Saturday, November 20, 2010

'System' Failure?

It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon and you’re lounging on your couch. You get a call from a friend inviting you to a spur-of-the-moment dinner party. Great, you think. You didn’t have anything fun to do and you start looking forward to an evening of good food and great company.

Your friend phoned at 2:15, so you’ve got plenty of time to get ready. Except that you live in Sweden, and in a situation that would dictate you to bring a nice bottle of wine you’re probably going to show up at your friend’s house empty-handed. How rude.

See, for more than a half-century all alcohol in Sweden stronger than 3.5 percent has been sold only at restaurants and bars and through the government-run liquor monopoly called Systembolaget (“The System Company”).

In California, you can buy any alcohol you want in virtually any grocery store. You can buy it between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m. The beer is chilled in-store and is always cold when you buy it. Alcohol is inexpensive and can be even cheaper if you buy in larger quantities like 12-packs or cases.

Sweden couldn’t be much more restrictive without banning booze altogether.

The strongest beer sold in grocery stores is labeled Class II and called folköl, “people’s beer.” An even weaker Class I beer can be of maximum 2.25 percent strength and is called lättöl (“light beer”).

Class III beer, starköl ("strong beer"), is everything stronger than 3.5 percent and is only sold at Systembolaget. Wines and spirits, which are obviously all stronger than 3.5 percent, are only sold at The System.

Buying alcohol at Systembolaget is a much different experience than shopping for drinks in a store back home. No beer is refrigerated. All items are sold as individual cans or bottles and there is no discount for buying a case of beer. No brand can be favored over any other, so there are never sales or specials.

The hours are absurdly limited. Systembolaget locations are closed on Sundays and holidays. They’re only open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and close at 6 p.m. on Fridays. The latest they’re open all week is 7 p.m. on Thursdays.

Alcohol is taxed on strength rather than price, with different tables corresponding to beer, wine and liquor. It’s all heavily taxed, though.

The cheapest can of beer (the same size as a 12-ounce can of Coors Light, for instance) costs between 9 and 10 Swedish kronor after tax. At the current exchange rate, that’s between $1.31 and $1.46 USD per can.

Hard liquor is ridiculously expensive. To buy a bottle of Jägermeister and a bottle of Bacardi Apple rum (which are also only 700 mL bottles rather than the 750 mL fifths sold in the States) would cost 494 SEK, or about $72 USD.

If you found both on sale at a grocery chain in California, it’d probably run about $20-$25 for the same two bottles.

The Swedish government maintains that keeping the monopoly in place has kept alcohol out of minors’ hands and discouraged binge drinking among adults. You must be at least 20 years old to buy alcohol at Systembolaget, which runs national television ads urging its patrons to imbibe responsibly.

As much as I bag on The System as an annoying, outdated concept, I have found one silver lining. Since the government imports wine from across Europe and the rest of the world in such large quantities, those savings are passed on to Swedes in spite of the high taxes.

The System set a new record in 2009 by selling more than 170 million liters of wine, and the four-liter boxes introduced in the late 1990s are largely to thank. The boxed wine isn’t the Franzia crap sold in the States, either. Quality stuff at a reasonable price.

Systembolaget causes a lot of frustration, especially for new expatriates. I don’t think it works the way the government would like everyone to believe it does, but there’s no alternative. You get used to it. You memorize the hours and you learn to plan ahead. You join the masses who tote the signature purple bags around town on Friday afternoons, when going to The System is literally a social event.

I’ve learned my lesson. Always stash away a couple extra bottles of wine when you’re in Sweden. You never know when you might need them.

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