Traditional Nordic beer

<< 2010-01-16 14:48 >>

Near Sogndal, western Norway

In the Nordic countries there is a whole style of brewing that has so far almost completely escaped the attention of beer enthusiasts, although some tips of the iceberg are showing above the surface here and there, if you look carefully. I'm referring to the traditional homebrewers, who have just about nothing in common with the new wave of US-inspired home brewers. What makes these brewers so interesting is that the beers they brew belong to styles that are almost completely unknown outside of these communities.

Some background

I suppose in some sort of subconscious way most people are aware that historically, in the countries north of the grain/grape divide, every household brewed its own beer. Eventually, of course, people started to buy their foodstuffs instead of producing them themselves, and as this happened homebrewed beer was gradually displaced by industrial beer. Except that, out in the countryside, homebrewing never went completely extinct, at least here in the Nordic countries.

We all know about homebrewing, of course, but this is something different. These people are not making porters, altbiers, or trippels. In fact, I would think that most of them are not even aware of the existence of these beer styles, because this is people who are continuing an older tradition. What they brew is the beer styles that have always been brewed in their local region, using the methods that have always been used there. Of course, the exact details of the styles and methods change slowly over time, in much the same way that language, fashion, cuisine, and everything else changes over time.

It was only gradually that I became aware of the existence of this tradition. I remember my own grandfather making his own beer. I tasted some of it as a child, but can barely remember what it tasted like, except that it didn't have much alcohol. I can also remember my father describing the brew as unusually potent, from which I deduce that he must have brewed more than one style. Later I read Michael Jackson's stories about visiting traditional brewers in western Norway, and about Finnish sahti. Later more stories followed.

It was only this summer, however, that I realized how widespread the phenomenon really is. Michael Jackson visited Voss (in Sogn), and seemed to claim that this sort of brewing was only done there. Anders Christensen has written about the brewing in Stjørdalen (in Trøndelag). Then there is my grandfather (in Sunnmøre). But this summer one of my uncles was telling me about how there were several home brewing guilds around his home town (Sogndal in Sogn), and I realized that this must be a lot more widespread that what's so far been described in what you could, I suppose, call "the beer literature".

Then, for Christmas, my wife gave me "Alle tiders øl", by Per Kølster (of Fuglbjerggaard brewery), a Danish book about beer. The last half of it is dedicated to the traditional Nordic brewers, and describes visits to such brewers in Denmark (Funen / Fyn), Sweden (Gotland), Norway (Trøndelag), Finland, and (surprisingly) Lithuania, where he goes to see how they brew their beers. And suddenly I realized that this was not just a Norwegian phenomenon, and also that this was really a single brewing tradition which had developed in different ways in different places.

About the beer

Svendborg, Funen, Denmark

The first surprise is that these brewers mostly malt their own grain, using traditional equipment and methods. The resulting malts are mostly darkish and mostly at least somewhat smoky. However, they will sometimes buy commercial malts to complement the traditional malts.

The second surprise is the yeast. Most of these brewers use ordinary baking yeast, of the sort that you use to bake bread. It produces CO2 and alcohol exactly as expected, and also lends some rather unusual flavours to the beer. This is a modern development, however, and one which hasn't occurred everywhere. In some places the brewers still maintain local yeast cultures shared between the brewers.

Thirdly, there is the juniper twigs. I knew them from sahti, but in fact nearly all of these brewers use them for both flavouring and some basic filtering. This is one of the pecularities that seem to indicate that there really is a shared origin for this tradition.

Below is a rough table summarizing the ingredients used by the different brewers. As you can see, there are quite a few similarities, and also some variation. The Lithuanian brew seems very different from the others, and the Danish traditions seems very modernized. Other than that, the commonalities are striking.

Where Fermentables Yeast Spice
Denmark Commercial malts + sugar Brewer's yeast Commercial hops
Sweden Home-made malts (partly smoked) Baker's yeast Commercial hops, juniper twigs
Norway (PK) Home-made malts (partly smoked) + sugar Baker's yeast Pharmacy hops (Lupuli flos), juniper twigs
Norway (MJ) Home-made malts (partly smoked) Local yeast Juniper twigs
Norway (AC) Home-made malts (very smoked) Baker's yeast or lager yeast A little hops
Finland Commercial malts + rye + sugar Baker's yeast Juniper twigs, a little hops
Lithuania Home-made malts + sugar Local yeast Lots of hops

Where can I try it?

I'm not sure you can try it, actually. Sahti is probably the easiest to get hold of as it can be bought in some Finnish Alko stores and some pubs. It doesn't keep very well (very little hops), so I doubt it's found outside of Finland. There is a festival for Norwegian home brew in Stjørdalen, which is open to the public, but as it's arranged on the 26th of December you need to be fairly dedicated to go there. There is also a Norwegian micro beer called Ølve på Egge, which is not entirely dissimilar to these beers, but it's near-impossible to find. Other than that it seems you need to approach one of the brewers and ask nicely. How to find a brewer? I have no idea.

