Though it was bragging rights that first enticed me to head to the Norwegian town of Tromsø to whet my whistle at the northernmost brewery in the world, my tune soon changed. Here in these arctic climes, getting the low-down on this beer-biased nation’s attitudes is all a part of the social call.
Traveling 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle is a long way to go for a beer, but a visit to the northernmost brewery in the world is a great introduction to Scandinavian beer culture.
It takes only one brew to figure out this Nordic nation’s a two-fisted drinker. Like its Nordic neighbors, on one hand the country’s brewing industry is rife with taxation and regulation, while on the other hand its centuries-old drinking roots are ingrained in the culture. The good news is that, despite heavy government control and the stubborn domination of light lagers, the demand for change is bringing new variety to the northern beer scene.
Coming of Age
Microbreweries have come of age in Norway. “I know Ringnes and Hansa and all the biggest breweries have their own,” says Odd Pederson, pub manager at Mack’s, the world’s northernmost brewery. The times are changing for this nation whose beer drinking history dates back to the Bronze Age.
“Before we got our microbrewery, we didn’t test out so many different types of beers as we do today,” notes the Tromsø local. In the past, Mack’s would have to brew a minimum of 22,000 liters just to test out a new Christmas Beer. “Now we can scale it down to 800 liters. All the breweries are doing this, especially with the wheat beer,” he adds.
“I call our microbrewery Mack’s laboratory because that’s where we develop types of beer like wheat and ale, test out the yeast and improve the beer we have,” explains Pederson. “The last real test that we had was a Mack’s Christmas beer recipe from 1936. It was unfiltered and unpasteurized when we tasted it right off the tank, but it was really good, just pure beer.”
A beer festival held in Tromsø last summer is a sign that Norway is broadening its horizons. Pederson remembers the top beer at the event was Hobgoblin from England’s Wychwood Brewery—it was some 5.2% alcohol, very dark and had a fantastic taste. “This is what’s coming out of the microbrewery trend that’s going around the world,” says Pederson.
The growing craft beer market has everyone wanting to get a piece of the action these days. The Norwegian beer market’s two largest brewers, Carlsberg-Ringnes and Hansa-Borg which control over 85% of market, are testing the waters, but it’s the small new breweries that are making the biggest splash within the last ten years, mostly with their top-fermented ales.
HaandBryggeriet (“The Hand Brewery”), considered Norway’s smallest, in Drammen just outside Oslo run by a long-time homebrewer in his childhood house, is making a name for itself. The Nøgne ø (old Norwegian/Danish for “Naked Isle”), an independent microbrewery in Grimstad, started in 2002 by an airline pilot with a yen for brewing, is gaining a worldwide reputation amongst beer lovers for its American-influenced ales.
Oslo Mikrobryggeri, Scandinavia’s first microbrewery and brewpub founded in 1989, serves up a range of styles: pilsner, steam ale, porters and stouts.
Berentsens Brygghus in Egersund, on Norway’s southern tip, started out as a family cider business in 1895. With beers originally brewed by Aass (one of the best-known and oldest macro breweries in Norway, founded in 1834), it is now trying to stand on its own.
Although the craft beer movement is on a roll in Norway, there have been casualties. Baatbryggeriet, an up-and-coming microbrewery in Vestnes on the country’s northwest coast, called it quits in just three years. Making a go of it with just two brews to their name was hard enough but, thanks to government restrictions, spreading the word was nearly impossible. Breweries have their hands tied when it comes to publicity.