Monday, September 21, 2015

A visit to Fårö and Barlingbo Bryggeri

Gotland may not strike the common beer enthusiast as an interesting destination, but that may be about to change as the beer scene on the largest island in the Baltic Sea, just off the east coast of Sweden, is developing rapidly, with several new breweries opening up the last couple of years. One should also keep in mind that Gotland has a long beer tradition with its famous Gotlandsdrycka, brewed with smoked malt and juniper, which I hope will see a revival.

In August 2015 I found myself on Gotland for the Medeltidsveckan medieval festival which is held in Visby, the only real town on the island. Together with a friend I had a few days available for a short road trip, so we ended up driving around most of the island in search of good food and beer. I may write a post about some of the other breweries and places we checked out, but this post is about the Barlingbo Bryggeri and their collaboration with Fårögården Restaurang which resulted in the opening of a new brewery this summer.

Fårögården Restaurang, the home of Fårö Bryggeri

Fårö Bryggeri
Fårö is a large island just off the north-western tip of Gotland, connected by a ferry which runs around the clock and takes about 5 minutes to cross the Fårösund strait. Driving there takes about 90 minutes from Visby, so we're not talking long distances. The island is probably best known for its association with movie director Ingmar Bergman, it was his home for many years and now his final resting place. But the island also offers a very scenic coastline with impressive seastacks, known as rauks in the local dialect, standing up to ten meters tall, eerily resembling the tall Moai heads on Easter Island.

It makes sense to stay at least one night when you get to Fårö and for that Sudersands Semesterby offers the largest accommodation, you can either rent one of the myriad of cabins there or put up your own tent. I don't know about the winter season, but during summers Sudersand is teaming with guests, most coming for the great sandy beaches or for the annual Harley Davidson Rally which attracts hundreds if not thousands of bikers to Gotland and Fårö every August.

Most guests will be more than happy with the restaurants and fairly standard beach bars at Sudersand, but if you're willing to hike about 20 minutes west along Fårö Simunds you'll be treated to much better food and beer at Fårögården Restaurang. As the name implies ("gård" means "farm" in Swedish), Fårögården is also a farm, where they raise lambs among other animals. They also have a bed & breakfast service, so you can actually stay at Fårögården instead of Sudersand.

Leg of locally raised lamb at Fårögården Restaurang

Fårögården Restaurang aims at serving good local food, often using ingredients from the farm. One of the dishes they offered during my visit was a leg of lamb that turned out to be the best meal I had on Gotland. The lamb had been raised on the farm, so it was really short traveled food; the leg was cooked with low heat for many hours, so the meat was really tender and juicy, and served with a chevre & honey cream, pesto and polenta cakes and tasty chorizo sausages.

Inside the restaurant a small microbrewery opened up in June 2015, named Fårö Bryggeri or Fåröbryggeriet. The small 50 liter brewery is the old test brewery from Barlingbo Bryggeri, so Fårö Bryggeri can be viewed as a sort of test brewery for Barlingbo. The idea is to test new recipes by brewing them on the small microbrewery and serve the beer at the restaurant to find out which are good enough to be scaled up for brewing at the much larger Barlingbo brewery. Naturally, Fårö Bryggeri will also brew some standard "house ales" for the restaurant, not only experimental beers.

All the beer brewed at Fårö Bryggeri is sold exclusively at Fårögården Restaurang, so this is where you have to go to try these beers. Because the batches are so small everything is bottled by hand, nothing is kegged, so you'll find a pretty good beer menu with perhaps a dozen different beers. The only problem is that the small batches will quickly sell out, so perhaps only 8-10 of the beers will be available at any time. Still, that's plenty enough for spending a nice evening at the restaurant.

A bottle of Gasmora smoked ale at Fårögården

Among the beers offered at Fårögården Restaurang during my visit was both a wheat ale brewed with raspberries, a heavily smoked ale and a strange herbal concoction. The weirdest beer I tried was Barlingbo Ekeviken, a 6.3% abv wheat ale brewed with mint and pineapple! The mint totally dominated the flavor and reminded me of tooth paste. This may not be everyone's cup of tea, certainly not mine, but I heard other people expressing their delight. For me it was the Gasmora smoked beer, brewed at Fårö despite the Barlingbo name on the label, which impressed the most. It was heavy on the bonfire smoke, but was well balanced thanks to a rich, sweet malt body that brought my thoughts to the malty rauchbiers of Bamberg.

While at Fårögården we happened to meet Jonny Warg, one of the founders of Barlingbo Bryggeri, who was up there to check on the test brewery. We talked for a good while and at the end of the evening he invited us to visit the Barlingbo brewery when we returned to Visby a couple of days later.

Stafva Gård - the home of Barlingbo Bryggeri


Barlingbo Bryggeri
Stafva Gård in Barlingbo, about 10 km east of Visby, is known for its cheese production and now also for its brewery, after Barlingbo Bryggeri launched its first beer in June 2014. Of all the breweries I tried on Gotland, Barlingbo was the one that impressed me the most, offering a range of excellent beers in classical styles such as lager, pale ale, ipa and porter to more experimental types.

As we drove back to Visby, bearing the invitation from Jonny Warg in my mind, we made a stop at Roma Abbey, both to visit the old ruins and to let me make a phone call to Mr. Warg. As the CEO of Barlingbo Bryggeri, I knew he would be busy on a Friday but when I phoned him he was more than happy to receive extra visitors. "Can you be here in ten minutes?", he asked. "No problem", I replied, with a sigh of relief. Roma Klosterruin is just a few minutes drive from Stafva Gård, so we immediately got into our car, drove to Stafva Gård were we parked less than ten minutes later. Jonny Warg was already waiting outside the main entrance to the brewery and greeted us with a wide grin when we got out of our car.

After we had donned special protective foot gear, to avoid bringing any dirt or farm soil with us into the brewery, Warg took us on an excellent tour. He told us that most of the brewery equipment were either bought used or have been re-constructed from earlier use in dairy production. For instance, the 1500 liter brewing kettle was formerly used for making cream, while the bottling line was an old German make from 1967, which has been upgraded with modern electronics and soon will be able to run "double vacuum" when filling bottles with beer.

As mentioned, the brewing kettle can produce up to 1500 liter wort, but there are plans to replace it with one of 1800 liter which is much better suited to fill up their 5000 liter fermentation tanks, since two brews will then produce up to 3600 liter (you never fill up the tank 100% as you need to let the beer ferment and release CO2).

For hopping their beer, Barlingbo prefer to use whole hops, not pellets or extract, so they have constrcucted a special hop cage ("humlebur") of chicken wire, over a meter long, 20-30 cm wide and half a meter tall, that they fill with hop cones and submerge in the beer.

Jonny Warg showing us the labeling machine at Barlingbo

The maximum capacity of the bottling line is 7500 bottles per hour, though they usually run it at a slower speed of 3600-4200 per hour, to allow for better CO2 control. Currently the bottling operation requires much manual labor, such as lifting the empty bottles onto the belt and packing the filled ones into cases, so Jonny Warg considers constructing a robot for lifting the bottles onto the bottling line. Their labeling machine is also well used, in a former life it was used by Dugges Ale- og Porterbryggeri and before that by Oppigårds Bryggeri.

After the interesting tour of the brewery we were taken to the lab, where we were introduced to Barlingbo head brewer Niklas Gustafsson, a big smiling man with a huge beard. There I got the chance to try some of their new beers. I was first given a taste of their first ever lager, which was bottles unfiltered and had a strength of 5.6% abv and bitterness of 26 IBU, Named Holmudden, the lager was actually brewed at Fårö Bryggeri, so only 150 liter was made, but it had been lagered (matured on cold tanks) at Barlingbo, where it was also bottled. The lager turned out to be a very tasty Munchener style helles, with a good malt flavor and elegant hops provided by Perle and Tettnanger, it was fairly dry overall and very drinkable. After this tasty and refreshing lager I was given a taste of a real beast, their 13% abv imperial stout. About a year ago they brewed 900 liter of this beer which has been aging on tank ever since. It smelled of coffee and chocolate and had a rich but soft, creamy mouthfeel. It was very balanced, with a tasty black chocolate bitterness lingering in the aftertaste. In my view this beer is ready for release, as soon as they can find a good name for it :)

I'm very grateful for the wonderful treatment we received at Barlingbo Bryggeri and for the generous amount of time that Jonny Warg and Niklas Gustafsson spent on us. Thank you very much guys!

Currently, the beers from Barlingbo Bryggeri are mainly available on Systembolaget and at better beer bars in Stockholm and on Gotland. In addition to the already mentioned Fårögården Restaurang, there are usually some Barlingbo beers available at the Black Sheep Arms pub in old town Visby. I can also personally vouch for the excellent selection of beers at Karlsörestaurangen on Stora Karlsö in the south of Gotland, which is only open during the summer months.

