Brewing in Morgedal

<< 2015-10-29 14:00 >>

The farm

The farmhouse survey showed that brewing in Telemark was still alive in the 1950s, but for a long time I thought it had died out. Then I found a video from the 1980s showing a recreation of farmhouse brewing. And then, on Facebook, I found something called "Morgedal susle og ølbryggarlag". In other words, Morgedal brewing association. Their photos of steaming wood-fired kettles full of juniper left no doubt: farmhouse brewing was still alive. So to learn what was going on and how they were brewing I contacted them via Facebook and invited myself to come and brew with them.

Telemark is noteworthy because it's (as far as I know) the only place in eastern Norway where the brewing has survived. Generally, whenever you cross a mountain barrier of some size, the brewing practices change. Therefore I assumed the brewing here might be different from in western Norway. And so it was.

Parking my car in the farmyard I was met by the two brewers, Halvor Bjåland and Terje Haugen, and Bjørn, who was introduced as a "trainee." Like me, he'd joined the brewers to learn how they brewed. Unusually, they were brewing outside, next to the barn. Normally people have a brewhouse, but in this part of Telemark it was common to brew outside.

Two-kettle setup

Halvor and Terje actually started brewing the night before, when they put the malts into one of the kettles, and then poured cold water from the tap onto it. They then left the mix over night. That sounded like a sour mash to me, so I asked them whether this made the beer sour. They told me that Morgedal is so high up (440 meters above sea level) that the temperature at night was around 4 degrees, so it was too cold for bacteria to get up to any mischief during the night.

Surprisingly, they actually do the mashing in the kettle. In the morning they add hot water from the tap to the kettle, then light a fire under it, and bring the temperature up to 62 degrees. The kettle must contain at least 150 liters of malts and water, so heating it takes hours, even with a good fire going underneath.

Making juniper infusion

At this point you're probably wondering why there is no juniper, but there is. They use two kettles, and while the mash is being heated they make juniper infusion in the other. Unlike Carlo and Sigmund they actually boil the juniper thoroughly, turning it golden instead of the usual very pale green.

This heating to 62 degrees made me curious, so I asked Halvor about it. He tells me they used to go to 35 degrees, then 50, then 62, then 70, and finally 78, but they found that they didn't need the first two steps, so now they skip those. So they actually step mash! I asked them where they learned to brew, and it turns out they learned from one of their neighbours, Aslak Slettemeås. Apparently Aslak had learned to brew from old people in the village, and then taught Halvor and Terje.

So Norwegian farmers worked out for themselves how to do step mashing in the time before thermometers and modern knowledge of enzymes. This impressed me a great deal. It also made me curious: how do you control the temperature of a huge metal kettle heated by fire? As with so many things in farmhouse brewing, the solution to this supposedly tricky problem turned out to be as simple as could be.

Temperature check

Terje kept checking the temperature with a thermometer, and when they reached 62 degrees, he closed the lid on the kettle, and used a snow shovel to move the fire to the other kettle. The kettle is so big, he told me, that it stays pretty much at 62 degrees for the two hours they wait. It wasn't any harder than that.

While the mash waited at 70 degrees, Halvor and Terje brought out two big blue plastic barrels, each with a metal tap near the bottom. These were the strainers. Juniper branches were laid in the bottom, in front of the tap, to act as a filter during the straining. Then, stones were put on top of the juniper, so that the branches wouldn't float up when the mash was added.

The filter in the strainer

The mash was transferred to the strainers by bucket, and the first few buckets had to be carefully lowered into the barrels, and then slowly poured out. Later buckets could be just tipped in, but Terje told me that the first time they did this they'd just tipped in the first buckets, too, which had caused the stones to move. Later, the juniper branches floated up, and the tap was clogged by malts. In the end they'd had to saw off the curved end of the tap so that they could unclog it with sticks. So now they'd learned to be careful.

Once all the mash had been transferred, juniper infusion was added from the other kettle. As we ran off wort, more juniper infusion would be added on top. As usual the wort was run off slowly. Terje and Halvor had no specific rules about the speed, but they'd found that if they ran off too quickly bits of malt and juniper would come out through the tap.

The running

The running isn't really much work, so I spent some of it thumbing through what Halvor calls "the bible." This is their brewing journal, which has records of every brew, with the grist, temperatures, and so on. Then, after each brewing session, there's a page on the "oppskåke." This is the traditional party for the neighbours, held when the beer is finished fermenting and transferred to keg.

I now learned that the word "susle" in the name of the group is local dialect for sipping or light drinking. From the notes in the book, the susle part of the team seems to consist of many more people than the brewing part. And not all of the drinking appears to have been light, either. The book records one "über tasting session," followed by three days of pain and suffering. The guys tell me they've now moved the oppskåke to weekdays, in order to keep the drinking within reasonable limits.

What's run off into the buckets is poured into the main kettle. We counted the buckets run off, making marks in the book. This is how the guys make sure the beer is the right strength. As long as they get the right number of buckets of wort the beer will be the right strength, or close enough. They do have a hydrometer, but they don't actually need it. They bought it because people kept asking them how strong the beer was, and they couldn't answer. So they measured the strength a couple of times, then stopped.

