Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ægir Bryggeri is 5 years old

Located in scenic Flåm, in Sogn og Fjordane county on the Norwegian west coast, Ægir Bryggeri will celebrate its 5 year anniversary on Saturday June 30th, 2012. This post is a small tribute to a great brewpub and the people behind it.

Ægir Bryggeri - the original brewpub - is 5 years old this June

The Ægir story starts back in 2004, when American design consultant Evan Lewis and his Norwegian wife, Aud Melås, decided to move from California back to her native Flåm. It was the fulfillment of a dream for both of them; she wanted to run a hotel and restaurant business while Evan, who had been a homebrewer since the age of 17, wanted to turn his hobby into a full-time profession.

After a couple of years of constructions, the Flåmsbrygga hotel and restaurant opened up, followed in June 2007 by the brewpub, housed in a beautiful, Norse dragon-style, wooden building right next to the hotel.

Named after the brewer of the gods in Norse mythology, Ægir Bryggeri started out as a small 10 hl brewpub with a capacity of 1,400 hl beer per year. A simple bottling facility was installed too, allowing them to distribute Ægir beers outside Flåm. In those days craft beer was still in its infancy in Norway, even the best beer bars only sold craft beer on bottle, not on draft, so a bottling line was essential for wider distribution.

Ægir India Pale Ale @ Olympen
My first experience with Ægir didn't come until early 2009, when Olympen in Oslo received bottles of Ægir India Pale Ale. American in style with a fresh hop profile and a good malt body, it really impressed me. Later that year, more Ægir beers would turn up in the capital and I became particularly fond of the Sumbel Porter which was a rich and tasty porter that seemed "bigger" than its 4.7% abv should indicate.

In September 2009, Ægir Bryggeri was one of three breweries invited to the second Grünerløkka Øl & Mat festival in Oslo. Along with Nøgne Ø and HaandBryggeriet they made a huge impact on the visitors, many who had never tried Norwegian craft beer on draft before. I managed to get in a few words with Evan Lewis before the festival got too crowded, and he told me in glowing terms about his beautiful brewpub back in Flåm, tempting me to make a visit to see for myself.

Later that fall, Ægir launched the first commercially available barley wine in Norway, a rich and full bodied beer of 13.2% abv called Tors Hammer. It showed a nice balance between a rich malt body and a massive hop bitterness.

It was about this time that Evan realized he needed help to run the day to day operations at the brewery, so in October 2009 he employed Dave Gardonio, a brewer from Toronto, Canada, as his assistant brewer at Ægir.

Ægir brewers Alex Poulsen (left) and Dave Gardonio (right)
- at Håndverkerstuene Cask Ale Festival 2012

Now that Dave was there to help with the brewing, Evan was faced with another and more serious problem: Capacity! Demand was outpacing Ægir brewing capacity, so Evan had to make a tough choice - either start declining new orders, to keep existing customers happy, or somehow quickly increase the brewing capacity. Fortunately, he decided on the latter.

The easiest way for a small brewery to quickly increase its capacity is to contract brew their most popular beers at a larger brewery, like those famous Danish gypsy brewers Mikkeller and Beer Here. And, just like Mikkeller, Evan decided to have his most popular beers brewed at De Proefbrouwerij in Lochristi, Belgium. Starting in the spring 2010, De Proef took over the brewing and bottling of all the 4.7% abv ales (Sumbel Porter, Rallar Amber, Bøyla Blond) as well as the very popular Ægir India Pale Ale. Only draft beer and speciality beers were still brewed at the brewpub in Flåm.

On my first visit to Ægir, in May 2010, I was stunned by the great location of the brewery, right next to the cruise ship pier in Flåm, with mountains on three sides and the fjord on the fourth. I also fell in love with the beautiful architecture of the brewpub, both its Norse dragon style exterior and its rustic interior, where a massive, central fireplace brought my thoughts back to the typical Norse homes of a thousand years ago.

The central fireplace at Ægir brewpub in Flåm.
At the brewpub I got to parallel taste bottles from De Proef and beers brewed at the brewpub in Flåm. It was easy to tell the difference, both the color and flavor profile differed between the locally brewed India Pale Ale and the one brewed in Belgium. Even though Evan was worried about this difference, there was no way back and over the next two years the contract brews helped Ægir expand into new markets and get a more solid financial footing.

Ægir started exporting beers to Finland and they signed contracts with Norgesgruppen and with Coop to sell the Ægir 4.7% abv beers in their grocery stores. The government controlled Vinmonopolet chain of liquor stores also got interested and started selling the stronger Ægir beers, such as Tors Hammer, India Pale Ale, Natt Imperial Porter, Harvest Ale and more recently the Skumring Dubbel and Lindisfarne Scotch Ale in their shops.

Autumn 2010 was a busy time for Evan, first he drove to Oslo with a van full of beers for the third edition of Grünerløkka Øl & Mat festival at the tail end of August. With four beers on draft and many new bottled beers, including the Harvest Ale, his stand was a very popular one. Two weeks later he returned to Oslo for the first Cask Ale Festival in Norway, held at the Håndverkerstuene beer restaurant.

Evan Lewis behind the beer taps of the Ægir stand
- at Grünerløkka Øl & Mat festival 2010
Along with BrewDog, HaandBryggeriet and Nøgne Ø, Ægir attended with four different cask conditioned ales. Most visitors had probably never tasted cask conditioned ales before, so this festival really was a groundbreaking event.

On the second day, the festival ended with a sold out and highly successful Beer Maker's Dinner. Here each brewery had chosen a beer that the kitchen paired with food. Ægir chose a brand new beer, the Lynchburg Natt - a Bourbon barrel aged version of their awesome Natt Imperial Porter. This was the highlight of the night for me, perfectly mathcing the slow cooked pork dish it was served with.

