Changing Norway, beer by beer
Talk about a glutton for punishment. Having battled for years against one of the most restrictive, conservative beer cultures in northern Europe, Norwegian beer-maker Kjetil Jikiun has made an impressive success of his brewery, Nøgne Ø. Time, then, to catch his breath? Not a bit of it. Remarkably, last year Jikiun decided instead to become Europe’s only producer of – you guessed it – sake. If he thought craft beer was a hard sell in Norway, then Japan’s traditional rice wine is, so far at least, making that seem a bit of a cakewalk.
But if sales haven’t been outstanding – which is probably more of a reflection of consumer caution than the quality of the product – you wouldn’t back against him eventually selling plenty of sake given the booming popularity of his beers. It is no exaggeration to say that since 2002, when Nøgne Ø was founded, Jikiun has become among the most respected of European brewers and the beer scene in Norway has changed, perhaps forever.
His was the first craft brewery in a nation dominated since the war by the sort of inoffensive light lager that can be drunk from Ho Chi Min City to Houston. Now there are four or five sizeable microbrewery ventures, and Nøgne Ø’s rapid expansion (sales were up by 50 per cent last year, and thus far by 120 per cent this) suggests there will be plenty more to come.
How did this happen? Jikiun began his beer career as a homebrewer and, more importantly, an airline pilot. His job took him to the US four or five times a month, where a craft brewing revolution was just starting to take off. At first, though, he wasn’t blown away by by those hop-heavy American brews. Indeed, when he first tasted them, he didn’t like them – which, thankfully, didn’t put him off.
“It was so hard to learn to understand American hops,” he says. “I had a hard time liking these beers, given their fairly harsh – as I experienced it then – hop profile. The same thing with all things sour from Belgium.
“[But] I am wired like this – if I taste something I don’t like, instead of saying ‘I don’t like this and I don’t want to have to drink it again’, I ask myself: ‘Why do people like this and why can I not fathom that?’ And then I start tasting again, because I want to learn, I want to know why this is good.
“But I think I had a revelation the first time I made a successful IPA. I just could not stop drinking it. I poured myself a beer from this Cornelius keg and I was just so overwhelmed with the flavour I had made. All of a sudden, these bits and pieces fell into place and I got an understanding about hop flavour versus aroma, versus bitterness.”
The rest, as they say, is history – although things seemed far less certain when the brewery produced its first beer in 2003. Norway is not a country accustomed to flavoursome ales – at least not since the Second World War – and restrictive rules on alcohol advertising made it hard to spread the word. The brewery’s website, for example, has to be exclusively in English and hosted on an American server to avoid breaking Norwegian law. Nonetheless, things are changing: until recently, Nøgne Ø sent most of their beer overseas: now 75 per cent is consumed in Norway. Their burgeoning popularity is such that in the next two years they’re going to need to move to bigger premises, Jikiun says.
“The last two years have been totally crazy,” says Jikiun (right). “Last year we grew about 50 per cent. Norwegians are more and more open to new beer styles. Almost every week, if you read the national newspapers, you will find some article about beer. It’s really good times for us involved in craft beer.
“When we started we only wanted to make flavours that were not available in Norway. We did not think that we would ever be larger than the home-made equipment with which we started. So when we moved into the facilities that we have now, we felt we were crazy and that we would never fill this building with activity. And it is crazy.”
In the time that Nøgne Ø have been at their premises close to the town of Arendal, they’ve produced a wide variety of beers, most of them ales. Jikiun says the way they make beer has changed since those early days. “People asked us – why have you chosen to be so American [with your beer]?” he says. “But it wasn’t really a choice, that was just my point of reference.
“We have diversified [since then]. We are much better now at understanding how to get a good balance in a beer with less hops, less bitterness; I think we understand beer styles more than we used to 8 or 9 years ago. In some beers we’ve ended up taking things away – making them weaker, drier, less hoppy. We see that in some beers, less is more. You don’t have to overload with flavours, in some beers you can keep it simple, keep it light. The real potential of the beer comes out much better.”
That’s clear with their bitter (above), which would more than past muster on any bar in England. It has the sort of balance that regional brewers dream of – but unlike some of England’s traditional beer-makers, there is still generous bitterness. It is an excellent beer.
And then there’s the sake (pictured below). “I got introduced to sake from a good friend in Japan,” he says. “Every time I flew there I was out with him sampling new sake and I just fell in love with the flavour.
“I wanted to make these amazing flavours available. Which was of course just as stupid as to start making beer in Norway nine years ago! At that time nobody understood what we were doing. We’d go to a bar owner, introduce our beer, and he would say ‘This is not beer. Nobody likes that here’. He didn’t know what an IPA or a porter was.
“The same thing happens now with sake. There is absolutely no market for it.People who know a little about sake, people who run Japanese restaurants, very often they will tell us ‘I’ve tasted your sake. I don’t like them. They’re not like that in Japan. We want the Japanese flavour profile.’ They would ignore us.
“It’s true that our sake does not have a very mainstream flavour profile but that is the same thing with our beers! All our sake is Yamahai – its a technique where the yeast starter is allowed to become infected with bacteria and becomes sour by an infection, instead of adding the lactic acid directly into the yeast starter which is usually done these days in commercial sake breweries. It gives a richer and more flavourful sake.”
What goes for sake goes for beer too. Flavour is the key at Nøgne Ø, thanks to a philosophy that, Jikiun says, will never change. “We have a very non-commercial background,” he says. “We were only keen to get these flavours out [when we started]. We did not have a business plan. I think to a great extent, even though there are 15 employees here and we have bills to pay and so on, everything is still about the beer.
“That has been very hard to communicate to new people employed on management level – our philosophy and values remain. It is easy to lose that. We had to be very careful that we don’t lose our focus, which is the flavours and our passion for those flavours. We have to be true and loyal to our values.”
Follow @Will_Hawkes on TwitterTagged in: ale, beer, bitter, brewing, lager, norway, sake
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