Berm: Yeast from Upper Telemark

<< 2024-04-03 21:09 >>

Landscape in Tuddal, upper Telemark

I was doing a talk about kveik in Oslo, when one of the audience members afterwards said that in his home village people also had their own yeast, but they called it "berm". This, he said, was in Atrå, a small place in upper Telemark. Looking at the map I found that it was indeed very small, and as high up as you can get before the central mountain plain where nobody lives.

Telemark is in Eastern Norway, and at that point most people associated farmhouse yeast with kveik, which comes from Western Norway. We had, however, also collected "gong", which we presumed was farmhouse yeast from Eastern Norway. That was from Ål in Hallingdal, about 75 kilometers north of Atrå.

75 kilometers may sound like it's close, but in this terrain it's really not. The fastest route is over two mountain crossings on tiny side roads, making it very slow. If you want to follow the major roads from Atrå to Ål you're going to have to make a giant detour and the trip will suddenly be 300 kilometers.

But this was exciting! If they had farmhouse yeast in Ål, they might have it in Atrå, too. But how to get hold of it? The person who attended my talk never got back in touch with me, so this was kind of hard to follow up.

Atrå church, built in 1836, replacing an earlier stave church that the village people tore down

Then I stumbled across a guy on Facebook who had gotten hold of farmhouse yeast from a neighbour. In Atrå, as it turned out. He told me that several people locally had their own yeast. It was usually pitched at 30 degrees C, and everyone thought it was "old", whatever they meant by that.

Then came the surprise: nobody in the village brews in the traditional way any more. Those who brew use malt extract, but they still keep the yeast. This was very unexpected: a village with no brewing tradition, but they did have their own farmhouse yeast? Could this yeast really be genuine?

I decided I would have to investigate. The following summer I was on holiday in Telemark with my family, and decided it was a good time. Via the Facebook contact I had gotten some names and phone numbers, so while on holiday I tried calling them to see if I could meet any of them.

First I tried Marit Røysland. She'd be happy to meet me, she said, but they were not at home. They were at the "seter". There's no real English equivalent, but historically, in order to have enough fodder for their animals, people used to move them to the "seter" in the summer. This was a separate farm, but one so high up in the mountains that they couldn't grow grain there. Today fodder for the animals is something you buy, so hardly anyone actually uses the seter any more. But Marit did. So I decided to go there.

The town of Rjukan down in the valley, with mount Gaustatoppen behind it

I couldn't drive directly there, because there was a giant mountain in between. On the photo above, I was behind and left of that mountain peak, while Marit's seter is in front of the mountain, slightly to the right. To get there I had to come down into the valley in front of the mountain, a drop of about 600 meters, drive through the town of Rjukan and out of the photo to the right, up out of the valley again. Then back along the edge of the valley (coming out of the right-hand side of the photo), and finally up to the farm.

As I drove the last stretch along the edge of the valley I could glimpse between the trees the town of Rjukan 600 meters directly below me. This was just a dirt road, with no railings or anything, so I took care to drive carefully.

The seter with the mountain behind it, with lambs visible in the shade if you look carefully

The seter, when I got there, was as idyllic as it could be: 2-3 old houses nestled under the peak of mount Gaustatoppen stabbing the sky. A group of lambs were lying in the shade cast by an outbuilding, raising their heads to stare at me as I walked past. I found Marit, and we sat down to talk.

Marit explained that they really were using this place as a seter. They'd come up with all the animals in a huge transport truck the day before. I shuddered at the thought of driving a truck that size up there, but said nothing. They tried to do things the old way, she said, milking the cows every day, and then preserving the milk by making two cheeses from it. Later in the season, once it was ripe, they would sell the cheese to people passing by.

The brewer wasn't really her, Marit said, but her aunt, Sanne, who was then 97 years old. Marit said she mainly brews to help Sanne with the heavy lifting, then added "but really I think she could do it all herself. She's something to herself, Sanne is." Originally they used yeast that Sanne inherited, but about four years ago there was a problem, and it wouldn't start. So that year they got new yeast from another local brewer, Henry Gunleiksrud.

