A natural craving for organic
During the first half of 2014, sales of organic products in Sweden increased on average by 30 percent – and this trend is expected to continue. For many Swedish producers and farmers, this is no surprise.
In fact, at this year’s Nordic Organic Food Fair, a trade-only event hosted in Malmö on October 26-27, twenty-six Swedish companies was present. Among them was baked goods company, Solmarka Bageri. Since the early 1980s – before Sweden’s organic certification, KRAV, came into being – Solmarka has been making biodynamic breads.
In Sweden the company sells seven different breads made from stone-ground flour and levaine, but their biggest sellers abroad are their small, hard biscuits called skorpor and crispbreads – one with sesame and one with flax. In addition to being biodynamic, Solmarka also uses ancient grains like emmer, spelt and Öland wheat.
When asked why it was important to be organic, Solmarka’s Anne-Marie Gjöl Hultberg said, “For us, it was a natural choice. I have always wanted to eat organic food as much as possible – because it’s good for the earth, for myself and for my children. As an organic company, we are also doing it for consumers – because people should have access to the cleanest products possible.”
Nothing cheesy about it
Many other Swedish companies who have gone organic are making an international impact by winning awards. In 2012, Swedish dairy Almnäs Bruk submitted their aged cheese, Anno 1225, to the World Cheese Awards in Birmingham, and came home with the gold. This year their brick cheese was featured in Culture, one of the U.S. cheese industry’s most important publications.
Like Solmarka, Almnäs Bruk has been organic for a long time, about fifteen years, and for owner Thomas Berglund, the choice to go organic was a business decision.
“When I came back to my family farm in 1987, I could not understand how my father had spent so much money and energy and capital and have so little profit. At that time we were producing bulk commodities – and we went on a track to get away from that. Today, from an ethical and sustainable point of view, we cannot imagine doing it any other way – but we originally chose to become organic because, frankly, it paid better.”
Berglund notes that the organic movement is hitting another critical threshold. “On the river to greater consumption of organic goods, there are many damns. Things stand still for a while and then there are enough reports and discussion to trigger a flood big enough to overflow the damn.” Right now, he says, this threshold is taking the form of cumulative consumer buying power.
For Almnäs Bruk, this threshold is massive. “We’re noticing a large increase both domestically and abroad. But we’re behind. We could produce a lot more, but our storage capacity is not unlimited and we can’t increase production unless we sell.”
As businessman and a farmer, Berglund is facing the coming challenges tactically, but he’s also a craftsman who takes pride in his work. ”The biggest thrill for me is knowing that people enjoy our cheese. Every time I hear from someone in Vienna or California who is eating and enjoying it, it’s the ultimate affirmation that we are doing the right thing.”
It pays to be devilishly good
If you’re going to make a product as Bacchanalian as alcohol, you might as well do it as virtuously as possible, right? Or so many of Sweden’s new spirits companies are reasoning. One example is aptly named Virtuous Spirits.
Ten years ago Virtuous Vodka’s founder and former chef, Claes Stenmark, noticed that most flavored alcohol tasted artificial – so he began playing with flavoring his own alcohol. Two years ago he landed on a method of working with the raw ingredients and the alcohol that he believes yields better flavor. He enlisted the help of his brother-in-law, Mario Löfendolk, and together they successfully pulled off one of Northern Europe’s first crowd-sourcing campaigns.
“The idea all along was to do everything according to this‘virtuous’ method so that the end result is pure and genuine, and always authentic,” says Virtuous Vodka’s Johan Ranstam. “The method affects everything from production to marketing and how we do taxes. For us, an organic product was the minimum requirement. Our standards are higher than that.”
But even for a virtuous company, getting a spot on shelves in Sweden is tricky. Sweden’s state-run liquor monopoly has a distribution system that requires a newcomer to sell four times as much volume as the existing players in order to get a regular spot. Still, Virtuous Vodka made it past the first hurdle and their products are available in 66 stores. Perhaps more interesting, though, is their success outside Sweden. Virtuous Vodka is now sold at more than 100 bars in Sweden and they have distributors in five other countries.
“We now have distributors in Denmark, Holland, the Czech Republic, Spain and a promising start-up in Australia. The next challenge related to being a small company is we have all these opportunities in new markets but not enough resources to drive sales there.”
Want to support vodka made virtuously? Check out Virtuous Vodka’s next crowd-funding campaign
Spirit of Hven is another organic Swedish spirits company that’s been making headlines. The company’s award-winning gins and whiskeys, using only organic grains, fresh herbs and lemon peel, are sold at some of the world’s best restaurants – like Noma and Restaurant Frantzén. Sales and marketing manager Marcus Christensson says that while they know that their customers are interested in an organic product, the decision to work with organic ingredients was driven by personal values.
“For us, it was simply logical to be organic,” says Christensson. “Whiskey production takes a long time. Some of our whiskey won’t be ready for another 20 years, and in 20 years I think everything is going to be organic. So by working with organic ingredients, we are looking ahead. We’re working toward a sustainable future.”
Spirit of Hven is a family-owned company whose distillery is located on a picturesque island off the coast of southern Sweden. Along with a hotel and conference facility, they have a laboratory where Master Distiller Henric Molin offers tastings and classes.
While the aforementioned organic Swedish products are available for export, some must be experienced in person. In Sweden, it is becoming more and more possible to travel and eat organic at the same time. Businesses like Solmarka often also have farm shops and a few places around the country have an international reputation as ecological destinations. The first and perhaps most famous of these is Ängavallen, where for more than 40 years Rolf Axel Nordström and his family have been raising pigs and cows according to ancient methods of animal husbandry. The farm has a store, a hotel, and a restaurant where everything you eat is organic and only the wines and champagne are imported.
The trend that Ängavallen started can also be found elsewhere in Sweden, like on the island of Gotland. In 2013 the restaurant at Lilla Bjers farm won the White Guide’s award for Sustainable Gastronomy and in 2014 their young chef, Luqaz Ottosson, took home the award for Ecological Chef of the Year. Everything served at Lilla Bjers is organic, and much of it is grown right on the farm or procured from the neighbors.
Today many restaurants in Sweden have packed their menus with organic ingredients – even if they aren’t yet 100%. At Fotografiska, Stockholm’s photography museum, Chef Paul Svensson’s says, “It’s important to me to be organic, but also for our patrons and for the new generation.”
Svensson believes we need to make organic the standard so that the discussion moves from organic ingredients to quality ingredients. “Organic is the bottom line for the future, because if we don’t use it there won’t be future.” Consumers hold the keys to this future, he says, “We have to get consumers to value organic food to the extent that it dictates where and what they eat.”
Fotografiska is one place where locals and visitors alike can make organic a priority. Svensson’s fall menu is composed of between 80-90 percent organic ingredients. “This will become increasingly difficult as winter sets in – by November that statistic will probably fall down to 30 percent,” but he adds, laughing, “but that just means we will have to get more creative!”