Monday, September 7, 2015

Bergen Ølfestival 2015

I've just returned from Bergen with the annual Bergen Ølfestival (BØ) fresh in mind, here follows my fairly subjective recount of the biggest beer festival in Norway.

This year the festival was held September 4 and 5 at Koengen, a large open space normally used for music concerts right next to the historical Bergenhus Fortress. So the location was amazing, with the walls of the old fortress making a natural wall around much of the festival grounds. It also gave the festival some much needed extra space, to erect more beer stalls and receive more visitors than last year.

A little background
When BØ was first held in 2012 it was just a small appendix to the regular food festival in Bergen, then hosted by Bryggen Tracteursted. The festival was held at the same location in 2013, but by then it was clear that BØ had grown too large for the location, as I mentioned in a blog post that year, so in 2014 the festival was moved to a slightly larger venue in Østre Skostredet. However, even in its first year at Østre Skostredet, it was clear to me that the venue was too small for the popular beer festival, so I was both relieved and happy when I found out that Koengen would be the venue for 2015.

As already mentioned, Koengen is commonly used for hosting large music concerts because it can easily accommodate 10-20 thousand people. Thus before going to Bergen I envisioned a wide open field with a lot of unused space, but when I arrived I saw that the many beer and food stalls, the ticket and token boots had taken up a lot of the space, making the area feel more intimate but also prone to crowding if a lot of people should arrived.

Still, the extra space gave the festival a more spacey feel than it had last year and it handled the throng of visitors fairly well, especially given that some 21 thousand people visited the festival the two days it lasted.

Some of the 21 thousand visitors to Bergen Ølfestival 2015

BØ 2015
The 2015 festival was the first with an attendance fee, of 60 NOK, which came in addition to the starter package; for 100 NOK you received a 20 cl tasting glass and 3 tokens. Subsequently tokens could be bought at a special stall by the entrance, four tokens for 100 NOK. Because the queue in front of the tokens stall grew astronomical in the afternoon on Saturday it was smart to buy a good lump of tokens at the start of the day; I went for 30 tokens on Friday which lasted me well into Saturday since most beers at the festival cost just 1 token while a few of the stronger ones cost 2.

In all, 35 Norwegian breweries attended this year, ranging from industrial sized Ringnes, Hansa Borg, Mack and Aass to small microbreweries, such as Little Brother Brewery who produces batches of only 80 liter. This is the complete list of attending breweries:

  1. 7 Fjell Bryggeri (Bergen)
  2. Amundsen Bryggeri (Oslo)
  3. Austmann Bryggeri (Trondheim)
  4. Bådin (Bodø)
  5. Balder Brygg (Leikanger)
  6. Baran Bryggeri (Bergen)
  7. Berentsens Brygghus (Egersund)
  8. Bryggerhuset Veholt (Skien)
  9. Dronebrygg (Oslo)
  10. Ego Brygghus (Fredrikstad)
  11. Eiker Ølfabrikk (Mjøndalen)
  12. Færder Mikrobryggeri (Tønsberg)
  13. Fjellbryggeriet (Åmotsdal, Telemark)
  14. Grim & Gryt Økobryggeri (Hareid)
  15. Grünerløkka Brygghus (Oslo)
  16. HaandBryggeriet (Drammen)
  17. Hansa Borg Bryggeri (Bergen and Sarpsborg)
  18. Kinn Bryggeri (Florø)
  19. Klostergården Håndbryggeri (Tautra)
  20. Lervig Aktiebryggeri (Stavanger)
  21. Lindheim Ølkompani (Gvarv)
  22. Little Brother Brewery (Oslo)
  23. Lysefjorden Mikrobrygger
  24. Mack Bryggeri (Tromsø)
  25. Nøgne Ø (Grimstad)
  26. Nøisom Craft Beer (Fredrikstad)
  27. Northern & Co (Fedje)
  28. Qvart Ølkompani (Kristiansand)
  29. Ringnes (Gjelleråsen)
  30. Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri (Oslo)
  31. St. Hallvards Bryggeri (Oslo)
  32. Sundbytunet (Jessheim)
  33. Voss Bryggeri (Voss)
  34. Aass Bryggeri (Drammen)
  35. Ægir Bryggeri (Flåm)

These breweries offered more than 300 distinct beers, on bottle or tap, so there was never any worries of running out of new beers to try. Even the large industrial breweries had brought along new and limited releases, such as Ringnes Røykbokk - a smoked doppelbock. So I had prepared a shorthand list before going, of about 30 beers I felt I had to try, just to make sure I didn't miss something exciting in the heat of the moment. I pretty much stuck to that list.

