Landing in Stockholm, Akkurat was already on my radar thanks to the incredible beer geeks over at the Beer Sweden Forum. They gave me a hell of a punchlist for my visit, and Akkurat was always at the top. But it took me two visits to complete the experience. Because as you’ll see, the bar itself is just the tip of the iceberg.
My first visit was more of a fly-by. It was a beautiful afternoon, getting chilly, and we had time for a couple beers before meeting up with some friends elsewhere. Located at the northern tip of the Södermalm neighborhood (its own island) Akkurat is an incredibly convenient place to get to from anywhere in central Stockholm. You can train to the Slussen stop, stroll through Gamla Stan (Old Town) or take a ferry from one of the other islands.
Akkurat makes an instant impression with it’s vast array of taps and menu boards featuring obscure Belgians and Danish imports, English ales and American crafts. But the real excitement here is the Swedish micros. Perhaps the best in the city. I was just digging in to the many Swedish micro breweries, and Akkurat provided a broad selection for some quick exposure. Everything from Oppigårds to Nynäshamns to Nils Oscar — all of which would prove to be excellent examples of the Swedish micro/craft movement.
Without much to go on, I opted for the Nynäshamns Indian Viken Pale Ale. What the hell, it sonded like “Viking” and I was stabbing in the dark here. Besides, a pale ale is a great way to gauge a brewery’s ability to balance bitterness and aromatics. But having been around for over 15 years already, there was no way Nynäshamns was going to disappoint. It had a complex gold and amber color depending on the slant of light, with an expected bright hop aroma, but with an underlying spice profile that was tough to place. Initial pale flavor profiles are quite sharp with some subtler peach and citrus notes, but the finish is sweeter with a caramel or toffee aftertaste and some big sugar crystal mouthfeel. Nynäshamns was instantly a marker for me. In my subsequent visits to the System Bologet, I would grab multiple bottles of their other brews and each impressed.
Next I opted for a draft of Bedarö Bitter, Nynäshamns first and perhaps most common beer. While easy to mistake for a traditional English style bitter, Bedarö more subtle fruit notes emerge into a nicely complex brew with a good malt backbone and a little spice kick. The herbal, almost medicinal bitterness builds with every sip. This beer was an instant favorite.
On my second visit, I came better informed. Akkurat is a sister bar to Oliver Twist (post coming soon), which is a more focused, American craft import bar also in Södermalm. Both bars collaborate with Nynäshamns and get special access to some of their rarest brews. As I pointed out in my last post about Pang Pang brewery, there’s no distributor between producers and the premises the beer’s sold at. It’s one hell of a privilege. On this visit, I came looking for the beer cellar menu.
Another brewery that Akkurat has a special relationship with is Närke Kulturbryggeri far west of Stockholm in Örebro. There, Närke makes the storied Stormaktsporter, one of the greatest beers in the world. Only a few hundred barrels are made each year, making it one of the hardest beers to find. Of course, Akkurat is your best shot in Sweden. In 2010, Akkurat celebrated their 15th anniversary by brewing a special collaboration version of Närke Stormaktsporter called the Konjaks! aged in oak for 10 months, 5 of the months in Cognac barrels.
At $40 for a 10oz bottle, Konjaks! was on the level of a Three Floyds Dark Lord or Deschutes Abyss, even a Goose Island Bourbon County Stout in terms of quality and general intent, but the rarity pushes the price very high. The Konjaks! combines an astoundingly smooth roastiness with the licorice and liqueur finish with a tiny bit of smoke. It warmed like a port wine, and drank almost as thick. Like the bottle, the beer is jet black with no light penetration. There’s no rubiness, no tans, just endless black.
After seeing a bottle menu with the likes of Westvleteren 12 (at least 6 year’s worth) and many rare American beers from the likes of Hair of the Dog and Stone Brewing, I cajoled my way into a beer cellar visit. After some muttering between the bartenders and a few looks to size me up, me and my bartender guide headed 5 stories down to sea level with my Konjaks! and camera in hand.
