Sweden is a kingdom on the Scandinavian peninsula, in Northern Europe, where brewing and beer drinking have been common household activities for millennia. In excavations, drinking vessels have been found containing residues of beer dating to the Nordic Bronze Age (1700–500 bc), whereas Sweden emerged as a nation only in the Middle Ages. Much is unknown about the pre-Christian era in Scandinavia because there are few written records dating that far back in time. Runic inscriptions from the Viking Age survive, however, and we know that öl (ale) and especially mjöd (mead) were treasured beverages.

Before the introduction of hops in brewing, and also for a long time afterward, bitter herbs and plant parts were used to season and preserve beer. Some of the more widely used agents for this purpose were rowan berries, sweet gale, and yarrow. See gruit.

It has been known for some time that the Order of Cistercians brought hops to Sweden around 1100 ad; however, recent genetic research indicates that hops were present earlier; Vikings had brought hops home from some of their numerous trade expeditions. The first records of the use of hops in brewing in Sweden are from the 13th century. In Upplandslagen (the Law of Uppland) from 1296, hops were mentioned among the crops subject to tithe—the peasants were obliged to pay a tenth of their harvest in kind to the church.

As it was in many parts of Europe, beer was the everyday drink of the people, enjoyed even by monks, nuns, and children. Healthy drinking water was not always readily available, and therefore, well into the 18th century it was normal for an adult to drink several liters of beer a day. Nuns in the Vadstena Abbey, for instance, were each entitled to a ration of 3 l (6 pints) of beer a day and those in Solberga Abbey of 5 l (10 pints). These beers would have contained less alcohol than most contemporary beers, but the volumes do give us a clear picture of beer as an important part of the daily diet.

Considering the total beer consumption in Swedish society, it is no wonder that the cultivation of hops played a significant role in the national economy. In order to reduce the dependence on hop imports, peasants were required to grow hops. As specified in Kristofers landslag, the civil law in force between 1442 and 1734, each peasant was obligated to cultivate 40 poles of hops. This number was eventually increased to 200 poles, which was the amount still stipulated by law in 1734, as part of a legal system that is still in place in Sweden today. Fortunately for the Swedes, that part of the law has since been eliminated. Hop farming is no longer commercially viable in Sweden, but there is a small, non-profit hop farm, Humlebygget, in Näsum in southern Sweden, which grows some 200 hop plants, mostly for homebrewers and small commercial breweries.

Like other parts of Europe, Sweden was once home to many varieties of beer, most of them now lost to history. Two old Swedish beer styles that have survived into our age are svagdricka and Gotlandsdricka. Svagdricka is dark, sweet, and very low in alcohol content. In fact, current legislation does not consider most svagdricka real beer but lättdryck (light drink) because it contains less than 2.25% alcohol by volume. Svagdricka is top fermented, unpasteurized, and these days sweetened with saccharine. Bottom-fermented, pasteurized versions also exist, and the drink bears a resemblance to Russian kvass. See kvass. Several breweries still produce svagdricka, but the style seems to have an uncertain future because it has not found favor among younger drinkers.

Gotlandsdricka is the only traditional homebrewed beer to survive the emergence of industrial brewing in Sweden. It is still made largely the same way as it was in centuries past. Its origins are on the island of Gotland, in the Baltic Sea east of the Swedish mainland, where it is also known just as dricke (drink). Gotlandsdricka is smoky, spicy, and turbid. Traditionally, the barley (and sometimes wheat or rye) was home-malted, too, and some farms still produce their own malt for dricke. Kilning is usually carried out over open hardwood fires, typically of beechwood, giving the malt a strongly smoked, almost tar-like note. The brewing liquor is usually boiled water flavored with generous amounts of juniper berries and twigs. Although stainless-steel and plastic vessels are the mash tuns of choice of modern Gotlandsdricka brewers, traditionally the mash tuns were made of wood. Either way, they are always lined with juniper twigs, preferably with ripe blue juniper berries attached, and these form a false lauter bottom. This contributes to the dricke’s distinct spiciness. Lännu (Gotlandsdricka wort) may be boiled briefly or for up to 2 h or could be fermented unboiled. Hops are added to the kettle or to the mash. Some brewers boil just a portion of the lännu with hops. Fermentation is typically by baker’s yeast, although brewer’s yeast is becoming more common even among traditional Gotlandic homebrewers. Dricke is drunk extremely young, while still fermenting, and sugar can be added to keep the fermentation going and the brew from souring while it is being depleted. Much of the technique here will be familiar to enthusiasts of the Finnish traditional sahti, although modern sahti usually eschews the smoked malt. See sahti. Dricke is particularly popular as a holiday brew for Easter, Midsummer, and Christmas; and there is an annual competition that typically gathers some 30 to 60 entries.

