Sales of American Sour Beers will never make me wealthy (I’m hoping that by the time it goes out of print I'm up to minimum wage). However, the success of the book has opened up so many opportunities (e.g., collaborating with breweries, invitations to speak around the world)! While I’d love to say “yes” to everyone, I still have to show up to the job that pays the bills most day. I could go to more if I was willing to land, speak, and head back to the airport the next day; I try to make a trip worth the travel time by turning it into a vacation, seeing and drinking the area.
While Belgium had been on our list for next European trip, how could I say no to speaking at the Norbrygg Hjemmebryggerhelgen 2016 at Haandbryggeriet in Drammen! Norway has a long history of beer brewing and drinking, being too far north for wine grapes. Like many other places, craft beer has taken hold over the last decade. Americans may be familiar with exported bottles from Nøgne Ø Bryggeri and Haand; both brew riffs on American and European craft-brewing staples and also play with local ingredients and flavors. Luckily there were also beers from dozens of other interesting local craft breweries that aren’t exported!
For the first week Audrey and I stayed at an Airbnb in Grünerløkka, a hip area about a mile north of Oslo city center. Our first night we visited Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri, located in the lagering cellar of the historic Schous Bryggeri (talk about a beautiful place for a beer)! In general, the beers were very good, although sadly the mango sour was a butter-bomb (they were nice enough to swap it out once Audrey alerted them to the diacetyl).
Another beer highlight was dinner at the Håndverker Stuene beer bar/restaurant, which had a delicious and reasonably priced nightly sampler board of food (smoked shark, pickled herring etc.). They also had a couple sours on tap, including the unique Lervig Café Sur - tart with light coffee (for dessert I also had their 3 Bean Stout, flavored with cocoa nibs, vanilla beans, and tonka beans).
At Amundsen Bryggeri we split a bottle of Southern Passion, a nice IPA brewed with Southern Passion (South African) hops and a touch of actual passion fruit – it would have been nice to try it without the fruit, but it was delicious as is. Lokk had some delicious and interesting food like fried cod tongue (although each entree may have had a few too many components); I drank the bright and yeast-driven Lokkebrygg hoppy saison brewed for them by Little Brother Brewery, while Audrey had the Salty Surprise (passion fruit gose) from Cervisiam Bryggeri.
I was surprised to see as many American beers as I did (many that I can’t get regularly): Alesmith, Ale Apothecary, Ballast Point, Crooked Stave, Oakshire etc. Prices were high, but not outrageous compared to the local beers (excluding Ale Apothecary of course). Brooklyn Brewing has a deal with Carlsberg, and as a result is really all over. Crowbar & Bryggeri had an especially good selection of beers from Oregon, although I focused on drinking their clean dark lager (much better than their coconut sour).
In general bar prices were a bit steeper than we were used to in DC, but not by much. The dollar-krone exchange rate is better than it was a few years ago (above 8:1 rather than below 6:1). Part of the issue is psychological, when you see the equivalent of $9-10 for a full pour you have to remember that includes the tax and a living wage (although small tips are still customary for good service). The high taxes certainly play a role in the popularity of homebrewing though!
The other thing to be aware of is that any beers over 4.5% ABV can only be sold at a Vinmonopolet (“wine monopoly,” aka government liquor store) – there had recently been a crackdown where some had tested much higher however. The Oslo Meny supermarket had more than 100 session beers, but in general I wasn’t impressed by the freshness of the ones I purchased. Most had best by dates well in the future, but I’d always rather see bottled on dates. The Vinmonopolet had a nice selection of weirder beers, which seemed to fair better.
A few other memorable things were the hipsterific (and delicious) coffee roasted and served at Tim Wendelboe. The chicken sandwich ( at Stangeriet in the Mathallen Oslo beautiful indoor market (which also contains Hopyard, where I drank a balanced Lervig/Põhjala Walnut Porter). Café Sara was another great, albeit crowded beer bar.