What you’re about to see is my ham-handed attempt at capturing the immensity and density of the most amazing beer cellar I’ve ever laid eyes on. There were two rooms, a smaller one full of Belgians primarily, including trays of Westvleteren, Chimays and Magnums of Duvels. At this point I was already in awe. While many of Sweden’s younger craft beer crowd seems to be much more interested in American-style innovation, clearly much of Sweden’s long-time beer aficionados still have a heart for Belgians. This makes for a diverse beer geek crowd.
The second, larger room featured temperature regulated cabinets that lines the entire wall on both sides, as well as a smaller cave-like room where some of the oldest and rarest were stored. For about 30 minutes, I was dizzy with beer bottles, astonished at every stock I saw. Some of these beers were 10+ years old, or in the case of many of the American brews, as old as the breweries themselves.
Now, I leave you to browse the shelves as best I can re-create in photographs. But nothing can quite compare to standing in front of these shelves and digging through the bottles. Each label I turned around to view was like seeing a ghost of great beers past. Enjoy!
I got to do something very special this month, and it was worth the 45 minute drive from my apartment in Ravenswood Chicago to the sleepy suburb of Naperville, IL at 8am on a Sunday — I swear. I got to document the first weekend of beer making at Solemn Oath Brewery, poised to be one of Chicago’s next great microbrew destinations. And I don’t say that lightly.
Owners John and Joe Barley are quietly plugging away alongside head brewer Tim Marshall, of Rock Bottom, Lombard lore. They’ve been gutting and building out a former auto-body shop in a remote light-industrial park a little ways of interstate 88 west of Chicago. This immense and raw space is inspiring — a bit like a fortress of solitude — for the young crew setting out to do something special in craft beer for Illinois.
My first run-in with Tim’s special talents was at the Festival of Barrel Aged Beer in Chicago a few years back. I remember being surprised to see Rock Bottom so well represented at such a competitive event, and even more surprised when Tim and co. started cleaning up in the award ceremony. Experimental beers like Clusterfunk! and Pritchard #4 were personal favorites.
Tim is bringing his barrel aging experience to Solemn Oath, and plans to fill every space he gets — a couple of whiskeys to start. And while he’ll branch out immediately in terms of style, there’s a big gap in Belgo-Americans they plan to fill from a Midwestern perspective, blending the funk of Belgian yeast strains with an American approach to hops, grains and alternative ingredient exploration.
Despite its relative distance from Chicago and its fortress-like quality, Solemn won’t remain in solitude for long. In the next month or so, we’ll start seeing Solemn Oath beers declaring themselves during Chicago Craft Beer Week. Their official arrival party is at Bavarian Lodge on May 18th and at Standard Market in Westmont on May 25th. The opening of the taproom is scheduled for May 19th, right in the middle of it all.
Juxtaposing the sprawling, busy atmosphere of the brewery, the taproom is intimate — room for a couple dozen people — and it opens onto the brewery on one side and the parking lot on the other to create a sprawling, unconstrained sense of space. With a special liquor license they worked to get from the village of Naperville, visitors will be able to drink up to three beers and get a growler to go.
There are a lot of people that get into craft beer for the aesthetics, and in addition to their brewing chops, it’s clear that branding, interior design and the architecture of Solemn Oath is a passion for these guys. Furnishing the tap room will be Greta deParry’s incredible woodwork and furniture, with a solid piece of hard wood for the bar and her now-famous stools made from concrete and bent metal. Mixed with the steel tanks, raw concrete walls and epoxy painted floor, the entire visual fades into a magical sort of grey-blue gleam.
The logo, by Los Angeles designer Greg Favro, is a heavy gothic typeface paired with a delicate wave of grain that references the medieval days where both solemnity and oaths had a less-than-ironic place in our society. Scrawled across the brewing floor is the phrase “Aut inveniam viam aut faciam” — Latin for “I will either find a way, or make one” — in an equally serious, but more elegant typeface. And the label art balances the desire for intricate visual storytelling with the commercial need to be clear and to-the-point when it comes to beer. The graphic artist, Jourdon Gullett, has already created a half dozen labels that tie together nicely with symbolic themes and a style somewhere between the wood-cut nature of New Glarus, the colorful spirit and dark lines of Rogue and energy and hard-wrought, graphic style of Three Floyds.
