Interview with Fredrik Ek of Brekeriet

photo of Brekeriet in their brewhouse

Brekeriet is everywhere. Literally. They must be among the most busy when it comes to participating at festivals and other events. Ironically this interview was done via Skype, but it included a tour through the new brewery location, which includes a designated sour room and a lot of space for more barrels, fermenters, and a foosball table. Read what the three brothers have been up to and how an infection got them here.

The first question is one of two we ask everybody: Which of your beers would you have served beerhunter Michael Jackson?

The Blondette. It is a barrel-aged sour ale – we age it for eight months – and a pretty complex, elegant beer. It’s like a dry white wine. I think he would have appreciated that.

Is this the one you drink so much of that barely anything goes into retail?

No [laughs]. What I drink depends on the situation, like the weather. Right now in the summer time, I like to drink the Picnic Sour with low ABV or something fruity and fresh. But in the winter time, I am looking for something with a higher ABV, like barleywines and sometimes stouts.

That kinda leads into a question I wanted to ask: While I love sour beers and can imagine drinking them throughout the year, they are not as robust as a barleywine or a stout. So in the winter, a rhubarb Berliner weisse might not sound as appealing. Sweden has long winters.

Yes. We actually tried to do some dark sours, but they didn’t come out that good. We also tried to make a sour braggot. That had the complexity of a higher ABV beer on top of the brettanomyces and bacteria. So yeah, a braggot in wintertime. That works.

How about a “glühbeer”, like a glög, but a beer?

No. None of us is very fond of that. They are only fun for like one glass to try.

That could then be one of the ones you don’t drink but sell. But do you see it in your sales that during the winter they go down?

During that season, our sales move to other countries, mainly Spain and the US.

Brekeriet is three brothers. How is it working with your brothers?

It’s really fun. It’s a fun business to share with my brothers. Since we are three, there’s always two that win a discussion. In that way, it’s pretty easy. Plus our parents try to join us as often as they can, like by buying tickets to festivals. They support us in every way.

What do you have the most agreements and disagreements about?

The most disagreements we have about what beers we are going to brew. There’s always lots of ideas. And it is actually the same what we have the most agreements about: What beers we are going to brew. We discovered that we have pretty similar palate. So our perceptions often go hand in hand.

Do you have fixed responsibilities or does everybody do everything?

In the beginning, we didn’t have an division of labor, since back in 2013, only André and I were working full time. Which was good, because we now all know every aspect of the brewery. But now, Christian is the headbrewer making recipes and also product developing, André is doing logistics and he’s responsible for making sure that everything is in stock. Then we have a guy hired, Amadeus, who is a brewer. I’m the administration guy, I do the paperwork and the finances.

You got the most glamorous job.

Yeah [laughs].

On the Beavertown Extravaganza page you wrote that André is going to that festival. How do you decide who gets to go where?

Well, we try to split the festivals among us, but if all three of us want to go to a festival, all three of us go. In the beginning we all wanted to go to that festival, but then I got invited to a wedding in Stockholm and I’m not sure why Christian cannot go.
For example to the Shelton Brothers, André and Christian went, but then the Brewski one, we all go. We get a lot of invitations to festivals and we have to say no to some. Because we have to brew beer as well.

How do you chose if you go to a festival or not?

We try to find out how the festival is, by talking to other brewers. At some of the festivals, you have to pay for a stand and you have to pay to get there – so you’ll always make a minus. Those, for obvious reasons, are not interesting.

But does that mean that you’re making a profit when you’re going to a festival?

Well, the festivals we chose are more profitable in the long term, because of the advertisement value a participation has. Or the people you meet and the collaborations that come out of that.

When you go to your webpage there’s this gigantic list of events that you’ve done. Why do you do so many events?

That’s a big part of our marketing strategy. We don’t spend any money on advertising and things like that, so the festivals, social media are basically our strategy of marketing.

How is it to have two locations?

Actually, since June we are only in one location. Up until then, we had the sour production with bacteria in another building and since December 2015 were brewing the brettanomyces and kettle sour beers in a new facility. Obviously, we didn’t want cross-contamination, so we’ve built a special room in the new building, for all the barrels and sour fermentation.

You’ve got your bacteria via an infection that happened in the old brewery that you did not try to get rid of but instead kept. How did you bring the “infection” into the new facility?

We grew the cultures via ibc totes and then moved them to the new facility and shut the door to make sure they stay in that room. And if you go in there, you have to take a shower afterwards [laughs].

Do you know how the infection happened?

We wanted to make some cool beers for Mikkeller’s CBC in 2014 and that’s where it began. But we don’t really know how it happened. Since the outcome was really good, we didn’t really care and never tried to get rid of it.
Now we are using separate machines for everything, in order to prevent it from happening again. Plus making people shower [laughs]. We didn’t do that before.

When it comes to your brett beers, do you use different strains?