The organizers had cleverly employed the whole length of Koengen to spread out the breweries, coercing people to spread out too, which was very important to avoid long queues or big crowds. This worked really well on Friday, when 6,300 visitors paid to enter the festival, but on Saturday, with a total of 15,100 visitors, it became a bit too crowded for comfort. At peak hour some 3,600 people were inside the gates, resulting in fairly long queues and the slowing down of people trying to move from one beer stall to the next. One of the brewers told me he had been sent out to get some food, it had taken him 15 minutes to walk about 200 meters! So, yes, it was a bit packed.

The Northern & Co stall early on the first day of the festival

Like other big festivals, it pays to come early, which is what I did. On Friday this gave me plenty of time to visit all the beer stalls and chat with most of the brewers, before they got too busy pouring beer. On Saturday this was more difficult because people arrived earlier and in much larger numbers.

Any exciting new beers?
In this era of endless crossovers between beer styles and wild experimentation just about everything is allowed in brewing, from making black saisons to adding saltwater or seaweed. There was a lot of interesting new beers at the festival, some I would label interesting rather than good, and though I don't claim this to be the complete list it should give you an idea of the variation.

Austmann La Shaman Aztec Stout is a 7.8% is a dry stout brewed with smoked chipotle chilli peppers, habanero chilli peppers and raw cacao beans in collaberation with Yves Leboeuf of Brussels Beer Project. It wasn't as spicy as I feared, more of a warming sensation in the aftertaste, but it sported a lovely cocoa flavor with a peppery intensity. Pretty good too!

Kinn Til Bøvels is an abbey tripel, like the regular Kinn Bøvelen, that has been refermented with brettanomyces wild yeast and aged with raspberries to give it an overall tart, fruity character that smelled lovely and had a dry, refreshing taste to it with a slightly warming bite from the 9.6% abv.

Klostergården Devil's Apron Stout is a creamy and elegant 6.5% stout brewed with salt water and the seaweed Devil's Apron which gives name to the beer. I found the flavor very elegant with a hint of salt but still with a good stout character. I quite like it.

Klostergården Gildaskáli SALT is a 6.5% abv traditional ale brewed with myrica gale ("pors" in Norwegian) and sea water. It had a mild sweetness to it that went well with the green, slightly tannic herbal character of myrica gale. Pretty good actually!

Schouskjelleren Pushkin Real Good Rom Vanilla Cask is a 9.6% abv (possibly stronger, according to the brewer) imperial stout, aged on rum barrels and served from cask at the festival. It was a rich beer with fine vanilla and rum flavors but still with plenty of the original imperial stout bringing along chocolate and fine espresso notes. One of my favorites at the festival.

Ægir Ryllik Saison is a 6% abv saison brewed with yarrow (known as "ryllik" in Norwegian), resulting in a very refreshing saison with a herbal character and slightly sour. It was a surprising beer and one I quite enjoyed.

There were others too, but I fail to trust my tasting notes (or more correctly my taste buds after a long day), so let's round this off here.

What about the new breweries?
As usual I tried to focus on new breweries, so I made sure to taste most of their beers as early as possible on Friday. Here's a quick rundown of three of the newest.

Northern & Co
This brewery and whisky distillery was founded earlier this year by the people behind the gastropub UNA and 7 Fjell Bryggeri, both located in Bergen. Originally the plan had been to install a microbrewery at UNA, as I reported last year, but those plans has since changed and UNA will remain just a gastropub with all its "house beers" brewed at 7 Fjell.

The brewery equipment intended for UNA was instead sent to the small fishing community of Fedje, where it was installed in an old factory as the Northern & Co brewery. Some of the brews will be made with locally smoked malt and no hops, so that it can be distilled into whisky, but Northern & Co will also make regular beer. In late July this year, their New Zealand born brewer, Devon Priemus, made the first batch of beer and for BØ he brought along nine different beers. I tried three of them on tap; the tasty but fairly acidic gose called Frost, a fine pale ale called Fjord and the very interesting High Tide Stout at 7%, which was a deep amber red color with a smell of coffee husks and a fine sweet malt body with notes of toasted malts. A very elegant and unusual stout, not particularly roasted or heavy on the chocolate as many others are.