Entering 2011, after a highly successful year of triple-digit sales growth (115%), Evan started toying with the idea of constructing a new and larger brewery in Flåm, to bring back the contract beers from Belgium. He had already found a plot of land for building a 510 m² warehouse, right next to the highway through Flåm, so he decided to expand the warehouse plans to 1,200 m² and incorporate a new brewery.

As work on the new brewery got under way, Ægir continued to contract brew their regular beers at De Proef while experimenting with new recipes at the brewpub in Flåm. One of these were inspired by an old German beer style: Roggenbier. This beer is made from a grain bill of about half barley malt and equal portions of wheat and rye malts. It was a surprisingly rich and fruity beer which took some getting used to but became a personal favorite spring 2011, when it was available on draft at several places in Oslo. Ægir also released a rye based pale ale, called RyePA, which sported a lovely hop aroma.

2011 saw Ægir brew some collaboration beers. Such as the Fenrir amber ale brewed at Amundsen Bryggeri & Spiseri in Oslo and a doppelbock, called Kollaborator, brewed together with Nøgne Ø. The latter was brewed both at Ægir and at Nøgne Ø, after the same recipe, and the two batches were released simultaneously to allow people to parallel taste them.

The malt silo in place outside the new Ægir brewery in Flåm.
By late fall the building complex for the new brewery and warehouse was ready to be used, though it would still take some months to get the brewery installed because the tanks, kettle and brewery equipment were being made in and shipped from Canada. The only part not made in Canada is the high tech bottling line which is of German make.

In addition to brewing beer, Ægir has also decided to play with distilled spirits and has invested in a 180-litre multi column still of German construction. With this still they produced a batch of aqvavit, bottled as Ægir Yggdrasil Akevitt in December 2011. Expect more to be made in 2012 and look for it at Vinmonopolet this fall.

Spring and early summer 2012, saw the new brewery come together in Flåm and the termination of the contract with De Proef. The new brewery can produce 280 hL of wort per day, up from 20 hL at the brewpub, or close to 8,000 hL per year. The limiting factor now is the number of fermentors and storage tanks, where Ægir starts out with six 70 hL fermentors and two 70 hL clearing (conditioning) tanks. To increase capacity, Ægir may in the future install up to three more 70 hL fermentors and two large 140 hL storage tanks, the largest that will fit inside the new building, which would bring the total capacity up to 35,000 hL per year.

Coinciding with the 5 year anniversary party, on June 30th, Ægir will officially open their brand new brewery complex in Flåm. Mayor in Aurland, Noralv Distad, will officiate the opening and Ægir has promised tours of the new brewery, entertainment, grilled food and beer tastings. So, if you're anywhere near Flåm at the end of June, do stop by at Ægir for the best birthday party this summer.

Ægir has come a long way in only five years and who knows what the next five will bring. I look forward to follow their progress and enjoy more great beer hailing from Flåm in the years to come.

Cheers & happy birthday, Ægir!

Ægir Sumbel Porter
- a delicious 4.7% abv beer

Photos from Ægir in Flåm: May 2010 and April 2012.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Oslo Beer City

Five years ago I would have laughed at such a preposterous title, three years ago I would have called it a nice dream and even two years ago found it hard to believe. Still, in the last couple of years the Norwegian capital has been the stage of a breathtaking beer boom, rivalling that of other emerging beer havens around the world. This post is my own recollection of the rapid changes that has and still is taking place in Oslo, ending with an overview of the current beer scene.

Oslo Rådhus (the City Hall) in February 2008.
- at this time Oslo had a no beer scene.

Year Zero: 2007 - a dead city

Though Oslo has witnessed the appearance of a few good beer places earlier, those places were either A) ahead of their time or B) quickly degenerated into boredom. The former was the case with Gambrinus Bar in Prinsens gate which in the 1990s served 35 beers on draft, a lot of it from Belgium, before having to close its doors. An example of the latter is our very first brewpub, Oslo Mikrobryggeri, which opened up at Majorstuen as long ago as 1989. For a few years they provided students and beer interested people with our first taste of Porter, Stout and their take on California Common - the Steamer. But eventually the founding fathers left and their beers lost character - for the last 15 years they have all tasted the same, the only difference being the color. The brewpub is still there, but its ales are just as bland as industrial lagers.

Christmas beer from E. C. Dahls @ Beer Palace 2008.
Another place which held some promise in the early 2000s was the Beer Palace. Located at Aker Brygge, it sported a nice selection of Belgian ales - in particular Trappist. They had a large blackboard behind the bar listing the "new ales of the month", one month it could be English, another American. As the years went by, the frequency of new beers dropped and the people working there showed less and less enthusiasm about beer. It seems they were a victim of being ahead of time too, since most guests still wanted their usual "halvliter" (a generic term for half a liter of lager).

In 2007, the beer scene in Oslo was basically non-existing. You could go to Beer Palace and with some luck convince the bartender that they had a certain beer you wanted to try, and then enjoy that while watching everyone else down their lagers. Or you could hang out at Bar & Cigar, a small place next to the Court House that from time to time would get in something interesting on bottle and at least served fresh Czech pilsner on draft (Urquell for a while, then Budvar). If you craved good beer, the solution was to take a ferry to Copenhagen in Denmark or a train to Gothenburg in Sweden - two cities with a superior beer culture and a number of great beer bars.

In November 2007, something important took place though, something that would take a couple of years to mature and slowly change peoples perception of what was possible, beer wise, in Oslo: Olympen Mat & Vinhus, a restaurant in the Grønland district, opened up after a period of renovations. It had been bought by Nevzat Arikan who owns several restaurants around Oslo.

For the last few decades, Olympen or just Lompa, had been known for its shabby interior and the many alcoholics sitting around in the bar. It was not a place to bring your parents or girlfriend. After re-opening, the place was shiny and clean, with a brand new kitchen and large wooden tables. The alcoholics were gone, replaced by young and cheerful people. The focus of the new Lompa was on rustic, Norwegian food, served in healthy portions and at low prices. With the food, Lompa started out like every other restaurant in Oslo - they served wine. However, Lompa had hired a bright, young sommelier who knew that something was happening in the beer world. He managed to get hold of some quality beer to serve at Lompa.

