Signifiers

Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri - A Swedish Stronghold

Nynäshamn, or simply Nynäs, is a distant settlement on the southernmost tip of Sweden’s third largest island of Södertörn, located 36 miles (58 kilometers) south of the Swedish capital. It’s surrounded by endless pine and fir forests strewn across a beautiful gneiss rock archipelago. On the contrary, Nynäs itself is a place mostly defined by its oil refinery and port industry. Like myself, most people probably find themselves here en route to a summer holiday on the island of Gotland. Located smack dab in the middle of this small seaport town is Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri.

Imagine Sweden in the early 1990s: a brewery wasteland dominated by a handful of large-scale producers, a landscape stripped of anything but dull lager beers. In this barren terrain the first modern occurrence of microbreweries emerged. Unfortunately, many of these pioneering breweries were making the same stuff as the major breweries, trying desperately to compete with an already established, cost-effective industry. The flavor aspect was simply not yet a selling point in Swedish beer and, therefore, most of these early craft initiatives fell into abrupt demise. All that remained of the craft beer scene by the mid 1990s was a decimated few operations.

During these turbulent times, a gang of Nynäshamn teenagers started up a members-only beer club known as Hagges Bärsklubb. With the common denominator being beer, four of its members went from not only drinking beer, but consequently brewing it. In 1996, with a modified 32-gallon water heater serving as brew kettle, Lasse Ericsson, Tony Magnusson, Cribba Johansson and, Pelle Hedlund took the first faltering steps to what was to become Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri. The first year’s production totaled only a meager 110 barrels (13,000 liters).

To people today it might sound like an exaggeration, but pioneering craft beer in Sweden back in the 90s was not an easy task. Not at all. The passion that initially fueled the start-up did not only go into making radically tasting beer but also into fighting bureaucracy, battling preconceptions, and convincing bar owners and beer drinkers that the brewery’s groundbreaking beers were great. Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri’s past is closely intertwined with the history of modern craft brewing in our country. From how they’ve changed the way people experience beer to  how they were received by the local government and banks.

What has probably paved the way and made Nynäshamn one of the few surviving pioneering craft breweries in Sweden is an ingenious blend of folksy yet delicious beers, diverse know-how, and an eclectic group of founders. They built their philosophy and brand on the idea of repetition till perfection, and have pursued those aims ever since. Their objective is to craft well-balanced brews for the casual yet discerning drinker.

We brew the beers that we want to drink ourselves. There are a lot of experimental trends at the moment that we choose not to take part of.
— Thomas Hansen

Allegedly another part of their success is relying on in-house capabilities, making sure they keep all skills needed under one roof. Twenty years down the line, and you still have the founders and owners all actively working at the brewery. You’ve got Lasse in the brewery writing recipes, Tony in the office drawing up contracts and reading the fine print, Cribba welding in his workshop, Pelle in carpentry, and Thomas out pushing product. Hell, they even have their own one-man brand and marketing agency in Marcus Wärme. Glueing it all together is a mutual enthusiasm and stubbornness.

Entering the building, I’m surprised by the amount of items crammed into this rather small but efficiently laid out space. The brewery itself is meticulously well-kept, clean, and tidy. Sharing the room with the brewhouse is the usual brewery paraphernalia: a diatomite filter, a hop cannon, pumps, clamps, and lots of red and blue tubing. The tubing is like tripwire, snaking everywhere. Brewer Andreas Klässman is hauling impressive lengths of this tubing back and forth across the floor. In contrast, several fermenters are being carefully monitored by computers sitting along the walls. Manual labor and automation go hand-in-hand here at Nynäs.

Today Nynäshamn has fourteen employees that produce about 6,800 barrels (800,000liters) yearly. It’s one of the most well-known and famed breweries in Sweden. Yet compared to the 287,075 barrels (336,876 hL) produced by Southern California's Stone Brewing in 2014 (a brewery also founded in 1996), Nynäs’ volumes are microscopic. “We enjoy growing at our own organic rate. We’ve never brought in investors because we’ve always managed on our own, nor are we planning on doing so,” says Thomas on their plans for growth.

