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My book on Norwegian farmhouse ale

Posted in Beer on 2016-09-17 12:03

The actual, physical book

Yesterday I finally got a copy of my new book on Norwegian farmhouse ale. I've written books before, but this one is different. So many emotions, such hopes and dreams, now suddenly materialized as a lump of pulped wood and glue. It's been my baby for a long time, and now it's suddenly going to be flung out to the public.

I've been exploring this subject since 2010, but it was only in 2013 that I really got serious about it, eventually culminating in the Norwegian farmhouse ale expedition of 2014. Before we set out on that expedition we really knew very little about Norwegian beer. Where the brewing still lived, what the beer was like, whether there really was such a thing as kveik, all of this was still unknown. For someone reading this today it's probably impossible to imagine the depth of our ignorance. We knew as much about koumiss brewing in Mongolia as we did about present-day Norwegian farmhouse brewing. And, yes, I do realize that that sounds utterly absurd. But it's true.

Martin and me next to the car, Trollstigen, May 2014

What we found on that trip was a shock of such proportions that it permanently altered the course of my life. It wasn't even just one shock. One surprise was how much of the ancient tradition that was still alive. Another surprise was the depth of it, because it wasn't just the beer itself that was still alive, but also the social customs around it, the old ways of serving beer, and even some of the superstition. But the biggest surprise was how good the beer was, and how different the beers were.

I came back convinced that here was a beer culture deserving international recognition and a place alongside the more famous beer cultures that we all know. It really surprised and upset me that something so rich and important could be totally unknown not just abroad, but also in Norway. As Martin put it, "this isn't exactly the Congo!" You can visit these brewers and taste these beers without hacking your way through the jungle for weeks. Some are literally within a taxi ride or a short train ride from the nearest international airport.

And even in Norway we didn't know this. People were doing seminars and tastings on porter and saison, but they didn't know that there was such a thing as Norwegian beer. In retrospect it's so absurd that before very long probably nobody is going to remember it was ever like this, but the fact is it was, and not so long ago I knew no more than anyone else. Somehow I was just very lucky to take this seriously before anyone else.

A tiny fraction of the sources

So on coming back I dived into the sources available and started digging for real. Eventually I accumulated so much material that I thought I had to start telling people the story of these beers, so that they could be appreciated the way they really deserve to be. The pressure grew and grew, until one day, while on holiday at my in-laws, I sat down and just started writing, to see whether I could make this work. Within a couple of days it was clear that I could. Then, two weeks later, the biggest publisher in Norway called, asking whether I might be interested in writing a book on traditional Norwegian beer. That was an easy question to answer.

I quickly discovered, however, that my knowledge of the history and background of the traditional beer was too limited. I could write about it, but there were too many gaps, and too much I couldn't write about. Nobody had ever really treated the subject in full, so I found I would have to do my own groundwork on it. That set off another round of archive and library digging in the spring of 2015. What I found was another shock, in some ways almost bigger than the first. That research eventually turned my view of what beer is, how it's brewed and served, and the history of the drink, upside down. Very little of that has so far made it into this blog, but the book is my attempt to communicate some of it.

Drinking horn, from Lardal, Telemark (Vest-Telemark Museum)

After that, talking to beer friends about beer was a strange experience for a while, because I no longer saw beer the same way they did. That was a lonely feeling, one I was totally unprepared for, and one that still hasn't completely worn off. I'm hoping the book is going to change that. I know it sounds crazy, but I'm really publishing this book in the hope of changing how my countrymen view what really is their national drink. How that's going to turn out remains to be seen.

So what's in the book? Basically, half of it is descriptions of meetings with farmhouse brewers, and their stories and beers. Most of that has been published on the blog. The other half is historical and brewing background, explaining where farmhouse ale comes from, and how crucially important it was in Norwegian peasant society. There are also chapters that go deeper into traditional malting, traditional yeast (kveik), brewing processes, and the use of herbs, including hops. It's all about Norway. There was a chapter on other countries, but in the end I took it out.

Each dot is an account of farmhouse brewing in a specific place. The colour indicates the data set it originates from.

Once I got started on the research, however, I found I couldn't stop, and now my research has far outstripped what's in the book, especially as regards other countries. Now that the Norwegian book is out I have to consider how on earth I'm going to publish all this stuff. The documentary research alone has material enough to keep this blog going for at least a decade. On top of that comes the journeys that still haven't been published on the blog. And the journeys yet to come. And the archives I haven't yet visited.

How to approach this I haven't yet decided. Clearly there must be an English book, too, that covers all of Europe. Probably there should be articles as well. How and where I don't know yet. Anyway, today that doesn't really matter. I just passed an enormous milestone. For now I'm just going to enjoy that.

