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 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 ...

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.

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.

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.

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