Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ægir Bryggeri - beer for gods

Beautifully located between steep mountains at the innermost part of the Aurlandsfjord, a southern arm of the famous Sognefjord on the west coast of Norway, the small community of Flåm has attracted tourists for centuries and still is a popular stop for cruise ships going up the Sognefjord. Flåm is also the end station of the 20 km long Flåmsbana railway line, known as the most beautiful train ride in Norway, going between Flåm at sea level and the Myrdal Station on the Bergen Line at 866 m above sea level.

Flåmsbrygga where large cruise ships arrive in summer.

Besides its breathtaking natural attractions, Flåm also offers a world class brewery - Ægir Bryggeri - which this post will be about.

The small start

Back in 2004, American design consultant Evan Lewis and his Norwegian wife, Aud Melås, decided to move from California back to her native Flåm in Norway. It was part of a dream for both, she wanted to run a hotel and restaurant business while Evan, who had been a homebrewer since the age of 17, dreamed of turning his hobby into a profession.

Ægir brewery and pub in Flåm.
After a couple of years of constructions, the Flåmsbrygga hotel and restaurant opened up, followed in the summer 2007 by the brewpub, housed in a beautiful, Norse dragon-style, wooden building next to the hotel.

Named after the brewer of the gods in Norse mythology, Ægir Bryggeri was a small 10 hl brewpub with a capacity of 1,400 hl beer per year. A simple bottling facility was installed too, to allow Ægir to distribute their beer outside Flåm. In those days craft beer was still in its infancy in Norway, even the best beer bars only sold craft beer on bottle, not on draft, so a bottling line was essential for wider distribution.

The impressive growth

Thanks to some very good, high quality base beers, such as the crisp Bøyla Blonde Ale, the tasty Sumbel Porter and the American style India Pale Ale, and the great atmosphere of the brewpub, Ægir experienced a phenomenal growth and almost instant recognition in Norwegian beer circles - it has been voted the Best Brewpub in Norway every year since 2008 by the 100 thousand members of Norøl and Norbrygg!

Because of the rapid growth, Evan hired brewer Dave Gardonio from Toronto, Canada, to help out with the daily operations at Ægir. By the end of 2009, Ægir sold 60% of their beer outside Flåm and there was no way they could keep up with the growing demand at their essentially brewpub-sized brewery. They would either have to refuse more orders or come up with a plan for how to meet the growing demand.

In Early 2010, Evan decided to "outsource" his most popular bottled beers, to have them brewed on contract at another brewery, to save the Ægir brewing capacity for making draft beers and for experimenting with new beers. He chose to have his bottled beers brewed at De Proefbrouwerij, a world famous contract brewery in Lochristi, Belgium, that already had craft brewing legends such as Mikkeller and BrewDog as clients.

View of the central fireplace at the Ægir pub in Flåm.

On my previous visit to Ægir, in May 2010, they had just received the first bottles of India Pale Ale from De Proef and Evan admitted it was difficult to exactly reproduce the aroma and flavor of the Flåm brewed original. But after some tweeking and feedback to De Proef, green light was given and bottled Ægir beers started to arrive from Belgium.

And the exceptional growth continued, both the bottled beers and now also kegged beers took off like never before in Norway. New beer bars, selling craft beer on draft, appeared in all the bigger cities. A few restaurants even did the unheard thing of pairing dishes with beer on their food menus! In the span of 2010, Ægir beer sales grew by a staggering 115%!

Ægir Natt Imperial Porter - a personal favorite.

Thanks to contracting out the brewing of Rallar Amber Ale, Sumbel Porter, India Pale Ale and other Ægir fixtures, Ægir had time to play around with new recipes too, introducing new beers from their brewpub - such as the Roggenbier (draft only) and the tasty Natt Imperial Porter - a personal favorite. They also barrel aged the latter, creating the very popular Lynchburg Natt.

A new brewery takes shap

With their continued growth, it became obvious to Evan that they not only should but could, thanks to the financial strength of a popular brand, bring their bottled beer production back to Flåm. Plan for a 510 m² warehouse in Flåm was redrawn and expanded to a 1,200 m² building, to house both the planned warehouse, a brand new brewery, a small distillery and a new bottling line.