It’s brettbrüx that we have used since we moved here. Our own culture is a mixed culture with lactobacteria, pediococcus and brettanomyces – that’s the one that’s now locked away in the room.

Do you have a koelship or are you planning to getting one?

We don’t. We are talking about building one. I really hope we have one in the future. We don’t know if the climate would be good. We have tried with wort around the building to see what we can get outside. So we’re still trying those. It might work.
What we did get is foeders: We got six of 32 hectoliters and one of 60 hectoliters.

By what I could figure out, since you started Brekeriet you increased your production by ten. How big is your latest increase?

From 2012 to 2015 we did 380 hectoliters, 2016 we did 1’100 hectoliters. And in 2017, we already did 1’100 hectoliters before we went on vacation in July. So we expect to have produced 2’000 hectoliters by the end of the year.

Apart from increasing your production, do the foeders allow you to do something that you were not able to do before?

Uhm, no. It actually even takes time away from experiments. So it means more beer, but less experiments. But we actually have to try to keep up the experiments to develop new products.
We actually decided to take a break from growing. Considering we sell all of our beer immediately, we could still grow. But would that be the right way to go forward? We don’t know.

If you say you’re selling everything, can you stop doing marketing?

Yeah, that’s right [laughs].

We talked about events, now, you’re also doing a lot of collaborations. Is that also part of a strategy?

Mainly because of the social thing. But also because we learn a lot by meeting and working with other brewers. All breweries have problems, but all breweries also have different solutions to these different problems. Therefore, it is very useful for us to work with other brewers.

And they are probably some of the few moments when you can still experiment.

Yes, almost always these collabos are experiments. But if we’re doing a collabo with a brewery that has done a beer that’s kind of like one that we want to make, then we try to do one of that style with them.

Is it more fun to do a collabo at your place or at their place?

It doesn’t matter, actually. Both are fun. We have a ping-pong table, so oftentimes it ends with a lot of beer drinking and playing ping-pong. It’s fun.

Ah, maybe you know the Swiss brewery BFM. They have a foosball table and Jérôme the owner is a beast when it comes to playing. So, get a foosball table and link up, like, when your ping-pong table has an infection or something.
What’s the next collabo you’re going to do?

I need to check my calendar for that: it will be during the Brewski festival week [i.e. it was in the end of August 2017 – ed.] is with Transient Brewing. They are from Bridgman, Michigan close to
Chicago. We actually met them at the Brewski festival last year, then went to Bridgman in October to do a collab at their place and now they are coming to ours.

photo of Brekeriet in their brewhouse
photo credit: Jeff Flindt

Is there something super Swedish you make everyone do when they are coming to collaborate at your place?

Firstly, we let them get a big cup of Swedish coffee. Then we always sit down and discuss the Swedish liquor monopoly Systembolaget.

How do you get all the contacts to do a collaboration?

Mainly at festivals. That’s where we meet and start discussing doing a beer together. It’s really about discussing and what we could do together; what we can offer the customers. And then of course there’s the fun aspect: if we like the people when we talk to them, it’s easier to do a collab.

I heard that Systembolaget, the government run monopoly for selling alcohol, is encouraging you to do collaborations, because that then helps them sell beer.
It’s actually the other way around: We want to do collaborations, because then it is easier for us to get on the shelves at Systembolaget. When we can do a collab with a hyped brewery, it helps. You cannot just go to Systembolaget and say: “Hey, we got this beer”. For them to pick it up, it has to have selling value; it needs to be easy to sell. Which is obviously more the case, if you do a collabo with a good brewery.

Do they want to support Swedish breweries or do they have so many options, they don’t need to?

They have so many options, they don’t need to. Sadly. They are not easy to work with. There’s a whole folder on the rules of how to work with Systembolaget.
That “bible” we got when we started our import company in 2010, to learn all the rules. It is not easy. But learning about the Swedish alcohol laws and the liquor monopoly, all the text laws for alcoholic beverages, shipping and receiving alcohol, all this administration stuff helps us now as brewers.

Do you think this government run monopoly will ever change?

I don’t think so, but I hope so. Because there has been discussions for the last twenty years and things haven’t changed.
Like, we are not allowed to sell beers to consumers at the brewery. If it’s above 3.5%, we it has to go via Systembolaget.

What benefit do you see in the system?

We now have a lot of export customers. Systembolaget is adding a little extra to our income. While it is not so critical to us, it is to other Swedish breweries who only brew for Systembolaget.

This opinion is very much “from the outside” in. But what I find striking that in the Nordic countries with a government run monopoly, Norway, Sweden, Finland, you have a much more lively bar scene. And my hypothesis is that if getting beer for home consumption is somewhat difficult, bars are more attractive to consumers.

That might be. Another thing is that you can buy alcohol in a bar when you’re eighteen. You have to be twenty to buy at Systembolaget. That could be an additional reason for why the pub or bar scene is as big as it is.

