Monday, December 30, 2013

Het Anker - golden beer of the emperor

The modern city of Mechelen, located about halfway between Antwerp and Brussels in Belgium, may not be that well known to modern Europeans and it certainly attracts a lot less tourists than cities like Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels. But it has a long and proud history and, for beer lovers, it is home to one of the oldest and proudest family breweries in Belgium: Het Anker. This blog post recounts my October 2013 visit to this amazing brewery, which offers guests a small hotel, a well stocked brasserie and a great brewery tour.

Cathedral St Rumbold seen from the roof of Het Anker.

Getting there
Situated halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, Mechelen is within easy reach from both if you consider a daytrip only. From Brussel-Centraal it takes about 25 minutes by the InterCity (IC) train and about 15 minutes by the InterRegio (IR). Both train services run several times per hour. From Antwerp-Centraal both IC and IR trains take about 22-25 minutes.

The railway station in Mechelen is in the south east quadrant of old town, at the start of Leopoldstraat, while Het Anker is located in the north west, at Guido Gezellelaan 49, which means you've either got to take a taxi around the center of Mechelen or walk through it. Walking distance is about 2 km, so it's actually not that far.

It's a 2 km walk from the train station (A) to Het Anker (B)

Het Anker - also a brasserie and hotel
If you're not in any hurry to get back to where you came from, I suggest spending at least one night in Mechelen. Partly because that gives you the chance to stay as long as you like at the excellent brasserie but also to give you the chance to explore some of the beer bars within a short walk in old town Mechelen. And where better to stay than Het Anker's Hotel Carolus?

Hotel Carolus opened up in August 1999, the only hotel in Belgium on the site of an operating brewery, offering 22 guest rooms. These rooms can be very popular at times, so the safest thing is to book ahead if you want to stay the night. Prices per room per night are €65 in weekends and €83 on week days, but that's really worth it as you practically live inside the brewery. What better way to wake up than to the smell of sweet wort (on brewing days) and then peek out of your room at a working brewery? Besides, staying here means you can stay at the brasserie until closing time, allowing you to meet the manager and possibly a brewer too.

The brasserie, which was renovated a few years back, has its main entrance from Guido Gezellelaan street, at the front of the brewery, but guests at the hotel can enter from the brewery yard. The interior is kept very simple and rustic, with creaking wooden floor boards, wooden tables and furniture. There are usually 8 beers on draught, all of them brewed at Het Anker, as well as some bottled Het Anker beers, including the world famous Cuvee van de Keizer when that beer is in season. There is a special dining room upstairs, but for that you need to book a table ahead of time as these brewery dinners are very popular.

Note that the brasserie is closed on Mondays.

Brouwerij Het Anker and its brasserie on Guido Gezellelaan

Het Anker - a brief history
The historical roots of Brouwerij Het Anker can be traced back to at least 1369, when it was mentioned in the records of the city of Mechelen, making it one of the oldest breweries in Belgium. For a long time the brewery was operated by a community of Beguines and it wasn't until 1872 that the current owner family enters our history, when one Louis Van Breedam and his sister bought the old brewery from the Beguines. Van Breedam had the brewery renovated and modernized, and on 31 December 1904 the brewery was named Het Anker - after the historical Mechelen brewer Jan in den Anker.

In 1912, Victor Van Breedam, the son of Louis, built the first maltings out of reinforced concrete in Belgium. Here, Het Anker produced so much malt that they could even sell to other breweries in Mechelen. Things were going really well but then World War I started and the Germans occupied Mechelen, shutting down most of the breweries, including Het Anker, stripping them off their copper to melt down as ammunition. Het Anker survived on its malt business alone. After the war, Het Anker installed a new brewery and started up again, but also trying to diversify by looking for ways to produce dry food and diet meals based on wheat, which came in handy during World War II.

After the end of World War II, Charles Van Breedam - the third generation - decided to focus solely on the art of brewing beer, closing down the malting business. He installed a brand new brewhouse, with big copper kettles - the same that are in use today, and relaunched the brewery under the slogan "Ankerbieren, zegevieren" ("Anchor beers gain the victory"). It was under Charles Van Breedam that the first Keizerbier, "Emperor's beer", was brewed in the 1950s. In 1961, Keizerbier was renamed Gouden Carolus after the silver coins minted under the reign of Charles Quint aka Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Charles Quint was born in Ghent, in 1500, raised in Mechelen and was a great patron of beer from Flanders all his life - according to legend he ordered beer to be sent from Mechelen to Spain while he resided there.

With the growing success of Gouden Carolus, Het Anker stopped brewing lagers to focus on top fermented beer only. When Charles passed away in 1968, his son Michel took over the brewery and for a time did really well, making Gouden Carolus one of the best known beers in Belgium and also signing a license with the Abbey of Floreffe to brew and commercialize their beers. Het Anker lost this license in 1982, which marked the start of a decade long decline which didn't end until the 5th generation took over.

Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer Blue

Since 1990, Het Anker has been run by Charles Leclef, the fifth generation of the Breedam-Leclef family. He knew something drastic had to be done to save his family brewery, first he tried to do so by teaming up with the Riva brewery in 1991 to help Het Anker brew and bottle their beer. But this union only lasted two years. In 1995, he allowed the John Martin Group to buy 50% of the shares in Het Anker in order to get their help selling Het Anker, but this enterprise also failed so in 1997 he bought back the shares, making Het Anker fully independent again.

Leclef the  realized that the only way to save Het Anker would be through the beers they brewed, so with a renovated brewery at his disposal he went on a creative spree launching a number of new beers at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s - such as Cuvee van de Keizer, Gouden Carolus Tripel, Hopsinjoor and Ambrio. Since then, Het Anker has bloomed once more and is today a healthy family owned brewery who gets its share of suitors every year but turns down all offers in order to remain independent.

Het Anker beers
Brewery Het Anker is best known for their Gouden Carolus series, named after their oldest best seller, which includes these:

  • Gouden Carolus Classic: The original Keizerbeer, named Gouden Carolus in 1961 and now known as Classic, is an 8.5% strong ale with a rich malt character.
  • Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer Blauw: An 11% dark strong ale that has been brewed on the 24th of February, the birthday of Charles Quint, every year since 1998.
  • Gouden Carolus Tripel: First brewed in 2000, this 9% abbey tripel won gold at the World Beer Cup 2002 and is considered one of the top tripels of Belgium.
  • Gouden Carolus Ambrio: Supposedly brewed after a 14th century "Mechelen Brown" recipe, this beer was first brewed in 2000 or 2001. Originally it was 6.5% but since 2008 it's at 8% abv.
  • Gouden Carolus Noël: This is their 10.5% Christmas beer brewed every August since 2002, packing a big spicy punch with plenty of licorice. 
  • Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor: Introduced at the Zythos Bier Festival in 2008, this 8% pale ale is brewed with five types of hops and has a bitterness of 50 IBU.
  • Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer Rood: First brewed 2008, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Blauw, Cuvee van de Keizer Rood ("Red") is a 10% pale ale.
In addition to the Gouden Carolus beers, Het Anker brews a few other interesting beers:

  • Lucifer: This 8% blond ale, which resembles Duvel, was originally brewed by Liefmans but in 2009 Het Anker bought the rights and has brewed Lucifer ever since.
  • Maneblusser: Maneblusser or "moon extinguishers" is a 6.5% ale first brewed 2009 to commemorate an episode in 1687, when a drunken man thought the St Rumbold's tower in Mechelen was on fire. His shouts of warning caused many citizens to run to the tower to extinguish the flames, only to discover it was the light of the moon.
  • Dentergem's Wit: This 5% wheat beer was first brewed at Het Anker in 2011 and mainly for the US market, the beer used to be brewed by Riva but Het Anker has now acquired the rights to brew it.

Het Anker has also started brewing lagers again, though on a very small scale and only available locally, such as the Anker Pils and Anker Bok.

The koelschip on the roof of Het Anker, in use until 1991

A tour of the brewery...
It could be smart to book the brewery tour ahead of time, though there are several tours each day and I booked mine when I checked in at Hotel Carolus. For 8 Euro you get to see the internals of the brewery and many of the historical rooms and equipment that are no longer used - from the roof top coolship and malt attic to the beautiful copper brewing kettles and Baudelot cooler on the main floor.

The tour started, like most brewery tours, with an introduction to the art of brewing next to the large copper kettles on the main floor. A table stood on the middle of the floor, with hop pellets and grains of malt in small glass bowls, allowing guests to smell or even taste the content if we felt like it (but tasting hop pellets is never a good idea if you plan to taste beer shortly after). On the table were also a number of glass bowls with some other ingredients, only revealed to us later in the presentation, but it should come as no surprise, after all Belgium has never had a reinheitsgebot, that the other glass containers contained various spices used by Het Anker when brewing some of their beers - such as licorice, star anise, dried orange peel, caraway seed and even chamomile!

According to the guide, Het Anker brews four days a week and around 11 thousand liter each time. It takes four weeks to ferment and mature the beer, so at any time there is about 200 thousand litre beer in some stage of maturation at Het Anker which translates to an annual production of a little more than 2 million litre beer - so Het Anker is still a small brewery by international standards.

After visiting the brewhouse, the guide took us up to the roof where we got to see a well preserved coolship ("koelschip" in Dutch) in which the boiling hot wort used to be cooled from 100 to 72 degrees Centigrade before the wort was cooled further by a Baudelot cooler and then transferred to the fermentation tanks and pitched with yeast. However, in 1991 the European Union decided that this way of cooling wort in the open air was unsanitary (which it probably was) and banned it (except for lambic breweries, who rely on the wild yeast in the ambient air). The Het Anker coolship is one of the best preserved I've seen and could probably have been used for brewing still.

Another interesting stop on the tour was the old malt attic, where the fine dust of ground malt still covers the floor, roof beams and old equipment. When this malt attic opened up in 1912, it was connected to 12 large silos holding 40 metric ton each. Each day 90 large bags of malt would be hoisted up to the attic, using a simple pulley system. Today, the manual labor has been replaced by large pipes, through which the malt is blown up from street level, and only 3 out of the 12 silos are in use after Het Anker stopped providing malt for other breweries.

Barrels of  Gouden Carolus Single Malt Whisky at Het Anker

... and whisky storage
Het Anker may be best known for its beer, but historically the Breedam-Leclef family was actually known for distilling spirits in their hometown of Blaasveld. Something they did until 1927. So when the current owner, Charles Leclef, started up Stokerij de Molenberg in Blaasveld in 2010, the brewing family had come full circle.

Mr Leclef's idea was to make fine Belgian whisky, modelled after the best single malts of Scotland. For that he purchased two copper pot stills from Scotland and a large number of 200 litre oak barrels, previously used for aging Sherry, to age his whisky for the required three years. The first bottles of Gouden Carolus Single Malt Whisky were released just a couple of months after my visit to Het Anker, at the end of 2013.

According to the guide, there will also be a limited edition release, a whisky aged on Orsolo sherry barrels, but no date has been given for this edition.

Our tour guide next to a large copper tun at Het Anker

For more photos from the Het Anker visit check this Flickr photo set.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Beer Mile of London

Just like Edinburgh in Scotland has its Royal Mile, filled with tourist traps but also some serious whisky hot spots, London now sports a "golden mile" of excellent breweries, along the railway line south east of London Bridge in the rapidly developing district of Bermondsey in the Borough of Southwark.

