Have you ever heard of Pepparkakor? Well, maybe you have heard of ginger snaps then (the cookies, not the 2000s corny werewolf movie franchise!).
These heavily spiced, crunchy delights are one of the most iconic cookies to come out of Sweden, which says something considering Sweden loves cookies. It's home to Hallongrotta (thumbprint cookies), Schackrutor (checker-patterned vanilla-chocolate shortbread cookies), Drömmar (airy vanilla cookies), and more!
And yet, if you ask anyone to name you Swedish cookies, Pepparkakor will likely be the first on the list (if the person can name any, to begin with).
Today, we'll be discussing the company that has done more in the last 60 years to put the Pepparkakor name out in the world than any other: Nyakers.
What is Pepparkakor?
Most people might not recognize the name Pepparkakor, but they know the name ginger snaps. Pepparkakor is the Swedish version of the cookie: a thin and brittle yet chewy cookie generously flavored with a variety of spices, most prominently powdered ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg (sometimes with the addition of cardamom and clove).
They are traditionally baked for St Lucia's Day (December 13th) and widely consumed through Christmas (and often even in January).
Pepperkakor has a very strongly expressed spicy flavor; however, the ratio of spices changes in different recipes, with there being no ubiquitous one. This variety in spice significantly changes Pepparkakor flavor.
Commercial producers keep their recipes close to the chest to keep their unique cookie flavor a secret. Nyakers is no exception: Nyakers ginger snaps recipe has been a closely guarded secret for over 60 years.
What Makes Nyakers’ Pepparkakor so Special?
Nyakers ginger snaps are often called the best-tasting Pepparkakor cookies in Sweden, winning taste test after taste test, year after year.
"A taste of tradition," the company itself boasts. Only no one else can make their cookies taste like Nyakers ginger snaps because the recipe that the creators developed in the 1950s remains a staunchly-guarded secret to this day. You may find the copycat recipes on the internet, but neither one of them is entirely identical to the iconic Nyakers taste, not if you believe the fans and the critics.
This unique recipe is undoubtedly the main reason the cookies are so well-known now. After all, by all reason and logic, Nyakers ginger snaps didn't really have much of a chance to take over the country of Sweden, not to mention hit shelves outside their native borders.
Nyakers is the oldest Pepparkakor factory in Sweden that doesn't only satisfy local demand for the iconic cookies but exports it to countries all over the world, from nearby Europe all the way across the pond to America.
It might not sound extraordinary once you first hear about it. Multiple global conglomerates export their snacks and sweets to more countries and in larger quantities, after all. But when you spare a minute or two to truly understand the scale of it, you will realize that anything less than "the best of the best" wouldn't stand a chance of succeeding anywhere at the level of Nyakers Pepparkakor.
See, Nyakers isn't a global conglomerate. It's not even the most prominent food factory in Sweden. It doesn't have a vast assortment of goods, nor does it have an impressive central location.
Nyaker is a small commune of about a hundred people. It's located in Norrland, the northernmost and largest but least populated of the three traditional Swedish lands.
Just to put things in perspective: Norrland makes up for over 60% of Sweden's land area but houses about 12% of the country's entire population. Communes like Nyaker aren't rare in Norrland. But Nyaker, over 300 miles from Stockholm, has managed to make itself known not only throughout Sweden but to the rest of the world as well. Or, at the very least, to cookie connoisseurs worldwide.
Not too shabby for a settlement that hasn't grown to four-digit inhabitant numbers despite everything. The bleak truth is that communes like this one: small and far away from large settlements die all the time.
Nyaker has been running its cookie factory for over 60 years. A factory that manages to increase its cookie sales from year to year.
Nyaker's Pepparkakor isn't just any random cookie; it's a cookie that put its hometown on the map and has kept it there for over 60 years now.
Last year, in December 2022, Nyakers' heart-shaped cookies won Icakuriren's (a weekly family magazine based in Solna, Stockholm, Sweden) blind ginger cookie taste test. Icakuriren is one of the most read weeklies in the country.
And the love for the cookies isn't just local. Nyakers' cookies have won awards and taste tests as far away as Tokyo and even here in the US.
For a cookie with such humble beginnings to go this far? There's no denying there's a reason why people decided to give it their love.
The History Behind Nyakers’ Pepparkakor Cookies:
The story of the Nyakers' ascension becomes even more impressive if you consider its humble beginnings. Bengt and John Åströms were born into a poor farmer family. With Nyaker not being particularly well-providing and ten kids in the family, everyone had to pull their weight so that no one would go hungry, including the kids themselves. When Bengt and John were 15 years old, they were sent away to become baker apprentices in southern Sweden.
Now, this story might've run like a movie, with two enterprising brothers nurturing a dream of returning to their commune as soon as possible and investing their skills and the money they earned into lifting it up.
But life is not a movie, and their sailings were not nearly so smooth.
Bengt and John took almost twenty years to return to Nyaker. They were sent away in the 1930s and returned in the late 1940s or early 1950s, taking over the commune's small café and bakery in 1952.