Year 1: 2008 - something's brewing

When I made my first visit to the new Lompa, in the fall 2008, the people working there had no clue about beer. They had Nøgne Ø, HaandBryggeriet and some Belgian beers on the menu, but whatever I ordered they would always ask what kind of beer it was and in which type of glass it should be served. In this way, beer knowledgeable customers acted as mentors for the staff. From time to time we would even be asked about particular breweries and which beers they should start importing to Lompa, which gave us beer geeks a sense of influence and a connectedness we hadn't felt with other pubs before.

Nøgne Ø & Dugges Sahti @ Olympen 2008
And this worked really well for both parties, the beer geeks got more interesting beers coming in to Oslo and the confidence and beer knowledge of the Lompa staff grew with every new beer.

Some time in 2008, the people at Lompa must have realized that there was an untapped market for high quality beer. Thus, Lompa kept expanding its bottled beer selection and started getting in some really interesting stuff, never seen in Norway before, such as beer from Mikkeller, North Coast, Great Divide and Stone. It was still all on bottle though.

Some of the Norwegian brewers I spoke with at the time (other brewers have confirmed this later) talked about going from pub to pub, in the major Norwegian cities, asking in each pub if they would be interested in selling craft beer on draft. But all pub owners replied the same, that they didn't think they would be able to sell enough to keep the beer fresh. A few were brave enough to order a few bottles, to keep in a refrigerator, which could be brought out if asked for. This was a depressing situation, quality beers seemed destined to a future in bottles while the big lager producers controlled all taps.

In May, Bar & Cigar, by the Court House, decided to run a cask event. A cask of Nøgne Ø Saison was untapped and a group of eager beer enthusiasts managed to empty the 40 liter cask that same night. It was a surprising success so Bar & Cigar decided to do it again. However, the next three cask events didn't go that well for Bar & Cigar, who got stuck with old cask ale they couldn't sell. In addtion, the two breweries - Nøgne Ø and HaandBryggeriet - thought it too much work cleaning the returned casks and filling them up again. So, this first attempt at creating a cask ale tradition in Oslo silently died out over the summer.

HaandBryggeriet founder Jens Maudal serving Dark Force
- at Grünerløkka Øl & Mat festival in August 2008. 
In August 2008, I attended the very first craft beer festival in Oslo - the Grünerløkka Øl & Mat at Parkteateret. I guess you may find this stretching the difinition of a beer festival, since only one brewery attended, but it was a true festival and the stand of HaandBryggeriet showed the visitors what they had been missing in Oslo for years - a good selection of tasty draft and bottled beers. The brewers themselves were almost in shock, they had brought two bold draft beers with them, the 9% Dark Force imperial stout and the equally strong Dobbel Dose double ipa, and both sold out in a couple of hours!

To me, this was the proof that it would now be possible to sell something richer and stronger on draft in Oslo than regular 4.7% lager. I suspect that the brewers, bar owners and other guests at the festival felt much the same way, and a couple of months later, Nøgne Ø managed to convince a couple of pubs - Lompa and Beer Palace - that they should have a dedicated Nøgne Ø beer tower.

Quality craft beer had finally arrived on draft in Oslo!

Year 2: 2009 - the revolution gets underway

As we entered 2009, I still had the feeling that Oslo was a backwater when it came to beer culture and good beer bars. Yes, I could now enjoy Nøgne Ø on draft in Oslo, but usually the same beer at those places that had the black Nøgne Ø tower. And, yes, I could choose from perhaps a hundred different bottled beers at Lompa. But it still felt very limited, compared to the 30-something beer taps at Café Delirium in Gothenburg or compared to what I experienced on my beer journey to the US in the fall 2008, visiting great beer bars in Chicago, Seattle, Portland (OR) and San Francisco.

Fortunately, the seed for a better beer future had been sown.

In August, two new beer places opened up in Oslo - within a week of each other - the Håndverkerstuene beer restaurant and the beer bar Tilt.

Entrance to Håndverkerstuene in Oslo
- a world class beer restaurant.
Håndverkerstuene opened up in an old but finely restored restaurant across the street from Hotel Bristol. It was the first restaurant in Oslo to put beer suggestions, instead of wine, on the food menu. They opened up with 6 beer taps (two each of Nøgne Ø, HaandBryggeriet and Ægir) which was unheard of in Oslo at the time.

The man behind this food and beer concept was Amund P Arnesen, a former whisky expert and bartender at Dr Jekyll's Pub. With Håndverkerstuene he was aiming for a more mature audience than regular beer bars in Oslo, in particular people interested in great food combined with equally great beers.

Tilt, located next door to the Rockefeller concert hall, is a bar catering to a younger and more playful audience, with tables made out of old arcade games and an adjoining room full of various games. Like Håndverkerstuene, Tilt sports multiple beer taps, offering both Norwegian and foreign (Danish and Scottish) craft beer. In particular the beers from Ægir has sold really well at Tilt, more or less from day one.

Olympen responded to these challenges by increasing its own number of beer towers and adding even more bottles to the beer menu. Suddenly we had a minor beer war in Oslo, where new and old pubs competed for the attention of beer drinkers!

The beer revolution was finally under way, the Oslo beer scene changing from one month to the next. A year after tasting my first Norwegian craft beer on draft it was possible to go out in Oslo and enjoy half a dozen craft beers on draft, any night!

Year 3: 2010 - beer is the new wine

2010 was the year when I first felt that the emergence of a good beer scene in Oslo was inevitable, it had reached a critical mass and the momentum was high. Every day new people discovered that there were alternatives to lager, and even the old pubs - formerly rejecting craft beer - were coming around and started to sell more than just lager.

Oslo was finally following in the footsteps of cities like Copenhagen - beer was becoming the new wine that everyone was talking about!