So. I've launched this pile of pulped wood and glue out into the world to change people's minds. Maybe it will, and maybe it won't. In any case it's only the first salvo. Whether it works or it doesn't, I don't think my writing can ever convey the delight of these journeys. The beers, the flavours, the places, the people. Even if I had to keep it secret, if given the choice I would do it all over again, just so I could experience it one more time.

(Oh, and if you want the book, go here.)







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Comments

Ed - 2016-09-17 07:20:04

Sounds great! Can't wait for the English book!

J.T. - 2016-09-17 10:44:36

I'd be thrilled to get the current book published in English! I've thoroughly enjoyed, and have been inspired by, reading your blog. This is the kind of book I would study and make plans around.

Dave Pawson - 2016-09-17 11:02:25

I thought you were taking it very seriously Lars! Congratulations! I hope it sells well..

Greg Bowman - 2016-09-17 11:12:33

Great work, Lars, and congratulations. Really enjoy the blog (currently working my way through the articles). And like others look forward to the book being published in English.

Mika Laitinen - 2016-09-18 03:10:14

That is an impressive piece of beer culture! It is worth considering to have this book translated to English before writing that bigger book. If you find a good translator it might not be a huge work for you.

I'm still surprised how hidden this living tradition was. After all, beer writer Michael Jackson visited farmhouse breweries in Norway, Gotland and Finland, but Finnish sahti got the most publicity. Was it because the lack of commercial examples in Norway and Sweden?

I must start planning a visit to Norway.

Nathan - 2016-09-18 07:13:10

Congratulations! I hope to see it advertised in English in the future!

Jay - 2016-09-18 17:33:06

I'll add another confirmed sale for an english translation. Your work has been amazing, and I'd love to have a bound volume on my shelf. I'd rather have a cellar full of the beers you've been able to try, but I'll take a book as a consolation prize. I love your writing style, and I'm fascinated by the totally different brewing cultures you've explored. Coming from the modernized homebrewing culture in the states, it's truly eye-opening to realize how many ways one can really make beer.

Ben - 2016-09-19 11:25:02

Congrats Lars! Also looking forward to an English version

Lars Marius Garshol - 2016-09-20 07:25:48

Thank you all for the kind words. It's really appreciated. :)

I've sent all the requests for an English version (there were a bunch on Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter, too) to the publisher. She sent them to the agency that deals with foreign publishers, and they said they'd look at this right away. That's a slow process, though, so don't hold your breaths, but we're working on it.

noneofyourbusiness - 2016-09-21 03:04:24

Wow, after 2 years you're an "expert" on Norwegian beer and now qualified to turn a blog into a book, just like the other "experts". All built on the endeavors of other peoples hard work, the ethnographers that published your sources and the brewers that kept the traditions alive. And you reap the rewards? Gotta love millennials.

Martynas - 2016-09-21 16:13:02

Congratulations Lars! And, another request to forward to your publisher.

Eirik - 2016-10-01 03:20:15

Thanks for a great book, I'm about half way through at the moment, and a good launch on Thursday.

On my way home afterwards I came to think of Valdres gardsbryggeri and if you've explored the traditions of the area?

I'm wondering because they've got a beer called "Kvek", suspiciously close to "kveik" and they're also brewing a beer called "Brisk", brewed with juniper. I remember drinking these two several times, maybe as long as ten years ago. I also recall they had issues with their beers going sour and undrinkable. I guess it could be because of bad hygiene, but it also makes me think of what you've written about similar issues with some of the traditional farm beers. If I remember that correctly, I can't remember the details around the topic.

I also find it interesting that they've being going strong (apparently) since 1999/2001, quite some time before the Norwegian beer revolution, which makes me wonder if their roots are to be found in old local traditions. Their website gives a tiny clue: "Ølet vårt er brygga på overgjær etter gamle tradisjonar, og liknar mykje på engelsk ”ale”. Råstoffet er reint fjellvatn, malt, humle og gjær".

Lars Marius Garshol - 2016-10-01 04:28:40

@Eirik: Thank you. :)

Yes, I've been wondering about Valdres Gardsbryggeri, too. To me their beers taste like Norwegian versions of English ales, but it is possible that they have some kind of connections to the local brewing tradition. I've seen hints of that before. I don't really know anything about them, to be honest. One of many leads that should be followed up, but haven't been.

@kerr1ck - 2016-10-04 23:30:28

I would add my name to the english translation pile! I've just found your blog a few hours ago linked from Yeast Bay and have just gotten through your series of articles from the farmhouse ale expedition; it's all deeply fascinating research and I'm thankful you're recording it whether it's in a language I can read or no.

joew - 2016-10-11 06:49:49

Congratulations on having the book published! I eagerly await an English version. Keep up the good work. Peace. Joe

Glenn - 2016-10-25 19:12:49

Lars, Great Blog, I too would buy this book. Like a few other, I found my way here via Yeast Bay. I would love to try a Norwegian Farmhouse Ale and think it would be a great project to try real soon. Best Wishes from Canada.

