Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Enjoying Polar Beers in Tromsø

Tromsø may not be known for its beer scene, though many Norwegians will know it as the hometown of the only major brewery in northern Norway, but when I got the opportunity to visit this small city, some 300 kilometers north of the Arctic circle, I jumped at the chance.

Tromsø harbor with Tromsø Bridge seen in the distance.

With a population of 70 thousand, Tromsø is the largest city in northern Norway and the second largest in the world north of the Arctic circle (after Murmansk in Russia). It's located at 69.9 degrees North on the island of Tromsøya, in the Tromsøysundet strait.

Though human habitation can be traced back several thousand years, Tromsø remained a small and insignificant settlement until it received its city charter from King Christian VII in 1794. At that time only about 80 people lived on the island!

The young "city" quickly rose in importance. The Diocese of Hålogaland was created in 1804 and Arctic hunting, from Novaya Zemlya to Canada, started up around 1820. By 1850, Tromsø was the major center of Arctic hunting, overtaking the former center of Hammerfest, and the city was trading from Arkhangelsk in Russia to Bordeaux in France.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Tromsø was also used as a port to the Arctic by famous polar explorers such as Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile who often recruited their crew here. In 1927, the Northern Lights Observatory was founded in Tromsø, starting the tradition for polar and atmospheric studies for which the University of Tromsø is well known today.

During World War II, the Norwegian parliament and royal family escaped from Oslo and ended up in Tromsø, making it the de facto capital of free Norway for three weeks until they had to flee the country in June 1940.

Since 1960 the city has been connected to the mainland via the Tromsøbrua bridge, which has become a major landmark seen from all over the city. Not far from the mainland end of the bridge you'll find the most famous building in the region, the Arctic Cathedral built in 1964-65.

Today, most tourists come to Tromsø either for the midnight sun, during the short summer months, or to ski or go on a northern lights safari during the long, dark winters. Many of them arrive on the famous Hurtigruten ferries that go between Bergen and Kirkenes. Because few other places north of the Arctic circle has such a good infrastructure of roads, airport and ferry connections, along with hotels to stay at, Tromsø has also been proposed as a future Olympic Games site!

In the 19th century, Tromsø received the nickname "Paris of the North", probably because the visitors from the south of Norway and from Europe found the citizens fairly civilized and even sophisticated. One of the civilized things the city has offered its visitors for 135 years is its own beer: Mack.

View of downtown Tromsø from Tromsø Bridge.

The Mack story
It was in this frontier boom town of the mid 19th century that German baker Georg Mack settled down to start a bakery. In 1842, the year the very first pilsner was brewed in Bohemia, his wife bore him a son, Ludwig Markus Mack. While it was Georg's wish that his son would someday take over the bakery, and Ludwig did actually apprentice as a baker, he was destined for something else.

At the time Tromsø lacked one of the most essential things that even the smallest German village had: A brewery. So in the 1870s, the young Ludwig started thinking about founding a brewery in Tromsø. He managed to raise some money and put all of his own savings into the project and in the autumn of 1877 he could proudly declare his L. Macks Ølbryggeri for opened. It was and still is the northernmost brewery in the world, a fact the brewery proudly displays on their beer bottles and glasses.

What is now known as Mack Bryggeri is still a family owned brewery, one of only three in Norway, led by Harald Bredrup - the 5th generation. Until August 2012 the brewery was located on Storgata in the heart of Tromsø, but the need for expansion, combined with local politicians who would not allow the brewery to modify its historical buildings, forced Mack to find a new location. They got an offer they couldn't refuse from the municipality of Nordkjosbotn, about an hour by car south of Tromsø, where a brand new brewery was constructed and opened up in September 2012. Thus, after 135 years Mack Bryggeri severed the ties with its birth city and moved some 70 kilometer to the south.

The Ludwig Mack Brygghus micro brewery.

While most of the old brewery buildings in Tromsø have been sold, some of it will be used for the 2014 Chess Olympiad, the Ølhallen brewery tap and a new micro brewery (the old test plant), named Ludwig Mack Brygghus, will remain at the Storgata location.

Naturally, Mack is still a dominant force on the Tromsø beer scene, as most of the draft beer served here are from Mack. To check out the selection and varity I had singled out three places beforehand: Ølhallen, Blå Rock Café and Skarven Kro.

Storgata 4
Opening hours: 10-18 (Mon-Fri), 09-18 (Saturday) and closed Sundays.

The oldest pub in Tromsø, Ølhallen, actually celebrated its 85th anniversary on the first night of my visit, with a special beer session in the evening led by a journalist from a local newspaper. During this event they served the micro brewed Mack Judas Yeast on draft, a unique beer brewed with both wheat ale and pilsner yeast.

Ølhallen, which is Norwegian for "beer hall", was founded in 1928 as the official brewery tap for Mack Bryggeri and located in the basement of a neoclassical building erected in 1890 as home for the brewery founder, Ludwig Mack.