The well stocked bar at Tilt

I started noticing new people, often young students, appearing in the good beer bars where I had been used to sitting almost alone. They would sit down in small groups, buy a bottle for sharing or ask what was on draft and slowly sip a new beer. Sometimes they would come over and ask what I was having and other times I would hint to them, as they stood at the bar exploring the growing menus, that if they felt brave they could try the Beer Geek Brunch Weasel or perhaps a Cantillon Gueuze.

In April, Håndverkerstuene hosted a beer event where James Watt of BrewDog came over from Scotland to present his brewery and talk the guests through a tasting of some of their beers. It was a huge success and something Håndverkerstuene would do again with other breweries.

That summer Olympen opened up its roof terrace with an additional 5 taps, bringing the total up to 11 craft beers on draft. There they served a number of great Danish micros, including Hornbeer, Beer Here and Amager Bryghus. What a summer that was, sitting out in the open air and enjoying a glass of Hornbeer Blonde or Beer Here Hopfix fresh from draft, before ending the evening with a Hornbeer Black Magic Woman also from draft!

The fall kicked off with a number of exciting beer events and happenings. In August the third Grünerløkka Øl & Mat festival saw the three major Norwegian micros - Nøgne Ø, HaandBryggeriet and Ægir - serve about ten different beers from draft. It was the best beer festival so far, Norwegian beer enthusiasts were overcome with joy.

Cask Ale Festival 2010 @ Håndverkerstuene

In September, Håndverkerstuene invited the public to the very first Cask Ale Festival in Oslo. BrewDog, Nøgne Ø, Ægir and HaandBryggeriet were all present with a large number of casks. This 2-day festival attracted both new and old beer lovers and the Beer Maker's Dinner, at the end of the second day, was a resounding success - with great food and beer pairing. It was on this occasion that Ægir first presented their delicious Natt Imperial Porter and its barrel aged sibling, the Lynchburg Natt.

As if this wasn't enough, the year ended with the opening of two great beer places - including the first new brewpub in twenty years - Grünerløkka Brygghus and Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri.

Despite its name, Grünerløkka Brygghus is not a brewpub, yet, but they have been talking about starting a brewery since before opening in 2010. They have a very good selection of draft beer, including the Kjell Pop single hop IPA house ale brewed for them at Nøgne Ø. They also have a big bottled beer menu and a very decent kitchen.

The other place, Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri, is a fully fledged brewpub established in the old cellar of Schous brewery, which was closed by Ringnes in 1981. It was bought up by Nevzat Arikan, the man behind Olympen, and beautifully restored with vaulted ceilings of brick stones and a bar which allows its guests a clear view of the brewery tanks. As they brew most weekdays, sweet wort and bitter hops are common smells when you walk down the stairs into the pub a late afternoon.

Year 4: 2011 - a world class beer scene

Five beer towers with ten taps at Håndverkerstuene in 2011
- Ægir, HaandBryggeriet, Nøgne Ø and two guest towers.
After having stayed closed for the Christmas holidays, Håndverkerstuene opened its doors to the public again at the beginning of January with a delayed Christmas present to all beer geeks: Two new beer towers with four taps, bringing the total up to 10 taps! And with imported kegs from the likes of Mikkeller, BrewDog, Stone Brewing, Great Divide and even Cantillon, it was a thrilling time to be a regular guest at Stuene - new beers would appear weekly, both on bottle and keg.

The dawn of the new year also saw Håndverkerstuene end up on a very respectable 30th place on the list of the world's Best Beer Restaurants 2011, published by RateBeer. It was the first time a place in Oslo had ended up on any kind of top list for beers, it highly deserved so because of its great kitchen and food and beer pairing.

At the same time, Schouskjelleren had expanded its initial draft beer line-up from 8 to 16 taps, which allowed them to always have 8 guest beers on draft in addition to 4-6 of their own. And what a range of guest beers! You would typically find beers from breweries such as Evil Twin, Mikkeller, Southern Tier, Thornbridge and Revelation Cat in addition to the Norwegian micros.

If Håndverkerstuene became a world class beer restaurant the year before, then Schouskjelleren became a world class brewpub in 2011. Headbrewer, John Hudson, would churn out new beers every week, going through fifty different recipes in the first year. Not all were great, but the best ones - such as Thunderbear Stout, Empress of India and Garden of Eden - were all delicious and very drinkable beers that quickly became regular fixtures on the draft menu. In addition to the draft beers, Schouskjelleren also has a very good bottle beer menu, with great sour ales from Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen.

Headbrewer John Hudson behind his 2 x 8 beer tap bar
- at Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri

The start of 2011 also saw the opening of a third brewpub in Oslo. Amundsen Bryggeri & Spiseri opened up in February, close to the City Hall, just off Stortingsgata. It's a spacious pub with a decent kitchen, serving lunch and dinners. Seated at their tables, the guests can enjoy the view of shiny copper tanks and brewing kettles behind glass windows. The pub also has a very good beer "cellar", containing rare bottles of Thomas Hardy's Ale, Rodenbach Grand Cru, Westvleteren 12 and Samuel Adams Utopia, just to mention a few. The bottled beer menu is really impressive, only rivalled by Lompa.

With so many new beer bars appearing on the scene, older places took notice and started shining up their beer menus too. Some places managed to contract the brewing of unique house ales for serving on draft, such as The Nighthawk Diner and Aku Aku Tiki Bar who both get their house ales brewed at Nøgne Ø - the Nighthawk Breakfast Brown and Aku Aku Lemongrass Ale respectively. Grünerløkka Brygghus already had a house ale from Nøgne Ø, but decided to get a second - Løkka Haust, brewed by Kinn.

Café Laundromat, which started up near Bislett sports arena in 2004, took an interest in selling beer to their guests and they now sell more Nøgne Ø on draft than any other pub in Norway! The old pub Den Gamle Major at Majorstuen installed beer towers and started selling Norwegian micros, the same happened at the whisky bar Dr Jekyll's in downtown.

