Thursday, January 2, 2014

Craft beer comes of age in Norway

Back in 2007, Norway was lagging far behind in the craft beer revolution that was underway in the US and several European countries, both Sweden and in particular Denmark had more and better beer pubs and craft breweries. The few craft breweries we had in Norway, mainly Nøgne Ø, Valdres Gardsbryggeri and HaandBryggeriet, struggled to survive in a bone-dry Norwegian market.

However, only a year later I started noticing signs that things were improving, though it was still far to early to talk of a vibrant beer scene in Norway. But I felt confident and optimistic enough to give a talk at Sesam in Oslo, in October 2008, titled "Ølets renessanse" ("The renaissance of beer"), where I hinted at these early signs and predicted a more exciting future for craft beer in Norway.

The "Beer Renaissance" talk at Sesam, 24 October 2008 

Five years later I'm stunned by the rapid and large changes that has taken place; at the beginning of 2014 Norwegian craft beer seems to be "everywhere" - from pubs to hotels - with newspapers printing "success stories" about the many new craft breweries opening up and reviews about new beer books and pubs. The number of homebrewers has reached epic proportions and the average pub goer is much more demanding and knowledgeable than only a couple of years ago. Thus, comparing last year to those early days I think it's safe to conclude that 2013 was the year that craft beer finally broke through to the beer drinking masses in Norway.

Read on to find out why I think so and to learn about the current state of Norwegian craft brewing.

Norwegian beer scene anno 2013
While only a couple of years ago you would be hard pressed to find Norwegian craft beer in bars and good restaurants, and even fewer beer drinkers who had tried anything more exciting than the annual Christmas beers, today you can almost pick a random pub anywhere in Norway and still find Norwegian craft beer on bottle and often on draught too. The capital, Oslo, alone offers 6 brewpubs, around 30 beer bars and more than a dozen restaurants listed as good places for craft beer on RateBeer. Those new beer places attract a growing number of, often, young beer explorers, not just the old guard of beer tickers, which helps spread the word to new groups of people.

Crowbar brewpub in Oslo on opening night December 13, 2012 

In addition to more active bar owners, many of them importing their own beer, the Vinmonopolet chain of government-owned liquor stores imports and distributes more types of beer than ever before. The first small shift from a wine centric era came with the January 2010 campaign for beer, when a number of new beer brands were launched. Since then, the number of beer brands available has more than tripled and currently (January 2nd 2014) stands at 558, though some are probably sold out. This gives the average beer drinker a more varied selection of beer to choose from, without having to travel to beer destinations in Belgium, Denmark or the US.

Another sign that there is money to be made by distributing craft beer in Norway is the recent success of Norwegian beer import company Beer Enthusiasts. Founded in April 2012, last year saw their business take off with a number of great craft breweries in their portfolio, national as well as international, such as Sierra Nevada, Moor Beer Company, St Feuillien, Chimay, Midtfyns Bryghus, Austmann Bryggeri and Birra Baladin. The company frequently arranges beer maker's dinners around Norway, to spread the interest of good food and beer pairings, and even distributes Norwegian craft beer outside the country, through their newly opened Beer Enthusiasts Sweden branch.

Along with the wider availability of beer you'll also be more likely to encounter beer drinkers with a wider preference for beer, they won't ask for just pils anymore, beer styles such as IPA, porter, stout, saison and lambic seem to have entered the common vernacular. In particular the younger beer drinkers seem to explore and pick up new beer styles and trends really fast, many of them may even be homebrewers on the side.

Back in 2009, the Norwegian homebrewer society Norbrygg had 900 paying members, in 2013 that number had grown past 3,000! In addition to the Norbrygg members, many people brew from time to time, either alone or in so-called bryggerlaug ("brewing guilds") without caring about competitions or formal registration, so there are probably now more than 10,000 homebrewers in Norway!

