’If you want to compete with the big brands – your beer should taste and look as good as theirs'

Stefan Slätt owns a craft brewery located on Värmdö island near Stockholm, Sweden. His path into the craft brewing business began when he decided to quit his job as a financial analyst and start a local microbrewery. Since then, Värmdö Brewery’s beer has become an absolute favorite among the locals on the island of Värmdö just outside of Stockholm as well as in many other parts of Sweden. Stefan reveals in his interview to Alfa Laval what it takes to run a successful brewery and how a beer centrifuge helps him succeed.

DATE 2019-11-05 AUTHOR Elena Krivovyaz

Interview with a brewer

We were lucky to start up before the craft beer market got crowded.’

Värmdö Bryggeri, also known as Värmdö Brewery, differs from other microbreweries because we focus on pale lagers. Other microbrewery owners, many who were homebrewers, are mostly interested in pale ales and more hoppy IPAs. But we wanted to dedicate ourselves to the beer that most consumers drink. We make other types of beer, but our core beer is pale lager. Around 93% of all beer consumed is pale lager. So why should we brew anything else?

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Before Värmdö Bryggeri, I worked at a bank with investments in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It was no fun to just sit at a desk and stare at Excel sheets all day. Now I still have to deal with Excel sheets, but the brewery involves a lot of crafting and creating, which is much more fun.

It all started when chatting with a friend I grew up with while we were having a beer in the sauna. We both wanted to do something new. Opening a brewery was one of the options. The idea gelled, and we got so excited and decided: ‘It’s time!’

Around 93% of all beer that is consumed is pale lager. So why should we brew anything else?

We bought a small 20-litre Braumeister machine and decided on the ingredients, type of water, hops, malt and so on that we would use. A year later, we met friends by chance who own a brewery nearby, making mostly whisky and cider. There was space available in the same building they were in, so we looked at it. The owner liked our business idea and became a shareholder in our business. So the three of us established the brewery in 2012. The space was much larger than we initially needed. We thought we’d start small and maybe brew once a week. But we ended up kickstarting the business and launched the brewery much faster because our landlord became our partner. Plus we were lucky to start up before the craft beer market got crowded.

‘We never doubted that we would succeed…’

Once we started brewing beer, we reached out to the consumers who like pale lagers and got positive feedback. Värmdö is spectacular, close to Stockholm, set in the inner archipelago with tiny islands scattered in the sea. The local water is tasty and perfect for pale lager. Every summer, people flock to Värmdö for the holidays. They look for and buy local products — meat and apple cider from Värmdö farmers and beer from Värmdö Bryggeri. This gave us a big kickstart. All we had to do was visit some local bars, restaurants and stores with our beer bottles and the beer sold itself. Competition is much tougher these days. And besides, no venue sells our beer exclusively. Usually there’s a contract with big commercial breweries and, due to high demand, venues complement these with our local craft beer and organic beer. Interest in local craft beer and organic beer emerged years ago and keeps growing.

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 Shortly after we launched our beer, one of the biggest Swedish supermarket chains asked us: “Can you produce a low-alcohol beer for us?” We agreed and started selling our beer in their supermarkets. After that, another large grocery chain asked us to do the same for them, and our business took off. That was very profitable time for us. Now we spend more time promoting and marketing our brews. We go to restaurants, organize beer tastings, educate restaurant owners and their staff on how to pair food with beer. We demonstrate how a beer can taste different, depending on what’s on your plate. Pizza with rucola, for instance, doesn’t go well with an IPA. It’s bitter plus bitter, which gives you a double bitter taste! But if you combine that same pizza with a pale lager or a wheat beer, the tastes complement instead of competing against each other. We know a lot about beer and food, so we’re a fun, knowledgeable partner, not just a local microbrewery.

It’s not only wine that attracts attention, beer’s turn has come too.

We never doubted our success. We were determined, fearless and just went ahead and did things.  We got scared once, when four huge containers with stainless steel fermentation tanks and brewery machines arrived. But we plowed ahead and became very successful for newcomers. Consumers and potential partners liked our beer. There was obviously a demand for craft pale lager. But we struggled to meet demand, to achieve product with the same high quality and consistency. To move forward, we had to make wise investments. First, we wanted to increase capacity and output, and second, to achieve high quality and maintain the same high-quality level.

