Norwegian farmhouse ale styles
Posted in Beer on 2017-01-19 19:23
Juniper branch floating in the kettle, Aga, Hardanger
People are confused over what to call Norwegian farmhouse ale and what styles there are. So this is my attempt to clear things up as far as I can. This blog post is about the beers as they are today. The past is much more complicated, and I've covered it earlier.
The Finns and the Swedes have taken a simple approach. In Sweden the brewing is only alive in Gotland (we think), so the beer is called gotlandsdricke. In Finland it's all lumped under the label sahti, even though that "style" probably hides several different styles. Here in Norway we really don't have a single style. Using a single style for Norway would be like claiming rauchbier, barley wine, and Berliner Weisse is the same thing.
In Norway the farmhouse ale used to be called "maltøl" in most of the country. The name simply means "malt beer," which might seem odd, since the definition of beer is that it's made from malts. However, a century ago "øl" (beer) was used for many different drinks: maltøl, sirupsøl (syrup beer), bjørkesevjeøl (birch sap beer), sukkerøl (sugar beer), and so on. In each case, the modifier in front stated what the fermentable was. It seems these were all considered beer simply because they were weaker than wine. In any case "maltøl" was the beer made from malts.
Let me make one thing very clear: kveik is the yeast, not the beer. If you want to say "Norwegian farmhouse ale" in Norwegian, then call it "maltøl." However, that's a bit like saying "English ale" or "Belgian beer". There are several styles, and they're very different from one another.
Map of the three styles
To summarize, these are the three styles, all of them variants of maltøl:
- Stjørdalsøl: From darkish, smoked home-made malts, with commercial yeast.
- Kornøl: Pale, hazy, sweet, fruity raw ale with kveik and juniper flavour.
- Vossaøl: Clearish, dark red or brown, sweetish fruity ale with juniper flavour. Kveik and long boil.
Of course, there's a bit more to it than this, so let's have a closer look.
In the Stjørdalen area there are literally hundreds of brewers, nearly all of whom make their own malts using a malt house called a "såinnhus." They all use local barley, which when malted in the såinnhus makes deep dark red or brown beer with a strong alder smoke aroma. Juniper infusion used to be traditional, but many people have stopped using it. Hops are used by most brewers, but you can't really detect much hop flavour in the beer. Many people add sugar to the beer.
There is no kveik in Stjørdalen. As far as we can tell it died out in the 1970s. Most people use either Idun Blå bread yeast, or they get lager yeast from the local macro brewery of E.C. Dahl's, which they hand out very cheaply. Some use ale yeast from home brewing shops, too.
As for brewing process, that varies quite a lot. Some brew raw ale, although that seems to be dying out. Some do decoction mashing by running off wort, heating it, and then pouring it back on. Step mashing has also been used. And some brew in the normal way, with infusion mashing and then a 1-hour boil. There doesn't really seem to be any system in this, so here I just have to capitulate and admit that the brewing processes vary dramatically within this pretty small district.
All of these beers are fairly sweet, and with only light, natural carbonation. Alcohol strength I'm not sure of, since the brewers mostly don't measure, and it's hard to calculate the yield from their home-made malts, but it seems to lie mostly in the 6.5-8.5% range.
As far as the flavour goes, there is astonishing variety. You'd think that since they all use barley from the same area and the same malting gear they'd get similar flavours, but that's not the case at all. Anyway, to paint a thumbnail sketch: clear alder smoke aroma, sometimes ashy, sometimes burnt. Often lingonberry and toffee flavours, too. Juniper flavour is quite common. The yeast character tends to not be very noticeable, the malts generally run the show. Low bitterness.
Blog posts from Stjørdalen (more coming soon):
Kornøl from Hornindal
In this area the brewers all brew in remarkably similar ways, and they all call it "kornøl", which people don't do anywhere else. So this style has to be named "kornøl", which means "corn (grain) ale." It's brewed in northwestern Norway, in Nordfjord and Sunnmøre, to some degree also Sunnfjord. Basically the northernmost blue area in this map.
Historically, sun-drying the malts was very common in this area, and perhaps that's why people today seem to near-exclusively brew pale beer. The brewing process seems to be nearly all like the raw ale from Hornindal, even if some people have started boiling the wort. Juniper infusion is universally used, and everyone uses hops, but not very much, and not everyone boils the hops. Of the traditional brewers, most seem to have their own kveik, and the flavours from these vary quite a bit.
All the beers are fairly sweet, even if a few are lightly acidic, and again there is only light carbonation. Alcohol strength again appears to be 6-8%, based on the limited evidence we have. Common flavours are strong grainy flavours from the malts, juniper, and fruity flavours from the kveik. Some kveiks make a strange, milky caramel-like flavour. There is barely any hop character, and the balancing bitterness comes mainly from the juniper.