But it's not only at the grassroot level that the interest in craft beer has exploded over the last couple of years, even the big lager breweries have noticed the trend towards more flavorful beers. Perhaps the best evidence for this was the November 2013 acquisition of Nøgne Ø, the largest Norwegian craft brewery, by the Hansa Borg brewery group. And they are not alone, the pride of northern Norway, Mack Bryggeri, will soon open up their own microbrewery, Ludwig Mack Brygghus, in downtown Tromsø. Even Carlsberg owned Ringnes is playing catch-up, though slower than its smaller competitors, brewing the Imperial Polaris doppelbock in collaboration with Brooklyn Brewery in 2012 and releasing Superior Polaris, a 10,5% abv barrel aged version of that beer, in the fall 2013. One can only speculate about what Ringnes will do to follow Hansa Borg and Mack in 2014, perhaps Ringnes will launch its own microbrewery?

Nøgne Ø became part of Hansa Borg in November 2013

Expanding old and opening new breweries
Another way of measuring the penetration of beer interest in Norway is to look at the state of the craft breweries, their growth and numbers. And 2013 was without a doubt the best year to date, with more than a dozen new breweries opening up and many of the older craft breweries expanding or moving to larger facilities.

Among those craft breweries that have recently moved or will do so soon are:

  • Ægir Bryggeri: New production brewery opened in June 2012, allowing Evan Lewis and his brewers to once more brew all the Ægir beers in Flåm (for a while some were brewed at Deproef in Belgium) and to expand production when that is needed.
  • Kinn Bryggeri: Opened its new production brewery outside Florø in April 2013, where Espen Lothe and his helpers will be able to brew up to a million liter beer annually.
  • Trollbryggeriet: This small brewery in Liabygda, Møre og Romsdal, is currently expanding the brewing capacity from 50,000 up to 300,000 liter annually! The new brewery should be operational soon.
  • Lindesnes Brygghus: This brewery on the southern tip of Norway may already have started brewing at the new and larger facility in Gahre Næringspark in Lindesnes.
  • Hubertus Bryggeri: This brewery was launched in January 2013 but is already planning to move from Lesja to Dovre, sometime in 2014, in order to meet the growing demands.
  • HaandBryggeriet: Only two years after opening up at Sundland, Drammen based HaandBryggeriet has outgrown its current location and plans to move to a larger one across town, at Brakerøya, in July 2014. Here the brewery will be able to grow for many years to come, increasing the capacity up to 6 million liter beer annually!
  • Nøgne Ø: Finally, Nøgne Ø has also outgrown its current brewery, maxing out at around 1,1 million liter beer in 2013. There has been talk of moving for a couple of years now but any plan they may have had must have been put on hold, pending the recent acquisition, though I expect the new owners will soon take steps to improve the capacity.

In addition to these breweries, a number of others have expanded their capacity in 2013 by installing more or larger fermentation tanks. So there's no doubt, more craft beer is being brewed in Norway than ever before.

Breweries that started up in 2013
There are now microbreweries in almost every town and larger community in Norway, Finnmark remains the only county without a brewery (but that may change in 2014, see Slettnes Bruk in the next section). Only in the last twelve months a total of 15 new breweries have started up around the country.

