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To brew polar beers on Svalbard, one man fought the law – and won

Robert Johansen went from digging coal on Svalbard to starting the world’s northernmost brewery against all odds.

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Until recently, Tromsø-based Mack was the world’s northernmost brewery.

However, if you’re looking for the current title holder, you’ll have to set your sights a good deal further up north. In fact, all the way up to Longyearbyen and Svalbard Bryggeri, tapping in at 130,000 liters of the world’s northernmost beer last year.

The story behind the brewery is as much about its founder Robert Johansens love for Svalbard as it is about beer. He first arrived on the Svalbard archipelago in 1982 to work in the mines.

“It wasn’t a job for people with claustrophobia or an aversion to hard physical labour”, he says.

“Ten people came up to work. Six months later, only two of us were left, the rest had gone home.”

The workers who stuck it out in Longyearbyen became fast friends.

“These were people with a sense of adventure, earning a good living. We caught the Svalbard bug.”

Every weekend, Johansen and his colleagues hiked through the wild on snowmobiles, staying in cabins. Every year, come early January, he and a friend would set out to be the first to sign into the guestbooks of the cabins on the east coast.

“GPS was unheard of back then. We went on the first moonlit weekend every year, just so we’d have some light. Arriving on the east coast one year, a polar bear had broken in the cabin door, leaving it filled with snow.”

Bathed in the lights of the moon and the aurora borealis, Johansen laid out on his snowmobile as his friend was shoveling snow out of the cabin. The total silence was only broken by the ice on the fjord.

“We heard a sound like a canon firing when the ice moved. You could count on one hand how many people there were further north than us. I am not a religious man, but I can imagine that this is what a religious experience feels like. That place had me captivated from the get go.”

Fast forward a few years. Johansen became a pilot and flew Svalbard between Longyearbyen Svea and New Ålesund, fourteen days on, fourteen days off. When his wife and children in Tromsø were off to work and school, he’d take over the kitchen to brew his own beer. After a while, the idea of starting a brewery on Svalbard entered his mind.

“We produce little of our own up there. We made coal and exported it, and that has been it.”

Malt makes us happy. We can prove it! #malt #longyearbyen #arctic #polarbeer

A photo posted by Svalbard Bryggeri (@svalbardbryggeri) on

 

When he called the Svalbard authorities to inquire about starting a brewery, their reply was a letdown.

“It was not possible, because a law from 1928 stated that it is illegal to make alcohol on Svalbard.”

Johansen contacted the Norwegian authorities and asked for the law to be changed. After his first e-mail, he decided on calling them once a month until he’d reached his goal.

“That took five and a half years. I got to know my case worker very well.”

In the summer of 2014 the law was finally changed. In August the year after, the world’s northernmost brewery could finally tap its first beer.

According to Johansen, 94 percent of the beer consists of Svalbard water, 16 percent of which is from Bogerbreen, a glacier that is 2,000 years old. In the chemical brewing process, Johansen says the water is what gives the beer its unique Svalbard character.

“The water makes the taste. The rocks of Svalbard are porous, so the water catches a lot of minerals coming downriver from the ice. Malt, barley and yeast are the same everywhere, but if I were to brew our recipe in Tromsø instead of in Svalbard, the beer would taste differently.”

Office view...aaah Friday! #spitsbergen #longyearbyen #darkseason #stout #caskcanning #arcticbeer in the #arctic

A photo posted by Svalbard Bryggeri (@svalbardbryggeri) on

 

The 130,000 liters Johansen, along with his wife Anne Grete Johansen and three other colleagues, tapped last year is distributed between pale ale, pilsner, weissbier, IPA stout and some other local varieties. Along with supplying the local Svalbard community with beer, the brewery also sells to the rest of Norway, as well as getting requests from Europe and the US.

At the moment, their capacity is for 250,000 liters a year, but Johansen has plans to expand further. The response to the beer has been good so far, although he thinks that may be as much about its history as its taste, something he’s noticed when visitors tour the brewery.

“The world doesn’t really need another beer. In the jungle of microbreweries out there, the story behind the beer is what counts.”

Experience how they brew the Svalbard beer

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