Niklas Gustafsson and Jonny Warg of Barlingbo Bryggeri

More photos from Fårö and Barlingbo Bryggeri can be found at Flickr.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Bergen Ølfestival 2015

I've just returned from Bergen with the annual Bergen Ølfestival (BØ) fresh in mind, here follows my fairly subjective recount of the biggest beer festival in Norway.

This year the festival was held September 4 and 5 at Koengen, a large open space normally used for music concerts right next to the historical Bergenhus Fortress. So the location was amazing, with the walls of the old fortress making a natural wall around much of the festival grounds. It also gave the festival some much needed extra space, to erect more beer stalls and receive more visitors than last year.

A little background
When BØ was first held in 2012 it was just a small appendix to the regular food festival in Bergen, then hosted by Bryggen Tracteursted. The festival was held at the same location in 2013, but by then it was clear that BØ had grown too large for the location, as I mentioned in a blog post that year, so in 2014 the festival was moved to a slightly larger venue in Østre Skostredet. However, even in its first year at Østre Skostredet, it was clear to me that the venue was too small for the popular beer festival, so I was both relieved and happy when I found out that Koengen would be the venue for 2015.

As already mentioned, Koengen is commonly used for hosting large music concerts because it can easily accommodate 10-20 thousand people. Thus before going to Bergen I envisioned a wide open field with a lot of unused space, but when I arrived I saw that the many beer and food stalls, the ticket and token boots had taken up a lot of the space, making the area feel more intimate but also prone to crowding if a lot of people should arrived.

Still, the extra space gave the festival a more spacey feel than it had last year and it handled the throng of visitors fairly well, especially given that some 21 thousand people visited the festival the two days it lasted.

Some of the 21 thousand visitors to Bergen Ølfestival 2015

BØ 2015
The 2015 festival was the first with an attendance fee, of 60 NOK, which came in addition to the starter package; for 100 NOK you received a 20 cl tasting glass and 3 tokens. Subsequently tokens could be bought at a special stall by the entrance, four tokens for 100 NOK. Because the queue in front of the tokens stall grew astronomical in the afternoon on Saturday it was smart to buy a good lump of tokens at the start of the day; I went for 30 tokens on Friday which lasted me well into Saturday since most beers at the festival cost just 1 token while a few of the stronger ones cost 2.

In all, 35 Norwegian breweries attended this year, ranging from industrial sized Ringnes, Hansa Borg, Mack and Aass to small microbreweries, such as Little Brother Brewery who produces batches of only 80 liter. This is the complete list of attending breweries:

  1. 7 Fjell Bryggeri (Bergen)
  2. Amundsen Bryggeri (Oslo)
  3. Austmann Bryggeri (Trondheim)
  4. Bådin (Bodø)
  5. Balder Brygg (Leikanger)
  6. Baran Bryggeri (Bergen)
  7. Berentsens Brygghus (Egersund)
  8. Bryggerhuset Veholt (Skien)
  9. Dronebrygg (Oslo)
  10. Ego Brygghus (Fredrikstad)
  11. Eiker Ølfabrikk (Mjøndalen)
  12. Færder Mikrobryggeri (Tønsberg)
  13. Fjellbryggeriet (Åmotsdal, Telemark)
  14. Grim & Gryt Økobryggeri (Hareid)
  15. Grünerløkka Brygghus (Oslo)
  16. HaandBryggeriet (Drammen)
  17. Hansa Borg Bryggeri (Bergen and Sarpsborg)
  18. Kinn Bryggeri (Florø)
  19. Klostergården Håndbryggeri (Tautra)
  20. Lervig Aktiebryggeri (Stavanger)
  21. Lindheim Ølkompani (Gvarv)
  22. Little Brother Brewery (Oslo)
  23. Lysefjorden Mikrobrygger
  24. Mack Bryggeri (Tromsø)
  25. Nøgne Ø (Grimstad)
  26. Nøisom Craft Beer (Fredrikstad)
  27. Northern & Co (Fedje)
  28. Qvart Ølkompani (Kristiansand)
  29. Ringnes (Gjelleråsen)
  30. Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri (Oslo)
  31. St. Hallvards Bryggeri (Oslo)
  32. Sundbytunet (Jessheim)
  33. Voss Bryggeri (Voss)
  34. Aass Bryggeri (Drammen)
  35. Ægir Bryggeri (Flåm)

These breweries offered more than 300 distinct beers, on bottle or tap, so there was never any worries of running out of new beers to try. Even the large industrial breweries had brought along new and limited releases, such as Ringnes Røykbokk - a smoked doppelbock. So I had prepared a shorthand list before going, of about 30 beers I felt I had to try, just to make sure I didn't miss something exciting in the heat of the moment. I pretty much stuck to that list.

The organizers had cleverly employed the whole length of Koengen to spread out the breweries, coercing people to spread out too, which was very important to avoid long queues or big crowds. This worked really well on Friday, when 6,300 visitors paid to enter the festival, but on Saturday, with a total of 15,100 visitors, it became a bit too crowded for comfort. At peak hour some 3,600 people were inside the gates, resulting in fairly long queues and the slowing down of people trying to move from one beer stall to the next. One of the brewers told me he had been sent out to get some food, it had taken him 15 minutes to walk about 200 meters! So, yes, it was a bit packed.

The Northern & Co stall early on the first day of the festival

Like other big festivals, it pays to come early, which is what I did. On Friday this gave me plenty of time to visit all the beer stalls and chat with most of the brewers, before they got too busy pouring beer. On Saturday this was more difficult because people arrived earlier and in much larger numbers.

Any exciting new beers?
In this era of endless crossovers between beer styles and wild experimentation just about everything is allowed in brewing, from making black saisons to adding saltwater or seaweed. There was a lot of interesting new beers at the festival, some I would label interesting rather than good, and though I don't claim this to be the complete list it should give you an idea of the variation.

Austmann La Shaman Aztec Stout is a 7.8% is a dry stout brewed with smoked chipotle chilli peppers, habanero chilli peppers and raw cacao beans in collaberation with Yves Leboeuf of Brussels Beer Project. It wasn't as spicy as I feared, more of a warming sensation in the aftertaste, but it sported a lovely cocoa flavor with a peppery intensity. Pretty good too!

Kinn Til Bøvels is an abbey tripel, like the regular Kinn Bøvelen, that has been refermented with brettanomyces wild yeast and aged with raspberries to give it an overall tart, fruity character that smelled lovely and had a dry, refreshing taste to it with a slightly warming bite from the 9.6% abv.

Klostergården Devil's Apron Stout is a creamy and elegant 6.5% stout brewed with salt water and the seaweed Devil's Apron which gives name to the beer. I found the flavor very elegant with a hint of salt but still with a good stout character. I quite like it.

Klostergården Gildaskáli SALT is a 6.5% abv traditional ale brewed with myrica gale ("pors" in Norwegian) and sea water. It had a mild sweetness to it that went well with the green, slightly tannic herbal character of myrica gale. Pretty good actually!

Schouskjelleren Pushkin Real Good Rom Vanilla Cask is a 9.6% abv (possibly stronger, according to the brewer) imperial stout, aged on rum barrels and served from cask at the festival. It was a rich beer with fine vanilla and rum flavors but still with plenty of the original imperial stout bringing along chocolate and fine espresso notes. One of my favorites at the festival.

Ægir Ryllik Saison is a 6% abv saison brewed with yarrow (known as "ryllik" in Norwegian), resulting in a very refreshing saison with a herbal character and slightly sour. It was a surprising beer and one I quite enjoyed.

There were others too, but I fail to trust my tasting notes (or more correctly my taste buds after a long day), so let's round this off here.

What about the new breweries?
As usual I tried to focus on new breweries, so I made sure to taste most of their beers as early as possible on Friday. Here's a quick rundown of three of the newest.

Northern & Co
This brewery and whisky distillery was founded earlier this year by the people behind the gastropub UNA and 7 Fjell Bryggeri, both located in Bergen. Originally the plan had been to install a microbrewery at UNA, as I reported last year, but those plans has since changed and UNA will remain just a gastropub with all its "house beers" brewed at 7 Fjell.

The brewery equipment intended for UNA was instead sent to the small fishing community of Fedje, where it was installed in an old factory as the Northern & Co brewery. Some of the brews will be made with locally smoked malt and no hops, so that it can be distilled into whisky, but Northern & Co will also make regular beer. In late July this year, their New Zealand born brewer, Devon Priemus, made the first batch of beer and for BØ he brought along nine different beers. I tried three of them on tap; the tasty but fairly acidic gose called Frost, a fine pale ale called Fjord and the very interesting High Tide Stout at 7%, which was a deep amber red color with a smell of coffee husks and a fine sweet malt body with notes of toasted malts. A very elegant and unusual stout, not particularly roasted or heavy on the chocolate as many others are.