  1. 7 Fjell Bryggeri: This brewery, partly owned by Herman Friele, is a "phantom brewery", brewing its beers at Lervig, but a production brewery should open up in Bergen in 2014.
  2. Apotekergaarden Bryggeripub: 2 hl brewpub in Grimstad, Vest-Agder. Opened in February,
  3. Austmann Bryggeri: 8 hl brewery in Trondheim, Sør-Trøndelag. Opened in July.
  4. Bådin: 8 hl brewery in Bodø, Nordland. Opened in July.
  5. Fjellbryggeriet: 6 hl brewery in Åmotsdal, Telemark. Opened in August.
  6. Grünerløkka Brygghus: 10 hl brewery in Oslo, associated with the pub of the same name. Opened in August.
  7. Halden Mikrobryggeri: 2 hl brewpub in Halden, Østfold. Opened in March.
  8. Hemnes Mikrobryggeri: 3 hl microbrewery at Hemnesberget, Nordland. Opened in January.
  9. Hubertus Bryggeri: 2 hl microbrewery in Lesja, Oppland. Opened in January.
  10. Namdalsbryggeriet: 1 hl microbrewery in Grong, Nord-Trøndelag. Opened in September.
  11. Nydalen Bryggeri: 10 hl brewery in Oslo, same owner as Amundsen Bryggeri & Spiseri. Opened in August.
  12. Nøisom Craft Beer: 5 hl microbrewery in Fredrikstad, Østfold. Opened in August.
  13. Sandar Haandverksbryggeri: 5 hl brewpub in Sandefjord, Vestfold. Opened in October.
  14. To Tårn Bryggeri: 10 hl brewery in Trondheim, Sør-Trøndelag. Opened during the summer.
  15. Voss Bryggeri: 10 hl brewery in Voss, Hordaland. Opened in March.

At the end of 2013, there are 83 commercial breweries in Norway, a couple of them (Union Bryggeri and Breiflabben Brygghus) may have stopped brewing by now and a couple (Gjerberg Bryggeri and Granås Gård) only offer their beer as part of a tour, the rest of them ranges from industrial size breweries, large craft breweries and farm breweries to small microbreweries and brewpubs.

Austmann Bryggeri started brewing in early July 2013
- here at Grünerløkka mat- og Mikrobrygg festival

Breweries that may start up in 2014
A number of new breweries are in various stages of planning and construction, here is a list of some that may start brewing in 2014.

  1. Bryggerhuset Veholt: 4 hl microbrewery in Skien, Telemark, run by Jan Halvor Fjell.
  2. Garasjebryggeriet: 2 hl microbrewery in Haugesund, Rogaland.
  3. Lofotpils: Pils brewery planned to open in August in Svolvær, Nordland.
  4. Låven Mikrobryggeri: 2 hl microbrewery in Sylling, Buskerud.
  5. Mosjøen Mikrobryggeri: 2 hl microbrewery in Mosjøen, Nordland.
  6. Nua Brygghus: 5 hl microbrewery in Mandal, Vest-Agder.
  7. Sagene Bryggeri: A new pils brewery at Sagene in Oslo aiming at the throat of Carlsberg.
  8. Schouskjelleren: 15 hl production brewery in Oslo, same owner as the brewpub. May start brewing as early as January.
  9. Slettnes Bruk: Will become the first brewery in Finnmark when it opens in Mehamn.
  10. Stjørdalsbryggeriet: The first commercial brewery in Stjørdal, Nord-Trøndelag.
  11. Storm Brygghus: Microbrewery on the island Hitra in Sør-Trøndelag.
  12. Svalbard Bryggeri: Microbrewery in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, awaiting license.
  13. Teveltunet Ølbryggeri: Farm / microbrewery at Teveltunet in Meråker, Nord-Trøndelag.
  14. Venndøla: Microbrewery in Vennesla, Vest-Agder.
  15. Wettre Bryggeri: Farm brewery in Vettre, Asker.

In addition to these, there are several still working on the finances or awaiting the brewing license from the authorities before making the necessary investments, so the above list will probably grow over the coming months.

Schouskjelleren 15 hl production brewery may open in January

Domestic beer sales
Like in many other countries, the overall beer sales in Norway are declining while the craft beer segment is growing at a rapid pace. Total figures for 2013 are not available yet, but Vinmonopolet has published the numbers for the first 9 months of 2013 and they show that strong beers (i.e. those above 4,75% abv) is the fastest growing product segment: Compared to the first 9 months of 2012, the period of January-September 2013 witnessed an increase in volume of 30,8%!

