It took the right timing, the right beer and a little bit of luck for Ska Brewing Co. to find its second biggest market.
It seems odd that of all places in the world, Sweden would be such a huge consumer of beer from Southwest Colorado. The liquor laws in Sweden are strict compared to Colorado: all liquor stores in the country are government-run, and all beers sold are government-tested and -approved.
Liquor stores close at 7 p.m. and don’t open on Sundays. Beer is available only in single cans and taxed at a rate that correlates with alcohol content. There’s no advertising allowed in the liquor stores and all beer is sold warm, “so that it’s ready for immediate consumption,” said Marcus Wärme, a marketer with the Swedish craft brewery Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri.
“It’s very difficult to get your beer on the shelf,” Wärme said in an interview at Ska Brewing this week. He’s in town with the brew masters from Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri to work on a collaboration beer with Ska. “You have to have a good-quality beer and a little bit of luck,” he said of getting a listing in Swedish liquor stores.
And for Ska, getting its beer on the shelves was a marriage of good preparation and a bit of serendipity. It was 2009 and Dave Thibodeau, co-founder of Ska Brewing, was with his brewery team at a craft brewers conference in Boston. It was there that he met Jörgen Hasselqvist, a Swedish beer distributor. “He’s kind of crazy,” Thibodeau said, and that made them “kindred spirits.”
The two had a lot in common – they shared similar regard for a balance between spare time and work; there are mountains in Sweden much like the Rockies; they both like the same sports, including skiing, surfing, riding bikes and fishing; and both have similar tastes in music.
“All the things we like to do here we just get to do at a different altitude,” Thibodeau said of Sweden.
When Thibodeau and Hasselqvist met, Sweden was craving an American-style Indian pale ale, Wärme said. Ska had the Modus Hoperandi, an American-style IPA with 6.8 percent alcohol by volume and an 88 on the international bitterness units scale. The IBU scale ranks beers from 0 to 100 – a higher number means more hops and, therefore, more bitterness.
Hasselqvist urged Ska to enter its Modus Hoperandi into a listing pool. Swedish officials perform tests on beers in the pool to determine whether they should be allowed on shelves, which includes, among other things, a blind taste test. Up to 150 beers can be entered into the listing pool, Wärme said.
When the decision came down from the Swedish government, it wasn’t looking good for Ska. It didn’t get the bid. Another brewery got it, Thibodeau said.
But the brewery that won the bid couldn’t produce the quantity of beer required to put beer on the shelves of more than 200 stores in Sweden, Thibodeau said. So the Swedes approached Ska about its Modus Hoperandi. And like that, beer from Southwest Colorado was stocked on the shelves of about half of all liquor stores in Sweden, the first such American IPA to land there, Thibodeau said. And the laws are such that big brewers and small brewers get the same amount of shelf space – a huge boon for a small brewery on the other side of the world, Wärme said.
The Modus Hoperandi is most of the reason why Ska is so popular in Sweden – the only other beer it offers there is the True Blonde, which doesn’t do nearly as well as its hoppy, bitter compatriot.
“They came at the right moment when the Swedish audience had been longing for an American-style IPA,” Wärme said.
And Ska’s style resonated with many Swedes, he said. The graphics on the cans were appealing to the Nordic beer consumer, Wärme said, and it is easy to tell that the brewers at Ska aren’t in it for the money – something that builds trust and credibility in the Swedish market.
Ska’s credibility is also bolstered by its partnership with Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri, Thibodeau said. Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri is a craft brewery about 36 miles south of Stolkholm, the Swedish capital. The two were connected through Hasselqvist, who distributes both of their beers. Having a relationship with a brewer in Sweden gives the consumers there a sense that Ska is doing beer right, Thibodeau said.
Thibodeau said he and his brewing buddies take at least one or two trips to Sweden every year to connect with their Swedish partners, romp around islands in the Baltic Sea and drink beer. They even try the Modus Hoperandi when they’re there, just to make sure it still tastes right, Thibodeau said.
Transporting beer across the Atlantic Ocean is no small feat. It takes about a month for a 16-foot-long shipping container caring some 48,000 12-ounce cans to go from Durango to Sweden. The brewery sent about 70,000 cans to Sweden each month in 2018, Thibodeau said, making Sweden the brewery’s second-largest market, with Colorado being the largest market.
“It’s amazing how much beer we sell in a country that doesn’t want you to sell beer,” Thibodeau said.
Hoppy, lighter beers tend to lose the bitter flavor over time, Thibodeau said, so Ska loads its Modus Hoperandi right off the canning line into a shipping container. The shipping container is stored below sea level to keep the beer colder – a ship’s hull below sea level is cooler as a result of the temperature of the ocean.
But Modus Hoperandi holds up well over time, Thibodeau said. And although hundreds of breweries have sprouted in Sweden that can produce a product similar to the Modus Hoperandi, Ska’s beer has become the standard for an American-style IPA there.
With so many other breweries producing a similar style beer in Sweden, it is difficult to stay relevant, Thibodeau said. Partnerships, like the one they have with Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri, not to mention collaboration beers, help keep the Ska name fresh in Sweden. Ska and Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri are in the process of brewing their third collaboration beer, which they plan to enter in the March Collaboration Fest in Denver.