Norway and Its Neighbors Redefine Their Beer

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 28, Issue 5
November 1, 2007 By Susan Zimmerman

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.

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.

Brewing Craft

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.

Alcohol Limits

“Norwegian alcohol laws says we are not allowed to advertise,” says Pederson’s co-manager Unni Dahlseng referring to the ban that includes all alcoholic beverages. Even the Internet is subject to this legislation. A recent note on one brewery site reads, “Due to Norwegian legislation, we are not allowed to run our website as it was. It is therefore taken down until we have another solution.”

Norway’s stand on alcohol may seem overbearing compared to its otherwise enlightened reputation, but the industry’s no stranger to restrictions in this region.

The five Nordic countries— Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland—share much in history and culture, and this extends to the culture of alcohol. With the exception of Denmark, all have strong temperance traditions, and Iceland, Norway and Finland all enacted some form of national prohibition early in the 20th century, around the same time as the United States. The same countries—again, without Denmark—control the sale of liquor, wine and stronger beer through government monopolies.

In Norway, the first Vinmonopolet (government wine monopoly) was established in 1922 to appease the wine-producing nations (mainly France) unhappy with Norway’s alcohol ban. This government-created wine monopoly allowed for stable distribution and ensured good trade relations with the French. Today wine, liquor and beer stronger than 4.75 % can only be purchased in state-owned stores.

The temperance movement left a permanent mark on Norway’s brewing industry. Norway’s beer taxes are more than double those in Sweden and five times the rate in Denmark. “It is so expensive for people to buy beer here that they cross the border and to get it in places like Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Germany,” says Dahlseng.

Drinking Ways

High alcohol prices are not only driving people across the border to buy beer: they’re also driving them to drink at home. “A common practice is to drink as much as possible with homemade alcohol at a friend’s house then continue drinking at a pub till closing (if sober enough to be allowed in),” says Ssemjon Gerlitz, a small pub owner in the Lofoten Islands.

The practice of binge drinking is very common in Scandinavian countries and is generally blamed on the inflated alcohol prices and drinking restrictions. The habit starts early in Norway among 15-16 year olds: indulging for this age group rose in the late 1990s from 37 to 50 percent. The cultural trend known as Russ, a rite of passage among high school seniors to celebrate their independence, further indoctrinates young Norwegians into this excessive drinking.

“It is unbelievable to come to this free country and find these attitudes about beer and alcohol,” says Gerlitz. “It would be better to make alcohol cheaper and let people drink. The homemade drink is much more dangerous since you never know what’s in it,” adds this German transplant.

He grimaces when he talks about how he has to water down Guinness because it exceeds the national regulation on alcohol strength. To sell it in the pub with a normal license you have to bring it down to 4.7%, which means adding water. Gerlitz further laments about Norway’s pub etiquette compared to that in his native Germany where buying rounds for friends and the bartender is the norm. “No one buys beer for others because it’s so expensive,” he sighs.

Beer Backstory

Efforts to rein in the country’s brewing industry continue, but there’s a part to this nation’s history too deeply rooted for even teetotalers to control. The 8th century Gulatingslove, one of the first Norse legal codes, included a chapter on brewing beer for the midwinter festivities in January.

Ironically, King Haakon’s decision in the 900s to change the midwinter celebration to December 25th opened up a Pandora’s Box for Christian Democrats centuries later who attempted to put an end to Christmas beer. Fortunately, the breweries saved this “Christmas spirit” by proving the tradition harkened back to Viking days.

This original Christmas beer, a dark ale made with extra malts (or Juleol as it’s known today) was serious stuff. The Gulatingslove required farmers to brew two batches each year—one for themselves and one for guests—or risk fines and worse. To add insult to injury, people were expected to drink themselves into a drunken stupor in order to commune with supernatural forces; not doing so was disrespectful and punishable.

While nowadays the tradition is to taste all the new Christmas beers (just about every brewery has one), drinking rituals have lightened up a bit seeing as there are more than 50 kinds. The true Christmas beers have a higher alcohol content and are only available in the state-owned liquor stores. This is also the only time the no-advertising rule makes an exception and allows newspapers to review all the season’s new Christmas brews.

More Than a Pilsner

Although pilsner styles make up over 90 percent of the country’s brewing, this confirmed light lager-drinking population is in for a change. “Telling visitors that beer is more than pilsner is the main strategy we have here,” explains Pederson who seems bent on breaking the habit. “Everyone drinks it because that is what they are used to.”

“The first thing my employees learn is that when customers come in here and ask for a beer, don’t sell them a pilsner,” says Pederson, who explains he wants his patrons to taste more types of beer. He prides himself on the over 20 different brews Mack serves, from a bottom-fermented Mack Pilsner to a top-fermented English-style ale.

“People want more choices now. It’s happening throughout Norway,” is the word from the pub manager “on high” at the world’s northernmost brewery. Yes, Norway and its neighbors are thirsty for something new.

Susan Zimmerman
Susan Zimmerman writes about travel, nature and cuisine around the world. Her fascination for stories with an unusual twist has led her down many a meandering road.