This growth at Vinmonopolet is due to the craft beer segment, not the big lager breweries. A clear indication of this is the fact that the largest craft brewery, Nøgne Ø, has gone from exporting 70% of its production in 2007 to only 15% in 2013, which means that 85% of their beer is now sold in Norway even though they brew four times as much beer as in 2007! It's also interesting to note that much of this growth does not come from Vinmonopolet or pub sales but from grocery stores selling the lower alcohol beers (below 4,75% abv). And this growth is expected to continue, especially now that Nøgne Ø will get a better distribution by its new owner, Hansa Borg.

According to Bryggeri- og drikkevareforeningen, the organization for Norwegian Brewers and Soft Drinks Producers, the sale of craft beer now makes up 1,8% of all beer sales in Norway, so we're not quite at the level of the US craft beer market yet but it's still very impressive for such a young industry. Petter Nome, the leader of said organization, believes craft beer will make up 5% of all beer sales by 2020.

Another good indicator for the growth of domestic craft beer is Lervig Aktiebryggeri in Stavanger, which was founded in 2003 to replace the local Tou Bryggeri, closed by Ringnes that year. Built with an extra large capacity, of 5 million liter per year, Lervig has lost money every year since starting up and by the end of 2012 had lost more than 60 million NOK in all! But thanks to a patient and rich owner and to Mike Murphy, the brewmaster since 2010, the brewery has finally started selling well and 2013 could well be the year that Lervig finally breaks even (we won't know until the official numbers arrive in a few months), after selling 1,2-1,3 million liter. Last year Lervig also started making money by brewing contract beer for the likes of Mikkeller, Beer Here and 7 Fjell.

Lervig 10th Anniversary Special at Bergen Ølfestival

Norwegian books about beer
Surely 2013 must have set a new record for the number of new books about beer, written by and for Norwegians. They range from homebrewing recipe books to pub guides and historical accounts of the recent growth of Norwegian craft beer. Here are four titles that have caused some waves in the national media:

"Håndbok i Ølbrygging" (Kagge forlag): This handbook about homebrewing, containing both recipes and technical details about the brewing process, was written by Gustav Foseid, the current leader of Norbrygg and a successful homebrewer who has won several prizes in Norwegian homebrewer championships. The recipes are his own.

"Ølbrygging - fra hånd til munn" (Kagge forlag): Written by Thomas Horne, this is another book about homebrewing but with recipes from some of the larger Norwegian craft breweries, such as Nøgne Ø and Kinn. The book also presents those breweries and aims at inspiring people to brew or just enjoy beer.

"Skummende lidenskap - Fem stabeiser og deres øl" (Bibere forlag) : Written by Gustav Jørgensen , the only Norwegian to become a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers, this book is based on interviews with the founders of Nøgne Ø, HaandBryggeriet, Ægir Bryggeri, Lervig Aktiebryggeri and Kinn Bryggeri and tells the colorful history of each brewery.

"Espens Ølsafari" (Gursli Berg Forlag): Written by Espen Smith, a well known beer writer and frequent guest in Norwegian media as well as a beer judge and consultant for new beer bars, this book takes the reader on a beer safari to his favorite beer places in Norway and other countries, pairing food recipes with beer while giving his personal story of each place.

Norwegian craft beer has come of age
As they say in England, the proof is in the pudding, and I think that's what my claim finally boils down to: Go to a good pub or restaurant and ask for their beer menu, I would be surprised - especially in the larger cities - if the place doesn't offer at least a dozen types of craft beer. The fact that craft food is driven by the same focus on local, quality ingredients means that a good restaurant really should offer a good beer menu too.

So, go out and enjoy locally brewed beer with locally sourced food.

Alstadberger Stjørdalsøl at Café Sara
- an exciting new release in 2013

January 3 update:
This morning I found updated figures showing that Norwegian craft beer sales grew by 35% in 2013 and now make up 2,2% of the overall beer market, up from 1,8% at the start of 2013. It seems we could break the 5% barrier well before 2020 :)

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