 000. I don’t think most alcoholism is visible at all, mostly people drinking too much at home, not in public. In the evenings and in the summer there can be a lot of drunk people, but I think they’re just partying, and there’s no thing in Sweden that says it’s wrong to be drunk in public over being drunk anywhere else. I find their opening hours really annoying, and even more annoying that you can’t even buy rice wine for cooking, because systemet only imports rice wine that’s meant to drink and it costs extremely much of course. I usually have people send it from abroad, in southern sweden most people don’t get their alcoholic beverages from Systemet but they take a ferry over to Germany instead and buy stuff there, a lot cheaper. This is often sold out of the back of little trucks. Don’t think most people who like getting drunk often will buy booze legally from systemet anyway.

  7. Anna:

    Prince Palinor,
    you must live in a very civilized town, then. When I’m in Stockholm, I like to sit in the Max by T-Centralen, eat my sandwich and watch the world stagger by at 8AM. I even spoke to the Police Academy recruits here and they also say that morning drunkness is becoming more and more of a problem that’s why they get to do their breathalazer stops between 8 and 10AM. Or maybe this is a northern phenomenon?
    And when it comes to sake for cooking, I’m TOTALLY with you!

  8. Curt:

    Prince Palinor,

    and Anna, I agree on your thoughts on Systembolaget. Regarding rice wine, I´m fond of cooking, especially asian dishes. Nowadays you can find rice wine for cooking in most supermarkets at the asian foodstuff counter, it´s called Mirin, the Blue Dragon label. If not there, try an asian foodstore in the nearest town.

    Best,
    Curt

  9. Anna:

    Hi Curt!
    And thank you for visiting! 🙂
    Actually, mirin みりん and sake さけ (I tried writing it in kanji, but it doesn’t show up for some reason) are two different things and foreigners frequently confuse them. Mirin is sake with sweet syrup and other additives, and is not the same as rice wine which is cooking sake without any additives. Normally, Japanese cooking uses both mirin and sake, and of course soy sauce. Mirin made by Blue Dragon is simply awful! Much too sweet and the taste is off. I think that Japan Food Kitchen in Stockholm (on Swedenborgsgatan 28) sells proper mirin. It’s getting that straight cooking sake that’s a problem in Sweden 🙂

  10. Marie:

    I COMPLETELY agree! It’s funny, I was walking home from the subway today and wishing that they would take away the systemet that is in my town center. I love where I live but the town center is so trashy because of all the drunks who hang around 24 hours a day. Systemet is definitely NOT doing anything to keep people drinking responsibly. Polisen does nothing about it either. More than half the times I ride the subway I encounter a drunk in some way or another.