When most Norwegians think “Norwegian beer”, they think industrial pilsner. Some may even think of our world class craft beers. But few are even aware of the REAL Norwegian beers; our historical beers that are still being brewed, with yeast handed down through centuries. Here’s how I brew my Christmas beer!
The beer I’m brewing for every Christmas is a specific style called Vossaøl, meaning “beer from Voss”, which lies a little bit inland from Bergen and Hardangerfjord on the Norwegian west coast.
It is very strong, it is caramelly, softly carbonated, with lovely orangey fruit esters and almost Christmas spice phenols. It is, in truth, unlike any other beer you have ever had before – and it is the perfect beer for all our Christmas food, especially fatty, smoky and salty foods, such as smoked Pinnekjøtt (recipe) or Smørgrøt (recipe), Fenalår (recipe) and so on. I think of this beer style as a low IBU Norwegian barleywine.
I have been brewing my own beer for ages, and one of the beer styles that I’m most excited about are the authentic Norwegian farmhouse ales of old. Though to be accurate, it is not simply one style, but more like one style per farm along the entire Norwegian coastline, and they are all so unique and complex I cannot cover all of it, even in a separate blog post. But perhaps I should try just that. Another time.
Beer brewing goes way back in Norway, and we even had the Gulating law from around year 1100 CE. that dictated that every farm had to brew beer for Christmas. If you failed doing so, your farm was forfeit to the church and state, and you could even suffer expulsion from the Kingdom if you failed to brew 3 years in a row. We took that shit seriously!
Brewing beer is pretty simple: you steep some malted barley in some hot water for some time. This is called mashing. The mashing will draw out the sugars in the barley and into the water, and the water becomes the wort. You then strain the wort into a fermenting vessel, and add some yeast.
The Yeastie Boys will start eating the sugars in the wort, and then start pissing alcohol and farting CO2 in return. And that, in short, is how you make a strong and frothy beer.
The traditional beers of Norway are based on centuries old brewing traditions; since many farms didn’t own a copper kettle to boil the wort in, many are raw ales, that is, only pasteurized through the mashing. And the mashing was done by heating rocks over a fire and throwing those rocks into the mash tun to bring the temperature up.
These rocks would crack from temperature shock as they hit the mash, and on many farms you will still see massive heaps of cracked stones from ancient beer brewing.
There are many really weird practices in the traditional brewing techniques, but there are two traits that are present practically everywhere.
The first trait is the use of einerlåge, which is a juniper branch infusion. This infusion is what is used for the mashing instead of water, and produces a lovely, almost eucalyptus tea flavor and fragrance. Juniper is also extremely antiseptic, so it prevented bacterial growth and sour beer when one didn’t have easy access to hops and modern sanitation methods.
The second trait is the use of Kveik. Kveik is basically a old Norwegian word for “yeast”, but also to fire something up. My grand dad would say “kveike i ovnen”, meaning firing up in the wood oven.
Kveik now signifies Norway’s historical beer yeasts that were handed down from generation to generation, kinda like a yeast starter, and dried in between each brew, often on a kveikring – a yeast ring, such as this one from Smalahovetunet in Voss.
Below follows the more technical part, but there are some cool pics to look at too, including a traditional farm brewery from around 1700 CE. that I visited in 2015.
This recipe is scaled for a Grainfather 30 liter brewing machine.
- ABV: 9.1%, IBU 9.9 (Tinseth)
- OG: 1.088 – FG: 1.018
- Mash efficiency 90 %
- Batch size 20 liters
- Boil size 31 liters
- Boil time 240 minutes
MASH WATER (L) 22
SPARGE WATER (L) 17
- Mash: 4g CaSO4, 4g CaCL2, 2g CaCO3
- Sparge: 2g CaSO4, 2g CaCL2
*Note that this is how I adjust my water. Adjust yours as you would a rich, malty beer, like a English bitter or ESB.
