Friday, July 20, 2012

The smoked beers of Hegra

During a recent trip to Nord-Trøndelag county, in the middle of Norway, I got the chance to visit a farm brewery at Hegra, near the town of Stjørdal, a region famous for an old style of smoked beer that is only brewed in this part of Norway: Stjørdalsøl.

Skaarraadalen såinnhus at Granås Gård in Hegra.

While at Hegra I also got to learn about såinnhus, einelaug and the strange rules for kilning malt. This is a brief account of my visit there on a rainy day in July 2012.

Stjørdalsøl vs Hegra Maltøl

For those beer geeks living in Oslo or other places in the south of Norway, the Stjørdalsøl has reached an almost mythical status. Everyone seems to know something about it, a few even know someone who has tasted it and fewer still have actually held a glass of this strange brew in their hands. Indeed, this is a rare beer and it seldom travels far from its birthplace in Stjørdal or Hegra.

What sets this beer apart from most others is that tradition demands that you kiln your own malt using a wood fired oven to heat things up. It is this process which imparts the famous smoke character to the finished beer. Few modern brewers or breweries ever concern themselves with kilning malt, so in that respect this is much more of an artisanal tradition than even the most manual of craft breweries.

Even though it's probably best known as Stjørdalsøl, this beer is mainly brewed in Hegra - a small community of 860 people about ten minutes drive east of downtown Stjørdal. Those brewers living her prefer the term Maltøl or Hegra Maltøl, to signify that the beer has more to do with good malt and Hegra than with the town of Stjørdal. I will therefore use that term from now on, since most of the farms brewing this beer - including the one I visited - are located in Hegra.

Morten Granås and Skaarraadalen Såinnhuslag

Because I was planning this trip together with a small group of beer lovers, it made sense to hunt down an authority on the elusive Hegra Maltøl. We were so fortunate to come across the name of Morten Granås.

Morten Granås talking about Hegra Maltøl.

Born in Hegra in 1937, John Morten Granås learned the art of kilning malt and brewing traditional Hegra Maltøl from his father. They brewed together until 1967, when his father passed away.

After taking over the old family farm, Granås Gård, Morten continued to brew beer. In 1987 he formed the Skaarraadalen såinnhuslag, together with 8 friends, and they constructed their own "såinnhus" at the farm of Granås Gård.

A "såinnhus" is a local term for a building where you dry the malt and, usually, brew beer. It's common to have 5-10 persons join up in a såinnhuslag, where each take turn kilning the malt and brewing the beer. A typical såinnhus will have openings under the roof, to let out the smoke during the kilning process - which may cause all kinds of confusion for the local fire department (see the Kilning rules further down).

In 2004, Morten Granås became the first in Norway to receive a license to commercially serve homebrewed beer to guests at his farm. He has since then made a good business out of hosting small and large groups of visitors, giving them a tour of the såinnhus and a taste of his beers, accompanied by local food.

Kilning malt at Granås Gård

At Granås Gård, the now retired Morten Granås met us out in the yard. He started the tour by taking us to the såinnhus, where he talked about how the malt was made.

To create his malt, Morten Granås buys cereal from Felleskjøpet - either a 6-row barley from the most recent harvest or 2-row barley from last year. About 150 kg of cereal is soaked in cold water over night, triggering the germination process. When the cereal sprouts small shots it's time to arrest the development by kilning the malt.

But before anyone can start kilning the malt, there's a set ot rules, hanging on the wall of the såinnhus, that must be followed. Loosely translated they say

Before starting up the fire the following agencies must be contacted:
* 110 - the [fire] central at Namsos (number and name must be given).
* The air traffic control at Værnes [airport].
Good luck brewing!
Chief of the Fire department in Stjørdal, 20.06.2006
Arnljot Berget


The "basin" for kilning malt in the såinnhus at Granås Gård.
And the reason is simply that the smoke coming out of the såinnhus during the kilning process will make it look on fire!

For the kilning process, a special "basin" has been constructed out of fire proof brick stones, with an oven in the middle. Dry wood of Grey Alder is set on fire inside the oven, generating heat and smoke.