Along the railway line, from 79 Enid Street, near the center of Bermondsey, to 22 Bermondsey Trading Estate in the south east, you'll encounter four relatively young craft breweries, three of them located in the arches below the railway! According to Google Maps, this distance is a 1.3 mile walk, which is close enough to a mile for me to label it The Beer Mile of London.

The Beer Mile of London, starting at Brew By Numbers (A),
with stops at The Kernel (B), Partizan (C) and at Fourpure (D)

At the end of November 2013, I made my first visit to this part of London and I was duly impressed. Here's a brief recount from my visit (thank you Stig, Chris and Ruth for the great company!).

The easiest way to get to Bermondsey is via the Jubilee Line to Bermondsey station (the stop after London Bridge). From there simply follow Jamaica Rd west towards the railway line, after 1/3 mile take left down Abbey St and pass underneath the railway. Take left down Enid St and let the fun begin at No 79.

The best day of the week to make this hike, in fact the only day you should consider, is a Saturday, because that is the day when all of the four breweries are open, allowing you to peek inside and to taste their beer at makeshift bars. But be there early to beat the crowds of locals (and other visiting beer geeks), though on sunny days it's actually pretty nice to stand outside the arches with a beer in your hand.

My own visit on Saturday November 30th was blessed with a clear blue sky and warming sunshine, so I had a lovely walk with a great view back towards The Shard by London Bridge. The nice weather made it possible to enjoy a few beers outside, even though London is fairly cold at this time of the year.

I actually started my trip at The Kernel, but I'll list the breweries as they are shown on the map above.

Brew By Numbers in a railway arch in Bermondsey

Brew By Numbers
Address: 79 Enid St
Open Saturdays from 9 am to 3 pm

Brew By Numbers aka BBNo was founded in March 2012 by the two London homebrewers Dave Seymour and Tom Hutchings, who take their inspiration from US craft beers and the great Belgian beer tradition. They launched their micro brewery in December 2012, using a 1-bbl (160 litre) pilot brewery to brew their beer at home.

In May 2013 they moved to their current location, at 79 Enid Street, where they started constructing a proper 10-bbl capacity brewery. When I visited at the end of November 2013, the brewery was ready and I was told it would go into production mode the following Monday (i.e. December 2). This increased capacity should make the BBNo beers more available in London, and hopefully elsewhere.

In their railway arch, BBNo offer visitors up to seven draught beers and a number of bottled beers. But there is hardly any space to sit down, so be prepared to stand when you taste their beer. I tasted their excellent Saison, made with Saphir and Lemon, and the nicely hopped IPA, made with Amarillo and Mosaic.

The Kernel in railway arch 11 at Dockley Road Industrial Estate

The Kernel
Address: Arch 11, Dockley Road Industrial Estate
Opening Saturdays from 9am to 3 pm

The Kernel, founded by homebrewer Evin O'Riordain, commenced brewing in 2009, which makes them four years old now but already a veteran in the vibrant brewing scene in London. The Kernel has attracted a large following of fans both in and outside England, thanks to the historical stouts and hoppy pale ales. As early as 2011, The Kernel made its first appearance at the prestigious Borefts Bier Festival hosted by Brouwerij de Molen in the Netherlands.

In 2012, when moving his brewing operations to its current location, O'Riordain donated his first commercial brewery kit to Partizan, helping that brewery get started. Thanks to this spirit of camaraderie and the rapid success of The Kernel, more micro breweries seem attracted to this part of London - making the "beer mile" a hot bed for new and exciting English brewing.

In Arch 11 in Dockley Road, a modern brewhouse with a capacity of 3200 litre per batch has been installed. There O'Riordain and his helpers brew three days a week, making The Kernel the largest of the four breweries along the beer mile. The Kernel primarily brew traditional English ales, such as pale ales, india pale ales, brown ales and porters, but they love to experiment with new hops and have made some stunning pale ales with New Zealand, Australian and American hops.

During my visit to The Kernel, they offered eight beers on draught at their tap room, which can easily seat 50-60 guests. I was also fortunate to be taken on a short tour of the brewery, by the assistant brewer from Sweden, and was particularly impressed by their barrel aging program and their focus on exciting new hop varietals.

The Kernel looks set to continue their growth and cement their position as one of the leading English craft breweries.

Partizan Christmas Stout and Andy Smith

Partizan Brewing
Address: 8 Almond Rd
Open Saturdays from 11 am to 5 pm

Located in a railway arch along Almond Road, Partizan is the smallest of the four craft breweries along the "beer mile", both in brewing capacity and in physical size of location. But I still found it to be the most varied of the four breweries, making beer in a number of styles, from a hoppy pale ale and IPA, to an excellent porter, a spiced sour ale, Belgian dubbel and Quadrupel.

Partizan Brewing is the brainchild of Andy Smith, a former brewer at Redemption Brewing, who decided to give it a go on his own in 2012. He was given for free the old 4-bbl (about 600 litre) brewing kit from The Kernel, when that brewery moved to its current location just up the railway line from where Partizan is. And Andy Smith has put that brew kit to great use, I could see the top fermting yeast bubbling over in the open fermenter.

During my visit, Andy Smith was at the brewery, serving beer to visitors. Unlike at the other three breweries, the Partizan beers are only available by the bottle, either to take home or enjoy on site, but the beers I tried were all amazing, in particular the 8.9% Christmas Stout which was brewed with sour cherries, spices and brettanomyces and aged for 6 months on oak! The Partizan 6 Grain Porter was also impressive, smooth and rich.

Fourpure Brewing Co has just opened its tap room

Fourpure Brewing Co.
Address: 22 Bermondsey Trading Estate
Open Saturdays from 11 am to 5 pm

Founded in March 2013, this young brewery is located in a big industrial warehouse not far from the railway line in South Bermondsey, with plenty of space to expand (unlike those breweries stuck in a railway arch). Even though the brewery just started up, it has secured a fairly experienced Dutch brewmaster in Hidde John Driebergen. Driebergen came straight from the job as brewer at Meantime Brewing in London, where he was responsible for some of the more adventurous Meantime beers such as the Cali-Belgian IPA. Before Meantime, he even put in some work at Brooklyn Brewery in the US.

The Fourpure brewhouse was bought used from Purity Brewing in Alcester, Warwickshire, England, and can brew both 30 and 60 hectolitre batches, and their current location can take many more fermentors and storage tanks, when that becomes necessary, placing Fourpure in a great position to expand when the demand goes up.

The Fourpure tap room officially opened to the public on the day of my visit, November 30th, with Daniel Lowe, one of the owners, serving beer with help from his sister-in-law. In the spacious tap room you can sit down at wooden benches and taste the Fourpure beers while enjoying the view of the brewhouse and storage tanks. The tap room has seven beer taps in all, but two of them were not used during my visit - they will be used for seasonal and special beers.

Fourpure Brewing Co claim to be inspired by adventure, but to me the beers on offer proved rather traditional (pale and amber ale, oatmeal stout, ipa) though of a high quality for such a young brewery. Their Amber Ale, a style that was popular in the 1990s but is now hardly brewed anymore, was really well made. However, my favorite that night was the tasty 4.2% abv Session IPA - rich in hops for such a low ABV brew but still balanced and very drinkable.

View along the railway arches in Bermondsey

For more photos from this trip please visit this Flickr set.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Nøgne Ø - the death of independence?

Grimstad based Nøgne Ø - Det Kompromissløse Bryggeri, the brewery that more than anyone else brought the craft beer revolution to Norway, a winner of many international beer awards and a role model for numerous Norwegian craft breweries, has been acquired by Hansa Borg Bryggerier, the second largest brewery group in Norway. This was confirmed at a press conference at the Nøgne Ø brewery plant at Gamle Rygene earlier today, November 27th 2013.

Nøgne Ø Wet Hop Ale - the last hurrah?

Today's Hansa Borg acquisition of 54,44% of the shares in Nøgne Ø can be viewed in both positive and negative lights. On the positive side, this means that the best Norwegian craft breweries have reached a level of maturity and market penetration that makes the big breweries take notice. And with Hansa Borg's financial muscles, Nøgne Ø beers should now become even more available across the country. That is obviously a good thing.

On the down side, Nøgne Ø is not an independent company anymore and may have to curtail its famous "no compromise" profile, in accordance with the wishes of the new owners, who are not known for their daring beers or compromise-less attitudes.

I find it particularly sad that after the difficult years they've been through, hardly making a profit, and just when things were starting to look good (Nøgne Ø made a 6,6 million NOK profit last year), the old owners threw in the towel, handing over the brewery to a big company to milk the name for what it's worth. If any Norwegian brewery could have made the transition from small craft brewery to a successful business, it should have been Nøgne Ø. By giving up now they send a strong signal to smaller craft breweries: You can only go so far as an independent brewery. I don't think so. I still feel that independent breweries have a rasion d'être, by challenging concepts and brewing beer that may not look like instant hits. And I also believe you can run a successful craft brewery, making money, without the financial backing of a large corporation. Sadly the former owners of Nøgne Ø didn't think so.

The Hansa Borg takeover also feels like a kick in the stomach to those of us who have supported the brewery through thick and thin, buying their beer and spreading the word to friends and colleagues. After almost ten years as a fan, I feel a kind of "ownership" to the Nøgne Ø brand name. I don't want to see that name sullied. And neither does it feel right that the money I spend on Nøgne Ø beer from now on will line the pockets of the Hansa Borg owners. Not right at all.

I'm sure Hansa Borg owned Nøgne Ø will continue to brew many excellent beers, just like Anheuser-Busch owned Goose Island still does, but I really find it hard to be a wholehearted supporter of Nøgne Ø from now on.

The main question left lingering after this acquisition is: Can the other major craft breweries, such as Kinn, Ægir and HaandBryggeriet, survive on their own terms or will their independence, one by one, vanish into the deep pockets of the big brewery groups?

Snapshot from a happier time
- Nøgne Ø Cask Night at Bar & Cigar in May 2008

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A couple of days on Saaremaa

Saaremaa may not be the most obvious place to visit for a good beer experience, but this rural Estonian island offers a good local beer in addition to many beautiful nature experiences. So, if you're in Estonia and have access to a car, a visit to Saaremaa is highly recommended. Here follows a recount of my own visit to Saaremaa in July 2013.

Remains of an old windmill on Saaremaa. 


The former Eysysla
Saaremaa is the largest and westernmost island in Estonia, with an area of 2,672 km² - making it slightly smaller than Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea. Saaremaa forms the northwest boundary of the Gulf of Riga, meaning that almost half its coastline is along the Gulf while the rest, to the north and west, faces the Baltic Sea.

The easiest way of getting to Saaremaa is to rent a car (or take one of the coaches from Tallinn) and drive southwest from Tallinn for about 130 km to the coastal town of Virtsu. From there you can take the hourly Tuule ferry to Kuivastu, just across the 6 km wide Suur Väin Strait. Kuivastu is actually on the smaller island of Muhu, but Muhu is connected to Saaremaa via a modern bridge, allowing cars and coaches to reach Saaremaa.

Saaremaa has been inhabited for at least 7,000 years and the earliest written records are from the Norse Sagas in which the island is known as Eysysla. In those days Scandinavian Vikings roamed the Baltic Sea for trade or raid but often found themselves under attack by pirates from Eysysla. In one period the island's pirates even raided the southeast coast of what is now Sweden, but in those day part of the Danish realm, earning them the nickname Eastern Vikings (which is probably why the Saare County has a Viking ship in its coat of arms).