Thus, visitors to Oslo now have a great selection of places and beers they can try.

2011 also witnessed the certification of the first Norwegian cicerone or beer sommelier, when the bar chef at Håndverkerstuene - Amund P Arnesen - returned with his diploma after examinations in England. The downside was that Håndverkerstuene had to make do without him from the autumn. And with him, the vital force that had created the Cask Ale Festival, Beer Maker's Dinner and the beer and food concept of the restaurant was gone. Today, Mr Arnesen makes up one half of the Beer Enthusiasts import company, importing beer to Norway from the US, England, Italy, Belgium and Denmark. The company is very active "spreading the gospel", by hosting beer tastings and dinners around the country.

Back in 2008, three other beer enthusiasts formed Ølakademiet to spread the knowledge of good beer. In the beginning they would run beer tastings at Beer Palace but in 2011 they moved to the newly renovated Akersberget restaurant, next to Gamle Aker Kirke. The growing popularity of their tastings, brew courses and beer dinners is a clear indication that the average Norwegian has discovered that there is more to beer than lager and more to food than wine.

Year 5: 2012 - consolidation

The rapid growth and the appearance of many new beer bars and brewpubs have slowed down slightly in 2012, it feels like a natural consolidation phase where brewers, bar owners and beer enthusiasts alike are trying to take stock of the changed landscape. And changed it is, three years ago you would barely find a good draft beer in Oslo - now you have a number of excellent beer bars, great beer restaurants and several new brewpubs with dozens of great draft beer.

But I don't think we've stopped growing yet. Another beer bar, Gaasa, opened up this May at Grünerløkka with four excellent beers on tap at any time and a nice beer garden out back. And some of the older places is set to rejoin the game, such as Beer Palace who will close their doors on August 1st for a 3 months renovation  - when they reopen in November both the downstairs and upstairs bars will have 30 lines of draft beer each!

View of the bar and brewery in the background
- at Amundsen Bryggeri & Spiseri
Another major event that has taken place this year, which has already changed how I plan my nights out in Oslo, was the launch of the website. Run by local beer geeks, it lists all the beer bars in Oslo (and gradually in other Norwegian cities too), showing what each place has on draft as well as on bottle. The idea is that visitors to a pub can login with a cell phone app and add or remove beers, so that the beer list is as up to date as possible, giving others an idea of what to find where. Say, if I feel like having a special barley wine, then I search for the name of the beer and then get a list of which places I can find it. Or if I just want to find a place with some good beer on draft I can navigate from pub to pub until I find one with a selection I'm happy with. It's perfect, both for local beer geeks and for visiting beer tourists unfamiliar with the beer scene.

On October 1st the first proper indoor market place, Mathallen, will open up at Vulcan in Oslo. Here visitors will be able to sit down at cafés, to enjoy properly made coffee and cakes, or shop at small artisanal stalls where they can buy farmers produce, cheese or fresh fish. And there will be a microbrewery making and selling beer there. This place could become the start of a food revolutuion too, since nowadays most Norwegians buy pre-packaged industrial processed food items in cheap convenience stores.

In the longer term, the owner of Olympen and Schouskjelleren is working on an idea to revive a proper brewery in Oslo, the last one was Ringnes which closed down and moved out of Oslo in 2001. This will probably take a year or two but will surely enrich the beer scene further.

The beer scene in Oslo has never been this good and the future's looking so bright, you gotta wear shades!

Home made sausages and Evil Twin Soft Dookie
- at Håndverkerstuene beer restaurant.

June 2012 - the current beer scene

Here follows my highly subjective list of best beer places in Oslo, listed in alphabetical order (for different views and more places check out RateBeer's Oslo Beer Destinations).

Amundsen Bryggeri & Spiseri
Address: Stortingsgt 20 (entrance from Roald Amundsens gt), near City Hall
Opened: 17 February 2011
Type: Restaurant and brewpub
Taps: 20
Bottles: 100+
Amundsen was the third brewpub to open up in Oslo. Located very close to Karl Johan street, it gets its share of tourists so the sales ratio of good beers to bland lagers is very low. It's still a very nice place to visit, especially early in the day when you can sit in the bar. The kitchen is decent (go for the homemade burger), the draft beer selection is nice and the bottled menu great, in league with Olympen and Håndverkerstuene. My main issue with Amundsen is the lack of beer competent waiters, most of the people working there show no interest in the beer they've got and even if you point to the menu they may not be able to find the beer for you.

Bar & Cigar
Address: C. J. Hambros plass 2, near Oslo Tinghus (Court House)
Opened: 2001
Type: Beer & Whisky Bar
Taps: 2
Bottles: 20+
This is without a doubt the most conservative place in Oslo. You will always find the same people, drinking the same beers and talking about the same stuff. The owner, Ole Gunnar Hauso, is a big fan of Cuban Cigars and whisky so expect to find many likeminded out on the back porch, where smoking is allowed. The beer selection is small but decent, with about a twenty types on bottle and usually a good Norwegian craft beer and a Czech pilsner on draft. From time to time they will put on a really rare beer on draft, that nobody else has, and they also do whisky tastings here. Bar & Cigar was also the first place to do cask ales in Oslo, back in 2008. In summers you can enjoy your beer outside.

Beer Palace
Address: Holmens gate 3, Aker Brygge
Opened: 6 April 1993
Type: Beer bar
Taps: 10+
Bottles: 40+
This place, with one bar downstairs and one upstairs, has not changed much in 20 years (except for a modest expansion on the second floor ten years ago). It has a cozy interior with old brick walls (the building used to be an industrial workshop), fitted out with wooden tables and chairs, a few sofas and some heavy leather chairs. Outside one can either sit on a platform above the entrance or on the ground beside the pedestrian street. They still have a decent bottled beer menu and usually a nice draft beer from Nøgne Ø. The rest of the draft selection are industrial lagers or well-known Irish or English ales (Guinness, Red Speckled Hen etc). It can be rather noisy here on Fridays and weekends or when there's a sport event shown on the large screen upstairs. Beer Palace will close for renovations this fall and should open up with a total of 60 beer taps in November!

