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.

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