In order to pacify the pirates, King Valdemar II of Denmark sent an invasion force to these waters in 1206, building the first castle at Kuressaare as well as one on the mainland, where the Danes settled in what is now Tallinn (the name is probably a corruption of Estonian for "Danish Fortress"). The German order of Teutonic Knights was also spreading north at the time, contesting the territory with the Danes. Under the Teutonic Knights the original wooden castle built by the Danes was rebuilt and named Arensburg, which means "Eagle's Fortress" in old German.

A water-filled moat surrounding the Kuressaare Castle.

In the following centuries, Saaremaa was ruled in chronological order by the Teutonic Knights, Denmark, Sweden and finally, starting in 1706, by the Russian Empire. Though there are buildings on Saaremaa from the Swedish period, most notably the current version of Kuressaare Castle and the Kuressaare Town Hall, most of the old buildings, such as Orthodox churches, are from the time of the Russian Empire. Saaremaa remained part of the Russian Empire until the October Revolution of 1917, after which Estonia and the other Baltic states declared their independence from Russia.

The independence would be short-lived though, because of World War II. In August 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, containing a secret protocol in which the two countries agreed to divide Eastern Europe between them. While the western half of Poland were given to Germany, Stalin secured the rest of Poland, Romania, Finland and the three Baltic states for Russia. He sent in the Red Army to pacify the independent countries and with the exception of three years in the middle of the war, when Nazi troops occupied the area, Estonia and the other Baltic states would be ruled from Moscow for the next fifty years.

In order to better control his new territories, Stalin stole an idea from the Nazis - he deported hundreds of thousand of "undesirables", such as military officers, politicial leaders, authors and journalists, from their home countries and east to Siberia. In return, he moved a large number of ethnic Russian farmers and workers west to replace the natives he had forced out. The tragic result is that today the Baltic countries have large Russian minorities, trapped in countries that treat them like 2nd class citizens.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia regained its independence and the island of Saaremaa has seen a growing number of tourists, both domestic and international, visiting its historical and natural sites. The island is also home to a unique beer, brewed by a small brewery and sold mainly locally: Pithla Õlu.

A glass of Pithla Õlu at Kaali Trahter.


Pithla Õlu
Named after Pithla, a small community on Saaremaa about 15 km east of Kuressaare, Pithla Õlu is usually referred to as koduõlu (which means "home-brewed beer") but also as Saaremaa taluõlu (Saaremaa farm ale). It is brewed by Oü Taako, a small farm brewery founded in 1990 and owned and operated by Arvet Väli. Because this is a small business, Arvet Väli doesn't have the time or resources to bottle his beer, so it's all sold on keg and mainly to pubs and restaurants on the island.

Arvet Väli only makes one type of beer, a cloudy (i.e. unfiltered) orange-tinged amber colored ale with a strength of 7.6% abv. Apparently he has used several yeast strains and brewing methods over the years, but always within the brewing traditions from Saaremaa. The taste of the beer reminds me of a really fresh German hefeweizen, with a strong yeast character, a fine lemon-like sourness and a bready malt body with a long fruity aftertaste with notes of apricot and banana. This is a beer I think Schneider Weisse would have been proud of making.

I only managed to find Pithla Õlu at one bar when I visited Tallinn, on Saaremaa I hoped for (and did have) more luck. When I arrived in Kuressaare I stopped by the Tourist Information to ask them about local breweries and they gave me the phone number for Arvet Väli (!). So I called him. With his limited English vocabulary he answered my questions in single terms, yes or no, but he managed to make it clear to me that he didn't do brewery tours, instead he suggested a couple of places that I should visit in Kuressaare to taste his beer. So that's what I did. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, my first stop on Saaremaa was on the way to Kuressaare, in Kaali.

The amazing green water filling the main Kaali meteorite crater.


Kaali
Kaali is a small community near the middle of Saaremaa, just off the main road from Kuivastu to Kuressaare. It is home to the Kaali crater, the largest of nine meteorite craters found in Kaali. These craters were formed by the largest meteor to hit Earth in "recent" times. Probably around 4,000 years ago a large iron meteor exploded in the atmosphere, resulting in nine large fragments (meteorites) "raining" down over Kaali. The largest fragment may have weighed as much as 80 metric tonnes and crashed to the ground at a speed of 10-15 km/sec, forming a crater of 110 meters in diameter and 22 meters in depth.

This was the last giant meteorite to fall in a densely populated area, and it left traces in old European folklore (Edda and Kalevala) as well as in written sources (Pytheas and Scandinavian Sagas). Today, the serene main crater with its green water (black in the winter) attracts visitors from near and far, spellbound by the formation and bright colors.

Kaali Trahter
For me there was an another reason for making the 3 km detour to Kaali: Kaali Trahter. This cozy tavern, built in stone, has a nice, shaded "beer garden" where you can enjoy traditional Estonian fair and the locally brewed Pithla Õlu, served on draught. The beer tasted much fresher here than the one I had tried in Tallinn, so I ended up ordering several glasses with my meal before the journey continued to Kuressaare.

Kaali Trahter Restoran - a delightful tavern with good beer.


Kuressaare
Located on the southwest coast of the island, Kuressaare is the capital of Saaremaa and the western most town in Estonia. With a population of a little over 13 thousand it is also the biggest town on Saaremaa and the obvious place to stay for tourists, even though it means crossing most of the island to get there. It celebrated its 450th anniversary in 2013. In addition to the old and well kept Kuressaare Castle, the town offers visitors a beautiful coastline, a charming old town, several good restaurants and a number of spa hotels, both modern glass and steel constructions and older ones made out of wood and stone.

There are three places in Kuressaare that regularly serve Pithla Õlu, all centrally located and within a short walk from each other.

Dereku Burger
Address: Kuressaare Turg
Located on the small market square in Kuressaare, just across Tallinna street from the Town Hall, this artisanal burger bar claims to serve the best burgers in Estonia. But they also serve Pithla Õlu on draught, which you can enjoy at the tables outside on the market square. Perhaps accompanied by a juicy burger.

Grand Rose Spa Hotel
Address: Tallinna 15
Grand Rose is located a short walk up Tallinna street from Kuressaare Turg and from the outside it looks like any another generic hotel. But it has a nice backyard, with lots of tables and comfortable wicker chairs. Along one fence there's even a row of large, Mongolian-style tents where you can sit inside to take cover from the weather. What really impressed me was the fact that they served freshly smoked fish, and I mean fresh - the fish came warm straight out of the smokery. Combine that with an equally fresh Pithla Õlu poured straight from keg and you have an awesome meal. Definitively one of my best meals in Estonia!

Veski Trahter
Address: Pärna 19
Veski Trahter is Estonian for Windmill Tavern and this cozy restaurant is located in an old windmill, built in 1899 and used until 1941. Massive millstone-like stone tables can be found both inside and outside, adding an extra touch to the place. In the summertime you can even enjoy your meal on the second floor balcony around the outside of the mill, giving you a nice view of the town and the ground below.

I enjoyed a tasty wild boar casserolle dish for dinner though unfortunately they were temporarily out of Pithla Õlu, which forced me to go for an A Le Coq lager. Not quite the same, but still a nice meal at a wonderful place.

Veski Trahter - the windmill tavern in Kuressaare.

Aside from the food and culture in Kuressaare, the town makes for a good base for daytrips on the south and west coast of Saaremaa. I spent one morning driving down the peninsula of Sõrve, which offers both manmade and natural attractions - from the Soviet war memorial at Tehumardi and the impressive Sõrve Lighthouse to rock sculptures and geological features along a beautiful coastline.

So, if you have a couple of days to spare, do consider heading out to Saaremaa and spend a night in Kuressaare trying the local beer and freshly smoked fish.

Local birds oogling my dinner at Veski Trather.

For more photos check out these Flickr sets from Kaali and Saaremaa.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Bergen and its beer festival

Earlier this month I traveled to the city of Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, to visit the second Bergen Beer Festival and check out some of the better beer places in the city. My last visit to Bergen had been in April 2012 so I was excited to find out how things had developed in the span of one and a half year.

Bergen on a sunny day in April 2012, seen from Fløyen.

Bergen is the second largest city in Norway and the largest on the west coast, with a population of 270 thousand (almost 400 thousand in the metropolitan area). The city is beautifully located between its seven mountains at the end of a fjord, which has provided the city with a safe harbor and made it an ideal trading port on the coast for centuries. From its founding in 1070, until the end of the 13th century, Bergen was where the kings lived and had their administration, making it the first true capital of Norway. Bergen kept this position until the reign of King Haakon V (1299 - 1319) who settled in Oslo and made that city the new capital.

But Bergen did not decline because of this loss of status, instead it was turned into the main commercial centre in Norway when a group of German merchants established a "Kontor", a trading post, at Bryggen in 1360. This made Bergen the northernmost port in the network of the Hanseatic League, the association of German city states that controlled all trade in the Baltic Sea, and much of the North Sea too, for the next couple of centuries. During this period much wealth was amassed in Bergen and the city became the gate to Europe, where new fashions and influences first came to Norway.

By the end of the 16th century, the Hanseatic League had lost its monopoly on trade because of the new and more powerful kingdoms in northern Europe. Both Sweden and Denmark handled their own trade, and when the office in London was closed by Queen Elisabeth in 1598 there wasn't much trade left for them. However, the office in Bergen continued to be used until 1754 and was the very last one to close. Today, this former Hansa Kontor at Bryggen is the only one that remains intact in Europe, making its old wooden buildings unique. Which is why UNESCO put Bryggen on their list of World Cultural Heritage sites as early as 1979.

The modern city of Bergen is still very much a fish and trading port, bearing the marks of hundreds of years of trade with continental Europe, both in its architecture, place names and mentality. Visitors to Bergen will typically flock to Bryggen but also to the nearby Fisketorget market, where fish mongers have offered fresh fish for hundreds of years (though today it seems that most people working at the market are foreigners).  Another popular attraction is Bergenhus fortress where Haakon's Hall, the old royal palace built in 1260, still stands. And if you want to get an overview of the city you can take the Fløibanen funicular, which goes from near Bryggen, up the Fløyen mountain, providing a breathtaking view from 320 meters above sea level. Or you can take a tour bus to the foot of Ulriken, the tallest of the mountains in Bergen, and take the aerial tramway up to its peak at 643 meter.

Bergen Fish Soup

When it comes to food, Bergen is the place to go for fresh seafood which is caught every night and sent fresh to restaurants or sold at Fisketorget the next day. The Bergen Fish Soup - a rich, creamed soup made with white fish (haddock, halibut, cod) and various vegetables - is always a winner, in particular on cold, rainy days. But also shrimp, lobster and mussel dishes are worth trying. Of a more recent trend, sushi is also worth checking out since the biggest sushi producer in Norway, Lerøy Seafood, is based in Bergen.

As for beer, the topic of this blog, Bergen has seen a revival of its beer scene over the last few years, just like the rest of Norway, with a better selection of craft beer at pubs, micro breweries opening up and the launch of its own beer festival.