Qvart Ølkompani
Qvart Ølkompani was founded by the former head brewer at Christianssand Brygghus, Tellef Dannevig, who has enlisted the help of Norwegian Ratebeer admin Yngvar Ørebek. The brewery went into operation back in June and I had already tasted their Equinox Single Hop IPA, Witra hoppy witbier, Smeigesommer Pale Ale and Castanea Brown Ale at Café Sara in Oslo, so I focused on the new ones at the festival. The Trankebar IPA was fruity with a good malt body, the India Trois, brewed with brettanomyces, was fairly complex and good while the one that really impressed me was the 3% abv Gose, which felt rich beyond its low abv and well balanced with a good salt and lactic acid flavor.

St. Hallvards Bryggeri
Named after a former Oslo brewery and brewing fairly large batches of 20 hl, St. Hallvards Bryggeri went into operation as recently as July 30. Per Christian Salicath, the head brewer, had brought along four different beers to Bergen - all on bottle, as seen in the image below.

St. Hallvards Bryggeri opened up in Oslo this summer 

St. Hallvards Bryggeri have an interesting convention for their beers, naming them after former city originals ("byoriginaler") in Christiania / Oslo, so each label carries a little background about the person. For instance, they've got a beer called Snipp-Møller, named after Albert Møller (1864-1922), and another called Bikkje-Lisa, named after Lisa Kristoffersen (1833-1928).

I first tried Snipp-Møller, which turned out to be a fairly flavorful saison, dry hopped with Sorachi Ace, that I really liked. Bikkje-Lisa was a fairly elegant and flavorful brown ale with notes of toasted chestnuts in the taste. Andersen was the last beer I tried, a simple but refreshing pale ale with an elegant bitterness. Nothing remarkable but well made and very drinkable.

What was trending?
A few years ago, only a few knew about the historical German beer style gose, which was basically an extinct style of wheat beer brewed with coriander and salt. Gose was revived in 1986 for Gosenschenke Ohne Bedenken in Leipzig, which was one of the few places you could get it until recently (it was for that reason I visited Leipzig in 2012).

At BØ 2015 a number of craft breweries offered gose, including Lindheim Ølkompani, Dronebrygg, Little Brother Brewery, Northern & Co and Qvart Ølkompani. The Qvart Gose, as just mentioned, seemed surprisingly rich and elegant for just 3% abv and was my favorite gose at the festival.

Of course, india pale ales are still all the rage in Norway so just about every brewery had at least one IPA on offer, several with more or less weird additives - ranging from oat and rye to fruits and brettanomyces wild yeast.

For me, IPA is a style that is hard to impress with, since there are so many, and when you've had 5-10 IPAs at a festival you grow tired of the hop bitterness, so for me it was a relief to see farmhouse ales / saison making great inroads, becoming almost as ubiquitous as the IPA, with close to 30 different types at the festival. Among the better farmhouse ales I'd like to mention Amundsen Orange Haze, brewed with orange peel, Bådin Moloen, St. Hallvards Snipp-Møller and Fjellbryggeriet Tyst.

It was also nice to see that many breweries offered lower alcohol beers in the 3-5% range, many of them with a good body and rich flavors. Some are also making excellent craft lagers, in that respect I'd like to mention Balder Brygg and their Kjedlarpils kellerbier but also the new Pilegrimspils from Sundbytunet, both flavorful but elegant lagers. Balder Brygg also offered a new batch of what was one of my favorite beers at the 2014 festival, the 8% Turken smoked doppelbock - it smells and tastes like a Bamberg rauchbier (Aecht Schlerenkerla Eiche comes to mind). Delicious!

Øystein Meland and brewer Joar Melvær Njøs of Balder Brygg

Of course, there were still many strong brews, catering to the beer geeks, such as the 19% Stelliger Divum from Berentsens Brygghus, the 13.2% Heidrun Mead from Ægir and a bunch of imperial porters and stouts clocking in at around 10%.

Other things at BØ 2015
In addition to beer, vistors could enjoy some tasty pub grub, such as cheese burgers, juicy porchetta sliders, hot dogs and more, in the courtyard next to Håkonshallen. Tents had been setup, to protect the seated guests and their food from any rain, I would guess that at least 200 persons could easily be seated in the courtyard. The only annoying thing was the loud music being blasted out by a DJ on the stage next to the seating area.

Directly underneath the food court there is an old stone cellar, appropriately named Lille Steinhall, where several free talks were given on Friday and Saturday. The talks ranged from historical farm brewing in Norway by Lars Marius Garshol, who has just written the definitive book on the topic - "Norsk Gårdsøl", to one about Ratebeer given by Norwegian RB admin and co-owner of Qvart Ølkompani, Yngvar Ørebeck, who has rated more than 15 thousand beers! Author Gustav Jørgensen presented his brand new book, "Øl Vin Mat", while yours truly were given the opportunity to talk about the transition from craft to industrial brewing in Norway in "1843: Den første ølrevolusjon".

Like earlier festivals, there was also a stall with a small home brewing kit in action, showing visitors the various steps in brewing beer. I have a feeling that this kind of display had a larger mission a few years ago, now that ten thousand Norwegians are brewing at home a lot less people show up at beer festivals without knowing much about brewing. Still, I could see people stopping by to watch the brewing in process, though most just walked by in search of the next beer to taste.

Room for improvement
Even though the 2015 festival was amazing, there is room for improvement. I also see a big challenge for next year's festival, but let's first look at the things that can be improved.

  • Loud music: The loud music played by the DJ in the food court made talking difficult, at least for people at my advanced age, who struggle with background noise. Is it really necessary to play loud music where people sit down to eat and talk? There was no music by the beer stalls (thankfully), so why by the food stalls?
  • Tasting glass: The currently used tasting glass is straight and narrow, I could hardly get my (big) nose into it, so it's not really suited for smelling the aroma of beers. This design is probably very robust, but it would still have been nice to have a snifter type of glass. Perhaps such glasses could be offered at a higher price, for those of us who would like to smell the beer better? Look at the Borefts tasting glass for a good example.
  • Signs or maps: A map of the beer stalls was available in the program and one was also displayed on a large poster by the entrance, but in general there can't be too many signs whether for toilets or for directions to token stalls. One thing I missed was a sign showing me the way to Lille Steinhall, where the free presentations were held, this became a fairly acute problem since a number of the security and volunteer staff I asked had no idea either.

All of these are minor issues though, which leaves me with the big challenge: Size.

The extremely rapid growth of Bergen Ølfestival, from 7 thousand paying visitors in 2013 to 13 thousand in 2014 and now 21 thousand means it will probably face even more visitors next year. Especially as the interest in Norwegian craft beer just keeps growing. If not handled well, this could become a showstopper for many beer enthusiasts, because a crowded festival makes it much harder to get around to taste beer and virtually impossible to get a word with the busy brewers. So, I challenge the organizers to come up with a solution to handle this growth. And there are at least three alternatives:

  1. Increase the space: If possible, BØ could acquire an even larger location at Koengen for hosting the festival, allowing breweries to spread out more and give visitors more space to mingle or queue up.
  2. Add more days: An extra day can be added to make it a 3-day festival and thus spread the visitors out over more days. Let's say Thursday is added, then visitors from out of town could come on Thursday or Friday but shy away from the popular Saturday, reducing the crowds that day but still give the festival larger overall visitor numbers.
  3. Limit the numbers: If the above alternatives are impossible I would suggest putting a strict limit on the maximum number of visitors allowed inside the festival at any given time. This year it peaked at 3600, which was too many, I would guess that 3000 is a good maximum for the current area of disposal. Of course, the number of breweries could also be reduced, to free up space, but I guess that's a solution not many will be happy with.

Concluding remarks
In just four years Bergen Ølfestival has established itself as the biggest beer festival in Norway, and with 21 thousand visitors this year it was almost ten times bigger than the internationally acclaimed beer festival at HaandBryggeriet in Drammen. With its location in the heart of Bergen and the great focus on Norwegian breweries the festival is in a good position to remain the best Norwegian beer festival for years to come.

Even for a seasoned beer geek like me, it's an awesome experience to come back to Bergen and witness the flourishing Norwegian beer culture and the great variety of craft beer - ranging from traditional styles, such as Vossaøl brewed with kveik and smoked beer from Stjørdal, to tasty craft lagers, pale ales and IPAs, Belgian style ales and potent imperial stouts and barley wines.

We are living in exciting times and Bergen Ølfestival does a great job of show-casing this to laymen and beer geeks alike. Well done, Stian Krog & Co, and thank you for another great festival!

I'll be back again next year, for the 5 year anniversary of the festival. I can hardly wait!

