Sunday, 3 January 2016

Trip to Norway: Part 4. Drinking vossaøl in Dyrvedalen

Anbjorg was true to her word. The mobile rang. “My brother John says he will pick you up at 7.00 but you have to know one thing about John: he is always late and when he says seven he means, well, maybe more like eight.”

I spent the day eagerly anticipating this appointment. I was to join John Nornes (pronounced Yawn Nor-ness) for an evening at his home to taste vossaøl, the local home-brewed beer from the Voss area in western Norway. I’d been down to town to try to get some small vessels to put yeast into, just in case he had any to spare but the early closing of the chemists shop meant I had missed the opportunity. So I sat around in the comfortable hostel, surfing the net and texting home. At ten to seven I got another call. “Hello, this is John, Anbjorg’s brother. I am running a little late, so I’ll see you at about half past seven”.

I didn’t mind. That this meeting was happening at all was a minor miracle (see my blog, Trip to Norwegian part 1). This was the opportunity I had travelled especially to enjoy and I was going to savour every moment. I wanted to brew a traditional farmhouse ale at Poppyland Brewery, using yeast deposited at the National Collection of Yeast Cultures (NCYC) by Lars Marius Garshol. But I needed to know what I was aiming for and especially what it tasted like.

So here I was, full of one version of vossaøl brewed by the son of Sigmund Gjernes that I had been drinking most of the afternoon: a lowly-hopped sweetish brew, un-carbonated, slightly cloudy and not too dark. Beside me was a nearly full growler of carbonated vossaøl that Dag Jørgensen had given me at Voss Bryggeri: a professionally brewed keg vossaøl, much darker, with a distinctive kick of juniper and a taste like dark marmalade. 

Vossaøl brewed by Yngve Gjernes, son of Sigmund

Vossaøl brewed by Yngve Gjernes, with a note from Sigmund, "Promise, drink every drop of it at once"

Kegged vossaøl at Voss Bryggeri
At twenty past seven I moved outside to enjoy the evening and await John’s arrival. At twenty to eight a small car saloon drew up and a smiling man beckoned me around to the passenger door and soon we were off, making our introductions and heading westwards towards his second home up in his native Dyrvedalen. After a few kilometers we left the shore of the fjord and headed up to a wide hanging valley, lightly populated by houses and farms. We doubled back on a tight bend and there before us was a neat little detached wooden house typical of Norwegian homes around here.

Looking up into Dyrvedalen (Google Earth Street View)
As we approached the door the family came out to greet us. John’s wife and children were curious to see this madman who had travelled all the way from England to taste the local beer. We chatted about school and life split between Bergen and Dyrvedalen but soon John and I got down to the business in hand. I presented him with the growler of vossaøl from Voss Bryggeri. He produced a large jug of dark ale that had been drawn from the tank in the garage. As tradition dictated it was served flat, without bubbles or a head. We talked of how it was brewed, the ingredients, the processes but what did it taste like? Well, it was delicious. Still quite sweet but well balanced, with slightly more hops (East Kent Goldings) than Sigmund’s son’s version but the similarity was there; malty (Maris Otter in this brew) and with a fascinating tang rather like dark marmalade and a light tingle from the juniper infusion. This was great beer and difficult to tell its strength as it was so drinkable but he told me it was 9.2%.

At the dining table with John Nornes and his dark vossaøl
John likes to brew in Bergen with his neighbour Mats Wold and we tried one of his, a ‘Viking Pale Ale’ made with Pilsner malt, American hops (Chinook, Cascade and Centennial) and fermented with kveik. It was great and as you can imagine much more hop forward and characterised by those big citrus hop flavours, less sweet, lighter bodied but excellent flavour. Later on John brought out his Easter brew of vossaøl. It was a beautiful deep red, with no aroma, was drier and had less mouthfeel. It had a fruity (plum) character but overall it was less flavoursome and completely flat. I think that this was a slightly different recipe (it wasn’t Maris Otter malt for one thing) but perhaps this is evidence that vossaøl doesn’t get better with age. It appears that Norwegian brewers get down to drinking it as soon as the ale has stopped fermenting or, in some cases, immediately after they have sacrificed a libation to the spirits of the ancestors.