The new 1,200 m² Ægir Bryggeri complex in Flåm.
A plot of land on the banks of the Flåmselvi river, on the south side of the E16 highway through Flåm, was selected for the new brewery complex and construction work started in 2011. By the time of my recent visit, in April 2012, the large building was finished and the warehouse and a 180-litre distillery was already in use.

The new brewery will consist of a 35 hl four-vessel brewhouse from Newlands Systems Inc in Canada, with six 70 hl fermenters and two similar sized conditioning tanks, giving Ægir an initial brewing capacity of 8,000 hl per year - about six times higher than the brewpub. And they have enough space to expand the brewing capacity up to 35,000 hl/yr!

Outlooks for 2012

Most of the tanks and the bottling line have arrived in Flåm, but still awaits final assembly at the new brewery. Right now it looks like the brewery installation will take place in May 2012, so we may see the first Ægir beers roll out of the new brewery in time for their 5 year anniversary. Taking the production of their bottled beers back to Flåm, after two years of contract brewing in Belgium, would be a great way to celebrate five years in the brewing business.

In the meantime, the old brewpub is brewing at full steam to fill up orders from Vinmonopolet and other beer thirsty clients. Vinmonopolet, the Norwegian government owned chain of liquor stores, wanted a Norwegian brewed Abbey Dubbel style of beer and Ægir rose to the task, taking inspiration from their very popular Ægir Julebrygg (green label), and created Ægir Skumring Dubbel - a 7% sweet, spicy and fruity dubbel. Ægir will also get their Scotch Ale listed at Vinmonopolet later this year, so that's even more great news.

Ægir Skumring Dubbel - a tasty new beer.

In addition to brewing beer, Ægir is also experimenting with their own distillery. Expect more types of akvavit to be bottled and ready for Christmas (an important akvavit season in Norway) this year.

As mentioned above, this summer Ægir Bryggeri will celebrate their 5 year anniversary. Expect news of a big party to be published soon. If you're in Norway at the end of June you may wish to consider a trip to Flåm :)

Getting there

Visiting Ægir and Flåm may seem like a daunting task, it does look fairly remote when you look at a map of Norway. But it's truly worth it, the trip to Flåm will take you through some of the most scenic parts of Norway, with long fjords, waterfalls and steep mountain sides hiding deep valleys. 

View from the train on Flåmsbana.
As briefly mentioned, at the start of this post, there are several modes of transport that can get you to Flåm. Many visitors will come by the sea, on big cruise ships, and in that case you're all set. If you're in Bergen during the summer season you could also take the Fjord1 ferries, they connect many communities on the west coast and also stops at Flåmsbrygga.

If the sea is not your thing you still have two choices - either to come by rail or by road.

There are daily trains going between Oslo and Bergen, following the Bergen Line across the mountains and stopping at the Myrland Station. There you will have to get off and take the Flåmsbana train which departs hourly in the summer season and takes you down to Flåm in less than an hour.

If you decide on driving, it's a two and a half hour or 166 km long trip along the E16 highway from Bergen. From Oslo it's between 330 and 350 km, depending on the specific route you take, the longer (E16) is actually the shortest in time - taking about four and a half hours to drive.

The best time to visit is in May-June, before the onset of tourist season and the large cruise ships, or in the early fall when the tourists have left. Then Flåm returns to a tranquil place and the brewpub becomes less crowded.

Photo sets from Ægir and Flåm can be found at Flickr: May 2010 and April 2012.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval

For beer lovers, the small country of Belgium provides an almost infinite source of variation on what constitutes a beer - from sour, wild yeast based ales, fruit beers, spiced beer and farmhouse ales to the various abbey styles (dubbel, tripel, quadrupel). And, not to forget, the famous Trappist beers, still being brewed by monks of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance - better known as Trappists.

The Authentic Trappist Product logo.

Trappist beer

Trappist beer is not really a beer style, even though you will often find them listed under the same heading at beer pubs around the world. A Trappist beer can be blond or dark, it can be sweet or dry, it can be strong or it can be low in alcohol. The only thing that unites the Trappist beers is how they are made: They have to be brewed at a Trappist monastery and by the monks (though there is some leeway, the monks can hire secular workers to handle some of the brewing operations).