Margit and Aasmund Rinde serving beer from Fjellbryggeriet

My reports from BØ 2013 and 2014.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

An evening at Færder Mikrobryggeri

Late in April 2015 the founders of Færder Mikrobryggeri invited around forty of their first Facebook supporters to a house warming party at their brewery in Tønsberg. They did this both to show gratitude for the early support and encouragement they had received but also as a way to spread their story and words about their new beers. The latter is rather difficult in a country where you can't advertise for beer, not even show pictures of them on your own website!

Guests waiting to enter Færder Mikrobryggeri on 14 May 2015

A little before 7 pm on May 14th a varied lot, young and old, men and women, showed up at the former Hurtigrenseren cleanery shop in Tordenskjolds gate 5, between Farmandstredet shopping mall and the railway line through central Tønsberg. From the outside we could see they were busy setting up kegs of beer and placing snifter glasses on the tables. We were in for a treat.

Tønsberg likes to pride itself on being the oldest town in Norway (though modern historians may be less certain about this claim), dating its foundation to 871 CE - smack in the middle of the Viking era. The town is a rather sleepy one during the winter season but increases dramatically in population and activity during the summer months, when people from Oslo move in at their summer cabins at Tjøme and expensive pleasure boats line the waterfront, Tønsberg brygge, where a number of expensive restaurants and pubs can be found. All drinking establishments in Tønsberg offer the same, bland industrial lager, so the town is not a destination for beer lovers. At least until now, after the opening of Færder Mikrobryggeri.

Færder Mikrobryggeri is a family owned and run microbrewery founded by mother and son, Tone and Mathias Krüger in September 2013. With financial advice and backing from husband and father, Steinar Krüger, the brewery launched its first beers a year later, in September 2014, becoming the first operative brewery in Tønsberg, since Tønsberg Bryggeri was closed by Nora Industrier back in the early 1970s.

The guests were let in at 7 pm sharp, greeted by Tone in the door, while Steinar and Mathias walked around talking with the guests as we sat down. As a welcome drink, we were served a really fresh and tasty Færder Skjærgård from tap. Some people mistake it for a pilsner, because of the mild floral character, golden color and excellent drinkability but it's really an ale with the floral character coming from the infusion of elderflower in the brew. I've never had it this good, so Færder Skjærgård is really an excellent draft beer.

After seating all their guests and serving them beer, the founders started telling us about the humble beginnings of Færder Mikrobryggeri. It all started in the fall of 2013 when Mathias, who studied medicine, took 6 months off from his studies to travel and spend some time with his family at Tjøme. His mother, Tone, decided they needed a hobby to keep Mathias occupied, so she bought a 25 liter homebrewing system and started brewing beer! The first couple of batches were purely about learning the technical terms but then Mathias got involved and they started getting more consistent results out of their efforts.

Guests walking through the Færder brewhouse

After only a month of brewing, Tone and Mathias had gotten to the point where they started thinking about their activity as craft brewing and they realized that Færder Mikrobryggeri would be a great name for a brewery at Tjøme. To beat any competitors they quickly founded a company by that name, on September 1st, and immediately sent in a registration to Brønnøysund Register Centre (the national public register). Færder Mikrobrygger was officially registered as a shareholding company on September 16, 2013.

After serious discussions within the family, father Steinar decided to pitch in with his knowledge of finances and business (he is the daily manager of Micasa AS) and work started on the plans for a microbrewery to be located at Tjøme.

In order to learn the trade, Tone and Mathias contacted Nøgne Ø, one of the oldest and best known craft breweries in Norway, asking if they could visit them for a day to learn about brewing and the brewery business. Nøgne Ø graciously opened their doors for the Krügers, allowing them to follow the actual brewing as well as see how they conduct their business. When Tone and Mathias told the Nøgne Ø staff about their idea of starting up with a 5 hectoliter (hl) brewhouse, they were warned they would regret it - brewing only 500 liter per batch would mean much more work than on a larger system. Instead the Nøgne Ø guys recommended that they went for a larger brewing system, 15 or 20 hl.

Before the visit to Nøgne Ø they had considered various locations at Tjøme, mostly barns, where a 5 hl brewery would be able to fit in. But with a 20 hl system, which they settled on, they needed a much larger location. None could be found at Tjøme. Then they were informed that the old Hutrigrenseren building in Tordenskjoldsgate 5 in Tønsberg was available. They immediately checked it out and decided it was perfect. With a floor space of 600 square meter it could fit both a 20 hl brewery system, with fermentation and clearing tanks, as well as a bottling line and some storage space.

With the financial backing and practical know-how of his parents, Mathias started working on the plans for a large 20 hl production brewery. He got in touch with A. N. Technologies in Israel, that has also constructed breweries for 7 Fjell in Bergen and Lindesnes Brygghus, and together with their engineers Mathias designed a tailor made brewhouse that would fit inside the brewery building. The brewery equipment was then built to specifications in China.

While telling us their story, we were provided with more tasters of their beers. After the decent Pale Ale we got to try one of the new ones, Færder Belgisk Gyllen, which is an 8.5% abv Belgian strong ale brewed with Duvel yeast. It smelled heavenly, of ripe green apples and mild spices, the taste followed up with more fruit and spices, overall dry with a long aftertaste. Belgisk Gyllen was released at Vinmonopolet in May 2015 and is my favorite Færder beer to date.


Brewmaster Mathias Krüger at Færder

Originally, the plan had been to open the brewery on 5 July 2014, but the equipment wasn't shipped from China until mid June, so they had to revise their plans. Instead they promised shops and distributors that they could start selling Færder beers after September 24, which meant they had to start brewing by mid August. So, the summer of 2014 was spent in frantic activity, erecting the large steel tanks with a number of pulleys, getting the plumbing done and hiring a team of electricians working around the clock for three weeks to get all the electrical systems in order.

The initial brewery that went into operation in mid August 2014 consisted of a 20 hl mashing tun, whirpool and brewing kettle, and four large 40 hl and two smaller 20 hl fermentation and clearing tanks. A bottling line from Karith Solutions Ltd in the UK was also set up, near the south end of the brewery, allowing them to bottle and label their beers more easily (though it took them an entire day to get it running the first time).

During the tour of the brewery, Mathias told us about the Færder beers and how they brew them. In a typical 4.7% abv ale, they use about 400 kg malt (in a batch of 20 hl), but for the stronger IPA about 550 kg. They use the same yeast strain for all of their pale ales (IPA, Pale Ale and Skjærgårdsøl) which allow them to re-pitch the yeast in the next brew. This particular yeast strain ferments out in just five and a half days. Færder Pale Ale spends a total of three weeks in the fermentation / clearing tanks before it's ready for bottling, while Færder Skjærgård takes 6 weeks and Færder Jul two and a half months.

Tone Krüger told us a funny story from when they released the first beer. Because two rival chains of stores, Rema 1000 and Meny, had offered to sell Færder's beers, Tone wanted to make sure that they would get equal honors by starting selling the beer on the same date. She phoned them and even marked each case that the beer should not be sold before September 24. However, one of the stores had missed this message and put up the bottles on their shelves as soon as they received the cases. When Tone heard that people had already been able to buy the Færder beers before the given date she immediately called the store in question only to be told by a happy store manager that they had already sold out all the bottles and wanted Færder to send more!

Færder Belgisk Gyllen is delicious!

Initially Færder Mikrobryggeri used labels with a lighthouse motive, since Færder lighthouse was the inspiration for the brewery name. But after getting in touch with visual design company Panorama Design it was decided to go for a series of maritime signal flags as label motives. Despite some internal disagreement about this choice (Tone found the design too minimalistic) it proved to be a good one, as it won them and Panorama the award "Merket for god design 2015" in April 2015 and also a European design award!

In the future, Mathias plans to brew a 4.7% abv oatmeal stout, Færder Havrestout, for the grocery store market, while a Smoked Amber is more uncertain, despite being one of his personal favorites. Mathis is also very fond of the style India Red Ale, but Vinmonopolet seems reluctant to take in more beers in this category so it may not materialize.

What will materialize though is a special festival beer they've brewed for Færder Seilasen, an annual regatta in the Oslo fjord that goes from Oslo harbor out to the Færder lighthouse and then back again. It's only fitting that Færder Mikrobryggeri should provide the official beer for this regatta.

In September 2015 another beer will be launched at Vinmonopolet, Færder Supreme Stout, which we got to taste during the visit. This is a fairly complex 6% abv stout brewed with barley malt, wheat malt, flaked oats, rye malt, toasted barley, molasses and coffee. The coffee, some 10 kg in all, was made by Supreme Roastworks in Oslo, hence the name of the beer. The beer was bottled just 5 days prior to the visit, so it was really fresh. It poured pitch black and sported a lovely fresh coffee aroma with notes of black chocolate. It had a creamy mouthfeel, with a good balance between the coffee, chocolate and a nice rye bread flavor. It's a tasty beer and the perfect way to end a good evening, along with some chocolate cake.

