Sweden is ripe for a Texas barbecue revolution, and the Johans of Holy Smoke BBQ are prepared to lead it. Johan Fritzell and Johan Åkerberg met a few years ago and bonded over a shared love of smoked meats. They soon decided to join forces and open a barbecue joint that serves Texas-style barbecue. So outside of the small coastal town of Nyhamnsläge (Fritzell’s hometown), near the southern tip of Sweden, they stuck a couple of shipping containers together and opened Holy Smoke BBQ in 2014.
It was a type of restaurant that was unheard of in Sweden, and Holy Smoke quickly gained a following for their weekend barbecues. Two years later, the restaurant is a rousing success for the six months a year that it’s open. Now they’re setting their sights on spreading the good word of Texas barbecue by doing more than offering the regional rarity of smoked meats. The Johans have shifted their purpose to that of full-on barbecue ambassadors.
I travelled to Sweden two weeks ago with Aaron Franklin and Braun Hughes of Franklin Barbecue in Austin. Fritzell invited us to teach a class on Texas barbecue cooking methods with a little bit of history sprinkled in. Myron Mixon, a veteran of ‘cue competition, had been there two weeks earlier to teach competition barbecue (there are now over thirty KCBS-sanctioned barbecue competitions in Europe, one of which is held in Gunnilse, Sweden), and Matt Pittman of Texas’s Meat Church BBQ will be there in two weeks. After our two days of intensive barbecue demonstrations, which stretched to fourteen hours a piece, 140 students from a dozen different countries took considerable knowledge of Texas barbecue back to their home countries.
János Gonda was one of those students. He’s working to open a permanent restaurant in Budapest, Hungary. Gonda has taken his own Texas barbecue tour, and trained with Evan LeRoy at Freedmen’s in Austin last year. This was his second time taking a class at Holy Smoke to hone his skills, the first being last year with Junior Urias of Midland, Texas. Joe Walters, also known as Texas Joe, travelled from London, where he has a Texas-style barbecue joint that is just two months old. From just up the road in Falkenberg, Sweden, owners of the recently opened Aska Worldwide Barbecue (aska is Swedish for ash) Lisa Lemke—referred to by some as the Swedish Nigella—and her husband Marcus Norgren got their hands dirty trimming and seasoning briskets. The duo was looking to expand upon the all wood-cooked barbecue already on Aska’s menu. The point is, this wasn’t a class full of folks just here to eat a couple great barbecue meals. They were here to learn.
Sweden may not have a long history in Texas barbecue, but it’s coming on fast, especially in the south of Sweden where the summers are warm. A trip to the local City Gross grocery store showed the deep love for American food and for barbecue in particular. An offset smoker, made by Georgia-based Landmann—whose motto is “Join the BBQ Revolution”—was available for purchase in the garden section. (I’ll forgive them for carrying only the smallish “Tennessee” model.) Heat-and-serve bags of pulled meats make up an entire section. It’s a popular genre of faux barbecue, flavored with sauce and liquid smoke, that Fritzell would like to break into with real smoked barbecue. There’s even an Amerikansk BBQ flavor baby food (it tastes like mashed beef and vegetable soup, and is frowned upon by Danish airport security). Still, the baby food’s label shows that the Johans’ influence only goes so far. Åkerberg’s other gig is as the food stylist for the labels. He fought them on using skewered chicken and bell peppers to represent American barbecue, but lost the battle.
There were other signs of love for Texas in unexpected places. We had burgers at the Garage Bar in Höganäs, along with their version of North Texas red chili inspired by Frank X. Tolbert’s recipe. At a boutique food store (and later at City Gross) we found Stubb’s barbecue sauce. It’s not surprising to Fritzell, who told me earlier this year that Sweden is “the most Americanized country outside of America.” That is reinforced at Holy Smoke’s gift shop, which offers Meat Church rubs, American barbecue cookbooks, and at least one Swedish one (Johan Åkerberg is the author of the cookbook Rök which is Swedish for “smoke”). There’s also an array of tortilla presses and Mexican hot sauces, making it essentially a mini-gift shop for displaced Texans. Holy Smoke is also one of the country’s few dealers for the Big Green Egg grills, and the only dealer for Myron Mixon’s (or any other) commercial barbecue smoker in Sweden. If you want to get into commercial barbecue in this area of the world, Holy Smoke is the place to start.
The one American signature they lack in Sweden is big, fatty cuts of barbecue meat. Racks of raw spare ribs for sale at the market were cut to the bone. Holy Smoke orders fatty Iberico spare ribs from Spain, which are adorably Frenched. As for the beef, Fritzell explained why they order it from Creekstone in Kansas: “We have lots of dairy cows. We’re good at milk, but not so good at beef.”
They have the general ambiance down, though. A visit to the restaurant is like a road trip out to the Salt Lick. It’s outside a town of a couple thousand, past the windmill, and down a few back roads. Some customers park their campers overnight in the nearby field until the smell of oak smoke draws them in. Ordering is done at a window cut into one of the black shipping containers, and the meat comes on paper-lined tray. The housemade pickled onions and quick-pickled cucumbers make for a colorful garnish.
The brisket was from Aaron Franklin the day I ate from Holy Smoke’s menu. I can’t comment on how their brisket would have tasted on any other day, but their new Franklin smoker means they have the right tools. A smoky beef short rib was the standout, with the pulled pork not far behind. The pork ribs and chicken needed more time on the smoker, and the rub was really aggressive on the ribs. The jalapeño sausage was a nice touch, as was the very Texas-like jalapeño creamed corn. I especially enjoyed the slight crunch and sweetness provided by the shredded carrots they added into the mix. There are sweet and meaty beans à la Kansas City, and a slaw chopped and dressed like you’d find in eastern North Carolina. It was a solid homage to American barbecue, with a big focus on Texas.
Holy Smoke BBQ is quickly building a barbecue reputation for Sweden, and more specially for their province of Skåne. In the same way that Texans love the outline of our state, one of Holy Smoke’s t-shirts features the outline of Skåne with a star marking the barbecue joint’s location. I joked with the Johans that it looks a bit like France, but who knows? Maybe some day soon that shape will be a lot more familiar when Sweden is known for its Skåne-style barbecue. When that happens, a big thanks will be owed to the Johans of Holy Smoke BBQ.