"They truly fucked it all up. Those ludicrous and ignorant fools." These sentences kept pounding in my head as I inspected the room in front of me. I was at Ölhallen 7:an, a small bar in the centre of Sweden's second city Gothenburg.
It was a Saturday afternoon in the beginning of October and the sun was shining. A careless atmosphere filled the bar and the terrace outside. It was obvious and understood; this day was made for living and laughing, far away from everyday obligations and work. This light-hearted attitude was well reflected in the spirit of the house and I suspect that this had something to do with the many beers being handed over the bar counter. It was in many ways the ideal setting, a beautiful and happy afternoon. As I wetted my lips with another lager and looked around the crowd, I was however not convinced. Maybe it was the one too many of the ridiculous groups of stag partyers out humiliating the (un)lucky ones. Maybe was it the crowd-pleasing but totally misplaced bottles of Coronas that should never had found its way to an old-fashioned beer café at these northern latitudes. It was most definitely the fact that this bar had become something so far away from what it once was; from the very local, modest working man's refuge in the early 1900s to the rootless experience destination of today's postmodern role play.
Most honestly, Ölhallen 7:an had a couple of flaws that needed to be reconciled with. That I can not beat around the bush. The cynical mainstream had drove this historic bar into the faceless river of inner-city decadence and left this anal bar-fanatic with a somewhat bitter taste in his mouth. But as much as I mourned the passing of the real, as much was I aware of the immense importance of this bar. 7:an, as it is popularly called because of its street number on the central market square Kungstorget, is a unique Swedish cultural phenomenon. There is nothing else like it and neither will there ever be. It is the last trace of a bygone era but also the only survivor of a cultural genocide like no other. Welcome to Sweden, a nanny-state nightmare.
Once again; a bunch of ignorant fools. They really killed it. Like a thirsty mosquito the Swedish government nearly sucked out everything of cultural-historical value when it comes to anything close to a worthy “trad-bar”-culture. This may sound as a historical parenthesis or as an obscure accusation but it is really the matter of how a governing state has systematically controlled and suppressed the idea of social space for the common man. Of an otherwise celebrated success story, the one where one of Europe's poorest countries became one of the most prosperous societies on earth, this is not something to be proud of. This is the backside of things. And even though there still exists a whiggish propaganda machine trying to tell this story in the light of reason and social care, a closer look at the subject reveals a sad and depressing reality. Both for those people affected by it during the time it went down but also for the following generations who will always be robbed on an irreplaceable cultural heritage.
To understand this mess, one needs to look into the history of modern Sweden. A reasonable time to start would be the second half of the 19th century. This is when the first wrong-doings on this matter was made. Between 1850 and 1900 every second drinking establishment closed down in the Swedish cities and as much as ninety percent of the countryside taverns disappeared as the emerging modern state apparatus started to regulate peoples drinking habits more and more. Life around the tavern was perceived as dangerous and as an arena for socially destructive activities and together with the increasing political influence of the temperance movement, these old meeting points were finally inhibited and put to sleep.
As much as I can grieve the eradication of these historic places, I am not mulishly bitter about this course of events. This was after all another time when many other social injustices should be seen as more alarming. The denial of every man and woman's right to vote, to name a crucial one. Also, even though many historians may have exaggerated the critical alcohol consumption during this time, it is still nothing of a surprise that there was a widespread drinking problem among many poor people in this country. Swedish people went absolutely berserk with the bottle and there was probably a social need to do something about that. But how the Swedish government did it? There is no excuse for that. In connection with the democratic breakthrough a governmental "reform" called the “Bratt”-system was being accepted which would affect this society until this day. The main idea behind this lunacy was that the state should control and distribute the alcohol market in Sweden as the people was not regarded as capable to decide how they wanted to spend their own miserable time or buck in this life. Hence, all purchase of alcohol was confined to state-owned shops where individuals were being limited to naive rations of alcohol and where they were documented and discriminated due to their class, gender or other questionable categorisations.
No matter the totalitarian features of this politics and the opportunistic and economic gains that this monopoly meant, this would lead to many sad consequences for the common man (and more severely for the woman) as he wanted to treat himself at a bar. Even though the state didn't take control of all bar- and restaurant businesses, tough limitations and absurd rules complicated a lot for both owners and customers. You could only have a certain amount of drinks at a specific bar, you could not order alcohol without food and at the state-owned establishments they even went so far that they saw off the backrest on the chairs so that the guests wouldn't want to stay at the premises for too long. To say the least, this was all a deliberate way of controlling and marginalising peoples social spontaneity and it became devastating in the way that it created an underrepresented and unexciting Swedish restaurant climate. Even though the period of this mad system (1919-1955) was a time of urbanisation and welfare progress, these restrictions meant a decline of restaurants and bars, just like the regulations of the old taverns had done decades before.