Qvart Ølkompani
Qvart Ølkompani was founded by the former head brewer at Christianssand Brygghus, Tellef Dannevig, who has enlisted the help of Norwegian Ratebeer admin Yngvar Ørebek. The brewery went into operation back in June and I had already tasted their Equinox Single Hop IPA, Witra hoppy witbier, Smeigesommer Pale Ale and Castanea Brown Ale at Café Sara in Oslo, so I focused on the new ones at the festival. The Trankebar IPA was fruity with a good malt body, the India Trois, brewed with brettanomyces, was fairly complex and good while the one that really impressed me was the 3% abv Gose, which felt rich beyond its low abv and well balanced with a good salt and lactic acid flavor.

St. Hallvards Bryggeri
Named after a former Oslo brewery and brewing fairly large batches of 20 hl, St. Hallvards Bryggeri went into operation as recently as July 30. Per Christian Salicath, the head brewer, had brought along four different beers to Bergen - all on bottle, as seen in the image below.

St. Hallvards Bryggeri opened up in Oslo this summer 

St. Hallvards Bryggeri have an interesting convention for their beers, naming them after former city originals ("byoriginaler") in Christiania / Oslo, so each label carries a little background about the person. For instance, they've got a beer called Snipp-Møller, named after Albert Møller (1864-1922), and another called Bikkje-Lisa, named after Lisa Kristoffersen (1833-1928).

I first tried Snipp-Møller, which turned out to be a fairly flavorful saison, dry hopped with Sorachi Ace, that I really liked. Bikkje-Lisa was a fairly elegant and flavorful brown ale with notes of toasted chestnuts in the taste. Andersen was the last beer I tried, a simple but refreshing pale ale with an elegant bitterness. Nothing remarkable but well made and very drinkable.

What was trending?
A few years ago, only a few knew about the historical German beer style gose, which was basically an extinct style of wheat beer brewed with coriander and salt. Gose was revived in 1986 for Gosenschenke Ohne Bedenken in Leipzig, which was one of the few places you could get it until recently (it was for that reason I visited Leipzig in 2012).

At BØ 2015 a number of craft breweries offered gose, including Lindheim Ølkompani, Dronebrygg, Little Brother Brewery, Northern & Co and Qvart Ølkompani. The Qvart Gose, as just mentioned, seemed surprisingly rich and elegant for just 3% abv and was my favorite gose at the festival.

Of course, india pale ales are still all the rage in Norway so just about every brewery had at least one IPA on offer, several with more or less weird additives - ranging from oat and rye to fruits and brettanomyces wild yeast.

For me, IPA is a style that is hard to impress with, since there are so many, and when you've had 5-10 IPAs at a festival you grow tired of the hop bitterness, so for me it was a relief to see farmhouse ales / saison making great inroads, becoming almost as ubiquitous as the IPA, with close to 30 different types at the festival. Among the better farmhouse ales I'd like to mention Amundsen Orange Haze, brewed with orange peel, Bådin Moloen, St. Hallvards Snipp-Møller and Fjellbryggeriet Tyst.

It was also nice to see that many breweries offered lower alcohol beers in the 3-5% range, many of them with a good body and rich flavors. Some are also making excellent craft lagers, in that respect I'd like to mention Balder Brygg and their Kjedlarpils kellerbier but also the new Pilegrimspils from Sundbytunet, both flavorful but elegant lagers. Balder Brygg also offered a new batch of what was one of my favorite beers at the 2014 festival, the 8% Turken smoked doppelbock - it smells and tastes like a Bamberg rauchbier (Aecht Schlerenkerla Eiche comes to mind). Delicious!

Øystein Meland and brewer Joar Melvær Njøs of Balder Brygg

Of course, there were still many strong brews, catering to the beer geeks, such as the 19% Stelliger Divum from Berentsens Brygghus, the 13.2% Heidrun Mead from Ægir and a bunch of imperial porters and stouts clocking in at around 10%.

Other things at BØ 2015
In addition to beer, vistors could enjoy some tasty pub grub, such as cheese burgers, juicy porchetta sliders, hot dogs and more, in the courtyard next to Håkonshallen. Tents had been setup, to protect the seated guests and their food from any rain, I would guess that at least 200 persons could easily be seated in the courtyard. The only annoying thing was the loud music being blasted out by a DJ on the stage next to the seating area.