One evening we stopped for an after-dinner drink at Himkok
(literally “home-cooked,” their term for moonshine), the largest and fanciest “speakeasy” I’ve ever been to. The bartender was terrific (we ordered three cocktails, but sampled about six liquors and four beers). Their aquavit (caraway liquor) was the most interesting. As I understood the tour, they are only allowed to buy already distilled spirits and re-distill them with aromatics. A bit of shtick, but they push the distillate out of Corny kegs allowing it to drip into clear vats set behind the bar. They also have a cider bar in the same space, barber shop, and room for hundreds of people on nights more popular than the one we visited.
Don’t have the impression that all we did was eat and drink. We had the good fortune to arrive on a weekend of Oslo Open Art Festival, when hundreds of artists’ studios are open to visit. We grabbed a map and wondered into them whenever we happened to be close-by.
Many museums are located on a peninsula that is easily accessible from the Oslo docks via a public ferry. We visited two of them, first the fantastic Viking Ship Museum (which houses three ships and their contents that were buried for more than a millennium). We also walked around the nearby Norsk Folkemuseum, which features dozens of traditional buildings moved from all over the country, including the Gol Stave Church, which was built around 1200 and reconstructed with mostly new materials in the mid-nineteenth century (it had an aroma of wood and pine sap I wish I could capture in a beer).
The Vigeland Park is also well worth a visit if the weather is nice (we didn’t go into the sculptor’s museum). The Norway's Resistance Museum was also worth the visit, but it is more intensive on reading than some. Not bad for a little less than a week?
I had one more day is Olso by myself, I spoke to the Oslo Sour Rangers! Luckily English is spoken by most (especially younger people), although it was sometimes tricky for me to understand Norwegian names/places. The Sour Rangers are a club/event that draws both homebrewers and sour beer enthusiasts. Smak Selv, which organizes/hosts the events, had recently installed a small brewery (an early sample from one of their barrels were promising).
As is expected from the country with huge oil wealth, and the foresight to spend the money not invested in their nearly-trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund in infrastructure, the trains are frequent and immaculate! The trip from Oslo to Drammen was smooth, with trains running every 20 minutes (in comparison for me to go the similar distance from DC to Baltimore on the MARC commuter train for HomeBrewCon, I had to be on the 8 AM train or wait until 3 PM).
Drammen is an older industrial city that has been going through a revival the last couple decades. It is home to both Aass Bryggeri (and their eponymous bock) and Haand. Haand is in their third brewery, but may need to move again sooner than expected as a large hospital is planned for the land they currently occupy. It is a shame as the building is beautiful. I talked to their head of souring, who started working for the brewery through a government program that pays the salaries of young workers for a few months for risk-free experience (a wonderful answer to the paradox of entry-level jobs that require three-years of experience).
As with homebrew conferences anywhere in the world it is difficult to go thirsty. I had the chance to try many delicious homebrews at the opening event at Aja Bryggeri, the second building Haand occupied (so many I didn’t try the brewery’s own beers), and throughout the conference as people pulled me aside. Whenever we would go to a bar, beers would miraculously appear in front of me, often while my glass was still half full!
While there was a lot of excitement for beers from other places, I was glad to see the passion for resurrecting and experimenting with local traditions and ingredients. Homebrewers gave me a couple cultures of kveik to bring back with me - for what it's worth microbes don't count on the prohibition on “cell cultures” when you are going through customs. These are true farmhouse strains, mixed Saccharomyces cerevisiae cultures that have been repitched for many human generations, shared between homebrewers. The really unique thing about them is that they are often fermented near 40C/104F. I’ll have much more on the cultures I brought back later, but if you are interested in experimenting there are isolates available from Omega Labs (HotHead Ale) and The Yeast Bay (Sigmund's Voss Kveik). Traditionally paired with juniper-branch-infused brewing liquor, and smoked malts (see Larsblog, and Lars Marius Garshol's section in All-Star Homebrewers, a book that features me as well)!
The final night was the banquet and award ceremony, have to say the food outclassed most similar American events I’ve attended! As always, it was an honor to be invited and a pleasure to get a perspective on a country from the people who live there! You start out talking about beer, but I get just as much from the eventual talk of food, family, politics, and life!