Christine - 2016-10-26 21:15:10

Just finished your book about Lithuanian beers and would LOVE to see your book about Norwegian beers translated into English! Keep up the great work!

Liz - 2016-11-04 13:53:39

I'm seriously considering learning Norwegian to read your book.

Dan - 2016-12-22 07:09:58

Hi,

I haven't read your book yet, so maybe the answers to my questions are there. I've read an article in Nationen about farmhouse ale where it says where there are still living traditions. I'm interested in trying to do it in the olden way (I grow a preindustrial Norwegian barley variety), so it would be interesting to get hold of some traditional yeast. Do you know if the traditional brewers in Ål or Telemark use traditional kveik? Are there any of the kveik- types you have researched that seems to be more original that the others?

Lars Marius Garshol - 2016-12-22 07:34:04

@Kerrick, joew, Glenn, Christine, Liz: Thank you all! :)

@Dan: The brewers in Telemark do not use kveik, but the ones in Ål still have traditional yeast. I tried asking one of them where it came from and he almost couldn't answer the question. He was quiet a long time before he said "...from the previous beer?"

As far as we can tell, all of the kveik cultures are "original" in the sense that they all seem to be real, true descendants of the yeast that Norwegian farmers were using 1-2-3-... centuries ago. So it seems they are all as original as anything can be.

Tailor von Schmitt de Martini - 2016-12-26 15:17:30

I can state this for sure, this book is a work of art!

Per Kornhall - 2017-01-16 15:20:54

As I wrote on Facebook. A very good book indeed! Very well written and well researched. I have now also read some of your posts here and I am very impressed! Keep up the good work!

Per

Tim - 2017-01-20 09:22:03

Hi Lars! Great work you’re doing! People here in Germany are talking so much about the Reinheitsgebot and the „tradition“ of brewing while knowledge and diversity in beer styles is getting lost. You marked a couple of places in the western part of Germany in which farmhouse brewing is/was practiced. Couldn’t find any further information on your blog. Looks like somewhere in Westphalia? Would be grateful for any source or information you have. Cheers!

Lars Marius Garshol - 2017-01-20 10:01:55

Thank you, @Tailor, @Per, and @Tim! :)

@Tim: Yes, it's in Westphalia. There must have been a lot more farmhouse brewing in Germany, but I haven't found any sources yet. For Westphalia, see Bäuerliche und handwerkliche Arbeitsgeräte in Westfalen, Hinrich Siuts, Münster, 1982.

Dan - 2017-04-15 16:16:52

Now I've read the book from start til end and I want to thank you for a wonderful and interesting book that I hope will inspire many to start brewing traditional farmhouse beer. I asked about these brewers in Ål further up, could you give me their contact information? I would like to talk with them about how they brew and if I could get som of their yeast. Have their yeast been analyzed? Are you going to write about how they brew? Do you think there could be more traditional brewers in east- Norway that you haven't discovered? I read an article on nrk.no that NTNU wanted to try to revive som ancient yeast from old beer brewing equipment (https://www.nrk.no/trondelag/vil-brygge-ol-pa-300-ar-gammel-gjaer-1.13198887) Do you know if they managed? You don't write anything in your book about how you should store dry traditional yeast, only dry and frozen or fresh. Is it very risky to just keep it dry without freezing it? Many questions there.

Lars Marius Garshol - 2017-04-15 16:30:32

@Dan: Thank you! Let's try to go through these questions one by one.

I don't really know how keen these brewers in Ål are on being contacted by outsiders. I will brew with one of them next time they brew, in December. I'll see if they are OK with people contacting them then.

As for how they brew: basically they do an infusion mash, then heat the mash in the kettle until it nearly boils (1-2 hours). Then transfer to the strainer, and run off. Boil the wort 5-10 minutes. They boiled the hops in 10-15 liters of the wort (total 70-80 liters). Cool to 35-37C, then pitch the "gong". I'll publish a more careful description later.

They have sent their yeast to NTNU. I don't actually have any. I visited one of them, but didn't dare ask him. I'll try to get some either from NTNU or directly from them in December. Anyway, once I get permission from the brewers I'll share this yeast the same way as the others (via the "Kveik" group on Facebook).

Yes, there could be more brewers in eastern Norway that we don't know about. People have been searching in many areas, but we missed these guys, and we could definitely be missing more.

I know NTNU did successfully get growth from some of their samples, but what we don't know is whether what grew up was contamination or the original kveik. I hope we can find that out later on.

It's not really risky to keep dry yeast in a plastic box or a plastic bag. There's a slight risk of mould growing on it, but once it's dried properly you should be safe. The freezer is far and away the best, though. We've had yeasts come alive again as if they were new after 20 years in the freezer.

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