But before covering the beer scene, a few words of caution about the weather. Bergen is commonly called the rain capital of Norway because of an average annual precipitation of 2.25 meter (7.38 feet), so you will more often than not need protective rain clothes or at least an umbrella when visiting. To give you an idea: On the first day of my recent visit, Bergen received a total of 34 mm (1.34 in) of rain.

Bergen Ølfestival 2013 at Nikolaikirkeallmenningen

Bergen Beer Festival 2013
Bergen Beer Festival, known as Bergen Ølfestival or just BØ in Norwegian, was held for the first time in September 2012, as an independent part of the larger Bergen Matfestival, to promote Norwegian beer and beer culture. It was conceived and arranged by the local chapter of Venner av Nøgne Ø ("Friends of Nøgne Ø"), with good help from the restaurant Bryggen Tracteursted, which set aside some of its outdoor area for the festival. The proceedings from the festival is used to promote the interest and knowledge of good beer and beer culture in Bergen.

This year, the festival was held on September 6 and 7. The number of attending breweries had gone up from seven in 2012 to thirteen this year. Plus an apple cider producer. Of the thirteen breweries, ten fit into the craft brewing category. All major Norwegian craft breweries attended:

- Berentsens Brygghus from Egersund
- HaandBryggeriet from Drammen
- Kinn Bryggeri from Florø
- Lervig Aktiebryggeri from Stavanger
- Nøgne Ø from Grimstad
- Ægir Bryggeri from Flåm

In addition to these, four new micro breweries also attended:

- Austmann Bryggeri from Trondheim
- Balder Brygg from Leikanger
- Baran Bryggeri from Fana, Bergen
- Voss Bryggeri

These four have all started brewing within the last year, Austmann and Voss in the last few months. Together, these ten craft breweries brought more than 75 beers, on keg and bottle, to the festival. Which is plenty for a two-day festival!

There were also some larger Norwegian breweries at the festival, such as Aass from Drammen, Hansa / Waldemars Mikrobryggeri from Bergen and Carlsberg owned Ringnes. I won't mention them again since like most of the other visitors I only queued up for beer at the craft brewery stands.

The stand of Austmann, Voss, Lervig and Nøgne Ø.

On the opening day, the organizers were faced two hurdles - heavy rain and technical problems with the payment system. The former seemed to worry no one, visitors still showed up in large numbers, wearing rain clothes or umbrellas, all smiles. This impressed both me and many of the attending breweries who claimed that if this weather had hit during a similar festival in Trondheim or Oslo, hardly anyone would have bothered showing up! The second problem was linked to the scanning of QR codes, needed to register the payment of a beer. It turned out that the scanning software used on the iPad at each stand failed from time to time, so did the network, which caused confusion and problems both for the brewers and their customers. However, the visitors took the weather and any technical hurdles in full stride so the first day went remarkably well. The next day the organizers had reverted the payment system to a simple coupon solution, which worked flawlessly, even the weather was better.

In order to taste beer you needed the official 15 cl tasting glass and one or more coupons; most beers cost one coupon, but a few rare or particularly strong ones cost two. At designated spots around the festival grounds you could buy coupons in multiples of four, for 100 NOK (hence 25 NOK per coupon). On the first day, when the new payment system was being used, it was also possible to pay via smartphone - you simply displayed your QR code to the iPad and had it scanned. When the code had been used four times you had to buy a new "four coupon" code. But, as mentioned above, this didn't always work and was abandoned on day two.

Kinn Bryggeri had the most impressive stand at the festival

Here's the lowdown on the various breweries, their beers and doings at the festival.

Austmann Bryggeri
Austmann Bryggeri just started up, brewing their first batch at the end of July, so I didn't expect that much from them. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of beers that head brewer, Anders "Coop" Cooper, could offer from the four taps at his stand - ranging from pale ale, brown ale and two India pale ales (both American and English) to a saison and a blueberry stout!

My favorite from Austmann was clearly their Bastogne, a very refreshing and nice 5.5% Belgian-style saison. Because the IPA competition was so fierce at the festival, Austmann Humledugg (6.5% American IPA) and Nummer 9 (7% English IPA) struggled to shine through. Their Blåbærstout (6%) was also a bit disappointing as I couldn't detect any blueberry notes in it. That said, I'm sure Coop, who spent time at Kinn Bryggeri to learn brewing with open fermentation, will continue to improve his brewing skills and make many classic beers in the future. Austmann Bryggeri is a welcome addition to the beer scene in Trondheim and Norway.

Balder Brygg
Balder Brygg started up about a year ago, but I had somehow missed the chance to taste their beers at recent events in Oslo so I was really anxious to get a taste while in Bergen. Brewer, Joar Melvær Njøs, was manning the stand when I approached, shortly after the noon opening on the first day, which gave me the chance to ask him about their brewery and beers.

Opening up in June 2012, Balder Brygg is a fairly unique craft brewery in that it focuses on brewing bottom fermented lager beers, such as pils, Vienna lagers, porters (yes, porters can be bottom fermented too) and even doppelbocks, rather than the more common top fermented ales. I also got the impression that Njøs wanted to use local ingredients in their beers.

After trying the six beers they brought on keykeg, I was struck by the good quality they showed, from the excellent Porter (6.3%) and fresh Bergen Pale Ale (5.7% APA) to the delicious, but still a bit young, Old Ale (6.2%) and the absolutely amazing Turken, an 8% doppelbock brewed with smoked pilsner malt that reminded me of Aecht Schlenkerla Eiche. Balder also had a keg of a special beer called Epleøl, a 4.5% pale ale brewed with a dash of apple juice. Unfortunately, like Austmann Blåbærstout, it didn't have enough apple flavor in it to be detectable by my taste buds. So, please add some more juice next time.

Baran Bryggeri
Ali Mostofi, of Persian ancestry and the owner of Baran Café in Bergen, had started playing with homebrewing when he got to know the young student Lasse André Raa. Together they decided to go commercial with their brewing interest and founded Baran Bryggeri. The word "baran" is Persian for "rain", a suitable name for a brewery located in Fana on the outskirts of Bergen - the rain capital of Norway.

Baran Bryggeri has been in operation for 12 months and supplies Baran Café with draft beer, though they hope to start bottling in order to get their beer sold at grocery stores and the stronger ones through Vinmonopolet. At the festival, they brought along two beers on draft: L'Orgie Houblon, an 8.3% double IPA, and Krydderøl, a 5.5% pale ale flavored with real saffron.

I only tried their spicy Krydderøl which, hm, I would prefer to call interesting rather than good. The saffron gave it a strong herbal character with a very bitter, tannic finish - a bit like chewing on grape pits.

Berentsens Brygghus
I was actually forced to skip this stand. The reason for this was that I simply had so many other breweries to check up, that when I finally got around to look for them it was so crowded (they were located just across from the highly popular Ægir stand and right next to the equally popular Kinn) that I could not squeeze my way through to it. Hence, no Berentsen beers were tasted.


Ole Richard Lund and Rune Eriksen of HaandBryggeriet

HaandBryggeriet
HaandBryggeriet was represented by Ole Richard Lund, their sales manager and a vivid homebrewer, and Rune Eriksen, one of the four co-founders of the brewery. They had shipped the mobile HaandBryggeriet bar, first unveiled at Haand Craft Beer Festival in May 2013, to Bergen. Unfortunately, the festival did not allow breweries to display their logos, so Lund and Eriksen had to cover up the front of the bar to hide the name of the brewery.

From the two towers of the mobile bar, they could serve up to four different draft beers at a time. The selection of beer was a good mixture of dark and light, old and new, ranging from Humlesus (4.5% hoppy pale ale), Fyr og Flamme (6.5% IPA) and Ardenne Blond (7.5% saison) to the darker Hesjeøl (6.5% smoked traditional harvest ale), Bestefar (9% traditional ale) and Odin's Tiple (11% imperial stout). On bottle they brought along two limited release sour ales, Surpomp (8.5%) and European Sour Blend (6.5%), the latter a collaboration with De Molen, Loverbeer and Alvinne. It was these two that ran out first, on both days, so next time - bring more sour ale, guys!

Kinn Bryggeri
Founder and head brewer of Kinn Bryggeri, Espen Lothe, was very active at the festival, giving a great talk about the future of craft brewing as well as mingling with guests and spending time behind his stand, pouring beer and talking about it to new as well as seasoned beer lovers.

Kinn easily had the most impressive stand, serving eight different beers on tap - half of them hand pumped from cask! In all they brought eleven different beers, from well known beers such as Vestkyst (7.5% American IPA), Bøvelen (9.5% abbey tripel), Slåtteøl (6.5% saison) and Svart Hav (4.7% stout) to newer ones like Gamleguten (7% old ale) and Ivar Aasen (10.5% barley wine).

As hinted to above, Espen Lothe gave a talk called "Framtidsbryggeriet" (at HUB Bergen), about his visions for the future of craft brewing. It chimed really well with my own mixed feelings about the current state of craft beer affairs. Here are some of the interesting observations he made:

  • Quality: Craft breweries today focus too much on having a wide variety of beer types, rather than making a few good ones. Some have 20-30 beers in their standard lineup which means it will take them much longer to finely tune recipes and make each beer as good as possible. Lothe thinks future craft breweries should make fewer but better beers and he mentioned Trappist brewery Orval as an extreme example of a brewery that makes just one type of beer, but brewing it to perfection. Why should every craft brewery make wheat ale, saison, pale ale, IPA, double IPA, porter and imperial stout when most of them struggle with the consistency and quality of each beer they make?
  • Extreme brewing: Most craft breweries spend a lot of resources making extreme beers, such as massively hopped double / triple IPAs and high alcohol imperial styles of beer, which might be interesting a few times but is not going to attract the average beer drinker and may even wear out the taste buds of veteran beer geeks. Craft beer should be about a good drinking experience. Flavorful? Yes. In your face? No.
  • Lager beer: The large majority of craft beers are top fermented ales, few make bottom fermented lagers. But lager is so much more than the insipid yellow fizz from the large international breweries, just look at the great lager traditions of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic with pilsners, Vienna lagers, märzens, dunkles, bocks and so on. Good craft lagers should stand a good chance competing with the industrial versions because craft brewers will use more and better ingredients, not additives such as corn or rice.

Espen Lothe - praising quality over quantity

After the talk, Espen Lothe told me about the experience that had prompted him to give this talk; he had tasted a wonderful lager from the small German family brewery Gänstaller-Bräu, outside Bamberg, which had made a huge impression on me too during my visit to their Zoiglstube last year. So, folks, start brewing flavorful and elegant ales and lagers!

Lervig Aktiebryggeri
I did see Lervig head brewer Mike Murphy at the festival, but never behind their stand, so I never got the chance to congratulate him on the recent 10 year anniversary of the brewery (founded June 25, 2003) or on the great series of beers he has developed in his three and a half years at Lervig.

Another small disappointment was that the Lervig guys had brought mostly bottled beers, with Galaxy IPA as a notable exception. I had looked forward to trying many of them on tap for the first time (but fortunately I later did, at one of the pubs in Bergen). However, I was happy to see that they had brought bottles of their 10th Anniversary Special, a delicious 4.7% Vienna lager released in a limited number. They also mentioned Lervig Siste Dans, the stronger (5.6%) and hopped-up version of Lucky Jack, brewed for the farewell concerts of Kaizers Orchestra, but I didn't stay late enough for that beer to come on (if it did).