Aesthetics and beer are either critical, or uncomfortable bedfellows for many people in the industry. Andrew Wright, an illustrator and designer in Chicago, and a reader of Good Beer Hunting, recently emailed me with this very tension in mind:
It strikes me as odd that the beer world takes so much time and pride in producing top quality products yet consistently neglect the way it looks. I may not be searching in the right places and I know there are exceptions. Brooklyn using Milton Glaser, for instance, tells me that they understand the power of aesthetics. I know good design isn’t supposed to be noticed but I do believe that there is a way to appreciate it while still having it function.
As someone who clearly has a passion for the aesthetics of craft beer, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen plenty of brewers that neglect or reject aesthetics in the name of authenticity, purporting that to provide an aesthetic experience is to distract from the beer. To their point, there have certainly been examples of start-up breweries that overemphasize branding and treating their beer like a widget they can slap cool graphics on or connect with a subculture to get credibility. These will be weeded out, but like weeds, they will keep coming back. None of that should distract from a true brewer’s desire to consider the entire experience of their product, from tank to taproom, tap to bottle.
And for places like Solemn Oath, the instinct to align a great beer experience with a special aesthetic experience seems completely natural and honest. Craft beer resonates with the local small-town beer drinker looking for honesty in his beer. It also connects with urbanites longing for the localvore lifestyle and the still-growing maker movement. Both of these audiences have a picture in their minds of what drinking a beer should look and feel like. And while I respect that not every beer maker is capable of, or interested in, providing their point of view on what they think that beer drinking experience should be like, I’m a huge fan of those who are. Because when you make a beer, you bring a living, breathing element into this world (quite literally) and if you can make that world a more beautiful place for that beer to be, then you’re really on to something.
Special thanks to Paul Schneider of Chitownontap.com (on the right in the first image) who will be working at the brewery this summer. His early interview with the boys of Solemn Oath was published in The Chicagoist.
Beer geeks talk. And beer geeks share. Every once in awhile, you realize that you and a few close friends end up with a serious score all at the same time — and a home tasting is almost mandatory.
This month, my friend Kunal got ahold of a couple bottles of Founder’s Kentucky Bourbon Stout. No, he didn’t sleep in a tent overnight in Grand Rapids to get it — he’s a patient hunter. He just kept checking the traps at his local six-packs in River North, Chicago until one of them was full.
And Doug, the master of the beer cellar I visit from time to time, and who pulled together the lion’s share of the Abyss 5-year vertical we put on last December, got ahold of a Goose Island King Henry he was dying to open.
Speaking of Abyss — I contributed a 2011 from my recent visit to Deschutes Brewpub in Portland, OR. And to break it up, we sourced a Three Floyds Zombie Dust (now in wide circulation) and a Hair of the Dog Blue Dot also from my Portland hunt.
Kentucky Breakfast Stout — A strong stout with vanilla and coffee flavors that mellow out beautifully as it warms, making it perfect for a small pour. Solid bourbon notes come through, but don’t make it boozy. Flavors are clear and bright — this beer has an incredible constitution.
Abyss — This stout is always amazing. When it’s relatively ”fresh” the cocoa nib, fruit and vanilla come through. This beer is aged in both oak and bourbon barrels, then mixed before bottling. The result is a particularly nuanced barrel profile with bourbon and charred oak flavors. The older it gets, the boozier it gets and the dark fruit flavors become more pronounced. For now, it’s more honest, less mysterious.
King Henry — The newest of these big beers, King Henry is a barleywine aged in barrels previously used to age Bourbon County Rare Stout (23-year-old Pappy Van Winkel barrels). Some great raisin, vanilla and almost coconut flavors in this one, but with that signature barleywine brightness and some light brown sugar. It was more subtle and surprising than any barleywine I’ve had to date.
Blue Dot — Hair of the Dog’s Imperial IPA. An incredible hop profile — all big and bitter, but mellow with organic pilsner and rye malts that provide a great balance. This does a great job of stripping your palate and opening you up to every note that passes. Beautiful lemon meringue color.
Zombie Dust — Go get some. The Chicago area is covered with this new Pale Ale from Three Floyds right now. Dark gold color, sharp bitterness and a sweet, refreshing finish. Dare I say sessionable?