All in all I was very impressed by the level of quality of the five beers we got to taste during the visit. I was also happy to learn that Færder Mikrobryggeri has signed contracts to have their beer distributed more widely in Norway, so things are looking very good for this young brewery in the oldest town in Norway.

A line-up of existing and possible future Færder beers

For more photos from my visit to Færder Mikrobryggeri see this Flickr set.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Looking for polar beer on Svalbard

The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard isn't the most accessible tourist destination. Its remoteness, located about halfway between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole, combined with a very limited number of hotel beds make it necessary to plan well ahead for a visit to the main settlement of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen.

I was fortunate enough to be part of a group going to Svalbard to witness the total solar eclipse on the 20th of March 2015, but because every hotel bed was taken and the prices on private accommodations had sky-rocketed we ended up renting a small ship in the Port of Longyearbyen. Though my main motivation was the solar eclipse (which turned out amazing, by the way) I also wanted to explore the beer scene as I had heard about some interesting developments recently.

View of Hiorthfjellet across Adventfjorden on Svalbard

A few words about Svalbard
Before delving into the issue of beer you may want to know a little bit about the history and geography of Svalbard and how to get there. Svalbard is a group of Arctic islands, located between 74° and 81° north latitude and 10° and 35° east longitude. It means you've basically got 4 months of darkness, 4 months of midnight sun and two months in the spring and two months in the autumn with both daylight and dark nights. Winters can be brutally cold, often at -20 C or below for weeks, while summers are rarely what you'd call warm - the highest temperature measured on Svalbard is 21.3 C at the airport in 1979.

The largest and only inhabited island is that of Spitsbergen, where you'll find Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Ny-Ålesund in decreasing order of population. The majority, 2185 persons at the start of 2015 [SSB], live in Longyearbyen while the Russian settlement in Barentsburg has around 500 inhabitants.

Since 1925 Svalbard has officially been part of the Kingdom of Norway, but it's largely an autonomous part and not included in the Schengen agreement - so you're leaving Europe when going there. The islands are open for industrial development from all nations that have signed the Svalbard treaty, but today there are mainly Russian and Norwegian companies on Svalbard.

While whaling and trapping were important sources of income in earlier times and coal mining the driving force of the 20th century, Svalbard of the 21st century is turning more towards polar tourism and Arctic research. Spitsbergen is home to SvalSat, the largest satellite ground station in the world, the EISCAT radars for atmospheric research and the Kjell Henriksen Observatory for northern lights research. Longyearbyen also has a modern University Center with around 600 students and 69 professors from 44 countries, they make up 25% of the town's population!

Port of Longyearbyen - an ice free port in the Arctic

Longyearbyen
Because of the Gulf Stream, Longyearbyen at 78° north is the northernmost ice free harbor in the world, and therefore a great starting point for polar expeditions. Longyearbyen or Longyear City was founded by the American owned Arctic Coal Company in 1906 and named after its owner, John Munro Longyear, in 1926. For a long time the town remained a male dominated, coal miners settlement but since the early 1990s an effort has been made to make it more family friendly and today many young families live there. For a population of a little over two thousand it's quite impressive to find three kindergartens and a large public school.

As a visitor to Svalbard you'll be limited to stay inside Longyearbyen, venturing outside is forbidden unless you carry a gun or go with a local (who carries a gun). The reason is that Svalbard has a larger population of polar bears than people, though the majority of the bears live far away from Longyearbyen they can trek over long distances in a short time. People have been killed near Longyearbyen and the most recent attack took place on the morning of the total eclipse when a tent camp was taken by surprise and a man injured (only the bear died).

As mentioned in the intro you need to plan your visit well ahead as hotel beds are scarce. And I do underline well ahead, because apparently, from time to time, less enlightened visitors arrive at the airport in Longyearbyen only to find out that there are no rooms available. Anywhere. And they can't stay at the airport (which closes at night) or at the bus station (there is no such thing). So do plan well ahead of going there. You can catch a plane directly from Oslo or Tromsø on the mainland to Longyearbyen.

Arriving in Longyearbyen you'll find most of the interesting places within a short 10 minutes walk, along the pedestrian street that goes from the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel to the Kroa restaurant. Along this 500 meter long street you'll find two shopping malls (Svalbardbutikken and Lompensenteret), the only bank and post office, a decent coffee bar (Rabalder) and a nice café (Fruene) as well as several pubs and restaurants. Let's start from the top of the street and head downhill to the Radisson hotel.

View down the pedestrian street in Longyearbyen

Kroa
Kroa which can be translated as "The Inn" is a popular restaurant and bar in Longyearbyen, according to one of the bartenders it fills up pretty much every day during the tourist season from May to August but less so during the dark winter months. During my visit in late March it was pretty crowded so I made sure to get there early in the afternoon to secure a seat at the bar.

The restaurant has been built with the same kind of material used by trappers of old, worn wooden planks brought along from the mainland. The walls are covered with old weapon and traps, some old photographs too, while tables and benches are of solid wood. The place radiates a nice old atmosphere.

Though the bar offers mainly hard liquors, ranging from Gin and Cognac to Whisky and Akevitt, Kroa has started to expand its beer menu and now offers several types from BrewDog, Sierra Nevada, Ægir and Nøgne Ø. And in proper glassware too. But so far, all the interesting beers are in bottle only, on tap they offered just Mack Arctic and Mack Bayer. I enjoyed a fairly fresh Sierra Nevada Torpedo, which came as a nice surprise. According to a bartender I spoke to, Kroa will start to import beer from Gotlands Bryggeri in Sweden.

As for the food at Kroa you get large portions of simple (i.e. not fancy) dishes for a reasonable price, I enjoyed both fish and meat dishes and would certainly recommend Kroa just for the food and atmosphere.

Enjoying Nøgne Ø at Kroa

Svalbar Pub
Right next to Kroa you'll find Svalbar Pub, which focuses on food and cocktails but apparently has a good selection of beer too. Because I got the wrong vibes when I looked inside - it felt more like a modern, soulless cocktail bar than a beer place - I actually never explored the place. But I'd like to mention it since their website claims that Svalbar Pub has the best and largest beer selection in Longyearbyen, so it might be worth checking out. Especially if the cocktail bar atmosphere doesn't bother you.

Karlsberger Pub
Karlsberger Pub first opened up in October 1997, making it one of the oldest pubs in Longyearbyen. It's located inside the Lompensenteret building, at the southern end next to the Thai restaurant; if you come from Kroa take the first entrance and then, as soon as you get inside, the first door to the left. I actually walked past the entrance on my first visit because there are no windows into the pub and the door doesn't look much like a pub entrance.

Once inside, the atmosphere that greets you is the most authentic pub feel you'll get in Longyearbyen, with proper furniture and a long bar curving along two of the walls. Like Kroa, Karlsberger Pub offers mainly hard liquor with an impressive selection of Cognac and Armagnac but also a small bottled beer menu which included Danish brewery Ugelris in addition to BrewDog, Sierra Nevada and Nøgne Ø.

I really enjoyed my visits to Karlsberger Pub, with the friendly bartenders and cozy atmosphere, but would have liked a bit larger beer menu to choose from.

The door to Karlsberger Pub inside Lompensenteret

Barentz Pub & Spiseri
Named after the Dutch polar explorer, Wilhelm Barentsz (1550-1597), who discovered and named Spitsbergen, Barentz Pub & Spiseri is located inside Radisson Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen. It sports a large beer menu, the largest I found in Longyearbyen. Again, most of the beer were on bottle only.

The drawback of the location inside a hotel is that you end up with a feeling of "after ski", not a pub feeling, with people from all over the globe dressed up in ski gear (at least in March) coming for a drink or a quick snack. The kitchen, by the way, is pretty good, it's the same one used by Restaurant Nansen.

Still, with more than 30 types of beer, including several Norwegian micros (Lervig, Ægir, HaandBryggeriet and Nøgne Ø), I enjoyed a couple of hours early one afternoon. And you can't fault a pub that serves the Belgian trappist beer Orval, surely the northernmost pub to do so!


In addition to a developing pub scene in Longyearbyen there is also a couple of potential craft breweries in the making, I visited the one under construction and had the opportunity to talk with one of the owners of the other.

Svalbard Bryggeri
This spring the first brewery in Longyearbyen is being constructed near the harbor, with the shores of the Advent fjord on one side and the main road from the airport to Longyearbyen on the other. When Svalbard Bryggeri opens up later this year, it will be as the northernmost brewery in the world - according to my own GPS readings at 78,22° North. True, there already is a brewery in Barentsburg but the Russian settlement is located at 78,04° N so Svalbard Bryggeri will clinch the title.