Nøgne Ø
Representing Nøgne Ø, brewer Ingrid Elisabeth Skistad brought along kegs with their new Mandarina IPA (7.5%), brewed with the as of yet unreleased German hop varietal Mandarina, Global Pale Ale (4.5% pale ale, made with 13 different hops!), Imperial Premiant India Pilsner (9% hoppy pilsner) and their first sour ale, Tindved (7%, made with juice from pressed sea buckthorn). She also brought along one keg of the limited Dark Horizon Fourth Edition (16% imperial stout) and bottles of the collaboration beer Half a World Away (9% imperial red ale), brewed together with Holgate Brewhouse from Victoria, Australia.

Skistad also gave a spirited talk on the topic of yeast during the festival. In it she went through the history of yeast cells and brewing, the chemical makeup and differences between different strains of yeast, from top and bottom fermenting to wild yeast, and how they affect the taste and smell of the finished beer. With a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology from NTNU in Trondheim and another MSc in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, Skistad is the right person to give such a talk!

Nøgne Ø brewer Ingrid E Skistad talking about yeast

Voss Bryggeri
Hailing from Voss, about 100 km west of Bergen, Voss Bryggeri opened up in February 2013 with a hired gun, Oregonian Ian Greene, as its head brewer. Greene has brewed for Stone Brewing Company in California and Rogue Ales in Oregon and is an expert on hops and the brewing of hoppy beers (which surely must be second nature to any brewer from Oregon?).

Both Greene and the founders of Voss Bryggeri, Dag Eirik Jørgensen and Jeanette Lillås, attended the festival, offering visitors to their stand a number of very exciting beers on tap. My favorite was the Voss Oregonian, a 4.7% American pale ale that was so freshly hopped I've never had its like in Norway. Wow! This beer really blew its competitors out of the water and must have made many visitors aware of what a difference in flavor there is between a young and an old beer beer brewed with lots of hops.

In addition to the Oregonian, Voss Bryggeri had brought two beers made with smoked(!) hops, which was a totally new concept to me. One of them was the official festival beer, the 4.7% stout called BØLL, which combined the mild smoke character with a nice roasted flavor. The other was the Eldhus Sommar, a 4.7% ale made with three varieties of smoked hops, it had a stronger character of bonfire (not peat) and was very nice.

Ian Greene at the stand of Voss Bryggeri

Ian Greene was also among the brewers giving a talk at the festival, where he presented himself to a Norwegian audience and telling us the fascinating story of how he ended up as brewmaster at Voss Bryggeri.

To make a long story short, the future founders of Voss Bryggeri was on a "scouting" trip to the US west coast to learn about craft beer and brewing. One day they came across Hop Venom, a double IPA from Boneyard Brewery in Bend, Oregon. They liked this beer so much that they rented a car and drove for several hours to Bend where they met the brewer, Ian Greene. Half-jokingly he was offered a job as head brewer at their future brewery. Greene didn't think more of this until he received an email with the same offer sometime later. After a brief pause to think, Greene accepted the offer. As he said, Voss provides great nature and opportunities for hunting and fishing - two of his pastime favorite activities. In January 2013, Greene and his girlfriend moved to Norway and in March he brewed the first batch of beer at the brand new brewery in Voss. The rest, as they say, is history, and I'm confident Greene will make great beer history in Voss.

Ægir Bryggeri
Bergen beer festival became a favorite of Ægir founder, Evan Lewis, when he attended last year, so for the 2013 festival he returned with a large number of beers and a strong team to man the bar and inform visitors about the brewery and its beers. Vegard Bratteteig, who took over as head brewer at Ægir when Dave Gardonio left last year, was also present and seemed very happy with the response he got from people tasting his brews. From what I could see, Ægir had one of the most popular stands at the festival.

Ægir brought along almost all of their beers, though many of them on bottle only. On draft they offered Dag Sitrus Pale Ale (4.5%), Sumbel Porter (4.7%) and India Pale Ale (6.5%) to name a few, while on bottle they offered their flag ship beers Natt Imperial Porter (10%), Lynchburg Natt (10% barrel aged version) and Tors Hammer (13.2% barley wine). But Ægir also brought along a brand new beer, Lir Irish Dry Stout (5.5%), which was one of the highlights at the festival for me.

Ægir Lir Irish Dry Stout - a festival highlight

Evan Lewis also gave a talk at the festival, about beer and food, but I was unable to attend it.

Concluding remarks
All in all, Bergen Ølfestival 2013 was an impressive event, offering visitors lots of good and creative beers, served by a very friendly and informative staff, often the brewers themselves. I didn't notice any overly drunk people, just smiling and happy visitors as far as the eye could see. Well done, Bergen VANØ! And thank you!

From what I've heard about 30,000 people visited the festival, out of which some 7,000 actually bought at least four coupons. However, with such numbers the festival has clearly outgrown its current facilities at Bryggen Tracteursted and the organizers should seriously consider another location for next year. If so, I promise to come back again.

Bergen Ølfestival 2013 - great and crowded!

So, what about good beer places in Bergen?
Here's a section about the beer places I managed to visit, though some of them only briefly.

Henrik Øl & Vinstove
Address: Engen 10
Number of taps: 54

On my previous visit to Bergen, this beer bar by Den Nationale Scene sported an amazing 44 beer taps. Eighteen months later, that number had grown to 54 taps - keeping Henrik at the top spot in Norway, as the bar with most beer on tap. True, not all of the taps are with craft beer, they do have Grimbergen, Kilkenny and Guinness, but I could only count 6-7 industrial beers so about 45 of the taps are with genuine craft beer!

Because of the great variety and surprisingly high rotation of beers, I spent all three nights at Henrik. Thursday night was the most quiet, Friday was packed and Saturday somewhere in between. The great thing about Henrik is the excellent staff there, they know their beer. Because of this and their great selection, beer geeks from all over the world come here so you can always count on a good conversation at the bar. I had several, spending Friday night discussing beer with a fellow from Argentina and Saturday with a couple from Canada and Colorado. It's a small beer world!

Of the excellent craft beers on draft during my visit, surprisingly many from Denmark, I really enjoyed Gudeløs (8.9% imperial stout) and Old Mephisto (10.5% barley wine) from Djævlebryg, #307 (7.5% belgian ale) and #313 (6.5% old ale) from Bøgedal, Henrik Kaffesort (6.5% coffee porter, made for Henrik by Beer Here), Amager Batch One (9.2% american strong ale), Lervig Konrad (10.4% imperial stout), Hornbeer Dryhop (5% hoppy lager). In addition to these draft beers, I also enjoyed bottles of Rodenbach Grand Cru, Oud Beersel Oude Geuze and Thomas Hardy's Ale 2006.

Henrik Øl & Vinstove does not offer hot food, so if you're looking for a good beer and food place I suggest the next two ...

Pingvinen
Address: Vaskerelven 14
Number of taps: 12

Located two minutes walk from Henrik Øl & Vinstove, Pingvinen is a pub, restaurant and nightclub crammed into one. In the late afternoon, when I visited on a Saturday, the place was largely empty, only a few couples with baby strollers and an old regular in the bar. So I found a spot next to the taps and asked if I could eat in the bar, instead of at a table, which was fine with the bartender.

Pingvinen had a very decent selection of draft beer, out of 12 taps there were 8 with craft beer! They had two from BrewDog (Punk IPA and 5 AM Saint), two from Balder Brygg (Old Ale and Turken) and three from Nøgne Ø (Mandarina IPA, Imperial Premiant India Pilsner and God Jul 2011). I was more than happy to spend a couple of hours there and for dinner I ordered one of their festival specials, Oksekjake ("ox jaw") steamed in Old Ale from Balder Brygg. The result was tender, juicy and flavorful meat. A real treat.

Nabokjelleren
Address: Sigurdsgate 4
Number of taps: 9

Naboen Pub & Restaurant is another nice place to go for beer and food, though I prefer the more informal cellar - Nabokjelleren - to the white clothed tables of the restaurant you enter into from the street. Downstairs it's a bit darker but also more cozy, with dark wooden furniture and a bar offering a good number Norwegian craft beer on tap and bottle. On the night of my visit, they had one Ægir, two Voss and four Kinn beers on tap.

My dinner in the cellar was a tasty Swedish Planklax (literally "Salmon on a plank") that I enjoyed with Kinn Bitter, before continuing with more challenging beers such as Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout from draft and a bottle of Nøgne Ø Sunturnbrew 2009.

Kontoret
Address: Kong Olavs plass 4
Number of taps: 4

This is a cozy English-style pub, just south of Torgallmenningen, that usually have 2-3 good Norwegian micros on draft in addition to a very decent bottle beer selection. I really didn't have much time to spend there during my recent visit, except for sharing a bottle of Oude Gueuze Tilquin à L'Ancienne.

By the way, Kontoret serves hot food, but from the neighboring Dickens restaurant (it has the same owner).

Baran Café
Address: Sigurds gate 21
Number of taps: 15

This café has offered Persian food and a cozy atmosphere in the heart of Bergen for more than a decade, and for the past 12 months it has also offered beer from its offsite brewery, Baran Bryggeri. Thus I decided to pay the place a visit on my first night in Bergen, the day before the beer festival.

However, I didn't stay very long when I found out that they had none of their own beers on tap. Because of their limited brewing capacity and low stock, all of the Baran beers had been set aside for serving at the beer festival. Still, the café looks really nice and with up to six of their own beers on tap, plus about ten others, it should be a good beer place to visit on a normal day.

Henrik Øl & Vinstove - with 54 beers on tap!

If you're planning a trip to Bergen you may want to consider going in September 2014, to catch the third Bergen beer festival. But Bergen has a pretty good beer scene the year around, so you shouldn't have to go thirsty in this old Hansa port whenever you visit.

In the meantime you may want to check out more photos at Flickr, from the festival and Bergen.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Oslo Beer City - 5 years of growth

With the 5 year anniversary of the Grünerløkka mat- og mikrobrygg festival this year I couldn't help but thinking back at all that has happened in Oslo and Norway when it comes to beer since the very first festival was held at Parkteatret in September 2008. I've already summarized the early history in this post, so here I will just briefly say a few words on the tremendous changes that has taken place in Oslo over the last five years, before ending the post with a list of the 25 most important beer places in the Norwegian capital.

HaandBryggeriet co-founder and brewmaster Jens Maudal
- serving craft beer at Parkteatret on September 27, 2008

Five years of growth
Back in 2008, a visitor to Oslo would be hard pressed to find a good beer bar, the best ones would be Bar & Cigar, Beer Palace and the newly reopened Olympen. But nowhere would a visitor find Norwegian micros on draft, even hardly on bottle. Oslo was a barren beer city, local beer geeks dreamed of going to Stavanger to visit the superior Cardinal Pub or spend a weekend in Copenhagen or Gothenburg, known for their mature beer scenes. There was a demand for good beer places but it seemed that Oslo would remain barren. That was, until the first Grünerløkka mat- og mikrobrygg festival took place on September 27 that year.

