The first item on the RBNAG'07 agenda was a visit to the Nøgne Ø brewery in Grimstad for a tasting of their Christmas beers. I guess this is a good time to say something about Nøgne Ø, before I go on to talk about the tasting itself.
The name has had many people wondering, so I guess it's worth explaining. It derives from the first two lines of the famous poem Terje Vigen by Henrik Ibsen. The background for the poem is the English blockade of Norway in 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars. A family is starving because of the blockade, and the husband (Terje Vigen) tries to run the blockade by rowing single-handedly to Denmark to smuggle food home. The initial two lines refer to "a strange gray-haired one, living on the outermost naked isle", and the gray-haired one is of course Terje Vigen. In the old-fashioned Norwegian in which the poem is written, "naked isle" comes out as "nøgne ø".
The main person behind Nøgne Ø is definitely Kjetil Jikiun, an SAS pilot who developed a taste for interesting and challenging beers in US pubs and brewpubs on his layovers there. Unsurprisingly, he developed a taste for English-derived US styles, and particularly sharp and hoppy beers. For many years he was well known to the customs agents at his local airport in Kristiansand for his huge, heavy suitcase which was invariably wrapped in chains and full of imported US microbrews.
He was also a home brewer, and did very well in the Norwegian home brewing competition. I guess this was part of the inspiration for starting a micro brewery, which he did in the autumn of 2002 together with another home brewer, Gunnar Wiig.
Geir Ove and I were very excited on hearing about the start of the brewery that autumn. In 2002 the state of Norwegian beer could be summed up in one word: sad. There were 4-5 major brewers in Norway, all brewing lots of boring industrial pale lagers, plus a couple of darker beers, and Christmas beers. That was the entire Norwegian beer scene, unless you count a couple of brewpubs, which were not particularly good. This should be emphasized: there were only four types of Norwegian-made beers you could purchase in bottle: industrial pale lager, dark lagers (called "bayer" in Norway), dark bocks ("bokk"), and the Christmas beers, which I guess are close to viennas. And that really was it. No wheat beers, of any kind, no porter or stout, and, in fact, no ales of any sort, unless they were imported.
Then Nøgne Ø burst onto the scene with an initial offering of some 10-13 different beer types, thus single-handedly expanding the number of beer types made in Norway by a factor of 3 or 4. In the beginning the beers were not easy to get hold of, and I purchased my first bottles in a shop in Grimstad whenever I was there, which wasn't too often. Then, eventually, some of their beers were picked up by the Norwegian state liquor monopoly stores (Vinmonopolet) and distributed all over Norway.
I remember attending a talk by Kjetil Jikiun around this time at the Norwegian homebrewing championship in Oslo, where he talked about the brewery. One of their biggest initial problems had been to actually put together a brewery. They did not have very much capital, and in Norway it was more or less impossible to find equipment for small breweries, anyway, given how few existed. They therefore scavenged old dairy equipment and constructed a mostly manually operated brewery from this. I recall being told that their whirlpool had to be whirled by means of a steel paddle, for example.
The brewery has been a phenomenal success, expanding from an output of 30,000 liters in 2003 to an expected output of 2,500,000 liters in 2007. They have also received much critical praise from beer critics, wine critics, and on web sites like RateBeer.com. They've now moved to a new location with a much more modern brewery, and have become much more a real company with employees, and less of a spare-time operation run by enthusiasts. Although anyone who talks to Kjetil Jikiun for any amount of time will see that the enthusiasm is definitely still there.
70% of their production is exported, but the remaining 30% are enough to make drinking beer in Norway a much more rewarding experience than it used to be. Of course, Nøgne Ø have inspired a number of other microbrewers to start brewing as well, which has further improved matters. And now most of the industrial breweries have started offering new beer types. Today, I can actually buy high-quality microbrewed Norwegian beer in my local stores. In 2002 this was almost unimaginable. Much of the credit for this is due to Nøgne Ø.
Nøgne Ø beers
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