The smoke leaks out into the basin but is trapped under perforated wooden boards put over the top of the basin, almost like a lid on a kettle. The small holes in the boards are too small for the grain to fall through but large enough for smoke to drift up.

On top of these wooden boards, the sprouting cereal is laid out. Usually about 150 kg of cereal is malted at a time, which results in a depth of 5-10 cm on top of the wooden boards. The heat and smoke from below will then drift up through the holes in the boards, slowly kilning the malt and adding a rich smoke flavor.

It takes about 15-20 hours to kiln the malt, and Morten Granås says he stops when he hears the first cereal pop - like popcorn. The result is typically 135 kg of smoked malt, when starting out with 150 kg cereal, which is not too roasted or heavily smoked.

The making of Hegra Maltøl

Morten Granås told us that when he wants to brew a beer, he typically makes a blend of malts made over several years, to even out differences due to weather, cereal and other factors that give the malt its character.

He typically uses 20 kg of smoked malt for his 70 liter batches. The ground malt is then boiled with "einlaug", which is water boiled with branches of juniper. This imparts both color and flavor to the beer, as well as conserving the beer.

When it comes to the type of yeast used to brew the Hegra Maltøl, Morten Granås uses the ordinary baking yeast that I remember from my grandmother's baking heydays - the blue packaged 50 gram block of dry yeast meant for bread (and beer, supposedly, but not for sugary doughs).

The beer is brewed and fermented in the såinnhus, but matures in a cold storage elsewhere on the farm. He brews differently depending on the season, for Christmas the beer is usually darker and stronger while for harvest he prefers a refreshing golden brown ale of lower gravity. But in both cases, he wants a balanced beer where malt sweetness and the smoke is in harmony. Under no circumstances should the beer taste burnt, or of creosote as some of the Stjørdaløl ales have been known to taste.

Hegra Maltøl at Granås Gård.

After the tour of the såinnhus we sat down with Morten Granås in Masstua, the cozy log house built next to the main building at Granås Gård. It is here that he receives groups of visitors. He brought out a fresh sample of one of his lighter beers, a golden brown batch of strength 6% abv, brewed in early June with malt from 2009, 2010 and 2011. It was a surprisingly refreshing and elegant beer with a fruity character and a mild smoke aroma and flavor, milder than many smoked beers from Bamberg but still clearly a smoked beer.

At the end of our visit, he told us that when he started brewing there had only been 3-4 såinnhuslag teams in all of Hegra. Today there are 42, brewing an impressive range of Maltøl - from pitch black, high alcohol beers, tasting of creosote, to elegant, golden brown ales you can drink all night.

The future of Hegra Maltøl thus seems secure, even after Morten Granås hangs up his brewing fork for the last time. Which hopefully won't be for a number of years yet!

Tusen takk for omvisning og maltølet!

How to visit Granås Gård

To book a visit with beer tasting, you need to be part of a group of at least 10 persons and at most 45. Make sure to book 14 days ahead of time as he may have other appointments or may need to brew more beer for your visit. Booking can be done directly with Morten Granås at

email: morten.granas@ntebb.no
telephone: 47 74 80 23 96
mobile: +47 971 22 985

Getting to Granås Gård requires a car, unless you come as part of a large group in a tour bus. If you fly to Trondheim Værnes Airport, which is in Stjørdal, I would recommend renting the car there (you'll find both Avis, Hertz, Europcar, Sixt and Budget at the airport).

From the airport or from Stjørdal, it's just a short 10 minutes drive to get to Hegra. Simply turn off the E6 highway, just north of the airport and south of downtown Stjørdal, onto the E14. Follow the E14 for about 10 km, until you see the church in Hegra. By the church, turn left onto the smaller 752 and follow it for 1 km. You should then see a wooden portal on the left, leading to a narrow gravel road up to Granås Gård.

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Photos from the visit to Granås Gård can be found in this Flickr set.

1 comment:

  1. thank you for posting that, fascinating, love schlenkerla rauchbier, what an amazing find

    ReplyDelete