Swedish beer styles were all top fermented until things changed radically in the mid 19th century, when Fredrik Rosenquist af Åkershult started Tyska Bryggeriet (the German Brewery), the first brewery specializing in the production of bottom-fermented lager beers. The cleaner palate of these beers was well received and lager quickly became the norm, as the Germanic brewing tradition swept aside the old Swedish beer styles.

The next big changes came in the form of legislation. An anti-alcohol movement, which grew strong in the 19th century, remains influential in Sweden. During much of the 20th century, beer was classified exclusively according to its alcohol content, and retail sales were heavily regulated. Starköl (strong beer) was even outlawed entirely for more than 3 decades, when only low-alcohol beer was readily available. The upper alcohol limit varied over those years, but it was never higher than 4% alcohol by volume (ABV). Stronger beer, typically porter, was only available in pharmacies—and then only to those lucky enough to get a doctor’s prescription for it. A generation grew up without access to good beer, and this sad state of affairs lasted until 1955, when the current government-controlled alcohol retail monopoly Systembolaget was established. Starköl was made legal, but only up to an alcohol content of 5.6%, which, of course, left many interesting beer styles still out of reach for Swedes. Even a doctor’s prescription could not get you anything else.

Beers over 3.5% ABV were available only in Systembolaget shops, and sales were rather low. This changed dramatically when in 1965 a new tax category, IIb, known as mellanöl (medium beer) was introduced for beers of 3.5% to 4.5% ABV, which could, henceforth, be sold in general food stores. Although advertising for these brews was still illegal, they were heavily promoted indirectly. Beer consumption boomed, especially with the younger adults, and breweries were starting to prosper again, after many decades of rather poor business. In fact, mellanöl was too successful, and renewed pressure from the anti-alcohol lobby led to the abolition of the mellanöl tax category in 1977. Today any beer containing more than 3.5% ABV must once again be purchased at Systembolaget.

Nevertheless, around the turn of the millennium, the Swedish beer scene underwent a tremendous evolution driven mostly by three developments, two of them legislative as a result of Sweden’s joining the European Union in 1995. First, Sweden had to abolish the upper alcohol limit for starköl; second, it had to abolish the government wholesale monopoly. This meant that virtually all the world’s beers could be made available at Systembolaget. Swedes even in the most sparsely populated regions could now drink barley wines, imperial stouts, doppelbocks, and abbey beers at home, not just while traveling abroad. As of 2011, there were 1,070 different beers from 54 countries available at retail through Systembolaget shops all over Sweden. Ironically, this gives Swedes better access to a greater variety of beer than can be found in many countries without such a government monopoly. There are also many private beer wholesalers, and even more beers than those carried by Systembolaget can be found in specialized beer bars.

The third factor of change, which predates the two legislative ones, was the craft brewing revolution. As in many other countries, the 20th century saw a decline in the number of breweries in Sweden. From several hundred in the 19th century, only a handful of starköl breweries were left in the 1980s. Sven-Olle Svensson was the owner of Sofiero Bryggeri in Laholm in southern Sweden, an old brewery that had only produced svagdricka and soft drinks for almost a century. In 1989 Svensson bought new equipment and acquired the necessary permit from the authorities to start making starköl. Other brewers soon followed, and today there are more than 40 breweries in Sweden, a number that grows every year. Unlike most German, Czech, or British brewers, who tend to stick to their traditional beer styles, the new Swedish breweries have taken a page from the American craft brewing movement and brew a wide variety of styles. Homebrewing, too, has experienced a similar revival, and most craft breweries are, in turn, established by former homebrewers. There are now reasons for Swedish beer enthusiasts to be optimistic about the future of their favorite beverage. Beer bars are becoming common and the culinary establishment is starting to pay attention to craft-brewed beer as a versatile beverage that suits Swedish food quite well. The annual Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival, first held in 1992, is now one of Europe’s largest beer events, and smaller beer festivals are popping up all over Sweden.