Sediment on the bottom of the bottles was an issue then. Our beer was fresh, unpasteurized and unfiltered, which can be charming. Customers could really see that our beer was hand-crafted. But the people we were targeting were those who drink the beer of the commercial giants, which is usually crystal clear. To compete against these breweries in bars and restaurants, our beer has to look and taste as good — or better. And no yeast should be at the bottom of the bottle.

If a customer comes to us with a complaint, we are happy. You need to learn from your mistakes…

We researched different filtration solutions. Kieselgur felt a bit old-fashioned. The other alternatives didn’t impress us either. Then we discovered the separator. We visited some breweries using separators and looked at some second-hand options. We even traveled to the big German exhibition, BrauBeviale. There we understood that we needed a separator and chose the Alfa Laval Brew 80 because it matched our capacity requirements of up to 50 hectolitres an hour.

‘With the separator, we get the same quality in every batch.’

We bought our separator in December 2018 and have been using it for almost a year now. Installation only took a day. A week later, we were operating it without any help from Alfa Laval. It’s running well so far. The only issue was a button on the display that got loose, but we managed to fix it ourselves after calling Alfa Laval service guys for support. We need to follow our hygienic routines and do a checkup every six months. We run the centrifuge once or twice a week, which is not so often, but we produce beer four to five days a week depending on what we have in our fermentation tanks. If we have something ready to separate, we run the centrifuge. If the fermentation tank is full, then it’s time to brew. Once we have filled two bright beer tanks, we tap. There’s always something happening here. The separator operates quickly and efficiently so we can make two batches a day.

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Many brewers think that investing in a separator has to do with the type of beer you want to produce. But that’s not true. You can get a clear pale lager using other methods too. But for us buying a centrifuge was the right decision. We never regretted it. We can still make hazy beer and make beer that’s crystal clear too.

The main drawback of the traditional beer-making is product losses. Before investing in a centrifuge, we lost around 250 litres of beer in every batch.  With the centrifuge, we’ve cut these losses to 100 litres, so we get out 1900 litres of beer out of our 2000-litre beer tank. In other words, our yield has increased by 8%. That’s fantastic! And the product that we get out of the fermentation tank has the same quality and consistency. Before we got the separator, we were tapping directly from the fermentation tank, and the beer usually was a bit hazy in the beginning and then clearer and clearer towards the end. The centrifuge ensures that the output is the same throughout the entire process. Since beer is very sensitive to oxygen, we’re happy we don’t need to worry about this anymore. The sustainability of the entire process has improved with this machine too. We’re really happy.

Before investing in a centrifuge, we lost around 250 litres of beer in each batch. Losses decreased  2.5 times with the help of the centrifuge, so out of our 2000-litre tank we get out 1900 litres of beer. Our yield, in other words, increased to 8%. That’s fantastic.

Some brewers don’t want to use a centrifuge because they think it’s complicated. But it was quite easy for us to figure out how it works. As a brewery owner, you’ve already learned some technical stuff about the process, about operating machines, what buttons to push and so on. The only thing I want to mention is that the separator is a bit noisy, so we wear earplugs for protection. In the beginning, we only wanted to use it for our pale lagers. But we quickly noticed that the quality and the appearance of beer is so much better after centrifugation. So now we run all our beer through the separator.

Our capacity was too small for such a machine. But we knew that we want to grow and expand. Buying the Brew 80 was a significant investment for us. But our main goal has always been to offer a high-quality beer. If the quality is high enough, the rest will follow. We’re not that keen to realize return on our investment as soon as possible. But I think that we’ll see payback in about two years.

Stefan's advice on how to succeed with your craft brewery:

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·     Tip #1: Learn from your mistakes

You can only succeed if you learn from your mistakes. Like all microbreweries we make mistakes, too.  At times, you get beer that is a bit more carbonated than it should be; other times, the opposite is true. Sometimes, it’s too hazy or the consistency is not what you expected… But what’s most important is to be humble and to accept criticism. You should take the product back if a customer is not satisfied with it or replace it with the product of better quality. We try not to make the same mistake twice.

·     Tip #2: Appearance is everything

We’re always happy to hear from customers even if they say: I got a bottle that was only half-filled…or the label was a bit crooked on the bottle…or the beer was too bitter. I’m not offended by these comments but see them as an incentive to improve. We can brew the best beer in the world. But if the labels aren’t properly affixed to the bottles, customers get a bad impression. These bottles aren’t well placed in stores, so no one will notice them. And in the end, our customers return them to us because the labels don’t look good.

·     Tip #3: Be passionate

Passion means that you are really dedicated to what you do. It shines through when you meet customers and bar, restaurant and store owners. They want to buy a product from someone who really, really believes in what they do.