The only attending brewery at the festival was HaandBryggeriet from Drammen, which brought along many cases of bottles as well as two kegs of their "extreme" beers, Dobbel Dose double IPA and Dark Force imperial stout. It was the first time such beers had been available on draft in Oslo and both kegs sold out in a couple of hours, along with most of the bottled beer. This success took HaandBryggeriet by surprise and showed everyone attending that you could sell such strong and flavorful Norwegian craft beers on draft, even here in Oslo. A couple of months later the first pubs in Oslo installed special beer towers for serving Nøgne Ø or HaandBryggeriet on draft. This was the start of a five year long amazing growth of the Oslo beer scene. So, the first Grünerløkka mat- og mikrobrygg festival deserves praise for helping draft craft beer get a foothold in Oslo.

The current beer scene
As I mentioned in a previous post, the beer scene in Oslo has never been this vibrant, old pubs are upgrading their beer menus and new beer pubs and microbreweries open up frequently. Only in the last 9 months, three new microbreweries have opened up in Oslo - Crowbar, Grünerløkka Brygghus and Nydalen Bryggeri & Spiseri. Several others are in various stages of planning and even construction, with two more likely to open up before the end of 2013.

Mash tun and Copper at Nydalen Bryggeri

As the saying goes, beer is the new wine, the interest in good beer still seems to be on the rise, with more people starting to brew beer at home and newspapers publishing stories every day about beer, brewing and pubs. With a population of 600 thousand, I don't think Oslo has reached saturation level yet - all the microbreweries sell out their beer just as fast as they can brew it, forcing the brewpubs to rely an a high rotation of guest taps to serve their thirsty customers.

Back in 2008, it was so easy to keep tab on what was going on in Oslo. You would often know ahead of time which pub would have something new to offer, and it was no use going out more than a couple of times per months because new imports would seldom arrive more than once a month. In 2013, the situation is reversed, with new beer appearing daily and at so many places that a single person would not stand a chance to cover it all, even if it was a full time job! There are simply too many great beer bars and brewpubs in Oslo now.

Below is my personal pick of the 25 most important beer places in Oslo, be it bars, brewpubs or restaurants, the way I see it in late August 2013, though by now I've given up any pretense of getting a complete overview of the beer scene. I have not been able to visit all of these places recently and I may have overlooked new ones, so take this more as an impressionist landscape painting than a detailed road map.


Oslo Beer City - 28 August 2013


Aku Aku Tiki Bar
Address: Thorvald Meyers gate 32 A, Grünerløkka
Opened: 27 April 2007
Type: Tiki Bar
Taps: 2

Jan Vardøen, affectionally called "Mr Grünerløkka", started this bar after Aftenposten complained about the lack of a good tiki bar at Grünerløkka. Aku Aku Tiki Bar is mostly about drinks but in 2009 they convinced Nøgne Ø to brew a house beer for them, using lemongrass, and thus Nøgne Ø Aku Aku Lemongrass Ale was born. It's still brewed by Nøgne Ø and served on draft at Aku Aku.

Though the bar doesn't have the widest selection of beer, they usually have a couple of good ones on tap and a handful of bottles from Norwegian micros, its charming Hawaiian atmosphere makes it a nice place to sit down for a cold beer on a hot summer day at Løkka.


Amundsen Bryggeri & Spiseri
Address: Stortingsgt 20, entrance from Roald Amundsens gt by the 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 Stortingsgata, near the City Hall, it gets its share of tourists so the sales ratio of good beers to bland lagers can be very low on crowded days. It's still a great place to visit, especially early in the week or early in the afternoon when you can sit at the bar. The kitchen is really good (go for the homemade burger), the draft beer selection is nice and the bottle menu great, in league with Dr Jekyll's, Olympen and Håndverkerstuene.

Another good reason for coming here is to try the beers brewed at the 5 hl microbrewery located in a room next to the bar. Through several large windows you can often see the brewer, Tom Alfred Øimo, preparing a new batch or check on the fermentation tanks. In the span of two years he has brewed a number of excellent beers, from smoked porters and barley wines to pale ale session ales. Several collaboration brews have also been made at Amundsen, such as the 9% Imperial Dunkel Wit with Nøgne Ø, the 9.5% Nordic Warrior Double IPA with Sigtuna Brygghus and the infmaous Rough Snuff with Midtfyns Bryghus.


Bar & Cigar
Address: C. J. Hambros plass 2, by Oslo Tinghus
Opened: August 1998
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 things. The owner, Ole Gunnar Hauso, is a big fan of Cuban Cigars and single malt whisky so expect to find many likeminded people 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, such as Ugly Duck Imperial Vanilla Coffee Porter, and they also do whisky and beer tastings here frequently. Bar & Cigar was also the first place to do cask ales in Oslo, back in the spring 2008. In summers you can enjoy your beer and cigar on the square outside Bar & Cigar.

On August 24, 2013, Bar & Cigar threw a party to celebrate its 15th anniversary and there are persistent rumours about more tap lines being installed at the bar soon, so it seems that Bar & Cigar is a healthy 15 year old.


Beer Palace
Address: Holmens Gate 3, Aker Brygge
Opened: 6 April 1993, renovated fall 2012 and reopened 14 November 2012
Type: Beer bar
Taps: 34 (about half are craft beers)
Bottles: 100+

After extensive renovations and some structural changes, including rebuilding the bar upstairs, Beer Palace reopened in November 2012 with an extended draft beer menu and even more focus on beer related events, including beer tastings. The place now sports more than thirty tap lines and usually about half of these are with quality craft beer. The selection of bottled beers has also been expanded, with bottles from all over the world in beer coolers both upstairs and downstairs.

For its 20th anniversary, in April 2013, Beer Palace managed to secure a keg of the rare Nøgne Ø Dark Horizon 4th Edition. It didn't last long!

But I'm not all happy with the new Beer Palace. Two long shuffleboards and the extended bar take up very much space on the second floor, reducing the seating capacity and making it difficult to enter or leave on busy nights, when everyone flocks to the bar and blocks the staircase.

Still, the dedication to good beer is evident and I've enjoyed some really great craft beer on draft since they reopened, such as Nøgne Ø Two Captains IPA, Ugly Duck Imperial Vanilla Coffe Porter, Emelisse Rauchbier, Boulevard Pale Ale and Ægir Lindisfarne.


BRU: Vulkan Pub
Address: Maridalsveien 13, next to Mathallen
Opened: 14 June 2013
Type: Beer bar
Taps: 10
Bottles: 150

This pub is owned and operated by the people behind Ølakademiet, who also run the Øltorget beer bar in Mathallen and the old Akersberget restaurant just up the hill. The pub was originally scheduled to open back in November 2012 but construction work took a lot longer than expected, with practically no progress over the winter, so it wasn't until June 7, 2013, that the place first opened its doors, with the grand opening a week later.

The prefix "BRU" is partly inspired by the old bridge factory that used to be in this area ("bru" meaning "bridge" in Norwegian), but it also hints at the the art of brewing since "bru" is pronounced just like the English word "brew". BRU: Vulkan Pub takes its inspiration from the English pub tradition but offering beers from all the big brewing nations. With a floor space of just 19 square meters it claims to be the smallest pub in Oslo.

Note that the pub is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and that it opens as late as 8 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays.


Café Laundromat
Address: Underhaugsveien 2, Bislett
Opened: 2004
Type: Laundromat café
Taps: 10
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 excellent 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 with a view of the Bislett sports arena across the street.


Café Sara
Address: Hausmannsgate 29, Sentrum
Opened: 1 August 1989
Type: Café
Taps: 10 (only a couple are craft beers)
Bottles: 100+

This is one of the longest running brown cafés in Oslo, its bright green exterior contrasting with the dark brown interior, with well worn wooden furniture in several rooms radiating out from the central bar.

Located at the intersection of Hausmannsgate and Torggata, Café Sara has always been known for student friendly prices on beer and food. More surprisingly, for some, it has recently become known for its expanded range of excellent draft beer, usually with Nøgne Ø and HaandBryggeriet on tap but also rare stuff such as Struise Pannepot.


Crowbar Bryggeri
Address: Torggata 32, Sentrum
Opened: 13 January 2013
Type: Brewpub
Taps: 20
Bottles: 50+

Located in Torggata 32, in what formerly housed Zorbas greek restaurant, Crowbar Bryggeri became the 4th brewpub in Oslo when it opened to the public on December 13, 2012. This was a "quiet launch" to let beer fans get a taste of their beer and bar concept, and give them feedback before the official opening.

Known as Crowbar & Bryggeri in official registers, but usually called just Kråka or the Crow, Crowbar Bryggeri officially opened on January 13, 2013, with a big party and the cutting of the ribbon performed by Petter Nome, the leader of the Bryggeri- og drikkevareforeningen (Norwegian trades union for breweries). The inhouse brewery has a 5 hl batch size but with 10 hl fermentation tanks, so brewmaster Dave Gardonio, formerly of Ægir Bryggeri in Flåm, usually brews two batches to fill up a fermentation tank.

When I first heard about Crow, I got the feeling that they would only have 5-6 beers, mainly their own, on draft. That turned out to be far from the truth, Crow has an amazing (for Oslo) 20 tap lines! On any given day, the lowest numbers - usually from 1 to 5 or 6 - will be with their own beer, though the owner, Erk Potur, hopes they can stock up enough kegged beer to actually have taps 1-10 with their own beer. The rest of the tap lines carry guest beer from craft breweries in Europe and the US. I've already enjoyed draft beer from Thornbridge, BrewDog, Beer Here, Boulevard, Nøgne Ø, Ægir and HaandBryggeriet at Crow.

The interior is kept open and simple, with the micro brewery visible from all the tables. On the second floor they have a kitchen with a rotisserie, where you can order kebab in wraps and homemade potato chips.

After just seven months of operation, Crow has already carved out a niche for itself and Dave Gardonio has brewed a number of excellent beers - ranging from roggenbier and a strong mild, to experimental IPAs, hoppy amber and wheat ales and a very tasty dry stout. Crowbar has also done some contract brewing for the newly opened Nydalen Bryggeri & Spiseri, which didn't have their own brewery ready for the opening of their pub.


Den Gamle Major
Address: Bogstadveien 66, Majorstuen
Opened: 1921
Type: Beer bar
Taps: 9 (only a couple are craft beers)
Bottles: 30+

Located just across Kirkeveien from the Majorstuen metro stop and named after the old major whose cabin once stood here and gave name to the area, Den Gamle Major has been around since 1921. For many years it remained a brown pub for local oldtimers, selling cheap pilsner beer on draft.

Den Gamle Major may still look like a brown pub from the outside, but a total renovation in 1999 has given it a second life and in the last few years the owners have started taking craft beer seriously, offering good Norwegian micros on draft in addition to a very decent selection of bottled beers.

Today, Den Gamle Major is the best beer bar at Majorstuen.


Dr. Jekyll's Pub
Address: Klingenberggata 4, Sentrum
Opened: 2003
Type: Whisky and Beer bar
Taps: 10 (4 with craft beer)
Bottles: 180

When Dr. Jekyll's Pub opened up, near Saga cinema in downtown Oslo, ten years ago, it was with a focus on whisky. It soon became the main meeting place for whisky interested people in Oslo, hosting frequent whisky tastings. The interior of Dr. Jekyll's is decorated with gargoyles, stuffed birds, fake bookcases (one of them hiding the entrance to the toilets, which is a source of endless confusion for first-time visitors) and black and white photos from old horror movies, in short giving visitors an impression of a mixture between an old library and a mad scientist's laboratory.