Marit being interrupted by an inquisitive cow

While we were talking one of the cows came over and started licking Marit's arms. Marit petted it and spoke calmingly to it. "It seems like it's curious," I said. "Yeah," laughed Marit, "she wants to know what's going on."

Marit said she'd heard that there was a lot of interest in this yeast. One neighbour had even posted about her and it on Facebook. She herself didn't think it was very special. As she said, earlier every single farm used to have its own yeast. I told her that while that was true, very, very few people still had their own yeast, and the yeast that people did have had so far proved to be exceptional, to say the least. In fact, in years of searching I hadn't managed to find that many yeasts.

Marit nodded thoughtfully at that, and said she understood.

I tried to ask a little about the brewing, and she said they make about 250 liters each time, for the whole family. They make a starter to see if the berm is good, then pitch it at 37 degrees. Now that sounded familiar! The fermentor stands on a heated floor in the cellar while it ferments. They used it wrap it in duvets, but now that the floor is heated they don't need to any more.

Marit didn't know about any other people brewing in the area, except for Henry, whom she got the yeast from. We chatted a bit more about this and that, only interrupted by the lambs who earlier lay in the shade, coming by to see what was up. Eventually I had to leave, and drove off.

Lambs wondering what's up

A few days later I decided I had better try Henry Gunleiksrud, to see if I could learn more from him. He was at home, he said, and I would be welcome to drop by. Finding the right house was not trivial, but eventually I parked in front of his house, to find him sitting at a table in front of the house, drinking coffee with a pair of binoculars next to him. He said he was looking for eagles, as he'd seen one earlier that day. There were a lot of eagles in the area, he said. A couple of years ago one had eaten his cat, right in the yard in front of the house.

Henry said he, too, was brewing from malt extract, using berm he got from his grandmother in 1994. He'd been using the same one since. His uncle and brother also brewed, and they'd also gotten the berm from his grandma. Where she had it from he didn't know. All of them brewed for Christmas every year. He really liked the beer, so for him this was a necessary preparation for Christmas.

Henry, his brother, and his uncle all come from the farm Mårem in Atrå, so the yeast has been named Mårem after the farm.

Henry Gunleiksrud with his berm, FY #54

I wanted to see the berm, so Henry brought it out. He kept it in two paper cups in a cupboard, clearly marked "BERM". He'd also written on what batches the berm was from. Henry didn't know of any other brewers, either, except Marit and Sanne plus his brother and uncle. So it seemed that really was it.

I eventually thanked Henry for the chat, and drove off.

There the issue stood for a while, but eventually another lead started heating up. Other people had been talking about berm from Atrå, and eventually one of them brought up a new name: Jan Arne Skjold. He was not a farmhouse brewer, it turned out, but had gotten the yeast from his aunt. They didn't quite know where it was from, except it was somewhere in Tinn county, the same county as Atrå. Because of that they called it Tinn X.

I managed to call Jan Arne Skjold, and learned that his uncle was really the brewer. His uncle got the yeast a long time ago, and brewed with it until he died a few years earlier. When his aunt heard that Jan Arne was a home brewer she gave him the yeast so that he could brew with it and keep it alive. With the yeast came a letter saying it should be pitched at 35-40 degrees C. Again very familiar.

In his aunt's family they had an in-joke: when the inheritance was to be made up, one heir would get the house, and the other the berm. Although apparently, when it actually happened, nobody turned out to want the berm, and so she sent it to Jan Arne.

Eventually, I called his aunt, and learned that her husband started using the berm in 1972. He got it from Hans Mårdal, his father, and they had both used it at Mårdalen farm in Atrå. Where it came from before that was impossible to say. Looking at the map Mårdalen is in the remotest part of Atrå, literally almost the last farm before the valley ends.