·     Tip #4: Secure quality and consistency

Quality must be consistent. Beer has to ta­ste the same all the time, every batch, if you want customers to buy your beer again and again. Be sure to take care of your beer before it ends up in the bottle. That’s why a separator is a very useful tool because you know the tank is filled with beer of the same quality and consistency. All you have to do is adjust the carbonation to achieve the right character and taste.

·     Tip #5: Reach the right audience with the right message

Know your target audience. Is your potential market large enough? Will your business pay off in the long run? Is your beer interesting enough? What local nuances can you use to your advantage? What’s especially appealing about your beer? Maybe you should connect your beer to a unique atmosphere like eating potatoes and herring in the sun on a pier on a summer evening by the sea. Or when gathered with friends and family around a cozy table, serving grilled meat. It’s not the beer itself that’s the focus, but the feeling you want to convey. It is very important to connect your beer with positive images in the customer’s mind. But the beer has to taste great too. Passion doesn’t help that much if your beer doesn’t taste great. Everything needs to be in sync.

·     Tip #6: Look for inspiration

We look for inspiration all the time and recently found it in naturally carbonated cask ale that we came across in British pubs. Last year we were outside of Manchester and brewed cask ale with some local breweries to learn the process. Thanks to our British friends, we now brew and sell cask ale. This is a small but growing trend in Sweden. We plan to travel to England again, or maybe to the Czech Republic or Germany for more inspiration.

Värmdö brewery's choice: beer trends

·     Trend #1: alcohol-free beer

We recognized the trend toward drinking alcohol-free beer. That’s why more and more breweries are introducing alcohol-free beer. But they are tricky to produce, because fermenting your beer from 0 % to 0.5% requires a really good yeast due to tight margins. We have received very good feedback on our alcohol-free beer.  

·     Trend #2: less hoppy, more balanced taste

A clear trend I see is that craft beer is becoming less hoppy than it used to be. Before, a craft beer could smell like you put your head into a bag with dry hops. The taste of modern beers is more balanced nowadays. You find less extreme properties, like too much bitterness.

·     Trend #3: Sour beer

Another trend that is growing is sour beer, which complements food well. Many breweries want to specialize only in sour beer. We brew sour beer, too, but mostly focus on pale lagers.

·     Trend #4: Craft beer is competing with wine on restaurant menus

On most restaurant menus, there used to be two to three pages of wine listings and, on the backpage, beverages like coke, mineral water, soda and light and strong beer. Now many restaurants have impressive beer lists with recommendations of food to pair with each beer. The past eight years has seen some drastic changes in the beer business. It’s not just wine that attracts attention, beer’s turn has come too. Everyone wants to learn more about beer. Café and restaurant owners also want to understand why guests prefer certain types of beer. The biggest beer brands taste the same wherever you go in Sweden. But people are curious about local beers and want to try them. That’s why craft beer is booming everywhere, I think.

Värmdö Brewery's bestsellers

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Our absolute favorite and bestseller is the pale lager. We use only the lightest Pilsner malt, no caramel malt, no additives, and some German noble hops which add very soft tones to the taste. There’s very little bitterness. This is a perfect social beer, medium strong – only 4.2%. It goes well with many different types of food and is a perfect fit for grilled food. It’s not pasteurized but centrifuged, so it’s crystal clear and very attractive. The taste is unspoiled, genuine and as authentic as it can be.

We also are very proud of our alcohol-free beers. We’ve been working on them for a while and we found a way to ferment them to the right consistency and yeast level. I’m talking about our alcohol-free IPAs and light lager beer. They have become extremely popular.

Another bestseller: our dessert beer-wine hybrid that my colleague Ludwig and I developed! It’s a strong, barrel-aged beer with some Madeira character and pairs perfectly with desserts like apple pie. We were able to place it in the assortment of the alcohol supermarkets last year. You cannot recreate this taste easily because oak-barrel aging lends special tones to the beer, which differs slightly from batch to batch. But it’s a supercool product to work with! Of course, we produce a lot of beer with consistent quality and taste, which pays our salaries. But it’s fun to experiment, to develop, to move forward with something new.

Alfa Laval craft beer centrifuges: solutions, that grow with your brewery

Alfa Laval offers a wide range of separation technologies for clarification and polishing of beer. Our craft experts can provide technology and advice to help you as your brewery grows. Visit our Beer series homepage to learn more.