In recent years, Dr. Jekyll's has discovered the thriving beer scene in Oslo, gradually expanding its draft and bottled beer selection. As of August 2013, they have two Nøgne Ø beer towers with two taps each, offering Nøgne Ø and other craft beers - such as Boulevard, Hornbeer and Against the Grain. There are plans to expand this further, probably in September 2013, with two more taps dedicated to craft beer, bringing the total up to 6 craft beers on draft. In addition to draft beer, the pub has recently built up an amazing bottle selection, ranging from Belgian abbey ales and lambic based sour ales, via Norwegian micros and BrewDog Abstrakts and Paradoxes to US craft beer, such as Port Brewing, Boulevard, Jolly Pumpkin etc. Only a few places in Oslo, notably Olympen, Amundsen and Håndverkerstuene, can possibly rival this selection.

On a sidenote, Dr. Jekyll's was where Amund P Arnesen first cut his teeth on craft beer before moving on to Håndverkerstuene in 2009 and later taking his beer sommelier certificate. So Dr. Jekyll's has already played an important part in spreading the gospel of good beer in Oslo.


Grünerløkka Brygghus
Address: Thorvald Meyers Gate 30 B, Grünerløkka
Opened: 8 October 2010, the microbrewery on 6 August 2013
Type: Gastropub and Brewery
Taps: 16
Bottles: 70-80

Grünerløkka Brygghus is another of Jan Vardøens projects on Grünerløkka. It opened up in October 2010, just days after Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri down the street, and I expected it to be another brewpub. But that turned out not to be the case.

Despite its name, "brygghus" meaning "brewhouse", Grünerløkka Brygghus opened without its own brewery. Instead, it relied on a good selection of guest beers plus a few house beers brewed for them at Nøgne Ø (Kjell Pop Single Hop IPA) and Kinn (Løkka Haust Amber Ale and Løkka Svarthumle Black IPA). This would remain the situation for the next three years, but more on that in a minute.

Like all other Vardøen projects, Grünerløkka Brygghus also has a strong focus on food, essentially making it the first gastropub in Oslo. Here you'll find homemade sausages, fresh fish & chips, pan-fried mackerel and much else. Every fall, for the last four years, Grünerløkka Brygghus has also been responsible for arranging the Grünerløkka mat- og mikrobrygg festival, the oldest craft beer festival in Oslo.

In March 2013, Grünerløkka Brygghus posted an update on its Facebook page informing followers that the pub would soon brew its own beer. To help with the brewing and design of new beer recipes, brewmaster Andreas Hegermann Riis, who had resigned from HaandBryggeriet in early April, was employed. As for the brewery, Grünerløkka Brygghus bought the old 10 hl test brewery from Lervig Aktiebryggeri. With good help from Mike Murphy, the Lervig brewmaster, the brewery was installed in the old Villa Paradiso building, owned by Jan Vardøen. This is a stone's throw from the pub so, technically, Grünerløkka Brygghus won't be a brewpub but a pub with an offsite brewery.

Finally, on 6 August 2013 the first batch of beer was brewed at the microbrewery, a new beer created by Hegermann Riis called Løkka Session. And on 21 August 2013, Grünerløkka Brygghus invited to a release party where Løkka Session and another new beer, Løkka Porter, was served on draft for the very first time. Grünerløkka Brygghus had finally become a brew house.


Address: Storgata 36, Sentrum
Opened: 19 May 2012
Type: Beer bar
Taps: 6
Bottles: 20+

Gaasa, Norwegian for "the goose", opened up in May 2012 with a nice selection of craft beer on draft, including their own Gaasa IPA house ale, brewed at Scouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri. They also have a decent bottle beer menu, which includes Belgian sour ales and several beer from Italian brewery Le Baladin.

Unlike many pubs in Oslo, Gaasa is indepenently owned by a group of friends with a burning passion for good beer. They hired an old, protected wood building along Storgata, but they were not allowed to make any changes to it, so the interior has kept its old, rustic feel, with creaky wooden floors. However, it's the cobblestone yard, out in the back, that really attracts people on warm summer days. The high fence and shady birch trees mute all sounds and make this one of the most tranquil places for good beer in Oslo. And, in my view, this is the only place in Oslo that deserves to be called a beer garden.


Håndverkerstuene
Address: Rosenkrantzgate 7 (entrance from Kristian IV), Sentrum
Opened: Reopened August 2009. Originally from the 1880s.
Type: Beer restaurant
Taps: 10
Bottles: 250+

The former Håndverkeren restaurant, which had been a gathering place for various craft guilds since the late 19th century, was bought by Thon Gruppen, renovated into a beer restaurant and reopened in the fall 2009. The focus was on beer and food pairing, and it was the first restaurant in Oslo to recommend beer, not wine, to each dish on their menu.

With Amund P Arnesen as bar manager, later to become Norway's first beer sommelier, Håndverkerstuene quickly took the lead in Oslo, importing a number of exciting craft beers from all over the world, from Japan in the far east to the US in the west. He also managed to import a number of kegs of Cantillon Gueuze, Kriek and Rosé de Gambrinus making Håndverkerstuene the only place, except for Moeder Lambic in Brussels, where I've had multiple Cantillon beers on draft the same night. The high quality of the food and the great beer selection earned the restaurant a top 30 position on RateBeer's Best Beer Restaurants 2011.

In addition to excellent food and beer, Håndverkerstuene is blessed with a cozy and quiet atmosphere. No loud music is played over the loudspeakers and the restaurant is sectioned into multiple rooms, reducing the amount of noise created by its customers.

However, beer knowledge and creativity took a nosedive after Amund P Arnesen left in 2011 and the place has struggled financially since then, only saved by the popular Christmas Dinner season, from early November until Christmas, when the place is absolutely packed.

In February 2013, a new daily manager was appointed to reinvigorate Håndverkerstuene: Hansi Tryggvason came from a similar position at Den Gamle Major, which had become a very successful and money making pub under his management. His first act was to host a Ringnes beer dinner, perhaps not too promising, but the place still seems to focus on a good selection of quality beer.


Kristiania Bar & Café
Address: Jernbanetorget 1, Østbanehallen
Opened: 1987
Type: Bar and café
Taps: 8
Bottles: 30+

With the opening of Oslo Central Station in 1987, the former Østbanehallen railway building was converted into a shopping mall with some places to eat and a very nice bar and café named Kristiania Bar & Café. This has become a great place to sit down for some warm food and cold beer while waiting for your train, and in the summertime they have a large seating area on the square outside.

After more than twenty years of wear and tear, the leather sofas and chairs look really worn and the place may remind you of a brown pub, but the last few years they've installed several new tap lines and expanded their bottle beer selection considerably. This was the first place in Oslo I found Chouffe Houblon and Maredsous Bruin on draft, and they always have Orval, BrewDog and a good selection of Norwegian micros on bottle.

Sadly, this soulful and charming "railway pub" will soon cease to operate. Rom Eiendom, the owner of Østbanehallen, has decreed that most of the current tenants, including Kristiania Bar & Café, will have to close their business in October 2013. Rom Eiendom plans to shine up Østbanehallen and replace the current shops and restaurants with more modern ones.

Kristiania Bar & Café will be replaced by a brasserie and there is no information about any beer focus, so it seems likely that future train travelers won't get the same good selection of beer as they currently do at Kristiania Bar & Café. Enjoy this bar while it's there!


Kulturhuset
Address: Youngstorget 3, Sentrum
Opened: 5 June 2013
Type: Café
Taps: 10
Bottles: 50

At 5 pm Wednesday June 5, 2013, Kulturhuset welcomed its first guests into the old Post Office on the south east corner of Youngstorget square in the heart of Oslo. With a total floor space of 800 meters, Kulturhuset is a "cultural café" offering a number of different services.

- It has a stage where concerts and small theatre pieces can be performed.
- For those out to burn some calories, there's both table tennis and a shuffleboard.
- There's a coffee bar.
- There's a regular bar offering around 50 types of wine and the same amount of beer.

Regarding the beer, Kulturhuset have around ten different beers on tap. Two are regulars, the Ægir India Pale Ale and BrewDog 5 Am Saint, while the 7 taps on the wall are for guest beers. On the opening night, in addition to the two regulars, they offerred Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Bockor Vanderghinste Oud Bruin, St. Austell Admirals Ale, Waldemars Hveteøl and Liefmans Fruitesse. Not a bad start.

What can be said, even after just one visit, is that the big room, unless they erect some sort of walls, carries all sound really well and make the place noisy even when only half full. So this is probably not the place you want to go to chat with friends. But the music was great (The Fall) so when you're alone it's not too bad. Another issue they may want to look into is the light; because the bar is located at the back wall, far from any windows, it may get a bit dark there.

Oh, and Ivar Mykland, the frontman from legendary Kristiansand band Munch, are in on the project too!


Nydalen Bryggeri & Spiseri
Address: Nydalsveien 30A, Nydalen
Opened: 23 August 2013 (the brewery on 25 August 2013)
Type: Restaurant & Brewery
Taps: 24 (about half with craft beer)
Bottles: 100+

Nydalen Bryggeri & Spiseri is a brand new restaurant and brewery that opened up in the old Bølgen & Moi restaurant in Nydalen on August 23, 2013. As the name implies, it has the same owners as Amundsen Bryggeri & Spiseri brewpub in downtown Oslo but the plan seems to be to use the new brewery more as a production brewery, because of its larger (10 hl) brewing capacity and the fact that a bottling machine has been installed.

When I first heard about the plans for Nydalen Bryggeri & Spiseri, I thought of it as a brewpub. But that is not a designation favored by the folks behind it, instead they like to see brewery and restaurant as separate entities, even though they share the same roof.

The brewery was purchased from Nøgne Ø who had bought it from Møllebyen Mikrobryggeri in Moss, when that microbrewery closed down at the end of 2008. Nøgne Ø considered opening their own brewpub, using this equipment, but workload and the rapidly expanding beer scene forced them to cancel such plans. So when Nydalen Bryggeri offered to buy the mash tun, copper and the seven 1000 liter fermentation tanks from Nøgne Ø, they got it.

In May 2013, John Hudson left his job as brewmaster at Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri to start brewing at Nydalen Bryggeri. Over the summer, he worked on installing the brewery as well as four, brand new 1000 liter steel serving tanks, connected to the bar. A new temperature control system, to better control the fermentation, was also installed.

On August 23, 2013, Nydalen Bryggeri & Spiseri opened its doors to the public. It was a sell-out night with both ground floor and the second floor mezzanine packed full of guests. With 24 tap lines, the pub offered a number of great guest beers as well as their own pale ale, brewed at Crowbar Bryggeri because their own brewery wasn't operational. However, two days later - August 25 - the first batch was brewed at Nydalen Bryggeri. The 6th microbrewery in Oslo had started brewing!

On September 11, 2013, Nydalen Bryggeri & Spiseri will have an official opening, this time serving its own beer too.


Olympen Mat & Vinhus
Address: Grønlandsleiret 15, Grønland
Opened: Reopened 3 November 2007. Originally from 1892.
Type: Beer restaurant
Taps: 15 + 5 upstairs
Bottles: 150+

This is one of Oslo's traditional beer halls and it is only fitting that it was here that the modern beer revolution first took hold in the capital. Olympen, affectionally called Lompa, has been a restaurant and beer hall since it first opened in 1892, but it was fairly rundown and infamous for its many alcoholics in the last few decades of the 20th century.