Café Laundromat
Address: Underhaugsveien 2, Bislett
Opened: 2004
Type: Laundromat café
Taps: 8
Bottles: 100+
This is a laundromat with a café section where you can sit down to enjoy some good food, coffee or beer as you wait for your clothes to get washed. Many also meet here, without doing laundry, because of the cozy atmosphere and excellent beer selection - especially bottled beers, but also a handful of draft beers, spanning from Nøgne Ø to Sam Adams and BrewDog. They serve breakfast from 7 am and in the summer you can sit outside in view of Bislett sports arena.

Den Gamle Major's Pub
Address: Bogstadveien 66, Majorstuen
Opened: 1921
Type: Beer bar
Taps: 3
Bottles: 30+
Gamle Major ("old major") is an institution at Majorstuen. Located just across Kirkeveien from the metro stop, named after the old major whos cabin once stood here and gave name to the area, this pub has been around since 1921. It used to look brown and dirty, and it still does from the outside, but the total renovation in 1999 has given this place a second life. And now they've also started taking beer seriously, offering good Norwegian craft beer on draft and a decent selection of bottled beers too.

Dr Jekyll's Pub
Address: Klingenberggata 4, by Saga kino
Opened: 2003
Type: Whisky bar
Taps: 2
Bottles: 30+
This is a whisky bar, located next door to Saga Kino. It's decorated like the working room of Dr Jekyll, a bit dark and gloomy, and with weird sounds and gargoyles in toilet stalls, which are hidden behind an artifical bookshelf - always a source of confusion for first-time visitors! This is where Amund P Arnesen first cut his teeth on craft beer before moving on to Håndverkerstuene in 2009. Today, the pub has two decent beer taps - usually one with Weihenstephaner and the other with Nøgne Ø or HaandBryggeriet. They also have a decent selection of bottled beer.

Grünerløkka Brygghus
Address: Thorvald Meyers Gate 30 B, Grünerløkka
Opened: 8 October 2010
Type: Gastropub
Taps: 15
Bottles: 50+
This is a very popular gastropub at Grünerløkka, perhaps too popular as it can be hard to find a place to sit on most nights. The place sports 15 taps, though about 4-5 are industrial beers, carrying beer from Kinn, Ægir, HaandBryggeriet and Nøgne Ø. They've got two house ales, brewed specially for them, the Kjell Pop Single Hop IPA brewed at Nøgne Ø and the Løkka Svarthumle Black IPA brewed at Kinn. There is also a good bottled beer menu and a very decent kitchen here. They run frequent beer tastings and brewing classes and every autumn they host the Grünerløkka Øl & Mat festival.

Address: Storgata 36
Opened: 19 May 2012
Type: Beer bar
Taps: 4
Bottles: 20+
Gaasa, Norwegian for "the goose", is the latest addition to the Oslo beer scene, opening up in May 2012 with four great craft beers on draft, including their own Gaasa house ale, brewed at Scouskjelleren. They also have a decent bottle menu, including Belgian sour ales. Gaasa has a rustic feel, they serve warm food and has nice courtyards to enjoy your beer outside.

Address: Rosenkrantzgate 7 (entrance from Kristian IV)
Opened: Reopened August 2009. Originally from the 1880s.
Type: Beer restaurant
Taps: 10
Bottles: 100+
The former Håndverkeren restaurant was bought by Thon Gruppen and renovated into a beer restaurant which reopened in the fall 2009. It sports a huge selection of bottled beers and ten quality draft beers, both Norwegian and foreign. It was the first restaurant in Oslo to put beer suggestions on the food menu and they got listed as one of the world's Best Beer Restaurants by RateBeer both in 2011 and 2012. It's a bit pricy, but the atmosphere is good and the beer and food excellent - you really can't complain about a place that regularly has Cantillon Gueuze or Kriek on draft! However, the beer knowledge took a nosedive when Amund P Arnesen left in 2011.

Olympen Mat & Vinhus
Address: Grønlandsleiret 15, Grønland
Opened: Reopened 3 November 2007. Originally from 1892.
Type: Beer restaurant
Taps: 6 + 5 upstairs
Bottles: 150+
This is one of Oslos traditional beer halls and it is only fitting that it was here that the modern beer revolution first took hold in Oslo. Olympen or Lompa has been a restaurant and beer hall since it first opened in 1892, but it was fairly rundown the last few decades of the 20th century. In the new millennium new owners closed and renovated Lompa and it's now a great place for food and beer, with healthy portions and low prices. They have more than a hundred types of bottled beer and 6 quality beers on draft. In the summer season you can enjoy five extra taps outside on the roof terrace.

Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri
Address: Trondheimsveien 2, Grünerløkka
Opened: 1 October 2010
Type: Brewpub
Taps: 14
Bottles: 50+
This vaulted ceiling brewpub in the cellar of an old brewery, is currently the leader of the beer pack, with 16 taps (but two are with Hansa pilsner) and a good bottled beer menu, including a great range of sour ales from Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen. Importing directly from Drikkeriget, they've had an amazing list of guest beers on draft, from the US, Italy, England and Denmark. Their own beers have also improved immensly and now get glowing reviews even by seasoned raters. Best time to visit is shortly after opening (4 pm on weekdays), early in the week. It gets really packed here on Fridays and Saturdays. In the winter they have an open fireplace radiating heat at one end of the cellar. Really cozy.