The story of Svalbard Bryggeri goes back several years and revolves around helicopter pilot and current Base Commander at Lufttransport in Longyearbyen, Robert Johansen. He had been brewing at home in Tromsø, on the mainland, for some years when he started wondering why the old law prohibiting production of alcohol on Svalbard was still in effect. So he started lobbying the government to make them repeal the law. After five years and numerous letters, emails and phone calls Johansen met with success when the law was finally repealed on July 1st 2014.

Andreas Hegermann Riis (l) and Robert Johansen (r)
taking a 5 minute break inside the future brewery hall

Originally, Johansen just wanted to establish a small brewery to supply a couple of local pubs. He hired the experienced brewmaster, Andreas Hegermann Riis, who has brewed at Oslo Mikrobryggeri, HaandBryggeriet, Dronebrygg and Grünerløkka Brygghus to help him design and build the brewery. Hegermann Riis convinced Johansen that he should think bigger, given that the annual beer consumption in Longyearbyen is 400-450 thousand liter. So the plans were scaled up and a large, 750 square meter warehouse at the Port of Longyearbyen acquired.

When I visited the future brewery in late March, the reinforced concrete floor had been laid but no brewery equipment yet arrived. According to Johansen and Hegermann Riis the brewery will initially consist of a 20 HL brewing kettle and four large 80 HL fermentation tanks. A modern bottling, canning and kegging line will also be installed, allowing Svalbard Bryggeri to provide beer both to shops, restaurants and pubs locally and on the mainland. The brewery has been custom designed by Hegermann Riis and an Italian company.

If all goes well, the brewery may open up this summer.

Trappers Brewhouse
I don't know that much about this brewery which seems to be very early in the planning stages but I believe the idea is to create a small brewery or brewpub to supply Kroa, Karlsberger Pub and perhaps a few other places since people involved in those establishments are among the owners - Steve Daldorff Torgersen owns Karlsberger Pub and the newly opened Gruvelageret restaurant while Jørn Kjetil Hansen is the daily manager of Steakers Svalbard (Kroa).

I did speak briefly to one of the owners and it seems this project is still very uncertain, though some small scale test batches have been brewed.


Despite lagging mainland Norway in the ongoing beer revolution, Svalbard shows signs of an awakening and with the opening of Svalbard Bryggeri later this year I'm sure beer enthusiasts will have much to look forward to, in addition to the breathtaking Arctic nature.

View in through a window at the new Gruvelageret restaurant

Photo sets from my visit to Svalbard in March 2015 can be found at Flickr.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Beer trekking in Alaska

With a population of just 735 thousand, spread over an area of almost as many square miles, Alaska is both very large and very sparsely populated. One wouldn't expect this to be much of a state for good beer, unless you happened to know that Alaskan Brewing Company was the 67th craft brewery to be founded in the United States back in 1986 and that new breweries and good beer bars are popping up all over the state. And since I've always wanted to "go north to Alaska" I decided to finally do so as part of a longer trip to the US Pacific North West the summer of 2014.

View from the Mount Roberts Tramway in Juneau


Juneau
To be the capital city of Alaska, Juneau is remarkably provincial and peripheral in the far southern corner of the state, some 800 miles from the greater metropolitan area Anchorage, where the majority of Alaskans live and work. But despite many discussions over the years Juneau seems destined to keep the state capitol, with its public offices, which is the main reason about 32,000 people still actually live here. Since Juneau is also home to the oldest brewery in Alaska, I decided to make this city my first stop as I flew in from Seattle.

Juneau actually has a decent public transportation system, in the form of several bus lines, taking passengers between Douglas and downtown, in the south, up to the airport and Mendenhall valley, some 13 miles to the north. The key to taking buses between the north and south is The Nuggett Mall, located along Glacier Hwy, which is the terminal point both for the northern and southern lines and thus where you have to change bus lines. I stayed at a hotel close to the airport so I relied on buses to get to downtown. I had printed out the bus schedules before going, which turned out very fortunate as the wi-fi at my hotel (and around most of Juneau) was down after an earthquake struck the area early the day I arrived. This earthquake also knocked out credit card payment terminals so I was forced to use cash several places that first night. Ye have been warned.

After doing the normal tourist activities, such as visiting the State Capitol Building (one of only ten in the US not to have a dome), walking by the dismantled St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, which is currently being "anchored" to keep it from slipping downhill in case of an earthquake, and taking the breathtaking Mount Roberts Tramway to enjoy some spectacular views of the city and of Douglas Island across Gastineau Channel, I started my beer exploration with a stop at what I thought was the highly rated Hangar on the Wharf but turned out to be a small neighboring pub, The Flight Deck.

View of the bar at The Flight Deck in Juneau

The Flight Deck
When I entered from the waterfront, where the sea planes take off and land, I thought I had found The Hangar on the Wharf, the highest rated beer place in Juneau. So I was slightly puzzled and a bit disappointed to find only 9 taps, not the 20-something listed on RateBeer. Still, the beer selection was excellent, with four from the local Alaskan Brewing Company and one from Midnight Sun. The service was fast and flawless and I really enjoyed the quiet and cozy atmosphere, sitting in the bar and looking at the sea planes and cruise ships in Juneau harbor.

When I was about to leave I expressed my surprise that they only had 9 beers on tap, to which the kind waitress informed me that I must have mistaken them, The Flight Deck, for the Hangar. Slightly embarassed, I asked her for directions and she pointed next door.

The Hangar on the Wharf
The Hangar on the Wharf is located right on the Juneau waterfront and is actually a restaurant, a very popular one too, with a surprisingly good selection of draft beer. I counted 30 taps when I sat down at the bar, many of them offering good US or Alaskan craft beer.

Unlike The Flight Deck, The Hangar was more or less full of people and thus very noisy. Apparently this is the norm rather than the exception, so you will have to be able to stand children screaming and lots of loud talking and laughter if you want to have a few beers here. I could only stand this noise for an hour, then I left to save my hearing.

Despite the great beer selection and interesting food menu (I never ordered from it though) at The Hangar, I actually enjoyed the visit to The Flight Deck more. But then again I'm a barfly.

The tiny shop and taproom at Alaskan Brewing in Juneau

Alaskan Brewing Company
From downtown Juneau I caught a bus back towards Nuggett Mall but got off at the stop before Lemon Creek. I walked up Anka Street, taking right onto Shaune Dr and immediately saw several large storage tanks in the distance, so I knew I was heading the right way. When I approached a blue and brown painted wooden building, with the large tanks in the back, I saw the sign that confirmed I had arrived at my main goal in Juneau: Alaskan Brewing Company.

Alaskan Brewing is one of the oldest craft breweries still in business in the US. It was founded as early as 1986 by Marcy and Geoff Larson, who still own and run the company. The brewery has introduced a number of well known beers over the years, I can still remember discovering Alaskan Amber during a visit to Seattle back in the late 1990s. And their Alaskan Smoked Porter, which has been around for more than twenty years, is an early and very good example of this style of beer and one of my all-time favorite smoked porters.

When you enter the building you arrive in a small room that functions as the brewery shop and taproom. It really is surprisingly small, with people looking to buy t-shirts or beer glasses standing shoulder to shoulder with people tasting one of the ten beers Alaskan have on tap at the small bar. The great thing is that you get six tasters for free, so I immediately went to work sampling several (to me) novelties, such as the Freeride APA, Hopothermia Double IPA and the aformentioned Smoked Porter, of which I bought several bottles to bring with me home.

View from the outdoor deck at Snow Goose in Anchorage

Anchorage
Getting from Juneau to Anchorage is possible by car, but I wouldn't recommend the 21 hour, 840 mile long drive, which would take you through the largely desolate Yukon territory of Canada. The only sane way is to take a plane, which gets you to Anchorage in 1 hour and 40 minutes. So I did that after my brief but nice stay in Juneau.

Anchorage is located in south central Alaska at the mouth of the Knik Arm, one of two narrow branches of the Cook Inlet which empties out in the Gulf of Alaska. Unlike the interior and northern parts of Alaska, the climate in Anchorage is surprisingly temperate all year around and the metropolitan area accounts for more than 50% of the state's population with roughly 250 thousand living in the urban city center.

I knew before arriving that Anchorage had the biggest and fastest growing beer scene in Alaska, so I was anxious to explore its many pubs and breweries, some of them located a bit outside downtown. Fortunately, I had a local driver who took me to the more remote places - thank you, Jeffrey!

I started my exploration on foot, since many of the best pubs and breweries are located in the northwest section of downtown, from 6th to 3rd Avenue.

Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse
Sporting more than 50 beers on tap, Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse on 610 W 6th Ave must be the best stocked beer bar in Alaska, with a breathtaking selection of Alaskan craft beer. Combine this with a very decent kitchen and some of the best and fastest service I've had anywhere in America (even with a full bar, surrounding him at 270 degrees, the bartender would spot my empty glass, virtually within seconds of me setting it down, again and again), this should be the obvious top spot for good beer in Anchorage.