This all changed in 2007 when a new owner, Nevzat Arikan, took over and had the restaurant completely renovated. When Lompa reopened in November 2007, guests could admire large wall paintings of historical Oslo while enjoying solid portions of traditional Norwegian fare to very reasonable prices. But good craft beer was still a bit into the future.

It was in the spring 2008, that Lompa started expanding its beer menu, first with Norwegian micros but soon after with American and Danish craft beer, brands such as Mikkeller, Great Divide, North Coast and Stone became household names. Beer geeks started flocking to the restaurant, which gave Lompa the impetus to continue expanding its beer selection and by early 2009 the place offered a 100 types of mostly craft beer. Oslo had finally gotten a place which focused on craft beer.

Today, the restaurant still offers healthy portions of food and for very decent prices, and there are usually 5-7 quality craft beers on draft at the bar downstairs and up to 5 on draft at Lompa Ute, the roof terrace bar and grill which is open in the summer season.


Oslo Mikrobryggeri
Address: Bogstadveien 6 (entrance from Holtegaten), Majorstua
Opened: 15 September 1989
Type: Brewpub
Taps: 6

In the late 1980s two Norwegians, Frithjof Hungnes and Christopher Jerner, studied in Portland, Oregon, where they were impressed by the nascent microbrewery culture. After returning to Norway they decided to start their own brewpub and managed to attract the interest of several investors, including Jahn Teigen, which allowed them to invest in a small brewery and hire a location in the Majorstua area in the west of Oslo. Despite protests from Ungdom mot Alkohol, the brewpub opened up as Oslo Mikrobryggeri (OMB) on September 15, 1989, becoming the first new brewery to open in Oslo in the 20th century and the first brewpub in Scandinavia!

In the early 1990s, OMB provided a fresh breath for beer interested people in Oslo and for a few years it was even possible to buy their Porter, Steamer and Oslo Pils on bottle in selected stores in Oslo. But when the food chains demanded a larger, fixed volume, in order to distribute the beer, OMB was forced to decline because of its small 10 hl brewing capacity. Since then it has remained purely a microbrewery only selling its beer on draft at the brewpub.

Sadly, OMB is not what it once was. The original founders left a long time ago and while the world of beer has marched on for a quarter of a century, OMB has hardly changed. If it has it's been for the worse, serving rather bland and uninspired ales that taste more or less the same - whether called a Stout or a Pale Ale. I've included OMB on this list primarily because of its historical importance as the very first brewpub in Scandinavia.


Parkteatret Bar
Address: Olaf Ryes plass 11, Grünerløkka
Opened: 2003
Type: Beer bar
Taps: 5
Bottles: 20

Parkteatret is a theatre and concert venue on the north side of Olaf Ryes Plass at Grünerløkka, it also has a bar which has offered excellent craft beers for a number of years and even played a part in the early stages of the beer revolution in Oslo. More on that later.

The Parkteatret building dates back to 1907 when a cinema was established here, for the next 80 years it was used as a cinema and culture stage. In 1918-22 the current neoclassical facade was added and in the 1960s the red "Parkteatret" neon sign was put up above the entrance. In 1991 the cinema was closed down and converted to a theatre, used by the Nordic Black Theater until 2002 when new owners took over and renovated the building. The old cinema foyer became Parkteatret Bar which opened up to the public in 2003.

On September 27, 2008, the first Grünerløkka mat- og mikrobrygg festival was held at Parkteatret. Only one brewery attended, HaandBryggeriet from Drammen, but they brought Dark Force and Dobbel Dose on keg so for the first time it was possible for people in Oslo to enjoy craft beer from draft. The festival was a resounding success, HaandBryggeriet selling out most of their beer in just a few hours and thus proving that it was possible to sell craft beer on draft in Oslo too. Naturally, Parkteatret was among the first places in Oslo to offer Nøgne Ø and HaandBryggeriet on draft when that trend started a few months later.

Since then, Parkteatret has been a good place to enjoy Norwegian micros, both on draft and bottle.


Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri
Address: Trondheimsveien 2, Grünerløkka
Opened: 1 October 2010
Type: Brewpub
Taps: 14
Bottles: 50+

After the success of Olympen, with craft beer selling better and better, owner Nevzat Arikan decided that the natural thing would be start a brewpub. He managed to secure a beautiful old cellar at the former Schous Bryggeri on lower Grünerløkka, not far from Akerselva river, where spring and summer 2010 was spent renovating and installing a Chinese built 5 hl microbrewery.

Former HaandBryggeriet brewer, Englishman John Hudson, was hired to assemble the brewery, create new recipes and brew the beer. On the first day of October 2010, Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri opened its doors to the public, becoming the second brewpub in Oslo. Like Olympen, Schouskjelleren quickly became very popular. So popular that the small microbrewery struggled to make enough beer. To remedy this situation, more guest taps were installed at the bar allowing the brewpub to serve up to 8 guest beers in addition to 6 of its own.

Over the years, Schouskjelleren has been involved in several collbaration brews, both Beer Heer and Det Lille Bryggeri from Denmark has brewed in Oslo, while John Hudson has been in Denmark to brew. With no means of bottling their beer, Schouskjelleren has had a couple of batches brewed and bottled at Dugges in Sweden for sale at pubs and Vinmonopolet.

After two and a half years and 250 batches of beer, brewmaster John Hudson decided to move on in May 2013, after getting a tempting offer from the new Nydalen Bryggeri. His replacement, Luca Saccomandi, is an Italian brewer who worked for brewery Le Baladin when he got the offer to brew in Norway. Since late May, Saccomandi has been responsible for the microbrewery at Schouskjelleren and he will be responsible for the 10 hl production brewery being constructed in the "Pipehuset" just across the square.

With the change of brewmasters some of the old classics at Schouskjelleren, such as Empress of India, Garden of Eden and Thunderbear Stout, have been retired. Fortunately, Saccomandi has already created several wonderful beers, such as the Belgian Way - a delicious Tripel - and the smooth All Black Stout.

Schouskjelleren still is a great brewpub and one of the best beer bars in Oslo.


Smalhans
Address: Waldemar Thranesgate 10 (entrance from Ullevålsveien), St. Hanshaugen
Opens: November 9, 2012
Type: Restaurant
Taps: 9
Bottles: 50+

Smalhans is a Norwegian word for people that have a strained economy and therefore must be careful when spending what little they've got, so it's the perfect name for a place that aims at serving healthy portions of food for very reasonable prices.

Opening up in November 2012, in a building at St Hanshaugen that has housed restaurants since 1921, Smalhans quickly gained a good reputation for its rustic food and cozy atmosphere. The place is usually fully booked every night, so if you want to eat there you better call ahead to book a table. And, true to its name, Smalhans issues its own Rasjonaliseringskort ("ration card") which enables you to get every tenth Meal of the Day for free!

However, Smalhans also has a bar section where you don't have to book a seat. The bar has a very good selection of craft beer both on bottle and on draft, ranging from Norwegian and US micros to Belgian sour ales. The restaurant even have its own house beers, Amber Ale brewed by Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri and the Smalhaand Pale Ale brewed by HaandBryggeriet.


Address: Maridalsveien 17, below Mathallen
Opened: October 5, 2012
Type: Bar
Taps: 12
Bottles: 10

About 50 meter long and only 5 meter wide, with space for 200-250 guests, Smelteverket has opened up in the cellar underneath Mathallen at Vulkan. It's the perfect place to go when you're feeling overwhelmed by the crowds upstairs. Its claim for fame is the 25 meter long bar, surely the longest in Norway, and the twenty iron cast windows, along the outer wall, providing great views of the Akerselva river just outside.

Smelteverket is another Jan Vardøen project and closely tied in with his Grünerløkka Brygghus, sharing the import of beer and now also a new microbrewery that will surely be brewing beer for Smelteverket too. There are four "filling stations" along the long bar, where guests can order from a dozen different beers on draft, usually some industrial lagers but around half of the taps are with quality craft beers, mostly Norwegian micros but also some international brands. Smelteverket has its own house beer too, Thorvald's Red Ale brewed by Kinn Bryggeri in Florø.

Only a few weeks after its December 2012 opening, Smelteverket had turned into a commercial success. The bar is very popular with young people from Grünerløkka and is usually packed at night, so make sure to be there early to get a table. Lunch is perfect time, both for a light snack and a beer. Because Smelteverket also has an entrance from the bridge at Nedre Foss its opening hours are independent of Mathallen.


Tilt
Address: Torggata 16 (entrance from Badstugata), Sentrum
Opened: 21 August 2009
Type: Games and beer bar
Taps: 10 (craft beer
Bottles: 50+

Tilt is located in a former public bath (Torggata bad) in downtown Oslo and has become a popular gathering place for gamers, students and concert-goers, many come here 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 (they open at 3 pm Mon - Wed). Later in the day and during weekends, it will get packed and noisy.

Tilt was a great beer bar from the very start in August 2009, with half a dozen craft beers on draft. The place had a particular good rotation on beers from Ægir, so guests knew they would get a fresh Ægir IPA when they came to Tilt. Later on Tilt hosted a BrewDog beer tasting, with James Watt attending, and the bar has since then been very faithful to the Scottish brewery, often offering Punk IPA or 5 Am Saint on draft.

Late in 2012, Tilt threw out all of its bulky craft beer towers from the bar and installed a more compact tap system, which allowed the pub to increase the number of craft beers on draft from 6 to 10! Thus you'll now typically find beer from Nøgne Ø, Kinn, Ægir and BrewDog, in addition to guest beers from all over the world.

Gamers in Oslo have never had such a good selection of beer to choose from!


The Whisky Bar
Address: Rådhusgata 28, Kvadraturen
Opened: 12 May 2010
Type: Restaurant, beer and whisky bar
Taps: 12
Bottles: 40+

While already a fine beer and whisky bar when it opened up before the summer 2010, The Whisky Bar has recently upped the stakes by installing a new 7-tap beer tower, bringing the total number of draft beers up to a dozen (plus some industrial lagers I decline to include in the count).

According to the bartender I spoke with, they sell a lot of craft beer from breweries such as BrewDog, Magic Rock, HaandBryggeriet and Ægir, so there is a surprisingly good rotation of kegs. When I was there they served BrewDog Punk IPA, HaandBryggeriet Fyr & flamme, Ægir IPA, Svaneke Den Udødelige Hest Porter, Magic Rock Dark Star Stout and Lexington Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, to name the highlights.

And because their customers keep asking for more exciting draft beer, The Whisky Bar plans to install another 7-tap beer tower. That is, if they can find space for it in the small bar. So keep an eye on The Whisky Bar.


Address: Maridalsveien 17A, in Mathallen
Opened: October 2012
Type: Beer bar
Taps: 14
Bottles: 200+

This is a small but well stocked beer bar inside Mathallen at Vulkan, it's run by the people behind Ølakademiet and Akersberget restaurant in Oslo. The pub offers beer from 14 taps, but have around 20 tap lines in all to allow for future expansion. The place also aims at offering about 300 types of beer on bottle, though in practice the number is probably closer to 200.

Because the pub is located within Mathallen, space is rather limited so be there early or on a weekday to find a good spot at the bar. The knowledge about beer varies from bartender to bartender, some know a good deal about beers others not.

Løkka Session at Grünerløkka Brygghus

Have fun in Oslo Beer City everyone!