After Canada, Sweden is the country the US exports to the most beer. How did that happen?

I don’t know [laughs]. Maybe because the local brewing scene has only really started within the last five to six years. When we started in 2012, there were 50 microbreweries. Today there are 300 in Sweden. In the same period, there’s been more non-lager produced. So it could be that the homogeneous beer scene before has created a demand that was satisfied with importing from the US.
Now the result is that as a Swedish brewery, we are competing with the best breweries in the world for the attention of Swedes. So the result is that Swedish brewers always want to brew better beers.

Is there a beer style that’s endogenous to Sweden?

No, not really. There’s svagdricka, but that’s not a beerstyle. It is a malt drink that’s either alcohol free or low ABV.
Traditionally, people drink lager and porter. Gothenburg is a porter town. Stockholm is a lager town. Malmö is a Danish lager town.

What’s gearing up to be a sour beer town?

Hopefully there will be one [laughs]. But I don’t think so. But the demand is increasing. Maybe Landskrona.

The cost of things is usually cheaper abroad that in Switzerland. But we consider beer in Sweden to be very expensive. That makes me wonder how Swedish people can afford it.

It is very expensive because of the taxes, of course – we are one of the countries with the highest taxes. On top of that, if you compare to Denmark, Swedish salaries are lower. So how we can afford it? I don’t know.
But it’s changing: Over the last few years, people are buying less and drinking less, while putting more money into the special beers, rather than shitty lagers.

Your label artwork: In a way it’s both simplistic and colorful and distinct.

They are done by Tobias, a guy in Stockholm. Some of them are pre-printed with the specials and then we can print ourselves the name of the beer.

Many names of your beers are in English. Would it be harder to sell them on the export market if they were not in English?

No, I don’t think so. When we did the specials in the old place, we had Spanish, Italian, Icelandic and French names, with some Swedish names mixed in. Plus we did a Christmas beer with brettanomyces that we called Brettlehem and one Rhuboise, so that’s not really any language. We have a beer called Inte Bara Java or “Not Only Coffee”, which is a coffee sour. As you see, it’s a mix of everything.

Why then so multi-lingual?

That has to do with our kind of humor.

Apparently, the name Brekeriet also has some humor and you tried to explain it before – to mixed results. So here’s your second chance.

[laughs] We are three brothers. That’s “Br”. Our last name is “Ek”. The brewery in Swedish is “bryggeriet”. So Br + Ek + eriet.

Did you discuss other names too, or was this the one from the beginning?

We wanted to have it “Brek”, but there’s a chocolate in Sweden named “Break”, which prevented us from using Brek.

We talked about events before and you are also doing beer and food pairing events: Are your beers particularly suited to be paired with food?

The fine dining scene in Sweden found out pretty early that our beers are easy to pair with food. Both me and André formerly worked as sound engineers and one of my gigs was at a cooking show. So when the brewery was already going and I was still working as a sound engineer, I brought the chefs in that show some of our beers and this got us the attention from fine dining restaurants.

Does selling to restaurants also go through the monopoly?

No, we are allowed to sell directly to both pubs and restaurants as soon as they can show us they have the permission to serve.

Why did you go sour? Was it to avoid competition?

No. We did brettanomyces beers first. That was because a beer we imported got infected with brett. But we loved it so much. And it actually got a prize at the Beer & Whiskey festival in Stockholm as the best Belgium ale that year. That led to Christian experimenting with brettanomyces. Back then we were the only ones in Sweden, fermenting with brettanomyces. After that we started experimenting with bacteria, both lactobacteria and pediococcus. So we became the only brewery in Sweden fermenting with brett and bacteria. And once we started doing the bacteria thing, this opened up bigger markets for exporting.
Now, there are some small breweries in Sweden that do the same that we do. But as with other brewers abroad, we don’t feel like it’s a competition. We try to help each other, to work out problems, as I said before.

So what’s the split of export and domestic sales?

We sell thirty percent in Sweden – this goes to pubs, restaurants and Systembolaget. The rest we export. And you can check on our website, which countries we export to.
We are only four at the brewery, but it takes more than four people to run everything at the brewery. We could easily do with one or two more people to brew, bottle and keg more. Therefore we try to outsource a lot of the work, like financial declaration. Plus we have a Swedish distributor who packs almost everything we do and then sells it to our accounts domestically and abroad. So sometimes we didn’t even know where our beers went to. Now, before we take on an account ourselves, we ask them if they already have one in that country.

Now, to our final question: Five beers people should drink before they die.

The Brekeriet Barrique Rouge.
Cantillon Vigneronne.

You can also say why we should drink these beers.

Okay. No. [laughs]
The 7th Sun/Brekeriet Sura Vindruvor. It’s a Saison with grapes in the secondary fermentation.

I start to see a theme here.

Yeah, see! But here’s a different kind of beer: Amager Hr. Frederiksen. Niepoort Edition.
Last one: Brekeriet Blondette.

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