Historically Norwegian farmers have always been brewing their own beer. The old medieval laws, rooted in pre-Christian times, even made it a duty to brew beer for Christmas. Third time you failed to do so, you might actually forfeit your farm. Beer was that important.
This tradition never entirely died out, though it has come near to doing so. Most places it has disappeared, but from the districts where it could still be found, the traditions where gathered in and taken care of just a few years ago by one man, Lars Marius Garshol. He also collected samples of the yeast the traditional brewers used. It’s called „kveik” in Norwegian dialects. He got it analyzed, and it proved to be quite unique. There are several strains, all different, and now they have become commercially available from several US yeast laboratories. Brewing Norwegian farmhouse ale is now gathering momentum as an international trend, and among the core of the most dedicated Norwegian homebrewers, taking up the old traditions and brewing with kveik, is quite a big thing.
This is more recent, however, than modern Norwegian homebrewing. Actually it wouldn’t have happened were it not for the fact that the modern international homebrwing trend reached Norway around 2000, and sparked a new interest in both beer and brewing. It was as a modern homebrewer Garhol got interested in Norwegian traditional farmhouse brewing.
We need to dive into history again.
Brewing was a common household practice up until 1850. But at this time the consumption of homemade hard liqour had reached catastrophic proportions, and as a means of countering this evil, the authorities stimulated the founding of commercial breweries. Soon there were some 300 of them, brewing the modern brew, lager, which soon for most people became the preferred alcoholic beverage.
Of course this was just one instance of industrial products replacing homemade ones as the industrial revolution transformed Western societies. And when the Beer Law of 1912 forbade the brewing of beer at home unless it was made from malt produced by the brewer, homebrewing as a common practice was doomed. „Beer” in Norway meant, since then and up until the turn of the century, to almost all Norwegians „pils”. The breweries also brewed dunkles, bock and export, but pils dominated totally. Ale did not exist.
Meanwhile, starting with the Campaign for Real Ale in England in 1971 and the American brewery Anchor brewing its Liberty Ale in 1976, a beer revolution was slowly building in the outside world, and when the Beer Law was changed in 1999, making homebrewing legal again, Norwegians joined it.
However, it wasn’t like the downtrodden masses surged to enjoy the freedom finally granted them, even though Norbrygg, the Norwegian Homebrewers’ Association, was founded the year before, in 1998. The Norwegian beer revolution took some time to happen.
A core of active pioneers gradually built a new beer culture, and some of them built craft breweries. The first, and the most important one, was Nøgne Ø, established in 2002. Later others followed suit, though very few the first years. It wasn’t until after 2010 that the beer revolution really took hold. Then both the number of breweries and the number of homebrewers rose sharply. „Exotic” beers like IPAs, English ales and Belgian saisons started to appear in the shops, and gradually it dawned upon the ordinary consumer that all beers weren’t pilsners. This made the big industrial breweries turn to brewing their versions, too, which mostly were – and are – rather uninteresting beers. And of course pils is still king of the shelves.
Still it is not an exaggeration to say that the Norwegian beer culture has been totally changed. And though it may seem that right now homebrewing is slightly less popular than it was just a couple of years ago, it definitely is here to stay. It would be hard to find someone who doesn’t know a homebrewer, and most people probably know several.
One reason homebrewing has become popular, is that beer is rather expensive in Norway. You can’t buy a cheap pilsner in a store for under 5 euros per liter, and most cost one or two euros more. Craft beer will cost twice as much. But you can brew a pilsner for less than a euro per liter.
Even so, for most homebrewers the motivation comes from being able to brew something that actually tastes good, resembles what you can buy, and which you can proudly present as your own. Also it has become very easy to get into brewing. Now you can buy fairly cheap automated brewing machines, more or less similar to the rather expensive German original, Speidel. And you dont have to worry about learning about malts and hops and yeast and composing recipes; you can just pick up a package from the shelves in your homebrew shop complete with the milled grains, the hops and the yeast to brew your favourite beer. (Actually you don’t even have to move out of the house to get it, of course; you just order it on the internet.) These packages now has a large market share.
Norbrygg has been instrumental in the building and spread of the culture of homebrewing in Norway – and of the new beer culture. These are it’s central aims:
• to further the interest in, and spread the practice of , homebrewing
• to further the competence of the members, and to contribute to the exchange of knowlegde and experience between brewers both within the country, and outside.
• to further a responsible attitude towards beer drinking
• to arrange competitions, meetings, courses and other social activities.
The organization has arranged courses, trained beer judges and held competitions and beer festivals. And it has constituted a network which probably has been important for establishing many of our microbreweries, of which there now are somewhere close to 150. Norbrygg’s forum, hosted on Norbrygg’ homepage, is a place where lots of people, all of whom are not necessarily members, get information and advice, and discuss all sorts of topics pertaining to brewing.
Norbrygg currently has more than 4000 members. While it has been a centralized national organization, it is now working hard to establish functional regional divisions in each of Norways 18 counties. That is not an easy task in a country where you often have to travel long distances to meet up with other brewers, so so far the work has been most successful in the larger cities.
While Norbrygg has been important, there are far more homebrewers outside the organization than organized in it. Many places people have joined together to brew larger batches and share the beer, and they seldom feel the need to be part of something bigger outside the group. There’s also a large Facebook group – it has more than 20 000 members – for homebrewers.
Obviously for most people brewing is a hobby they engage in without feling the need for an organization. Even most of those who are members of Norbrygg are not active members, and the number who take part in the competitions held by Norbrygg, is relatively small.
To sum up, the homebrewing scene in Norway is fairly large, and there’s a growing awareness of the diversity that exists within the world of beer in the population at large. The general skill and knowledge level of all those homebrewers can probably be improved a lot, though, and thus Norbrygg has a very important function to fill. Whether it will succeed hinges much on the work to build stronger local divisions in the counties. There’s still a lot of work to be done there.