It’s the more modest beer styles that draw people’s attention to Nynäs. Their best-known products include easy-drinking ales and lagers like English Bitter Bedarö Bitter or Czech style pilsner Pickla Pils. The company’s uncompromising and incorruptible philosophy shines in their beers. Staying true to historic recipes, these beers and flavors are a perfect fit for a larger yet perceptive group of beer drinkers.

Today, Bedarö Bitter is their top-selling beer and the first product they brewed routinely. It uses a proprietary yeast strain, lending a rather straightforward beer a rare and subtle twist of fruity, spicy yeast character. It’s carefully seasoned with Chinook and Cascade hop varieties, which impart a faint citrus note. Balance and subtlety are key in this beloved go-to beer.

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Back in the day, I remember particularly taking a liking to Bedarö Bitter, but also their English style IPA, Indianviken Pale Ale. The yeast character, in particular, intrigued me. Luckily Black & Brown, my local pub at the time, was an early adopter of Swedish micro brewed beer and always had the beer on tap. With Nynäs’ beers as a gateway, and world-famous beer bar, Akkurat, located just a block from Black & Brown, I was slowly awakening to the world of specialty beers.

While traditional beers like bitters and English IPAs might not tickle every RateBeer member’s fancy, Nynäs’ beers always rate second-to-none in style. On the other hand, if you’re a beer hunter, chances are you’ll fall for recurring annual gems like Bötet Barleywine or Valsviken Vinterporter.

With the archipelago serving as a natural backdrop to the brewery, there’s a strong nautical theme running through most of their design elements. Label backgrounds and illustrations are full of marine references such as nautical charts. The whole product range also follows a strict naming convention relying on names of local islands, coves, lighthouses, canals, and islets. The initial letter of the beer name and style description is always the same, creating alliterative and memorable names with a regional connection. Bedarö Bitter, for instance, is named after the island seen across from the boatyard in the center of town.

Nynäs is not only about tradition and remaining the same, though. They do catch on to some of the trends happening in craft beer. Having employed two assistant brewers, this has allowed brewmaster Lasse to escape the brewery more often than before.  

One thing they like and want to do more of is collaborating with other breweries. In the past few years they managed to work with well-known American counterparts such as Dogfish Head and Ska Brewing. This year has been about European endeavors, partnering with British Magic Rock Brewing Co. out of Huddersfield. “We love collaborating with other breweries. The thing is simply about sharing knowledge and experiences. We met up with Richard Burhouse from Magic Rock in Colorado a while back. This guy was such a positive and animated guy I knew right away we had to brew together,“ Lasse tells me.

They were also invited together with Stene Isaksson, from Stockholm beer bar Akkurat, to recreate their common effort Tjinook at Brussel-based Brasserie De La Senne. The result was Chin Chin Tjinook, the original Tjinook fermented with De La Senne’s house yeast.

Nynäs has also had a successful go at barrel-aging a few of their high-strength libations. The barrel-aged barleywine Bötet proved a more-than-beautiful interpretation of the original product. They’ve just recently bottled a special version of their Brännskär Brown Ale. It’s an imperial version of Brännskär with vanilla bean and hazelnut added, made especially for the 20th anniversary of gastropub Akkurat. This beer has received a royal pampering, filled in thick 75 cl glass bottles, printed with gold applied ceramic labeling, and wax dipping. This sort of high-end packaging is something I did not expect from Nynäs. They are obviously catching on.

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Leaving the brewery, I turn to catch one last glance of the place. Now knowing what goes on inside, it’s still difficult to grasp how they can accommodate a brewery, warehouse, offices, store, and tasting room all in one small building. They’ve had to move once before. My guess is the next move is coming sooner rather than later.