Halvor removing protein scum

Once the first few buckets were in the kettle the fire was lit underneath it again, and we were ready for the boil. The boil was the usual, about 90 minutes, with 250 grams of hops added throughout. They add hops three times, dividing the hops up by hand each time, then noting down 100g, 100g, and 50g in the book. I ask Halvor why they note the weights when they haven't actually weighed the hops, but he just grins. Of course, with about one gram per liter of beer, it hardly matters.

After the boil the wort is cooled with a copper spiral. Then we carry it in buckets into a small dollhouse where the fermenters stand. The children have moved out, so the house might as well make itself useful as brewery, Halvor says. Then, Halvor brings out two containers of yeast, white as milk. It's lab yeast, of course. Once that's pitched we wrap up the fermenters so they won't get too cold, then clean the brewing gear, and put it away.

Hauling wort

I take my leave, and couple of days later, at home I try to put together what I've learned. I dig into the mash steps they used and discover that each one of these correspond perfectly to what's recommended by modern brewing literature. The first two steps are only needed with poorly modified malts, so Halvor and Terje are quite right that they don't need those. The rest at 62 degrees is where beta-amylase is most effective, and the one at 70 is spot on for alpha-amylase. Even the mash-out at 78 degrees is right.

Halvor had explained that Aslak had learned to brew by going round to older people who still knew the art and asking them. And from another source in a village a little higher up I'd heard how his grandma judged the temperature by the sound of the kettle and by the colour of the mash. So for Norwegian peasants in the time before thermometers to have worked out these exact temperatures is amazing! This would be quite the story.

The view from the farm

Then doubts start setting in. It's almost too good to be true, the temperatures being as if straight out of a textbook on brewing. But, on the other hand, Aslak started brewing in 1979. Where would he have found brewing literature then? Could he really have read technical manuals for industrial brewers? That didn't seem very likely. So in the end I call him and just ask him straight out where the mashing temperatures came from.

Aslak just laughs when he hears my question. "Well, you know, when I started brewing I took knowledge from anywhere I could find it," he says. The mash schedule is from Dr Olav Sopps "Making beer and wine at home" (my translation of the title) from 1917, page 74 and 75. Well, d'oh! I'd forgotten about that, probably the only technical book on home brewing published in Norwegian before 1980. And, yep, the mash schedule is there, exactly as I got it from Halvor's and Terje's "bible". So that was my big discovery.

Some weeks later I get a bottle of the beer. Clear pale brown body, medium white head. The aroma isn't very promising, with touches of rubber. The flavour, however, was excellent: sweetish caramel and juniper in a light body, very clear and fresh. The aftertaste has just the right bitter edge to it, adding freshly cut grass and herbs. The carbonation is low, obviously. So it's a really good beer, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the step mashing contributes to the clarity and freshness of the flavour.

But if this isn't how beer was traditionally brewed in Telemark, how did they do it? And why is it the only place in eastern Norway where the brewing has survived? What kind of place is it? We'll look into that in the next posting.

The juniper kettle steaming


To avoid cluttering up the story too much I've left out the details of the recipe. I've recomputed the figures to fit 25 liters of beer.

The grist:

The hop schedule is below, but I computed the IBU to be 10, so I doubt following this in detail is necessary.

Start the night before by pouring cold water from the tap onto the malts in the kettle. Leave it cold over night, well below 15C. Then, add hot water from the tap in the morning, then raise the temperature to 62C. Leave for two hours. Then heat to 70C, leave for 1 hour. Then raise the temperature to 78C and transfer the mash to the lautering tun, which should be lined with juniper.

Now sparge with boiling hot juniper infusion, which should have boiled for an hour or so. The juniper kettle you can cram pretty full of juniper branches. How much juniper infusion to use relative to the water is a matter of personal preference, but it seemed to me like it was roughly 50/50. Beware that less juniper will mean you'll need more hops to keep the beer balanced.

The OG of the wort was 1074, and I assume the FG was about 1018, which gives a beer of about 7.3% ABV. For fermentation, any clean ale yeast will do. Pitched at 20C, left to ferment for about a week.

Beer bowl dated 1720, West-Telemark Museum

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Halvor Bjåland - 2015-10-29 13:17:46

Tøft og fine bilde -- virkelig fint avsnitt om Suslelaget! Du er velkommen opptatt til våren når me skal brygge på nytt. Snakkast Halvor

Bill - 2015-10-29 13:19:13

Great write up! (Would love a photo of the beer in a glass!)

Lars Marius - 2015-10-29 13:38:07

@Halvor: Takk for det. :)

@Bill: Yeah, sorry about that. I tasted the beer one evening at home with guests, and in the end I was too busy catering to the guest, so I completely forgot. Kind of embarrassing now.

Andrew Rathband - 2015-10-30 15:09:19

Funny with the step mashing. Decoction mashing might have originally stepped out as a method of doing step mashing and for using bad malt. Sounds like it could have been good beer (64/65 works better as the main step though).

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