9 September 2010

Nøgne Ø Beer

Norway doesn't provide much excitement for beer-lovers. Now, I'm hardly a bearded, flat cap-wearing member of CAMRA, but I do like a good pint. Unfortunately, over 90% of beer sold and consumed in Norway is of the generic pilsner type from brewing giants Carlsberg or Hansa Borg, which can be, well, a tad boring to say the least. But it wasn't always like this. Norway has a long tradition of brewing beer going back over 1,000 years. Indeed, a couple of hundred years ago no farm in Norway was complete without its own "bryggeghus", or brewhouse. Legislation and increased consolidation in the brewing industry saw these independent brewers gradually die out. But all is not lost. Recently, a tiny handful of beer aficionados have been resurrecting Norway's lost art of brewing. Independent breweries such as Haandbryggeriet in Drammen and Ægir in Flåm have started to produce some excellent beers, and it seems Norwegians are starting to take notice. Among the most exciting of these breweries is the tiny Nøgne Ø brewery, which is located on the beautiful south coast of Norway.

The unusual name of the brewery comes from a Henrik Ibsen poem, Terje Vigen, which is set in Nøgne Ø's hometown of Grimstad, and roughly translates as "barren isle". The protagonist of the poem sets out in search of food on a seemingly impossible journey to break the English blockade of Norway during the Napoleonic Wars of 1809. The founders of Nøgne Ø felt this was somewhat symbolic of their attempt at resurrecting Norway's lost art of brewing. Indeed, the story of Nøgne Ø is quite a remarkable one.

The brewery was started in 2002 by a headstrong Norwegian pilot by the name of Kjetil Jikiun, who still flies Airbus A340s for Scandinavian Airlines. An avid beer enthusiast, Kjetil would stock up on home-brewing equipment on his frequent trips to the US, often bringing back sacks of malt, yeast, and kegs. He teamed up with a welder and a housewife and, after much blood, sweat and tears, Nøgne Ø was born. The brewery's website has Kjetil's fascinating and brutally frank account of how the brewery began, and I encourage you to have a look. It reads like a soap opera. Who knew brewing beer could contain so much drama!

Now, as I mentioned, I'm not an expert on the amber brew by any means, but I know what I like, and I don't need an excuse to crack open a few brewskis. So, in the interest of, er, research, I will try to describe a few of Nøgne Ø's beers as best as I amateurishly can.

First up is Nøgne Ø's Bitter (4.5% ABV). This is a light ale with a slightly cloudy appearance and a rich amber colour. It's made with East Kent Golding hops that give it a quintessentially English taste with a really hoppy aroma and floral and citrus notes. It was by far my favourite of the four beers I tried, and it made me achingly homesick the instant I took my first sip. I could sup this all day, preferably somewhere by a river on a warm summer's day with the sweet sound of leather on willow in the distance.

Next was a dark, mahogany brown ale (4.5% ABV) made with English malts and Maris Otter barley. The flavour is quite complex and pleasantly spicy, with notes of biscuits, chocolate, nuts, caramel and coffee. If you like your ale malty then you'll really enjoy this one.
Brown Ale

Then I tried a stout made with oats (4.5% ABV). Now at this point I should confess that really dark beers scare me. Would I need a knife and fork to consume this one? Apparently not - this was an easy drinking, light stout with rich, chocolately flavours and a slight hint of coffee. If you're not a fan of stout then try this one as it will really change your perceptions of the black stuff.
Wheat Stout

Finally, a Belgian-style white beer (4.5% ABV). This was very refreshing with strong citrus notes of orange and grapefruit, coriander, and slightly bitter hops - a delicious witbier that would go well with seafood.
 Belgian White Beer

Currently, Nøgne Ø produces 26 different beers. All of the brewery's beers are bottle conditioned, unfiltered, and made with top fermenting yeast, which gives their beers a complex and full-bodied characteristic. A few months ago, in an exciting twist, Nøgne Ø finally branched out into brewing sake, and they released their first batch in May 2010. Apparently this makes them the first ever European sake brewery (heia Norge). They currently offer five types of sake; one is pasteurised and four are more exciting, unpasteurised, nama-sakes.

Nøgne Ø is producing some of the most exciting beers in Norway, and it makes me so happy to see artisanal brewers like this popping up in Norway. If you fancy getting hold of some Nøgne Ø beer then it is available in some supermarkets across Norway (and of course at the state-run booze shops) and is exported to Finland, Sweden, Japan and the USA. If you're ever in Norway, though, Nøgne Ø also offers tours of their brewery in Grimstad.

Nøgne Ø
Gamle Rykene Kraftstasjon
Lunde N-4885 Grimstad
Tel: +47 37 25 74 00

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