In 1997, eight Trappist monasteries founded the International Trappist Association to prevent non-Trappist companies from abusing the Trappist name. Their Authentic Trappist Product logo can only be carried by products that have been made at genuine Trappist monasteries - be it cheese, jam or beer.

Today there are seven Trappist monasteries brewing beer, one located in the Netherlands - the Onze Lieve Vrouw van Koningshoeven known for their La Trappe series - and six in Belgium: Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont (Chimay), Sint-Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis (Achel), Abdij Sint-Sixtus (Westvleteren), Abdij van Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van het Heilig Hart (Westmalle), Abbey of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy (Rochefort) and Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval (Orval). I've noted the name of their beers in parentheses. There is also a Trappist monastery in France, L'abbaye du Mont des Cats, but their Biere Trappiste is brewed by the Trappist monks in Scourmont and so does not qualiify as an authentic Trappist beer.

This post is about one of the six Belgian Trappist breweries: Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval.

Ruins of the old Orval Abbey, destroyed in 1793.

Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval

Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval or Orval Abbey was founded in 1132 by a group of Cistercian monks from the Trois-Fontaines Abbey in Champagne, who settled in the remote Gaume region in the far south east of Belgium, just a kilometer north of France, in what is now known as the Belgian province of Luxembourg.

Trout with a golden ring.
Orval means "golden valley" and a popular myth says it originated with Countess Mathilde of Tuscany (1046-1115). One day, while she was out hunting in the woods of the Count de Chiny, she stopped in a valley to drink from a fountain there. By accident her wedding ring fell into the water. She went to a nearby chapel and began to pray. A trout then appeared on the surface of the water, carrying in its mouth the precious ring. Mathilde cried out: "This is truly a golden valley!"

Despite wars and fires the abbey functioned for more then six hundred years, until 1793 when the French Revolution arrived at their gate. In revenge for having sheltered Austrian troops, the French revolutionary troops burned down the abbey and dispersed the monks. Just like they soon would do with the monasteries in Bavaria.

For a hundred years all that remained were the ruins, but in 1887 the land and ruins were acquired by the Harenne family. In 1926, they made a donation of it to the Cistercian order, allowing them to return and rebuild the Orval Abbey. Between 1926 and 1948, the new monastery was constructed, and in 1935 Orval regained the rank of abbey.

Orval Trappist Beer

In 1931, the monastery hired the German brewmaster Martin Pappenheimer (1883-1942) to create a recipe for a beer they could brew. Together with the two Belgian brewers, Honoré Van Zande and John Vanhuele, who were employed to brew at the monastery, he came up with a unique recipe.

Orval Trappist Beer.
Inspired by English brewing, Orval is a top fermented beer that is dry-hopped for 2-3 weeks (large "tea" bags full of hop cones get soaked in the beer as it slowly goes through secondary fermentation). Commonly done in English brewing, dry-hopping was and, to some extent, still is a novelty in Belgium. Finally, to give the beer a real Belgian twist, a local wild yeast of the Brettanomyces strain gets added to the beer, giving it that funky, tart expression as it ages in the bottle.

To this day, Orval only brews this one beer of 6.2% ABV, though they also make a weaker 3.5% ABV version, called Petite Orval, for use by the monks at the monastery.

Orval beer is sold in a specially designed bottle and served in a specially designed Orval glass. And if you look closely at the logo on a bottle you will notice the jumping trout with the golden ring in its mouth, mentioned above in the Countess Mathilde myth. Supposedly, the well that fed the fountain where Mathilde lost her ring is the same well that is used as water supply when brewing the Orval.

A l'Ange Gardien

In July 2011, the monastery opened up a restaurant and tasting room, called A l'Ange Gardien, just outside the walls of the abbey. A l'Ange Gardien, which is French for "guardian angel", serves beer and cheese made at Orval Abbey, allowing visitors to enjoy the Trappist treats almost onsite.

Tagliatelles à la crème d'Orval

The restaurant has a good food menu too, usually with ingredients from the abbey - such as the delicious tagliatelle dish I had which came with melted Orval cheese on top. It went really well with the beer.

I highly recommend a visit to the beautiful and tranquil Orval, the only downside is that you really need a car to get there - it is too remote for public transport to have discovered the place. Which is part of the charm anyway :)

Photos from the visit to Orval can by found at Flickr.