Helsinki cathedral

If you do get hold of one of these beers, you may be in for something of a shock. Sahti, for example, does not taste even remotely like any other beer I've tried. And as for the Norwegian Stjørdalsøl, one anecdote may illustrate. One such beer was entered for the Norwegian home brewing competition in 2009. It finished nearly last, and the judges (who had tried most beer styles in existence) put comments like "intensely smoky", "concentrated railroad tie" (lots of tar and creosote), "burnt rubber boot", etc on their judging sheets.

A discussion started after the competition on whether it was fair to give the beer such a harsh score when, the brewers claimed, it adhered so faithfully to the traditional style. The organizers' replies pretty much amounted to (a) nobody could verify that as nobody had tried this style of beer, and (b) it didn't do so well on the subjective part of the judging.

To me it seems a real shame that this extremely interesting beer tradition should be so obscure and unapproachable, but I'm not sure what can be done about it. It would be fantastic to see some of the Norwegian/Swedish/Danish microbrewers picking up on these styles in the way that the Finns have done with Sahti, but of course it's not entirely clear whether there would be much commercial demand for such a beer. What is clear is that I would dearly love to try it myself, if I could.

Update: It turns out that the Lithuanian variety is easily available in Vilnius.

Update 2: And the Norwegian variety is available outside of Trondheim.

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Barry M - 2010-01-16 09:22:52

That sounds fascinating, and brilliant that it seems like such a vibrant tradition, yet seems to have been almost a secret from the "outside world". Would love to try some of those.

Rob Weir - 2010-01-17 10:09:41

Interesting. As you probably know, hops did not become the dominate "spice" in beer until relatively modern times (16th century). Before then there was a great diversity of additives used, including heather, spruce, juniper and an herbal combination called "gruit".

It is hard to know exactly what these ales tasted like because some of the traditional ingredients are now known to be psychotropic or even toxic.

There is a good book, "Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation" by Stephen Buhner, that covers many of these traditions.

Svein ělnes - 2010-03-03 12:07:49

It shouldn't be that difficult to have a taste. There are quite a few beer guilds in Sogndal and nearby, but you probably need to know one of the members to get access..

Occasionally I get a sample of the season's beer from a guild nearby. I'll save a small part for you next time.

Nice picture, by the way :-)

Lars Marius - 2010-03-03 12:35:10

Rob: I'd really like to try some of these ancient beers, but as you say in practice it's more or less impossible. Anyway, the book sounds good. I'll check it out!

Svein: If you live in Sogndal it's not that hard, but few people do. :) Anyway, if you could get me a sample I would appreciate that very much.

I thought you'd notice that your house is in the middle of that picture... :)

Svein ělnes - 2010-03-04 06:18:55

Actually my house isn't shown on the picture, it's on "the other side" ;-)

erik fries - 2010-06-15 16:21:13

Ive been wanting to try and brew a tradional ale like the ones described here for a while. I am an avid homebrewer here in the states and after reading Michael Jackson's article about the two sisters really peaked my interest. Ive tried the commercial beer Norwegian Wood and enjoyed it. I thought perhaps i could use my smoker and smoke some of my 2 row barley to get the smokey flavor of the kiln. Any ideas on what percentage of smoke malt to use to achieve this. my email is if you have any ideas i would be very interested in hearing them. There is also the issue of yeast. SHould i use just basic red star brewers yeast or may just use a dry ale yeast. thanks


Tanguy Sauvin - 2010-08-26 12:45:01

Do they produce their own grain ? They have fields just next to the breweries ?

I have to go there in one month, I will take a look at this.

Lars Marius - 2010-08-27 03:30:18

Tanguy: it varies. Some traditional brewers malt their own grain, whereas others buy commercial malts. The ones that buy malts probably produce beer that's far less interesting.

Bailey - 2011-07-29 11:09:44

Pharmacy hops? Our local health food store sells bags of "Hops" (no more information provided) -- I wonder if that's the same thing?

Lars Marius - 2011-07-29 11:47:22

@Bailey: I don't really know anything more than what the book said. I guess you could ask at the pharmacy whether it's "Lupuli flos". If they say "yes" then it would seem safe to assume they really are the same.

LambikLadyUSA - 2014-09-04 22:57:36

Lars, thank you for providing fascinating reading for the past couple hours. Your photos are wonderful, too. Very happy to have crawled my way to your weblog! Regards from a Norwegian-American, Tina W.

Richard Wickberg - 2015-10-15 23:23:58

I feel myself quite lucky. A new micro brewery opened near my home in Spokane featuring small batch brewing and specializes in Scandinavian droughts. I've tasted both Swedish and Norwegian brews. The name, Bellwether Brewing Co. Spokane WA.

Kukkopena - 2016-06-07 09:29:17

No sugar in finnish sahti!

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