Address: Torggata 16 (entrance from Badstugata)
Opened: 21 August 2009
Type: Games and beer bar
Taps: 6
Bottles: 50+
Tilt is located in a former public bath (Torggata bad), it has become a place for gamers and students to hang out, many before and after concerts at the nearby Rockefeller Concert Hall. If you're coming for the beer, come early in the week and shortly after opening hours (they open at 3 pm Mon - Wed). Later in the day and during weekends, it will get packed and noisy. Tilt offers about a dozen beers on tap of which half are industrial beer. But they usually have beer from Ægir, Kinn, Nøgne Ø and BrewDog on draft. No food is served though and they may have loud music, either live or on the stereo.

The Whisky Bar
Address: Rådhusgata 28, Kvadraturen
Opened: 12 May 2010
Type: Restaurant and whisky bar
Taps: 6
Bottles: 30+
The Whisky Bar is a restaurant and whisky bar which opened up next door to and by the people behind The Dubliners Irish Pub. It has a cozy and quiet atmosphere and usually a handfull of good draft beers available - typically from Ægir, HaandBryggeriet, Sam Adams and BrewDog. On week days you'll be pretty much on your own here.

Welcome to Oslo Beer City!

Friday, June 8, 2012

A trip to Ostend

Oostende, or Ostend in English, is a seaport city in West Flanders, between Zeebrugge to the northeast and Dunquerke, in France, to the southwest. With a population of just 70 thousand, a maritime setting with fishing industry and long sandy beaches, Ostend is a popular summer holiday destination for the Belgians. Recently it has also started sporting a pretty good beer scene, which was an added attraction for me when I found myself in Brussels with a couple of days to kill.

Lighthouse at the end of the Western Pier in Ostend.

Getting there

Ostend is the end station of a more or less direct railway line from Brussels. You can get there, without changing trains, in less than one and a half hour. Which is hardly longer than when going to Bruges. And with trains departing hourly from Bruxelles-Central it's both fast, cheap and easy to get to Ostend for a daytrip or for staying a few days.

The railway station in Ostend, a beautiful, baroque style building from just before World War One - a sightseeing target by itself, is located right next to the harbor in Ostend, within easy walking distance from a number of hotels along the Visserkaai and old town Ostend.

General sightseeing

Ostend has a fairly small old town, roughly a square of 0.5 km times 0.5 km - fenced in by the sea to the north, the harbor to the east, the Mercator yacht marina to the south and the Leopold II-laan to the west. Old town is basically where all the fun takes place, so you can easily get around on foot to visit the attractions, stroll along the beaches or out on the long Westerstaketsel - the Western Pier.

Marbi of Oostende on its side in the dry dock.
If you're interested in history it's also worth mentioning that the beaches of Ostend are lined with old bunkers from World War Two, built by the Nazi German authorities as part of their defenses against an Allied invasion - the so called Atlantic Wall. There is also a restored fort from the Napoleonic Wars, which is open to the public and even has a brasserie that is open all days, except Mondays, from April 1 to October 31.

Since June 2007 a free ferry service, the Roger Raveel, takes passengers from the city side to the fish market east of the harbor. On that side you will also find the aformentioned Fort Napoleon as well as the dry docks of Industrielle des Pêcheries - where, on my visit, the fishing vessel Marbo Oostende had almost overturned and destroyed parts of the dock.

If you consider going to Ostend in May, beware that the last weekend of May is when the annual Oostende voor Anker or Ostend at Anchor festival is held. This festival sees the population of Ostend grow from 70 thousand to several hundred thousands. Things will become more crowded and noisy then, with live music competing with the noise of steam driven cars, and there will be a hundred market stalls along Visserkaai, selling freshly cooked seafood, dried or smoked fish, artisanal cheese and produce, clothes, ropes and what not.

Another good reason for coming to Ostend is to explore some of the beer and food places that have popped up the last few years - from beer pubs such as 't Kroegske, Café Bottteltje and 't Eilandje to the highly acclaimed beer restaurant De Bistronoom.

Café Botteltje

Café Botteltje - the biggest beer selection in Ostend.
Located on Louisastraat 19, north in Ostend, Café Botteltje is an English style pub, with heavy wooden furniture and wooden panels on the walls. The beer selection, however, is very Belgian with 13 beers on tap and more than 300 types on the bottle menu. The place also sports a big genever selection, but I stayed with the beer.

During my visit, Botteltje had the refreshing Lefebvre Hopus on draft, as well as the delicious St Bernardus Tripel, La Trappe Dubbel and La Chouffe. The service was surprisingly fast, not typical for Belgium, with a waiter stopping by my table almost instantly when I had drained my glass. That's a big plus in my book. As for the food they served I went for their beer dinner, where each dish is paired with a beer (you get a glass of that beer with the dish). It was really well made, though some of the beer and food combinations were more OK than good.

All in all, if beer selection is what you're looking for - check out Café Botteltje.

De Bistronoom

A great place to go for lunch or dinner is De Bistronoom in the south of Ostend, on Vindictivelaan 22, overlooking the Mercator Yacht Marina. This place opened up three years ago but has already caught the attention of the RateBeer community, earning the restaurant a spot in the short list of the world's Best Beer Restaurants 2012.

De Bistronoom beer restaurant in Ostend.

De Bistronoom is owned by Christophe Pelfrène, the former chef of Ostende Queen, who has got what must surely be the biggest selection of 75 cl Belgian beer bottles - in his own words about 250 types! But he stresses that De Bistronoom is a beer restaurant, not a beer bar, so any RateBeerian who comes asking for a beer will politely be asked to visit one of the nearby pubs instead.

La Corne du Bois des Pendus La Triple 10º
- the only draft beer at De Bistronoom.
As chef for the De Bistronoom, Pelfrène enlisted the help of his girlfriend, Stefanie De Vos, who makes really subtle, regional dishes, nothing too spicy, that goes really well with Belgian beer.

Despite having two small children together, the youngest just a few months old, the two keep the restaurant open and running on all days, except Tuesdays and Wednesdays. They serve lunch from Noon to 2 pm and dinner from 7 pm until 9 pm. There is no a la carte menu because Pelfrène relies on what he can find fresh that day - typically fish fresh off a fishing vessel, before he and De Vos compose the lunch and dinner menu.

