Bilberry drinks

Bilberry drinks have been popular in Sweden for centuries. Apparently 17% of the country is covered with bilberry bushes and given Sweden's allemansrätten (the right to roam and forage for food) it is not surprising that Swedes have made the most of the little dark berries.

Different names

Bilberries have many different names including:

•  whortleberries (some parts of England)
•  blaeberries (some parts of Scotland)
•  fraughans (Ireland)
•  huckleberries (some parts of America)
•  mustikat (Finland)
•  blåbär (Sweden)*
*Confusingly the same word, blåbär, is used in Sweden for blueberries and bilberries.

Whatever they are called, the berries all come from vaccinium myrtillus, a small wiry shrub growing densely on heaths and in mountain areas in cold climates all over the world, including northern Europe, Canada and even in cold areas in Australia.

Health benefits

Bilberry cordial (syrup) is a popular drink in Sweden. Traditionally in the winter Swedish children were encouraged to drink bilberry juice in the winter because it is high in vitamin C, which was difficult to get from other sources during Sweden's long harsh winters. In fact, bilberries are high in fibre, have 4 times as much vitamin C as oranges and they have huge amounts of antioxidants.

Although vitamin C is now available from other sources in the winter, bilberry juice is still popular because it makes an excellent breakfast drink and when heated it is a good winter warmer. 

Make your own

Homemade bilberry cordial (syrup)

If you are fortunate enough to have enough bilberries growing near you, then you could make your own bilberry cordial. It is easy to make and if you make your own you can control the amount of sugar added. More…

Commercial brands

Three popular brands of bilberry drink

We compared three brands that are available from specialist stores and online in the UK and elsewhere in Europe:

•  Blåbär 100%
•  Tillmans of Sweden
 IKEA

Tillmans of Sweden and IKEA both have sugar, water and other additives and are intended to be diluted about 1:4 or 1:5. Blåbär 100%, as the name implies, is made entirely from bilberries with no additives of any kind.

Picking berries

A tray of bilberries

Picking the bilberries is an arduous process as they grow close to the ground and so a special rake, called a scrabbler, is required to separate the berries from the plants and the undergrowth. A good bilberry picker can pick about 70 kg (150 lb) of berries per day.

Squeezing

Bilberry juice being filtered in a small factory

The bilberries are squeezed as soon as possible after picking and then filtered. Apparently a bottle of Blåbär 100% contains the juice from an average of 2,300 berries.

Undiluted bilberry juice

Blåbär 100% being poured into a wine glass

Blåbär 100% is the only one of the three that is suitable for drinking undiluted. It is best served very slightly chilled and in a wine glass. On opening the bottle the aroma of the bilberries is immediately apparent, but it's not a drink that will appeal to most people for casual swigging because it is quite sharp, harsh and dry.

Blåbär 100% served at a royal wedding in Sweden

However, like many red wines, drinking it with food is a very different experience. It goes particularly well with venison and is a good alterantive to a robust red wine. Indeed it was offered as a non-alcoholic drink at the wedding of Crown Princess Victoria in 2010.

Diluted juice

Three diluted bilberry drinks being tested

Diluted bilberry juice makes an ideal breakfast drink and a refreshing change from orange juice. It is also nice as a warm drink on a cold winter's day.

We tested the three brands. In our first test, all three drinks were served diluted with boiling water. Tillmans and IKEA's were diluted according to the instructions on the bottles. We added a teaspoon of sugar to Blåbär 100% and, as it doesn't have any instructions about serving diluted we was diluted it 1:8, which on paper would make it the same strength as the other two. In practice we found that made it a bit too weak and so we found it needed diluting 1:3 or 1:4.

In our second test, all three drinks were diluted with cold water and served at breakfast. IKEA's and Tillman's were diluted according to the instructions on their bottles and Blåbär 100% was diluted 1:3, but this time no sugar was added.

Marks out of 10

Brand Mark /10
Blåbär 100% 8
IKEA 7
Tillmans of Sweden 9

All three made pleasant drinks whether served hot or cold. Although Tillmans of Sweden came out best on both tests, all three were very pleasant. IKEA's slipped into last place simply because it didn't have quite as much bilberry flavour as the other two. (Note that Blåbär 100% comes with a crown top, which is not as convenient for storing as a screw top.)

Bilberry liqueur

Bilberry liqueur by Lapponia

Lapponia, a Finnish company, make a bilberry liqueur called Mustikka. It is available online and from specialist stores. It is a pleasant after-dinner drink.

Bilberry juice for cooking

Venison with bilberry sauce

Clearly the advantage of Blåbär 100% over other two popular brands is that there nothing is added to the juice, because once something is added the process can't be reversed. As a result it is always my first choice for cooking.

I especially like to use Blåbär 100% in place of red wine when cooking. For instance, try our recipe for hjortfilé med blåbärsåsjortfilé med blåbärsås (venison with bilberry sauce) shown above or viltgryta med blåbär och gnocchi (game stew with bilberries and gnocchi), which may seem a strange combination but it works really well and provides an easy yet impressive dish.

Canadian alternative

Across the other side of the pond, Bleu d'ici is a good alternative. It is also made from 100% wild berries but they are naturally sweeter than their Swedish cousins. More…

Verdict

Tillmans of Sweden produce the best bilberry breakfast juice. Blåbär 100% and Bleu d'ici are best for cooking.

John Duxbury

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