However, there are some caveats. 

One is the noise level, created by a combination of poor acoustics and people talking loudly to be heard over the din of TV screens showing sports. This would have gone well at a sports bar, but an alehouse shouldn't resort to TV screens to keep people entertained - we come here for beer and food and for talking with similar minded people. 

The other thing that that pulled down the overall impression, which I guess is more of a problem for beer geeks than the casual drinker, is the lack of beer flights or beer tasters. I asked the bartender but he said they only sold beer by the pint. At most I could get a small taste of a beer if I considered ordering it but not a series of small glasses of different beers. When a place offers 50+ beers on tap, there's no way a guest can get through most of them in one, or even several nights, if you have to drink a pint of each! So my suggestion to the owners of Humpy's is to start offering flights of beer in small 5 oz tasting glasses ... and please remove those TV screens.

Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse in Anchorage 

Located in the same building, but around the corner in F Street, and with the same owner as Humpy's, Sub Zero may look like a modern, soulless drinks bar; the huge windows along the sidewalk lets in lots of light, making the red painted room very bright, the tables and chairs are simple, functional and the shelves behind the bar are stacked with whisky, brandy and other hard liquors. But appearance can be deceiving.

The reason I visited Sub Zero was to meet some locals who had recommended this bistro because of the many rare beers you'll find here. And the service at Sub Zero proved excellent, as soon as the bartender realized we were there for beer he ventured into their cellar to bring out several well aged barley wines, imperial stouts and sour ales.

In addition to a decent selection of six draft beers, which included the tasty New Belgium Le Terroir 2014 - a wonderful sour beer with an elegant brettanomyces character, Sub Zero offered more than a 100 types of beer on bottle, including a number of really hard to get beers that wasn't even listed on the menu. Among the most interesting bottles I shared was the amazing Ol' Cattywhompus, an English style barley wine from White Birch Brewing, and the equally impressive Anchorage Calabaza Boreal, a delicious and rich saison brewed in collaboration with Jolly Pumpkin from Dexter, Michigan.

Another good thing about Sub Zero is that it had a quiet and relaxing atmosphere, unlike the bustling and noisy atmosphere at Humpy’s, which makes it a great spot for beer tasting while in Anchorage.

All in all I came away with a great impression of Sub Zero and though Humpy's offer a lot more beer types, especially on tap, I would recommend visiting Sub Zero first, just to sample their exquisite beer selection.

The bar at Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage

Sitting at the bar of Glacier Brewhouse, enjoying a local draft beer while taking in the view of the actual brew house, visible behind large glass windows at the end of the bar, isn’t the worst thing one can do in Anchorage. Located a block north of Sub Zero and Humpy's, at 737 W 5th Ave, Glacier Brewhouse is a very popular brewpub and restaurant in the heart of downtown. 

The place seems to be particularly popular with families, many bringing their children or retired parents for lunch or dinner. On my first visit the place was packed and every second table served a family, while others were occupied by couples on a date or groups of friends. The beer geeks were far between, which gave the place a very nice atmosphere in my view.

Glacier Brewhouse only serve their own beer, naturally, which meant 8 draft beers and one on cask when I visited at the end of July. The beers ranged from the decent Amber and Blonde ale to the very tasty Imperial Blonde and Maker’s Mark Stout. The food, I had a herb crusted halibut, was delicious, so I can see why the locals flock here for lunch and dinner. And, unlike Humpy's, they also do flights of beer, which is a great thing for us beer tourists.

Snow Goose / Sleeping Lady
Two blocks north of Glacier Brewhouse, on 717 W 3rd Ave at the very edge of downtown Anchorage, you'll find the Snow Goose Restaurant which is a remarkable place. When entering the building the first thing that greets the eye is the fermentation tanks, visible through large windows, of the house brewery - Sleeping Lady Brewing Company. As I'll refer to later, this brew house also supports another brewery, located in the basement, but more on that shortly.

In addition to the brewery and a smaller seating area on the ground floor, most of the restaurant is located on the second floor. Here you'll find the bar, with about a dozen beers on tap - all of them brewed at Sleeping Lady, and a large seating area. In the summer season you can also sit at one of the tables on the outdoor decks, of which there are two - both accessible from the second floor - one on the second floor and one on the third floor, on the top roof of the building.

Snow Goose quickly became my favorite hang out in downtown, mainly because of the great views from the outdoor decks and the excellent food they served, which included a delicious reindeer burger and fresh cod. Their Sleeping Lady house beers were all decent and usually good pairing with their food, I really enjoyed the Portage Porter with the reindeer burger, or just working well as thirst quenchers in the warm weather, such as the refreshing Gold Rush Golden Ale and Urban Wilderness Pale Ale.

Another plus with Snow Goose is that the bar offers bottles from Anchorage Brewing Company, the brewery I alluded to earlier, which is currently located in the cellar of the building.

Reindeer burger and Snow Goose Urban Wilderness Pale Ale 

Anchorage Brewing Company
Since its foundation in early 2011 (and for a few months more), Anchorage Brewing Company has been located in the cellar of the building housing the Snow Goose restaurant and Sleeping Lady brewery. This was done on purpose by its founder, Gabe Fletcher, since he didn't have the financial means to buy his own brewhouse at the time.

Fletcher started his brewing career at Midnight Sun Brewing Company in Anchorage in 1998, becoming the head brewer one and a half years later - a position he held for 13 years, until he left to found Anchorage Brewing Co. His aim was to perfect barrel aging of beers in the same vein Ron Jeffries has done at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan. No matter what beer style, IPA, Porter, Saison or Wit, Fletcher will age it in large wooden foudres until he deems the beer right for bottling.

Whenever Sleeping Lady has spare capacity, Gabe Fletcher will brew his own beer there and transfer it down one floor, into a large wooden foudre where he ages it for months or even years before he bottles the beer.

During my late July visit, I got a quick tour in the cellar while Gabe Fletcher and his brewer, Jeremiah Boon, who had also worked under Fletcher at Midnight Sun, was cleaning up after filling another foudre. It was then I learned that a plot of land had been bought on the outskirts of the city where a brewery would be built in the fall. It would have a lot more space for more oak barrels and a state of the art brew house. According to recent Facebook updates, the roof was put on the building in mid September which means they can soon start to install the brew house, fermentation tanks and move all the old and new foudres from the cellar at Snow Goose to the new brewery.

I expect great things from Anchorage Brewing Company in the coming years, hopefully Fletcher will also open a taproom at his new brewery.


When you've had your fill of downtown Anchorage I suggest heading a couple of miles south, walking is not that far, to 530 E Benson Blvd #3, right next to the Wallmart Supercenter, for a visit to the ultimate beer pub in Anchorage.

Cafe Amsterdam
Cafe Amsterdam can be a bit tricky to find if like me you approach it on foot from downtown Anchorage, as the entrance is tucked away around the corner of a shopping mall and not visible from E Benson Blvd. But it's really worth seeking out so don't give up.

The current owners, Shauna and Ken Pajak, bought the pub in May 1999 with the aim of creating a great beer pub that also served good food. Both had plenty of experience, Ken as a brewer at the first brewpub in Alaska, the Regal Eagle Brewing, and Shauna having served as bar manager for quality beer bars such as the Fancy Moose and Sophie's Saloon. Fifteen years later I found Cafe Amsterdam to be up there with some of the best beers bars in the nation, not far behind Brouwer's Cafe in Seattle, with an excellent draft beer menu, and equally exciting bottle beer menu.

The cafe is split in two, with a large room for lunch and dinner guests and a smaller containing the bar and a limited limited number of tables and chairs. The cafe sports a quiet atmosphere, with no loud music or TV screens flashing sport results, exactly how a good café should be. And unlike the nearby Mooses Tooth Pub & Pizzeria, as well as many of the pubs and restaurants in downtown, Cafe Amsterdam never felt packed at night, making it more pleasant to visit for a beer or three.

With a total of 16 taps, Cafe Amsterdam offered a good selection of Alaskan craft beer from breweries such as Kenai River, Midnight Sun and Alaskan, but they also offered some rare treats from out of state - most notably the delicious Black Butte XXIII from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon. On bottle I enjoyed several rare German beers that I haven't even found in Germany, such as the Berliner Weisse from Bayerischer Bahnhof in Leipzig (which I visited in 2012 without finding this beer!) and the Curator doppelbock from Klosterbrauerei Ettal.

Combining the excellent selection of draft and bottled beer with a good atmosphere, tasty food and the knowledgeable Shauna in the bar, I personally think this place is the best one in Anchorage to have a good beer experience. And it gave me a chance to take a deep breath before diving into the next place ...