What I really liked about De Bistronoom, except for the delicious food and beer pairing - of course, was the relaxed atmosphere and how Pelfrène would come out with each dish, tell us about it and then inform us about the choice of beer. At the end of the night I felt like I was visiting the home of a friend, being served their homecooked food and beer from the cellar and chatting with the owner as if we'd known each others for years.

I just can't recommend De Bistronoom highly enough, this really is one of the best beer restaurants in the world. It's no wonder Chris Lively of Ebeneezer's Pub has asked them over to Maine to cook for him!

't Eilandje

The final place I'd like to mention (I missed 't Kroegske because they closed earlier than I thought) is a beer bar on the east side of Ostend, near the harbor and Visserskaai, in Bonenstraat 5: 't Eilandje.

't Eilandje, which means "the island", opened up in June 2011, so it’s a fairly new pub. But its atmosphere radiates old days, I'd say the 1940s or 50s, from the low, old-style jazz music they play to the decoration in the pub. It’s really a cozy and quiet place to sit down, and the guests are a bit more adult than at other pubs in the area.

Just like at De Bistronoom, a married couple is running 't Eilandje. Both seem very proud of their new place and took time to talk with us and tell us about the place and the beers they've got. They told us they had kept asking Rodenbach to send them kegs of Rodenbach Grand Cru and that Rodenbach finally gave in and now sends them kegs of this delicious beer on a regular basis.

The beer selection is limited, but pretty good. In addition to the Rodenbach Grand Cru they usually have the Goliath Tripel on tap and close to 30 different bottled beers, including St Bernardus Abt 12 and six of the seven trappist breweries (Westvleteren is the only one missing). In the summer season they've got an outdoor area, on the square, where you can sit and smell the salty sea air from the nearby harbor and watch the Ostenders walk by.

't Eilandje is a small but great and friendly beer pub.

Bouillon Airborne Biere Brune at Café Botteltje
- served in the proper earthenware mug.

Photos from the visit to Ostend at Flickr: Botteltje, De Bistronoom, 't Eilandje and Ostend.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sunday at de Grote Dorst

Back in March 2012 I made my first visit to the lambic café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst in Eizeringen in Pajottenland, Belgium. It was a special BBQ event on a cold Friday evening. At the end of May I again found myself in the Belgian capital, now on a warm and sunny Sunday, so I decided to make another visit to see what the café was like on a church Sunday.

Café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst in Eizeringen.

In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst or just de Grote Dorst is located on the town square in Eizeringen, opposite the Saint Ursula church. It's only open from 10 am to 1:30 pm on Sundays and church holidays, because it is run in their sparetime by the brothers Kurt and Yves Panneels.

Because it was a Sunday, with few buses going from Brussels to Eizeringen, and I was accompanied by three friends, we opted for a taxi as our means of transportation (making sure it would pick us up again later). Eizeringen is about 15 km west of Brussels, but traffic and small roads means you should set aside at least half an hour in getting there.

Kurt Panneels behind the bar at de Grote Dorst.
We arrived a little after 10 am to find one of the brothers, Yves, busy bringing scooters out of the garage. It turned out he was renting out scooters, for 50 Euro per day, and was taking a group of visitors to the open day at geuze blender Tilquin. I politely declined the offer to join the group as I already had plans for the afternoon and also wanted to spend some time at de Grote Dorst before leaving the Brussels area.

Inside the café I found the other brother, Kurt, manning the bar, and plenty of vacant tables. So my friends and I sat down at a smaller one, and started ordering rare bottles from the cellar of de Grote Dorst.

A rare beer we got to try was a geuze the brothers had blended themselves, just like lambic café owners did a hundred years ago: Geuze tegen de Grote Dorst. This 5% abv geuze, a blend of 11 different lambics, had been bottled in December 2008, so it was three and a half years old when we got to taste it. It was a well made blend, not very complex, but with a nice lemon sourness, hints of oak and with a mild bitter finish. Refreshing and drinkable.

Eylenbosch Guzuze 1990 - still so fresh.
A more exciting entry on their beer menu was the twenty-two year old Eylenbosch Gueuze 1990, one of the last vintages made by this old brewery in Schepdaal. Eylenbosch, which had been making geuze since 1851, was acquired by the Keermaeker brewery (known for the Mort Subite brand) in 1989 and closed down in 1991. Since then Keermaeker has ended up in the Alken-Maes group who now owns the Eylenbosch name but without actively using it. Anyhow, the 1990 Eylenbosch Gueuze was the real deal. It poured a clear golden color, it smelled of ripe apples and sherry cask and the flavor was harmonic and sour, with notes of dry leaves, lemon, apples and sherry. A delicious and surprisingly fresh sour ale.

When church service ended at Noon, a number of the faithful crossed the small square and entered de Grote Dorst for a glass or two of kriek, gueze or lambic. It was interesting to watch this mixture of locals, often in their 70s or 80s, and the young, foreign beer geeks who had already been at the café for a couple of hours. It's no doubt the Panneels brothers have struck a chord in the local community with their old style Flemish lambic café, just as they have in the global beer community - the users of RateBeer ranked de Grote Dorst one of the best beer bars in the world both in 2011 and 2012. So, the future of de Grote Dorst is looking good.

Speaking of beer geeks. A couple of tables away from ours sat three German sour ale fans, including Ulrich "Uli" Kremer, a well know geuze blender from Duisburg who blends geuze under his own h.ertie label. I keep running into him at breweries, bars and beer festivals all over Belgium. It's a small world and at de Grote Dorst you will meet them all.

At 1 pm the taxi was back to pick us up and I said my heartfelt farewells to Kurt Panneels, promising to come back to this peaceful and great lambic café in the heart of Pajottenland very soon.

Geuze blender Uli, left, and Yves Panneels on the scooter.

Photos from my two visits to de Grote Dorst: March and May 2012.