Not long ago, most Norwegians drank whatever lager was on tap. Now, hundreds of new breweries are popping up, gaining international attention for their delicious craft beers.
Text: Mikael Lunde
If you walked into a bar in Norway ten years ago, you would face a choice between … well, a beer or no beer. Don't like lager? Too bad.
“Worse, you could just hold up a finger, meaning you want a pint,” says Evan Lewis, the co-founder and chief brewer at Ægir Brewery. “To have one beer for every taste is absurd. It’s as if an entire country served cheeseburgers as the only food.”
Fast-forward to today, and it’s an entirely different story. Interest in (and thirst for…) craft beer in Norway has skyrocketed. New microbreweries are entering the scene virtually every month, and are already collecting international awards.
“Last I checked there were 188 small-scale breweries registered in Norway. That’s huge. I have to applaud the new Norwegian brewers, they have come incredibly far in a short time,” Lewis says.
Lewis started as a hobby brewer when he was a 17 year-old high school student in New York back in 1989. In the US, the “craft beer revolution” was already happening at the time. He later moved to California, where he got accustomed to a selection of beers for every taste and occasion.
Then, twelve years ago, he and his wife Aud Melås took over a café in the tiny, Norwegian town of Flåm. It’s a stunning location by the fjord, surrounded by mountains – well over a hundred miles inland from the Norwegian west coast.
Still, for a beer lover, it was a disappointment.
“I figured, if we were to have a pub, it had to be a brew pub,” says Lewis. They named the brewery Ægir, after the sea god and chief brewer from Norse mythology. Today they’re one of Norway’s leading small-scale breweries.
By the time they got started, though, change was already burgeoning.
A Norwegian of ten years ago would now be bewildered to find chalkboards in pubs listing dozens, sometimes hundreds of different beers. Sometimes they’re brewed in the room next-door. They range from the typical lager to spontaneously fermented sour beers, strong stouts and of course a whole range of wits and IPAs.
“Oh, yes, that is quite common. The import has grown enormously as well,” says Tore Nybø. He is the CEO of Nøgne Ø, the brewery that is often credited with getting this whole thing going in Norway.
Nøgne Ø was established in Grimstad, southeast in Norway, in late 2002. Yet when Nybø bought into the company a couple of years later, they were at the brink of bankruptcy.
“There was no market for craft beer. We did our own distribution driving around in private cars, in addition to sales at Vinmonopolet”. (The government-owned alcoholic beverage retailer, that is). Nybø, too, was already a home brewer at the time.
Through the collective effort of the founders of the brewery, friends and acquaintances, the small company ploughed through, and scaled up the production.
Now operating on a much larger scale, Nøgne Ø still excels with some of the market’s best craft beers. But they are followed by a multitude of others, like Haandbryggeriet, Lervig, Austmann, Kinn – and Ægir. “The success is largely due to an exceptional openness and transparency in the business,” says Nybø, who applauds the cooperation and unity even between competitors. Or rather, as they say: colleagues.
While craft breweries are emerging all over the world and make similar beers, it’s not given that these would catch on with the Norwegian populace.
“The worst case scenario is that a few breweries deliver subpar beers, and those who taste it figure that this whole craft beer thing isn’t for them. Fortunately the quality of craft beers being brewed in Norway has always been very high,” says Evan Lewis.
He is echoed by Tore Nybø: "Our slogan is that we're the brewery that refuses to compromise. That has cost us a few litres. But if we were to ship an average beer, it would hurt the entire business".
Nybø reckons that the trend really exploded in Norway about four or five years ago. Many are now very conscious indeed about what beer they drink, they experiment with different kinds and tastes, and even try their hand at brewing at home.
“When you start scratching the surface of the world of beer, there’s so much fun to latch onto. After a while, you’ll start to taste and experience beer in a whole new way,” he says. “When I meet my friends these days, we typically bring four different beers each, and we taste about a decilitre at a time."
"That is much more rewarding than if all of us had each our six-pack.”
More and more people brew their own beer. “Brewing is social, it’s a lot of fun, and you can easily try it yourself – with simple means,” says Tore Nybø. Here are a few tips to get you started.
First off, you should consider if you know someone who is brewing already. “If so, that’s where you start,” says Tore Nybø.
“Either way, don’t be put off by not having access to cold storage rooms or other facilities. When I started brewing, I did it at home using large pans and an ice chest for mashing. It’s easiest to start with ales that are fermenting at room temperature,” he says.
Evan Lewis recommends dropping by a home brewing equipment store to get tips, equipment, and books. Then, you read up on the methods. “It’s important to take it slow, to read and learn, and to brew with others – then you can share your experiences. And don’t be afraid to fail. If you do, you just start over,” he says.
“There are a few precautions to consider, like disinfection, cleanliness and accuracy – that’s what separates a good from an average brewer. But it’s never been easier than now. It’s the best hobby in the world,” says Lewis.
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