- 3.25 kg Pale malt
- 3.25 kg Pilsner malt
- 40 g EKG, in mash
- 40 g EKG, 15 min boil
- Sigmund Gjernes kveik (85% attenuation)
- Pitch and ferment at 40C/104F (yes – this is no typo!)
The yeast I’m using is the original Sigmund Gjernes kveik. You can get the same yeast here in this Facebook group. Alternatively you can buy commercialized variations of the yeast in home brew stores. I have never tried any of these, but I know Lallemand has one called LalBrew® Voss.
- 66 C, 90 minutes
- 75 C, 10 minutes
With 4 hours of boiling for proper kettle caramelization (which isn’t technically caramelization at all, since caramelization is a dry chemical process, and worts tends to be rather wet…) I always prep what I can the evening before. Mise en place, as it were.
Start by finding and cutting some juniper branches. It is extremely important that the juniper you use is Juniperus communis, or Common juniper. Some of the other juniper types are poisonous. A bucket full will do the trick.
Wear gloves, and cut with garden shears, and make sure to slap the branches against a wall or something to get rid of the bugs and critters that may hang around.
I then proceed with milling the grain into a lidded box that I set aside for the mash in the morning after.
I add the mash water to the brewing machine, and stick in the juniper branches. I then set the brewing app to start heating 1 hour before I get up in the morning. This means the einerlåge is ready when I’m ready to mash in.
I’m a lazy SOB, so I use a paint stirrer on my power tool to mix things thoroughly when mashing in. I tip in 80 % of the grain, stir well, then add the remaining grain and stir really well.
I then mash for 15 minutes and by now all the grain is fully hydrated, so I stir through the grain bed from top to bottom really thoroughly to prevent any channels and resultant over and under extractions, to prevent stuck mash, and ensure high mash efficiency..
Note this: Half the hops goes into the mash. Yeah, I know. Totally unconventional, but I told you we do things a bit differently 😉
After that everything is like a normal brew until it’s boiling time. One of the defining flavors for this style is “kettle caramelization”, and the Grainfather isn’t really very good at it. Its heating element has too little surface area, so what I do is to take one of my big kitchen pots (clean it well with PBW beforehand) and pump 15 liters of wort into that. I then proceed to boil in both vessels until I have reached 20 liters total.
Using this dual boiler technique is a good simulation for the copper kettles, and far superior to what you get in the Grainfather alone, but clearly not the same as these guys:
They belonged to Ivar Løne at Smalahovetunet, and I was lucky enough to trade beer with him, talk traditional brewing, and see his amazing hearth and brewery from the 1700 before he passed away in 2018.
At 15 minutes, I add the remaining hops, and some yeast nutrition. After boil finish, I cool the wort, while still in my Grainfather, down to 40C, then transfer the wort to my fermentation vessel, and pitch the yeast at 40C. It is then fermented at 40 C, and will hit FG after 3-4 days.
The old guys will bottle on anything with a screw cork, before they hit FG, and then just let out some gas daily so they don’t explode. I’ve done it before. It works beautifully.
I prefer to let it hit FG, then bottle with 3 g priming sugar, and carbonate for 5 days at 40C, then set cellar cold, and it’s ready to drink the day after. From start to finish, you have a beer ready to drink in 10 days, but I think it’s best after 14 days. It keeps extremely well after that.
The kveik is bottom harvested after bottling. I ladle out the yeast cake and smear it out on a piece of baking sheet and set it to air dry. It’ll take a few days. I then store it in a lidded box for later use. It’ll keep longer than you’ll live.
There is, in my opinion, nothing that beats this beer when it comes to fatty, salty and smoked Norwegian Christmas food, but it’s a real sipper, too, just like a real barleywine.
Tip: Voss Bryggeri is the only brewery that I know of that brews this beer commercially, though it’s only 7.5% against my 9%. Their commercial version is available at Vinmonopolet in Norway.