A clawless and stuffed polar bear
- on guard at Ølhallen in Tromsø

Normally, only open from 10 am to 6 pm, Ølhallen feels like a "brown" city pub and in many ways it is. The interior is slightly worn, from the clawless, stuffed polar bear to the brown, wooden furniture. And when I arrived at noon one day, it seemed the regulars were of the slightly worn type too. It's still a nice place to visit, with lots of polar memorabilia on the walls and a corner table named in honor of an old regular who also happen to be one of the most famous huntsmen from the 20th century - Henry Rudi (1899-1970).

For the moment, Ølhallen only has the regular Mack lager beers and a few types of bottled beer - including a few from Nøgne Ø, so it's not a place to get your beer muscles flexed. However, this is supposed to change. According to the bartender, they will soon start to carry draft beer from the 1000 liter micro brewery next door - Ludwig Mack Brygghus.

All in all I found Ølhallen to be a fairly nice and quiet place, where you can always find a spare table to sit down and read a newspaper while enjoying a draft beer. The main problem is the opening hours and the fact that they don't serve any food, which means you've got to squeeze in a visit between lunch and the 6 o'clock closing time - not much time to enjoy the atmosphere and (hopefully soon) more exciting micro brews.

If you exit Ølhallen and go past the micro brewery you'll find the best beer shop in Tromsø, named Kjeller 5, which is also located in an old Mack Bryggeri building.

Blå Rock Cafe
Strandgata 14
Opening hours: 11:30-01:30 (Mon-Thu), 11:30-03 (Fri & Sat) and 13-00:30 (Sun)

The appropriately named Blå Rock Café in Tromsø.

Founded in 1991 and located in a pale blue painted, wooden building in Strandgata, Blå Rock Café ("blå" means "blue" in Norwegian) has the best selection of draft beer of the pubs I visited in Tromsø. As the name implies, this place is all about rock, attracting a fairly young and often rock, punk or metal oriented audience, from time to time they even host concerts there. So, the place may feel a bit noisy for a quiet conversation, but the atmosphere is very laid back and the bartender knowledgeable about beer - so it's certainly worth a visit if you're looking for good beer.

Unlike Ølhallen, Blå Rock Café is open all night, closing well after midnight all days. On the night of my visit, they served Marston's Oyster Stout, Erdinger Hefe Weizen and a really fresh Samuel Adams Boston Lager on draft, in addition to the regular draft beers from Mack. They also had a micro brew on draft, from the test plant at Mack brewery: Mack Vinterland - a fruity and well made 6.5% IPA. On bottle, Blå Rock Café had some thirty types, including Flying Dog Gonzo and a number of not so exciting British ales.

I really enjoyed the rock atmosphere of the place, listening to Iggy Pop or Velvet Underground, while drinking some good beer. Another plus compared to Ølhallen is that Blå Rock Café also serves hot food, so you can have your lunch or dinner there.

Skarven Kro
Strandtorget 1
Opens: 11:00 every day

Vertshuset Skarven near the harbor in Tromsø.

While neither Ølhallen nor Blå Rock Café will impress the casual visitor with their bottled beer menus, there is a place at Strandtorget that will: Vertshuset Skarven. This is a multi faceted business spread over two floors in two different buildings, a yellow wooden building and, closer to the quay, a white brick and plaster building from 1908. The yellow building houses Biffhuset and Skarven Bar while the white brick building houses the Arctandria seafood restaurant on the second floor and a nice pub on the first.

This pub, named Skarven Kro, has a simple lunch menu and only Mack beer on draft, but on bottle I counted more than 70 different types; from great breweries like De Molen and Emelisse in the Netherlands, Struise and Cantillon in Belgium and Mikkeller and Amager in Denmark. Of Norwegian craft beer they sported a great selection from HaandBryggeriet, Nøgne Ø and Ægir. Even two days were not enough for me to get through all the interesting bottled beers!

The downside was that the guys working in the bar didn't really have knowledge about or even interest in the beer they sold, so I could not ask for any recommendations with the fish casserole I had one day or with the bacalao the next. Skarven Kro is also the most touristy of the places I visited in Tromsø, even though many locals come here too, so both Ølhallen and Blå Rock Café felt more authentic. Still, with such a nice bottled beer menu I can't avoid but recommend a visit to this pub, if you know your beer.

The bartender at Blå Rock Café, when asked about other good beer pubs in Tromsø, suggested Circa in Storgata. But I never got the chance to visit that place. Still, my first visit to Tromsø really whetted my appetite for more - both sightseeing, food and micro brews. I will surely be back, when the Ludwig Mack Brygghus is up and running. And when the weather is a bit warmer than in February :)

The micro brewed Mack Vinterland IPA
- full of tropical fruit flavors.

For more photos from my Tromsø visit see this Flickr collection.

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