When this bureaucratic and irrational system was demolished in the fifties one might believe that things were to brighten up. Not at all. Even though the rations of limited drinking disappeared and a more open business climate gradually emerged, the state continued to interfere with the Swedish bar trade. Quite ironically, after years of a backward alcohol policy, it was the modern and progressive society that was to put the last dagger shot and first and foremost it was the simple drinking dens of the working class that was to take the biggest blow. Absorbed by the vision of creating a new, social-democratic utopia, the sixties and the seventies witnessed a society that wasn't too keen on looking back at the past and a presumptuous extermination of old and traditional inner-city neighbourhoods swept around the Swedish cities. This hubris of radical functionalism was disastrous for many of the small beer cafés like Ölhallen 7:an because many of them were situated in these soon-to-be demolished areas. Also, as liberal reforms about drinking licenses were actually made during the sixties, the old and small beer cafés received another treatment than the newer establishments of the time. The old beer cafés were in many cases actually held back by the authorities who often chose not to renew their licenses. In a time when consuming patterns was already changing a lot, this maltreatment was too much of a blow for these places. They eventually died out, becoming nothing more than memories of another time.
The loss of the blue-collar bar legacy in Sweden gets annoyingly visible when visiting our southern neighbour, Denmark. During the same time as Swedish politicians enforced the fatal monopoly one hundred years ago, the Danish government chose to go a different way. Denmark was as well plagued by a pathological overuse of alcohol (some says it was even more widespread there than in Sweden) but instead of making a manic attempt in controlling people's personal business and in the long run also violating their human integrity, they simply raised the taxes for hard liquor ten times. It was the hard drinks that were the main issue and by disabling the consumption of these spirits, people started to consume lighter drinks like beer and wine. Today, Denmark has a relaxed alcohol culture that many Swedes tend to envy and a much greater heritage when it comes to old, charming and historical bars. When spending my time at the old bodegas of Copenhagen I sometimes fantasise about how things could have been in my own country if the wind of change had blown another way. Too often I also find myself muttering over photographs of the old Swedish beer cafés, bitterly realising how similar these cousins could have been and how great it would have been to get to know both of them.
It is also with this luggage that I face Ölhallen 7:an. It is truly the last Mohican considering that all other bars of this kind has either disappeared or been transformed into something that they were not from the beginning. But 7:an stands strong, still unwilling to surrender. When it opened back in 1900 it was surrounded by fourteen other beerhalls and four taverns that served stronger drinks around the square. Ölhallen 7:an is the only surviving establishment of all these. In many ways this deserves a fair share of respect. It certainly makes me think twice before discarding it because of some of the flaws that it has gathered in recent days. And even though it is one way a sad monument of something that is lost, it is still an beautiful reminder of a denied generation that never had the chance to grow up. It is truly the last Swedish beer café.
Drinks? When the restaurant reviewer of newspaper Metro, Carl Reinholdzon Belfrage, criticised what he regarded as a "miserable assortment of drinks" at 7:an a couple of years ago, this was not being well received by a whole lot of people caring for this bar. Interesting polemics I might say, as the mainstream "big supplier" beer assortment of 7:an is not a great sight to behold, even less a memorable thing to to pour into one's throat. But neither would I agree in what I suspect Reinholdzon Belfrage would suggest; that is to say a big, modern but still subtile array of cool and edgy microbreweries. In my world, that is not the way to honour a trad-place like this. For years, this was a house of simple and no-fuzz pilsner which was largely consumed by old, industrial workers who would probably have fainted of a panic attack if they saw the selection of choice being offered today. During the hey-day there was only one, or top two domestic beer brands being offered at these kind of places. In some kind of nostalgic backwardness, I wouldn't mind if that was still the case. So when coming here, I opt for an untrendy Swedish cold one that is light and washy and doesn't taste a damn thing. That is my homage.
Munch? This is interesting. 7:an is the only bar in Sweden that doesn't have to serve food in order to sell alcohol. How this is possible I cannot understand, not in my wildest dreams. And trust me, I have dreamed about this scenario many times. Surprisingly, somewhere at the regional licence authority there must have been some decent and humane people calling the shots on this matter as this bar would never be able to provide the requirements that modern restaurant kitchens needs to fulfil.
Where? Kungstorget 7, 411 17, Gothenburg, Sweden.
I'm always on the lookout for for more bars to enjoy and write about. Do you know about an interesting place in your city or elsewhere, let me know and maybe I'll stop by!