Blog posts about kornøl (more coming on this, too):
The area around Voss has lots of farmhouse brewers, and they all appear to brew pretty much the same way. People here seem to have started calling the beer "heimabrygg" (home brew), but that name is used elsewhere, too, so using "vossaøl" (Voss beer) seems better. That name is also widely used, although probably mostly outside of Voss.
According to Odd Nordland, there were two main methods of drying the malts in Voss: sun-drying and drying with heat and smoke. Today, people have given up on making their own malts, and nearly all seem to use pilsner malts.
The brewing process is a long infusion mash, often several hours, followed by several hours of boiling to darken and condense the wort. Juniper infusion and hops are universally used. Most brewers still seem to use kveik.
The resulting beers are generally deep dark red, usually fairly clear, with very low, natural carbonation. Flavours tend to be fruity (oranges) from the kveik, juniper, complex caramel from the boil, with light to medium hop bitterness. On alcohol strength I have little evidence, but I would guess these are mostly stronger than the other two styles. Sigmund's beer is usually 8.5%.
Blog posts about Voss:
- Brewing with Sigmund
- Eating burnt sheep's head
- Voss - farmhouse ale central
- Voss bryggeri (commercial brewery)
These three styles cover the three main kinds of farmhouse ale that's brewed in Norway today, but there are many others. The brewing in Sogn and Hardanger appears to be very similar to that in Voss, but fewer people have kveik, they often use darker malts, and they tend not to boil as long. It could be that these should all be folded into a single style, but I'm not sure. My evidence so far is pretty limited.
The brewing in Telemark is completely different, but I don't know how much of it there is, or how similar the beers are, so again I can't say much.
There is also brewing in Hallingdal, but I don't know how many brewers there are in that area, and I've never tasted any of the beers, so I'll have to let these be for now.
There is also a good bit of brewing in the regions around Stjørdal, particularly in Oppdal, but I don't know much about it at this point.
In reality we are very likely looking at four styles at the very least, perhaps more, but at this point I'm only in a position to describe three styles. I'm hoping that will change with time.
This seems like a good time to summarize what I've learned about Norwegian farmhouse ale during and after the May trip
Read | 2014-10-11 13:20
It's a well-kept secret that in Norway there exists a homebrewing tradition completely separate from the modern homebrewing that's taken off in the last few decades
Read | 2013-10-27 13:24
Dan Pixley - 2017-01-19 17:19:13
Thanks for the clarifications again, Lars!
One thing that stuck out to me is the meaning of the word "Kornøl" as being "corn beer". Yet there is no mention of corn or maize in the recipes in your other posts. Most seem to be using pilsner and/or pale malt. Also I didn't see any information regarding corn on this post: http://www.garshol.priv.no/blog/330.html
What do you think the origin of this word is? Was corn used at some point, and perhaps phased out in favor for pure barley or substituted for oats?
Alec Latham - 2017-01-19 17:39:27
As ever, this is an education and makes me think foremost of some of Michael Jackson's early writings about the variety of beer styles in Belgium. Did you know Juniper is the root word for gin, Jennifer and even Geneva is Switzerland? It's one of the most culturally important plants there is. I'm assuming the beers you list must have been very seasonal? Can malt be grown in Norway (or northern Europe generally) outside of Spring/Summer?
Lars Marius Garshol - 2017-01-20 00:58:36
@Dan: I was using "corn" in the British sense of grain. That's why I wrote "corn (grain) ale". Sorry about the confusion. Maize ale as farmhouse ale in Europe is an impossibility, since there never was any maize growing here. The reason I chose that translation was (a) it's similar to the Norwegian sound, and (b) in Orkney they use "corn ale" with the exact same meaning.
@Alec: (Thank you!) Yes, the connection with gin/genever has puzzled me, and I keep wondering whether there's something more to it, but so far I haven't found any connection. And it's true that juniper is a culturally deeply significant plant. The chief Norwegian ethno-botanist, Ove Arbo Høeg, called it "the most useful wild plant in Norway". We'll be getting back to that.
As for seasonality, grain and malts will keep for several years. So people could brew any time they wanted to, but generally in Norway they brewed 2-3 times a year for Christmas, harvest, and perhaps summer. In addition, they'd brew for special events like a wedding or a funeral.
Bosh - 2017-01-24 09:02:30
Just want to say how much I love this blog. It's my favorite brew blog against some very stiff competition. Just the idea that people are brewing beer right now of a style that isn't known basically anywhere outside of their local community just blows my mind.
Makes me happy that, living in Korea, the Korean equivalent of farmhouse ale, makgeolli, has made a comeback. It's a sour rice beer made with mold, bacteria and different yeast species that looks like cloudy milk and tastes like nothing else in the world.