During the years, they ran several bakeries across Sweden, but in the end, the road led back to Nyaker. It's unclear whether the bakeries didn't pan out or if they were just homesick, but it is clear that Åströms' rise to success wasn't an easy one. Even in their native Nyaker, they struggled for a couple of years until developing their signature Pepparkakor recipe.
Their approach to running a small business in a small commune was unique and crafty for the time. Instead of focusing on running the local cafe, they concentrated on running a delivery service. They knew they needed to maximize their reach if the bakery were to survive in a commune so small. So they got a bread truck, loaded it up with their goods, and started delivering freshly baked cookies, cakes, and bread to the farms that were more or less nearby.
Åström brothers created what is now the signature Nyakers ginger snaps recipe in 1954. The brothers tested several recipes, then bundled up the one that seemed the most promising in shoe boxes of all things and drove off in their bread truck to negotiate with any wholesaler that seemed like a potential buyer. Say what you want, but they were not shy about their endeavors, those Åström brothers.
Not that they needed to be - their cookies really were that good. By 1955, multiple wholesalers in Sweden had decided to sell Nyaker ginger snaps, and if any failed to profit from it, it was their own fault because the demand for Åström brothers' cookies was rising rapidly. In 1955, the brothers had to retrofit their bakery and install a pedal-powered machine to increase cookie production and keep up with the rising demand.
For the next few years, life and business were good:
- The ginger snaps kept selling;
- The brothers kept finding new wholesalers;
- They even managed to get a deal from the department store chain EPA to distribute their Pepparkakor nationwide in 1960.
And then, just a few days after the deal was signed and the ink barely dry, the Åström brothers' bakery burned down.
Sometimes life really is like a movie. And the plot twist in the third act is rarely ever nice. Got to keep your watches on the edge of their sits, after all.
For most other people, this turn of events would be the end. The bakery wasn't insured. The brothers might've been well off at this point in their lives, but they were far from stupidly rich. They couldn't just dig into their savings and set up a whole new bakery by the next day. They couldn't even do it by next year, especially with the source of their income gone.
What they needed was a miracle.
Luckily, the Åström brothers were used to making their own miracles happen by this time (and it helped that their cookies had garnered them somewhat of a reputation over the last five years).
Bengt and John managed to convince Västerbottens Entrepreneurs (a local organization based in the Västerbotten province of north Sweden) to invest in their new bakery. With a sizable start-up capital acquired, they not only restarted production in six months but managed to build a more modern bakery with equipment that allowed for increased production.
In another five years, by the year 1965, Nyakers had become a market leader for Pepparkakor sales.
What Else Does Nyakers Offer?
Being a market leader for ginger snaps was good, but there was one teeny tiny problem: similar to other gingerbread cookies, ginger snaps are a highly seasonal product. They're usually consumed in the wintertime, mainly in December and partially in January.
If Nyakers wanted to be a market leader year-round, they needed to expand their production line. And boy, did the Åström brothers want to be the market leaders.
The first line expansion happened in 1965, with almond cookies and small flavored rusks. Over the next thirty years, the company slowly added other heavily spiced cookies to the lineup, like cardamom cookies and saffron cookies. The company also started playing around with the classic ginger snaps' packaging. Now Nyakers ginger snaps are available in affordable cardboard boxes, traditional plastic containers, and luxury gift tins, with intricate ornaments adorning the metallic boxes.
Pepparkakor still remains the main Nyakers product, with its overall sales making up 65% to 70% of the overall company sales. However, other cookies continue to gather a devoted audience as well.
In 1995, Nyakers finally shifted its focus from the domestic market to export, starting with faraway markets of Japan and the US instead of nearby Europe.
Finally, in 1999, the Nyakers factory was bought by the entrepreneur Lennart Öberg, who expanded production further and took on new markets. Now, over 20 years after the acquisition, the company is run by his children, Christoffer and Sofie. They continued their fathers' export-focused strategy, taking on new markets, most notably Turkey and Israel.
Are Pepparkakor and Gingerbread the Same?
Now that's a million-dollar question. It seems like people can't really agree. They are somewhat similar, both heavily relying on the same main spices (powdered ginger, cinnamon, often cardamom, clove, and nutmeg), but there are distinct differences in the baking process and the texture of the cookies. Some consider these differences to be enough to place them into two separate categories.
Ginger snaps (Pepparkakor) are typically baked for a longer time; they're thinner, chewier, and often with a more robust, well-expressed spice flavor than a standard gingerbread cookie.
But the thing is, gingerbread cookies aren't a monolith: they're so old, and there are so many recipes one cannot really describe what standard gingerbread even is. German lebkuchen cookies, for example, can be both hard and crunchy and soft and chewy. They can be minimally spiced or very spicy.
One big difference seems to be the commonly used sweetener. Classic gingerbread cookies use honey, while ginger snaps use molasses, but even that's not enough of an argument these days when recipes are amended to swap both for sugar or syrup all the time.
In the end, ginger snaps are most easily described as a type of gingerbread, similar to pfeffernusse. Not entirely an independent thing, but not a standard variation of the cookie either.
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