Directly underneath the food court there is an old stone cellar, appropriately named Lille Steinhall, where several free talks were given on Friday and Saturday. The talks ranged from historical farm brewing in Norway by Lars Marius Garshol, who has just written the definitive book on the topic - "Norsk Gårdsøl", to one about Ratebeer given by Norwegian RB admin and co-owner of Qvart Ølkompani, Yngvar Ørebeck, who has rated more than 15 thousand beers! Author Gustav Jørgensen presented his brand new book, "Øl Vin Mat", while yours truly were given the opportunity to talk about the transition from craft to industrial brewing in Norway in "1843: Den første ølrevolusjon".

Like earlier festivals, there was also a stall with a small home brewing kit in action, showing visitors the various steps in brewing beer. I have a feeling that this kind of display had a larger mission a few years ago, now that ten thousand Norwegians are brewing at home a lot less people show up at beer festivals without knowing much about brewing. Still, I could see people stopping by to watch the brewing in process, though most just walked by in search of the next beer to taste.

Room for improvement
Even though the 2015 festival was amazing, there is room for improvement. I also see a big challenge for next year's festival, but let's first look at the things that can be improved.

  • Loud music: The loud music played by the DJ in the food court made talking difficult, at least for people at my advanced age, who struggle with background noise. Is it really necessary to play loud music where people sit down to eat and talk? There was no music by the beer stalls (thankfully), so why by the food stalls?
  • Tasting glass: The currently used tasting glass is straight and narrow, I could hardly get my (big) nose into it, so it's not really suited for smelling the aroma of beers. This design is probably very robust, but it would still have been nice to have a snifter type of glass. Perhaps such glasses could be offered at a higher price, for those of us who would like to smell the beer better? Look at the Borefts tasting glass for a good example.
  • Signs or maps: A map of the beer stalls was available in the program and one was also displayed on a large poster by the entrance, but in general there can't be too many signs whether for toilets or for directions to token stalls. One thing I missed was a sign showing me the way to Lille Steinhall, where the free presentations were held, this became a fairly acute problem since a number of the security and volunteer staff I asked had no idea either.

All of these are minor issues though, which leaves me with the big challenge: Size.

The extremely rapid growth of Bergen Ølfestival, from 7 thousand paying visitors in 2013 to 13 thousand in 2014 and now 21 thousand means it will probably face even more visitors next year. Especially as the interest in Norwegian craft beer just keeps growing. If not handled well, this could become a showstopper for many beer enthusiasts, because a crowded festival makes it much harder to get around to taste beer and virtually impossible to get a word with the busy brewers. So, I challenge the organizers to come up with a solution to handle this growth. And there are at least three alternatives:

  1. Increase the space: If possible, BØ could acquire an even larger location at Koengen for hosting the festival, allowing breweries to spread out more and give visitors more space to mingle or queue up.
  2. Add more days: An extra day can be added to make it a 3-day festival and thus spread the visitors out over more days. Let's say Thursday is added, then visitors from out of town could come on Thursday or Friday but shy away from the popular Saturday, reducing the crowds that day but still give the festival larger overall visitor numbers.
  3. Limit the numbers: If the above alternatives are impossible I would suggest putting a strict limit on the maximum number of visitors allowed inside the festival at any given time. This year it peaked at 3600, which was too many, I would guess that 3000 is a good maximum for the current area of disposal. Of course, the number of breweries could also be reduced, to free up space, but I guess that's a solution not many will be happy with.

Concluding remarks
In just four years Bergen Ølfestival has established itself as the biggest beer festival in Norway, and with 21 thousand visitors this year it was almost ten times bigger than the internationally acclaimed beer festival at HaandBryggeriet in Drammen. With its location in the heart of Bergen and the great focus on Norwegian breweries the festival is in a good position to remain the best Norwegian beer festival for years to come.

Even for a seasoned beer geek like me, it's an awesome experience to come back to Bergen and witness the flourishing Norwegian beer culture and the great variety of craft beer - ranging from traditional styles, such as Vossaøl brewed with kveik and smoked beer from Stjørdal, to tasty craft lagers, pale ales and IPAs, Belgian style ales and potent imperial stouts and barley wines.

We are living in exciting times and Bergen Ølfestival does a great job of show-casing this to laymen and beer geeks alike. Well done, Stian Krog & Co, and thank you for another great festival!

I'll be back again next year, for the 5 year anniversary of the festival. I can hardly wait!

Margit and Aasmund Rinde serving beer from Fjellbryggeriet

My reports from BØ 2013 and 2014.

No comments:

Post a Comment