Cafe Amsterdam is the ultimate beer pub in Anchorage

Mooses Tooth Pub & Pizzeria
Located two blocks from Cafe Amsterdam on the west side of Seward Hwy, just were Seward Hwy and Old Seward Hwy splits, Mooses Tooth Pub & Pizzeria must be one of the most popular restaurants in Vancouver. I tried to visit on the night of my arrival, but there was no space in the bar and when I asked a waitress she suggested 30-45 minutes of waiting for a table. The next day I returned just as it opened at 11 am, 15 minutes later half of the chairs in the bar had been taken and an hour later most seats in the restaurant!

As the name suggests Mooses Tooth is a pizzeria, and a great one too, I only tried one pizza but it was really top class. From what I understood, the place used to be a brewpub but now the brewing is done at another and bigger location in Anchorage, known as Broken Tooth Brewing. And those are the only beers they sell at Mooses Tooth, up to 16 different Broken Tooth beers. Fortunately, you could ask for flights of beer which made it possible for me to taste my way through most of their beers in one sitting.

Among the more noteworthy beers from Broken Tooth I wrote down the Fairweather IPA, a 6.1% india pale ale with a good malt body to balance the fresh, piny hop character. Another was the Beam Me Up Scottish, a tasty scottish ale aged for 6 months on whisky barrels to give it a mild peated character.

Though I really enjoyed the pizza and several of the beers, Mooses Tooth was too noisy and too crowded for my liking, this could never be a place where I stop by for a beer after work or to meet a friend. For that I would take Cafe Amsterdam any day. Still, Mooses Tooth is worth a visit, just make sure to be there at 11 am. Sharp.


While Gabe Fletcher's Anchorage Brewing Company remains my favorite Alaskan brewery, there are two other competent and, to varying degrees, innovative breweries within the Anchorage city limits. Both are located some 6-7 miles south of downtown. Fortunately, my local friend drove me there to visit both.

The Loft at Midnight Sun Brewing Co in Anchorage

Midnight Sun Brewing Company
Founded in 1995, by homebrewers Mark Staples and Barb Miller, Midnight Sun Brewing Company is located in the Abbott Loop area of Anchorage, about 6 miles south of downtown, so you really need a car to visit. The brewery sports a great taproom and restaurant, called The Loft, which is open 7 days a week and located directly above the brewery.

When I visited, the taproom offered an impressive line-up of draft beers. From the tasty Cache Bière de Garde and Panty Peeler Abbey Tripel to the Brewtaility Baltic Porter, Hop Dog Double Wheat IPA and the delicious Big Fish 2014 - Aestivator, which is an 8.6% doppelbock that won Humpy's Big Fish Homebrew Competition this year.

On bottle they offered many of their big classics, such as Barfly 2014 Vintage, Arctic Devil Barley Wine 2013 Vintage and Bore Tide Wheat Wine. Needless to say I had to bring a few bottles of these amazing beers with me home.

Midnight Sun offers free brewery tours but only on Thursdays at 6 pm, so I never got the chance to see the brewery but The Loft was a nice place to visit in itself and highly recommended if you're in Anchorage and have access to a car.

King Street Brewing Company
Located at 7924 King Street, in a warehouse district less than two miles west of Midnight Sun, King Street Brewing Company was founded by Shane Kingry and Dana Walukiewicz and opened up in late 2011.

At the front of the brewery you'll find a small taproom and brewery shop, even smaller than the one at Alaskan Brewing, with a modern feel and hard steel garden furniture that didn't invite to a long stay. It's open six days a week, only closed on Sundays.

The tap list was pretty ordinary, at least compared to their closest neighbor, Midnight Sun, with an Amber Ale, Hefeweizen and Pilsner to name just three. I found the bottle selection more interesting and was positively surprised by the very elegant Irish Gael, a barrel aged imperial stout with mild peat notes, and the delicious English-style barley wine called Nobility.

Overall I couldn't get away from a factory outlet feel, so while King Street offers some good bottled beer it's not a place I would list as a must to visit in Anchorage. But if you're paying a visit to Midnight Sun and have some time to kill, you might as well stop at King Street on your way back to downtown.

Update:
Just as I was about to finish this blog post I learned that Jeremiah Boon had left Anchorage Brewing Co for a position as brewer at King Street, so that bodes well for more exciting beers from this brewery in the future.


On the Alaska Railroad GoldStar Dome Service to Fairbanks

Fairbanks
Fairbanks is located in the interior of Alaska, about 360 miles north of Anchorage. I was tempted to fly but when I learned about the scenic train ride through Denali National Park, near the foothills of Mount McKinley, I decided to go for that mode of locomotion. Making the most of it I booked myself a seat on the Alaska Railroad GoldStar Dome Service, which provided me with great views as long as the weather remained clear (about halfway into the 12 hour long train journey).

I wanted to visit Fairbanks not so much for the beer scene, I wasn't even sure there was one, as to visit the world renowned Museum of the North, on the campus of the University of Alaska. This museum is so interesting that I could have written a separate post just about its collection of pre-historic animals, such as mammoths and other extinct species, many surprisingly well conserved due to the layer of permafrost they were found in.

While Juneau and Anchorage had been selected specifically for having good local beer scenes, with pubs and breweries of high standard, I was more unsure about what I would find in Fairbanks. Especially as the only places listed on RateBeer were bottle shops and two to me unknown breweries.

After settling in I started walking around downtown, which is fairly small, to look for bars or restaurants with some craft beer on tap. This hunt proved fruitless, I found only one place with a resemblance of craft beer on tap: Big Daddy's BBQ & Banquet.

Located on 107 Wickersham St, Big Daddy's looks more like a standard American sports bar than either a pub or a restaurant, but the place did have 18 beer taps of which 12 were craft beer and a number of these of Alaskan origin - including three from Alaskan Brewing Company, two from Silver Gulch, two from Glacier Brewing and one from Denali Brewing. The food was decent (but stay away from the dry chicken, it was awful) and the service reasonably fast, but as mentioned above it did feel like a sports bar, thanks to the many TV screens around the room and the rowdy music, so it's not a place I would usually spend much time in. Except for in Fairbanks where choices are very limited.

If you have a car or can get a good deal with a cab, there are two other places that focus more on beer. One of them is Silver Gulch Brewing, located about 11 miles north east of Fairbanks. Because of my limited time and lack of wheels, I never made it out to Silver Gulch. Instead I focused on a fairly new addition to the Fairbanks beer scene: HooDoo Brewing.

Paul Johnson doing a tour at HooDoo Brewing

HooDoo Brewing Company
Bobby Wilken is a Fairbanks native who received his brewing education at the Siebel Institute in Munich, Germany, and in Chicago. After finishing his education he worked for almost three years as a brewer and control technician at Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau, but Wilken always dreamed of returning to Fairbanks to start up his own brewery there. HooDoo Brewing, which opened its doors to the public on Halloween 2012, is this dream come to life.

HooDoo Brewing is located in the Railway district, about two miles north west of downtown Fairbanks, though I probably walked twice that distance because I missed a turnoff as it didn't carry the expected street name (Fox Ave).

From the outside, the building at 1951 Fox Ave looks very unassuming - like many other gray painted buildings in this warehouse and industrial section of the town. But in front of it you'll find a small gravel covered biergarten with several large wooden cable reel drums, turned on their sides, used as tables. There are no chairs so this is a standing only beer garden and probably only in use during the brief summer season. Inside you'll find a large taproom from where you can look in at the brewery and the shiny storage tanks behind the bar.

In their taproom, HooDoo Brewing offered four beers on draft; an English and an American IPA, both a bit unremarkable, a decent Scottish Export Ale and a Belgian Tripel that I really enjoyed. The latter was by far the best beer I had in Fairbanks.

On Saturdays they also do a free brewery tour at 4 pm, which is worth checking out if you're in town. For my tour I had co-founder Paul Johnson as tour guide. He could tell us that HooDoo Brewing has no intention of growing big, the goal is to remain a locally rooted brewery and making only so much beer as the local market demands. From what I could gather there were two reasons for this. The first is that you don't need a costly distribution agreement if you only sell your beer locally, and Paul Johnson should now this as he used to work for a distribution company. The other reason is that by selling most of their beer directly at the taproom, HooDoo Brewing can be certain that customers always get top quality, not aged or in other ways ruined beer.

According to Paul Johnson, HooDoo Brewing has a fairly small 15 BBL brew house on which they brew two batches to fill up one of their four 500 gallon stainless steel fermentation tanks. In 2013 they produced about 30,000 gallon, so we're talking a fairly small output by US standards, but still sufficient to supply the market in Fairbanks. After almost two years in the business they still sell most of their beer directly to customers at their taproom, which I think is pretty amazing.

Thus, to taste the HooDoo beers you really have to go to Fairbanks and visit the taproom.


HooDoo Brewing Belgian Tripel
- my favorite beer in Fairbanks 

For more photos from Alaska check these Flickr sets from Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks.