6 November 2019

Fly My Pretty

Preface
Beer lovers of the world; let me ask you a question. And it's a fairly long and involved question so strap in:



Picture a beer: an otherwise ordinary, run of the mill beer. This beer can only be gotten in a specific location in the world. Despite its appearance and lack of international appeal, this beer carries a significance because it has the power to remind you of a particularly enjoyable and special time spent in that singular part of the world.

This of course is not a unique experience for your average beer appreciator. Certain brews have an ability to attach themselves irrevocably to times, places, events, memories, even smells, sounds and sights. Beer appreciation is, after all, a four- and even five- dimensional experience.

If, given the wonderful thing that Internet shopping can be sometimes, you had the opportunity to do so, would you go to the effort of having a sufficiently substantial quantity of said beer delivered to you in your current location for you to enjoy and reminisce with at your leisure? Or would you leave it where it belongs and only consume it as you did the first time you had it, leaving it as the most special of special treats for when you periodically voyage back to the beer’s home country?

Would it lose its aura if it gained accessibility? Would the very personal relationship between drinker and drink be irreparably lessened or infinitely augmented? And furthermore, is any beer of any standing really worth this level of emotional or financial investment?

Especially if it were an everyday macro lager owned by one of the largest conglomerates in the world?


"A Minor Stain"
In the 13th Century, large parts of the area of southeastern Sweden abutting the Öresund Strait were under the control of their near and less than dear neighbours the Danish. A border between the kingdoms lay at the river Ätran, where, as the apocryphal story goes, the Danish built a fort near an area known for falconry. Because of this the settlement soon became known as Falkenberg and, despite being destroyed at least twice by folk who were only a few generations removed from the Vikings, survived until it was eventually ceded to Sweden in the middle of the 17th Century.

Sweden weren’t overly enamoured with their new possession; the opinion of those who visited the town being that it was merely a "minor stain". And to be fair it wasn’t exactly glamorous - Falkenberg’s main industries were fishing and farming throughout this period – but gradually, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, new and more modern professions came to the seaside port along with tourists from all over the world. The railways arrived in 1885 and after heavy investment in improving sea access, steamboats from foreign climes started to arrive.


A Series of Fortunate Events
I didn't arrive in Sweden for the first time on a steamboat or behind a steam engine. I didn’t even arrive as a tourist the first time, at least, not really. I landed at Stockholm Arlanda Airport on May 1st 2017 on a British Airways Airbus A320 after a sleepless night at the Heathrow T5 Travelodge. It had been my first flight; I came from a family of nervous flyers and staycationers. My fears had melted as quickly as the morning dew as I gazed down on a patchwork world I had only previously seen on maps and on screens.


I was there primarily because of a duty I had to perform. That week my brother-in-law was to be married to a Swedish girl whom he had met at university. As convention dictates, the wedding was to take place in the country - and town - of her birth. And, familial necessities and obligations aside, I needed to be there because I was the DJ for the evening gig as well as being a wedding witness.

It’s at moments like this you start looking back through the series of OR gates in your life’s Logical Chart. If he hadn't gone to that university, if he hadn't met and fallen in love with someone on an international student placement, and if I hadn't met and fallen in love with his sister, I wouldn't be staring dumbfounded at the cavernous underground railway station under the airport, squinting at (conveniently) bilingual signage while dragging 23kg worth of luggage.


Upon arrival in Stockholm, the first drink I had was a 69 kronor Guinness at the Stockholm Hard Rock Café. This was following on from the two or three black nerve-settlers I had sunk at the Heathrow Wetherspoons with my full English at 6am that morning. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Guinness had travelled well. It had travelled better than we had, and soon we crashed out at our hotel.



The next day we caught a train to Hallsberg and were met by the happy couple-to-be for a day of mini stag- and hen-do fun. While my other half was whisked off to a spa and swimming pool session, a group of us chaps headed for a clay pigeon shooting session at the family hunting range.

But first, a trip to the Systembolaget. 


An Alcoholic Country
During the town of Falkenberg's formative years, the wider Swedish state had been almost forced to introduce alcohol controls in an attempt to arrest the country's seemingly uncontrollable drinking problem and also to tackle the shortage of raw materials such as potatoes and grain which were being overly diverted from food production towards alcohol production. State-run bars introduced laws - such as minimum age limits and refusal of service to the overly intoxicated - that today seem run-of-the-mill but which during the turn of the century were revolutionary. Temperance societies proposed state-wide prohibition although such a policy was narrowly defeated in a referendum.

During the First World War, alcohol rationing meant that people were allowed only two litres of liquor every three months, and beer above 3.6% ABV was banned. Factors such as employment status and social class dictated if you were even allowed to purchase these paltry amounts. This "motbook" rationing continued in the post-war period until the situation became so unsustainable that even the temperance societies urged a re-think.


Taking Flight
Despite this backdrop of control, regulation and limits, in 1896 a business opened that would change Falkenberg’s fortunes and character forever. Attracted by the purity of the water in the area and the possibility of cheap land and labour, an entrepreneurial 24-year old named John L Skantze opened the gates of Bryggeriaktiebolaget Falken, the Falcon Brewing Company. Skantze’s exacting standards would end up delaying the initial output by at least two years but soon Falken quickly became one of the biggest employers in the town. Falcon Brewery continued to prosper throughout the following decades until in 1937 John Skantze handed the reins over to his son, Erland.


One Stop Shop


A few years after the passing of the Falken baton from one generation to the next, Sweden’s successful state-run bar concept gave birth to its own offspring: a monopoly of state-run off-licences dubbed the Systembolaget, which continues to this day. The Systembolaget is the only place where you can buy alcohol for home consumption above 3,5%. (Lower ABV beers are however readily available in supermarkets.) Beer is offered in single cans or bottles at room temperature. The stores have restrictive opening hours which include complete closure on Sundays. It is only relatively recently that Systembolaget have moved from a counter-and-attendant Argos-style format to an open shop-plan with self-service.

Of course it is not obligatory for Swedes to toe the official line. For those stocking up for Midsommar or family celebrations such as weddings, booze cruises are relatively commonplace. If you live the mere 3 miles across the narrowest part of the Oresund Strait it is but a brief ferry ride to the Danish street vendors of Helsingor and their 24-packs of cheap Carlsberg or Tuborg. And despite the state monopoly, you are allowed to order beer off the internet, including 24-packs of one particular beer first brewed 120 years ago.


Random Chance


Back in Hallsberg, the ladies had long gone off to their spa and us five gents wandered over to the Systembolaget to check out the alcohol offering. My brother in law is primarily a wine and gin drinker so while he perused the reisling and the rose I scanned the tins and bottles of beer. Naiively I thought the big brands I was familiar with in the UK would be readily available but I didn’t see any I knew. Just strange names like Zeunerts and Sofiero.

After consulting with the other three beer drinkers we settled for something relatively mid-range and relatively cheap and we came away with armfuls of 500ml cans of a 5,2% lager at 29 kronor (about £2.50) per can. We thought nothing of it, bundled them into the car and drove through the stunning sunny Swedish countryside to the hunting range for a rendezvous with a shotgun and some unfortunate clay pigeons.

When we arrived at the hunting lodge, we stashed our newly procured supply of Falcon into the waiting fridge.


Falling In Love All Over Again


That afternoon we attempted to shoot clay pigeons and mostly missed. Later the extended Swedish family and the ladies who had left us earlier joined us as we built an open pit fire and cooked elk and pork. The surrounding pine trees whispered and the sun slowly set leaving a balmy twilight. The clean, crisp air was punctuated by the smell of woodsmoke and the contrasting sounds of two languages being excitedly and enthusiastically shared.

And there was drink. Homebrew liquor made from beaver urine. Finnish schnapps. And Falcon.




Clipped Wings
In the 1950s and 1960s Falcon had been one of the breweries to take full advantage of the new Systembolaget setup and launched a bold new colourful identity to make their products stand out on the grey utilitarian shelving. They also took advantage of the 4,5% supermarket lower limit to launch Mellanöl - a medium strength beer. It was all going so well.

However in 1977 Sweden’s alcohol addiction once again threatened to run away with itself and the supermarket limit was lowered to 3,5%. Falcon suffered as a result of their popular Mellanöl being suddenly ripped from the shelves. They were eventually bought out by their bigger and younger neighbours from Gothenburg, Pripps. Worse was yet to come. After surviving nearly 120 years, Falcon - and their new overlords Pripps - were absorbed into the Carlsberg behemoth in 1996.

Denmark had, after all this time, retaken a part of the town of Falkenberg back from the Swedes.

There literally is nothing remarkable about modern day Falcon. Nowadays Falcon is just a brand, just a logo, just a name cladding an inoffensive but indistinguishable macro lager in amongst the dazzling array of light lagers available on the shelving of the Systembolaget or being served off draught at the chain bar O'Learys. From the same stable comes BlaGul, a slightly stronger but blander clone. Pripps Blå is still hanging around, although it is a weak insipid excuse for a beer, brewed using the bare minimum amount of barley permissible by law. You've also got Mariestads, Åbro or Norrlands Guld if you're feeling particularly adventurous.



Legacy


The spirits of John and Erland Stantze live on in more ways than one. At one point in its history Sweden had just three breweries. Now it boasts over 400 with a burgeoning and widespread if under-the-radar craft movement with breweries such as Dugges, Omnipollo, Spike, Beerbliotek and Ocean at the forefront of the scene.

As for the town of Falkenberg, it's where Carlsberg Sverige is still based and where the modern version of Falcon is still produced. The beer’s links with the town are also manifest in the very millennial moniker of Falkenberg’s football stadium: Falcon Alkoholfri Arena. The town is also now home to the pseudo-craft offshoot Backyard Brewing, and due to licensing agreements it's where the European supply of Brooklyn Brewery beer, amongst others, is produced.


But for me, Falcon will be so much more than what it’s had to become. It is the beer that provided an accompaniment to that first evening by the fire; a beautiful, special night where my eyes were opened to the very best of Swedish culture, tradition and to the sheer majesty of the countryside my soon-to-be extended family inhabited.

Falcon was the beer that was on my tastebuds as my tongue spoke its first clumsy Swedish conversational words. It was the beer on my tongue when I first joined in singing the drinking song Helan Går.


It was the beer on my tongue throughout two more days of celebration as the wedding progressed from the final preparations and more familial mixing through to the ceremony itself. It was now linked, forever, as an emotional yet tangible reminder of that time and became inextricably a formative part of what is to this day an ongoing, borderline obsessive, love and admiration for the country and people of Sweden. 



You Can’t Take It With You


I groggily and reluctantly boarded the plane on the following Saturday afternoon. As we climbed away from Swedish soil, I saw that Arlanda airport was surrounded by pine trees not dissimilar to those I had been surrounded by three days previously. It was then I resolved to come back; perhaps one day permanently. After all, that’s the only way I would get to experience Falcon again, isn’t it?



Oh.

What would you do?

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