Hardangervidda, the central mountain plain, seen from mount Gaustatoppen

In other words there was every indication that these two cultures were real farmhouse yeast, even though nobody in the area brewed true farmhouse ale any more. How could that be? Well, Atrå really is very remote. The nearest place of any consequence is Rjukan, an industrial town about 15 kilometers off, but beyond that it's a good drive before you get to anything that's even remotely urban. Atrå has a fairly small population to be a hotspot for brewing, but there are other, similar cases.

Looking through my notes there is a surprising number of accounts of brewing from this tiny county, all of them published relatively late. A newspaper article from 1993 claims the brewing had ended by then, and that's probably true. From another source I heard that there was a group who wanted to revive brewing in the old way around 1990. They got instructions from "some old ladies," made malt from scratch with many difficulties, and eventually produced a brew. Old people told them it had the right flavour, but none of the brewers themselves liked it.

I haven't brewed with these yeasts myself, but people who have tell me that at least one has a citric aroma, and they suspect they are phenolic. That doesn't sound like kveik, but it's not really definitive, either.

What this means is that we definitely have a group of farmhouse yeasts from Western Norway, which we call kveik. We have something we think is farmhouse yeast from Ål in Hallingdal, Eastern Norway, for now called gong. And now there is a third group of yeasts, from Atrå in Telemark, Eastern Norway, tentatively called berm. Now, is this one, two, or three types of yeast? Well, basically only microbiological research can tell us.

Once researchers do tell us we'll be a little closer to having some idea of how many different types of yeast once existed in Norway.

The last photo I took when leaving Atrå, driving directly towards mount Gaustatoppen

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Alison - 2024-04-04 07:29:46

This is fantastic and exciting news. I'm interested to see the results of any microbiology you can get done; will the berm as diverse as original kveik cultures are?! The places you visit are so beautiful and I'm sure their other foods traditions (like the cheese) are so worthy of study too. Thank you for what you do and share Lars!

Lars Marius - 2024-04-04 08:42:16

Thank you, all.

@Alison: Microbiology results are coming.

Bob thehomebrewchef - 2024-04-04 12:15:11

Hi Lars,

Another great read and wonderful to see you’ve found time in your busy schedule to write about your most recent trip on the blog.

It may be totally unrelated, but chances are with the English language, especially in the north of England from where I originate, there is a type of floury bread roll there, called a ‘barm cake’ It gets its name from the us of ‘barm’ as leavening, which is the name given in certain parts of northern England, for the fluffy Krausen in the early stages of beer fermentation. Where it would’ve been traditional scooped out and mixed into the flour before leavening and baking.

There’s obviously a strong relationship there between berm and barm, and only a hundred miles or so of North Sea for the language to cross between northern England and Norway, although I very much doubt any baker in the uk these days is asking the local brewer if he can lean into his fermentation vessel and help himself to some fresh krausen!

Ole - 2024-04-05 09:19:25

Thank you for writing up this, Lars.

One comment: You write "Sanna", it should be "Sanne", short for "Susanne".

Knut Aksel Røysland - 2024-04-05 11:10:36

Hi Lars Marius,

Very interesting article from where I grew up. I have been a big fan of Sanne's brew.

I have a few suggested spelling corrections related to names in the article:

* Marit Røysland (no "e") (my cousin) * Sanne (not "Sanna") which was the nickname for Susanne Røysland (who passed away two years ago at the age of 98 - the grandaunt of Marit and myself) * I believe Hans Mårdalen's name includes "-en".

You may want to refer to the name of the seter (mountain farm): Selstali

Lars Marius - 2024-04-05 11:17:05

@Ole and Knut Aksel: Thank you both for the corrections to Sanne and Røysland. Fixed now!

I am not sure about Hans Mårdal. I interviewed Liv Maardalen, and I seem to remember her saying there was some change in the name. I will be talking to her again before too long, and will double check then.

Sorry about this! I never saw any of these names in writing, and that makes this tricky. I should have been more careful about the spellings.

You may both want to stay tuned, because bigger news is coming soon.

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