Voss - farmhouse ale central

<< 2014-07-20 15:32 >>

Haugo Utleige, where we stayed

We'd booked a camping cabin in Voss, but because of confusion over the booking, we were moved into a huge house with lots of rooms instead. It was really quite luxurious, and there was nobody else there, so we felt like kings. We moved in, and filled up the fridge with all the craft beer we'd bought in Bergen. As I'd gotten a little carried away during the shopping, this was actually an almost embarrassing amount. (This is part 3 of the Norwegian farmhouse ale trip.)

When the owner heard we were visiting traditional brewers, he said "I used to brew, myself." It turned out he did have his own brewery with a big copper kettle and all the other stuff. He even had his own hop garden. I was about to run out to look at it when he clarified that it wasn't there any more.

So why did he stop brewing, I wondered? "It was too much beer," he said. That may sound odd, but remember that in Voss batches are 150 liters or more. That really is quite a lot of beer, and it's all a single style. You can get tired of it. "Brewing has really seen a revival lately," he added. "But now they measure the alcohol and everything with instruments and stuff." He shook his head in distaste. Modern home brewing with precision measuring of FG and OG and so on clearly didn't seem right to him.

That evening we sat on the veranda outside the house, watching the view and tasting Norwegian craft beer. Some of them were brewed to imitate the tradition, but for the most part this went no further than the use of juniper infusion. Mostly the beers were not really that successful, and one was even infected. Many of the professionally brewed beers I've tasted with juniper infusion have had a harsh, grating quality to the bitterness, so it may be that using juniper infusion in modern equipment and batch sizes is difficult.

Beer tasting

Much of the talk centered around all the open questions we had. Were all the kveik strains in Voss similar? Was it really just one strain, given how much sharing there obviously was? Did it exist elsewhere? Was it true as Ivar Løne said that there was kveik in Hardanger? Could it exist in Sunnmøre, too? If so, would those be completely different? I repeatedly expressed my frustration that we were going north, instead of south to Hardanger, but obviously it was too late to do anything about that.

We turn in, for a good night's sleep, and finally a chance to sleep a little longer, since the next day's schedule was quite relaxed. And then I'm woken at 0730, by desperate hammering on my door. "Lars! Lars! Come quick!" It's Martin. I'd really like to sleep longer rather than rushing off yet again, so I try stalling and ask what it is. "There's a home brewer from Hardanger in the kitchen!" Now that got me out of bed.

Apparently Martin was having breakfast when the home brewer, whose name is Ove, walks into the kitchen. Ove opens the fridge, takes a step back when he sees it's totally packed with craft beer, then asks "so... you like beer?" Obviously a conversation begins, the purpose of the trip is revealed, and Ove admits to being a traditional brewer. At which point Martin decides I won't want to miss this.

Voss from above

According to Ove there is a good bit of traditional brewing going on in Hardanger, especially in Odda. He's part of a group of five guys who brew together. They use a big steel kettle over a wood fire, boil for three hours, reducing the wort by about 10%, and mash for three hours. So it's clearly very similar to the brewing in Voss. They use commercial malts, hops, and yeast, having given up on kveik. One of the guys in the group didn't like this, and preferred the flavour from the kveik. But lab yeast was so much easier, basically. Anyway, he'd had home brew made with kveik 2-3 years ago, so it might still exist.

On our way out of Voss we stop by Sjur Rørlien, another home brewer. He confirms that fermentation temperatures of 43-44C are common here. He says the different kveik strains all have similar aromas, but that they are individually different. Everyone has been exchanging kveik with everyone else, so the strains are well mixed up. He also says that in Sogn the raw ale (made from unboiled wort) still lives. That's another piece we missed in our research.

Finally, as we're leaving, he gives us another of those one-litre plastic bottles of home brew. This one made by his father's best friend, who turns out to be the very same Svein Rivenes that Michael Jackson visited in 1993. We thank him, and take the beer with us. That same evening, in Flåm we pour the bottle over in a glass decanter (there's no CO2 anyway) and do a tasting of it.

Svein Rivenes's beer

In the glass it looks just like the other Voss home brews. The aroma is nice, delicately fruity caramel, with cereals in the background. Then we taste it, and burst out laughing. Martin and I just look at each other. Then we taste it again. After much shaking of heads and exclamations of "what the ...", we taste it again. Then we agree it's world class. Easily one of the best beers ever made in Norway. I'd put it in the top three.

The taste is well-balanced dryness and sweetness, with soft delicate orange rind at the fore, blending in with notes of wild berries and juniper. The end is drier, and brings up caramel, grain, and rye, blending silkily smooth into the dominant orange peel. It's a real masterpiece of a beer, where all the flavours blend together exactly right. And the main part is, once again, the kveik character.

We're really staggered by this find and really regret leaving Voss. What other masterpieces might be hiding there that nobody knows about? What about the beer in Hardanger? Or perhaps other places nearby? So much to find out, and so little time to do it in. That's really the refrain for the whole trip.

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Comments - 2017-07-11 11:12:07

Great piece of information! I'm in the way to Voss today and want to try some of the traditional beers. Any tips where I can find them to buy?

Lars Marius Garshol - 2017-07-12 08:02:42

@Luciano: Sorry, I was on holiday, so I only saw your comment now.

Basically, the true farmhouse ale is not for sale. It's all homebrew.

The exception is the beers Voss Bryggeri makes, and those are in varying degrees of authenticity. Some are just craft beer with kveik, and one is a serious attempt to reproduce something close to the farmhouse ales in a commercial context.

On top of that there is the beer you can get for free at Smalahovetunet if you book a dinner there.

That really is all there is. Unfortunately.

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