Until recently, there was very little clarity about the obscure Swedish style of beer known as gotlandsdricke. Various sources called it a “historical beer,” “pioneered by the Vikings,” “homebrew,” or an “indigenous beer.”
It’s only in the past half-decade or so that what should have been obvious all along became clear: It’s a type of farmhouse ale, native to the island of Gotland in the Baltic, about 56 miles (90 km) off the Swedish mainland.
Stretching back to prehistoric times, there were farmhouse ales brewed all across the lands we now call Sweden, and some of them were similar to gotlandsdricke. The only thing that’s special about Gotland is that the brewing survived there, while it otherwise died out on the mainland.
Of course, it’s no accident that brewing survived on Gotland. It’s the largest island in the Baltic, about 80 miles (130 km) from end to end, with a population of almost 60,000 and a strong agricultural focus. All over Europe, that’s the classic recipe for an area where farmhouse brewing survives: isolated and remote, with sufficient population and strong agriculture.
Gotland has long been more than just farming, however. Its strategic position in the Baltic has made it a trading crossroads for millennia, and the trade here was so rich that caches of ancient silver are still regularly dug out of the ground. The biggest-ever hoard of Viking silver (the Spillings hoard) was found on Gotland in 1999—67 kilos of silver, including 14,295 coins, most of them Arabic.
The center of this trade was the scenic medieval town of Visby, which is still the capital of the island. However, most of the actual brewing happens out in the countryside. The brewers live spread out in little villages dotting the gently rolling landscape of grain fields and forests, interspersed with large stands of juniper.
The Elusive Drink
Just like stjørdalsøl (see The Cult of the Kiln), gotlandsdricke is still usually made from traditional homemade malts. Historically, the brewers used barley, rye, or oats, and sometimes even wheat, but today it appears to be all barley. The classic Gotland malt kiln consists of a fireplace on the ground floor with a side channel in the chimney; the side channel leads to a drying surface on the floor of the loft. Here, brewers spread the malt on a surface that allowed the heat and smoke through. The result was a strongly smoked malt.
The malts for gotlandsdricke are therefore smoky like those used in stjørdalsøl, but there is a difference. On Gotland, people burn mostly birchwood to dry the malts, and birch gives a different smoke profile than alder. Where alder is funky and pungent, birch is much softer and smoother. Local Gotland barley probably also tastes different from Norwegian barley.
The “probably” there may sound odd, so time for a confession: I’ve barely tasted it because gotlandsdricke is not easy to find. When my family and I holidayed there in 2015, I managed to get one day off to investigate the beer. However, despite six months of preparation, I found only a single brewer—and when I met him, he didn’t really have any beer. He had thawed some frozen wort from his freezer and started fermenting it just two days before I arrived, so it wasn’t finished. Also, because I was driving, all I tasted was a sip. It wasn’t just me: Another beer writer was trying to visit Gotland about the same time, but in the end, he gave up trying to find someone and never made the trip.
While we’re at it, here is something else to clear up: Those who have heard of it generally call the beer “gotlandsdricka.” That is the standard Swedish form of the name. The locals themselves say “gotlandsdricke”—note the different ending—which is Gotland dialect. In some places you’ll even see it called “dricku,” but that’s just the definitive form, meaning “the dricke.” So you would say that you like dricke, but you’d ask your host whether dricku (“the dricke”) has finished fermenting.
The last part of the name, dricke, literally means “drink.” For the Swedes, beer was a daily staple—they’d start a new batch as soon as the previous one had run dry—so the beer was just the “drink.” It was what the entire family drank. On the mainland, it was usually weak, but on Gotland they had both strong and weak beer.
Making Gotland’s Drink
Unlike the other farmhouse styles we’ve covered here, there’s no specific brewing process for gotlandsdricke. The mash could be infusion mash, step mash, or a circulating mash. The wort might be boiled or not boiled. Gotlanders themselves don’t seem to give much thought to these differences, maybe because the smoke aroma dominates the flavor no matter which process they use. It’s likely, however, that there is wide variation in the flavors because of the use of traditionally made malts.
Almost everyone uses juniper in the beer—which quite frankly is the only sensible thing to do, given the big, healthy-looking junipers that grow all over Gotland. Most people use a juniper infusion for the hot liquor, but in the northeast, it was common to use it only as a filter bed in the lauter tun.
Everyone uses hops, but not much, maybe 0.2 to 5 grams of Noble hops per liter (i.e., no more than 100 grams per 20 liters, or roughly 3.5 ounces per five-gallon batch). They typically boil the hops in the wort, but many make a separate hop tea instead. Either way, the hop flavor doesn’t seem to be prominent.
Originally, people on Gotland had their own farmhouse yeast, just like farmers everywhere else, but the yeast apparently died out in the 1970s. Today, almost everyone uses a Swedish baking yeast called Kronjäst. Despite the shift, fermentation remains warm and fast.
Also, as with every other traditional farmhouse ale, gotlandsdricke is served with very low carbonation, similar to a British cask ale.
I said gotlandsdricke was hard to get, but that has become easier in recent years, now that two different commercial varieties are available from the tiny brewery Wisby Ölverk. Their beer does not appear to be distributed widely, but at least it’s possible to buy it now.
Several craft breweries outside Sweden have beers that they call gotlandsdricke or that are directly inspired by the tradition. However, as far as I know, none of them are serious attempts at making beer that tastes like that of Gotland.
It’s not clear exactly how many brewers there are on the island, but there must be at least 100. Unlike in Stjørdal, most of them don’t make the malts themselves because on Gotland, there are no kiln-owning associations. Understandably, most people find building a malt kiln to be too much work. So, instead, most brewers buy from locals who make malt with the traditional kilns.
If you really want to try gotlandsdricke, your best option is the annual championship in gotlandsdricke brewing, usually held one weekend in early October. Finding out exactly when and where it is requires some serious online sleuthing, but it’s definitely possible. Usually, it’s held in some remote country inn as an open party for anyone who shows up. There’s accordion music, dancing, rivers of gotlandsdricke, and dinner.
The dinner is an attraction in itself: the local specialty of steamed, smoked sheep’s head, complete with tongue and eyeballs—perfect, I imagine, with some smoky gotlandsdricke.