"Here, this is for you", he said. To my surprise John produced a decent sized jar of kveik, the family yeast that he had inherited from his father and with which he has brewed continuously for thirty years. But I had travelled without hold luggage, and it was too large to get through security in hand luggage. "I think my cousin has something small enough” he said. “He sends milk samples away in some small plastic tubs. If we go and see him you can see his old brewhouse at the same time."

So I gathered up my things and bid farewell to the family and John and I made our way in the dark down the meadow to a group of buildings a short distance below. His cousin Bjorne Røthe quickly found a suitable tub and transferred some of the kveik and handed it to me. Here it was: the object of my desires. Kveik! I held it up and recorded the moment.

The real deal: kveik from Dyrvedalen. John Nornes (left) and Bjorne Røthe.
We discussed brewing and while John pitched his kveik at 36 degrees, Bjorn insisted it should be 37! I am sure it doesn't really matter that much but the whole point is that these Norwegians pitch at very high temperatures that would shock brewers in England and according to the received wisdom would shock the yeast too and if it didn't kill it would very likely produce strange off-flavours. In Norway, it produces a distinctive character that is possibly increased by under-pitching as well (personal note from Lars Marius Garshol).
So why should the Norwegians use such high temperatures? Well the kveik doesn't seem to mind and is happy to start fermenting at these high temperatures. By all accounts it gets off to a quick start and does most of the work in the first a couple of days.

All the traditional brewing techniques I have read or heard about appear to be aimed at avoiding infection by unwanted organisms. The Norwegian farmhouse brewers wash down equipment with juniper infusion; they mash-in with juniper infusion and even strain the mash through branches of juniper and I am sure this takes advantage of the bactericidal properties of juniper oil. They pitch at the very first opportunity. If they don’t have a heat exchanger, this also saves time and reduces the likelihood of wild organisms getting a foothold in the wort. If the yeast is heat tolerant and fast it can begin fermenting before other organisms can grow and then out-compete them if they should appear. When the beer has finished fermenting it will be 8% or 9% alcohol, which, along with some hops, will also safeguard against infection by bacteria. Thus, John says, he has been brewing continuously for over 30 years with the same strain of yeast and never needed to call on his backup yeast.

My experience of growing the starter is that the fermentation is actually more vigorous at around 27C rather than the mid 30s. So I think the kveik tolerates the high 30s but actually prefers the mid to upper 20s. By that time it is going so strongly that it effectively out-competes anything else for the available resources.

Bjorne Røthe's brewhouse was amazing. Located in a separate wooden building, it was illuminated only by a dim yellow electric bulb in the centre of the room. Everything was of wood and the floor was an uneven surface of soil and flagstones. It was difficult to see in the gloom but Bjorne rubbed at a patch on the front of a cupboard. He held his mobile phone to it and in its glow I could make out a date: 1766. On the wall was a reindeer skull with a good set of antlers and in the centre was a raised hearth slab. Above it was suspended an ancient cauldron hanging by chains from a beam. Wooden tubs lined the walls.

In the ancient brewhouse with John Nornes.

The brewing cauldron.

An ancient cupboard dated 1766 and evidence of recent brewing.

It wasn't clear if the brewhouse had been used in recent years but had obviously been well used in its time. What a privilege it was to stand in this ancient brewing space, apparently unchanged in centuries and probably older than the United States of America. I still had the flavour of vossaøl on my tongue and the hair stood up on the back of my neck.

I was getting late by then and John had been very friendly and hospitable but I felt that I should not out-stay my welcome and besides, John's wife had volunteered to drive us back to Voss. I left Dyrvedalen with the distinct feeling that I had made some good friends there, drunk some good ale and I was really really, chuffed that I had a little tub of kveik that I would take back to England and deposit some in the NCYC and brew with the remainder. See a later blog to see how I got on.


  1. This is great stuff! Thank you for publishing it.

  2. Thank you for the write up! I love following your adventures and I've learned a lot. Appreciated!

  3. Thank you for the write up! I love following your adventures and I've learned a lot. Appreciated!