Wednesday 26 October 2016

An ending and another beginning

It’s going to be a wrench but I find myself contemplating the closure of Poppyland Brewery. It has been a major part of my self-styled Northfolk Project that has at once challenged me, developed me, fulfilled me and to a large degree defined me in the gap between a career in museums and the inevitable decline and end of working. Don’t get me wrong. The brewery is flourishing in its own terms. It was never meant to be big, never meant to grow: task and finish. It is still great fun, is making money and the reputation of the Poppyland brand far exceeds its size. But I hadn’t planned to finish quite yet.
The lease on the building was for 7 years and I planned to retire from brewing at the age of 67, in early 2019, no later. But it looks like I shall finally hang up my apron in 2017, six-and-a-half years into the project and 5 years after selling my first beer (27 June 2012). A number of factors have conspired to bring me to this position. Firstly, I have been staving off the requests, demands even, from Stef my wife, to give up the brewery and move house. With the brewery being so small I don’t think it would be viable if I didn’t have my house and curtilage just across the street, so I have resisted as long as I could. Then there is my eye. I was diagnosed with a large naevus in August 2010, discovered at the back of my eye just before I left the Norfolk Museums Service. It was suspicious but couldn’t fulfill all the characteristics of a choroidal melanoma, so as the available treatment would most likely lead to the loss of the sight in my left eye, I elected to have it closely monitored and if it changed we would immediately go to treatment with proton beam radiation therapy. Well, in 2015 it did change and I went to the excellent Douglas cyclotron facility at Clatterbridge on the Wirral to have it done. It was all quite pleasant really; scary at first but not as actually as bad as I had feared. An operation in London to prepare the eye with inert tantalum clips as targets for the treatment, then a rehearsal at Clatterbridge and finally a second rehearsal and then the treatment, 4 doses over a week. The after-effects were not severe but I knew I ran the risk of damage to my sight after about a year, as the naevus is so close to the optic nerve. Well, sure enough, fourteen months after the treatment the sight began to get worse and now I am practically blind in my left eye. I still drive but it’s had a big psychological impact.

I am also being regularly monitored with various types of scanning for the most likely outcome if there is metastasis of the cancer: there’s an 80% likelihood it will spread to my liver when it does, although it could pop up anywhere. It won't end well.

That’s not to mention all the other things that have happened to my health since I started brewing: I have to wear hearing aids after a very loud bang next to my ear in a confined space when I levered up the shive of a cask. I also injured my spine trying to move a huge pallet-full of bottles into the brewery in 2013. Not to mention the repetitive strain injury from crown capping and driving champagne corks into 21,000 bottles. There’s more but I won’t bore you.

So, what next? Firstly I am going to brew furiously whilst simultaneously closing down. I’d be happy to sell it as a going concern, or let my son take over or end the lease and sell the equipment. Come January I shall qualify for my old age pension, so that changes the outlook too. I shall open up various other avenues of endeavour that don’t require capital investment: write that geology book that’s been much needed for 30 years; travel more and get back into art. There’s geology research to do and the website to develop and the maintenance and sale of Chesterfield Lodge, my lovely house. I also have to give a lot more attention to my wife, whose own health has taken a steep decline in recent years.

Not long before my eye began to change I released an oak tree into the wild. I grew it from an acorn and have been torturing it in a flower pot in my garden, forgetting to water it and generally maltreating it for a number of years. Fortunately oaks are as tough as old boots, which I suppose is why they are the climax vegetation of this part of the world if they are given a chance. Anyway, it is doing really well now and shot up through the last summer. It is on one of my favourite walks and so, as I pass it regularly, it is a constant reminder of the extra life that I am enjoying. I think I shall request that my ashes are scattered at its base so I can repay my debt for mal-nourishing it in its infancy. I hope I get to see it grow up into a big strong tree before that happens.

Monday 4 January 2016

Making a yeast ring

An essential ingredient in brewing is the yeast. A delicate living fungus, it needs to be cultured, nurtured and kept happy in order to ferment the wort to make beer and develop those interesting flavours in the process. At the end of a fermentation there will be considerably more yeast than when you started. Some of it will be dead or exhausted but some will be healthy and ready to fight again another day. Brewers who brew regularly know that they can crop their yeast - either top cropping or bottom cropping - while the fermentation is vigorous and there will be billions of cells in every millilitre with which to start off the next brew. Just keep it safe from infection, pop it in the fridge until required in a few days time or pitch it straight in to the next brew if there is more than one fermenter and the brewery is going flat out.

If you brew only occasionally - say every few months or even just once a year - how do you keep your yeast until it is needed? It won't keep indefinitely in the fridge. Most of us will just order some fresh or dried yeast from the supplier every time but there are some yeasts that are unobtainable that way, while in the past that simply wasn't an option.

In Norway, they have utilised the natural property of yeast cells that when they dry out they go into suspended animation until woken up again by re-hydration. It happens all the time in nature and it is a godsend for the occasional brewer. Traditional Norwegian brewers have found several ways of achieving the goal of drying a reasonable quantity of yeast, keeping it safe and then re-hydrating it for later use. What they are looking for is some kind of substrate that can be sterilised, has a reasonably surface area, is absorbent, stable, non-toxic and with lots of nooks and crannies where the yeast can nestle.

One solution was to take freshly laundered and ironed linen. This is pretty sterile immediately after ironing and when the yeast slurry is folded away inside the cloth it wicks away excess liquid and allows the yeast to dry out. When dried, the yeast could be picked off in small pieces or sheets and stored in a box or drum until required. Perhaps the most natural solution is to take a small section of a tree branch, the more gnarled the better, possibly with bark on it; boil it to sterilise and then dip that into the yeast slurry and hang it up with a piece of sterilised string in an airy place to dry. It can stay like that indefinitely.

A further development is to take a block of wood, drill lots of holes all over it to provide the nooks and crannies, boil it to sterilise and then, when cool, dip that into the yeast slurry and hang it up to dry. This is called a yeast log in English or in Norwegian it is a 'kveikstokk': kveik being the rather special yeast employed by traditional farmhouse- and home-brewers, who have kept it going for generations, nay centuries.

One of my yeast logs (kveikstokker) well plastered with fresh yeast slurry
from the bottom of the empty fermenter and hanging up to dry.
150 mm x 45 mm x 38 mm
But the design I am blogging about here is the so-called yeast ring. It is a kind of wooden puzzle made of dozens of pegs that slot together rather like a complicated daisy chain and then joined up to complete a circle. There are lots of nooks and crannies, so it can carry a lot of yeast and it also looks very elegant. It's the sort of thing you can make with a saw and a whittling knife in the long winter evenings round the fire in a Norwegian farmhouse. Well that's my romantic view anyway.

Sigmund Gjernes holding his yeast ring (photo: Lars Marius Garshol)
I first became aware of the yeast ring through reading the blogs of  Lars Marius Garshol. He visited a friendly traditional brewer near Voss, Sigmund Gjernes. He uses a yeast ring* (gjærkrans in Norwegian), despite keeping jars of kveik in the fridge. The large jars of yeast will keep for weeks, even several months and are very convenient to brew with. The kveik is allowed to warm, then mixed with some wort to get it going for a few hours and then pitched (at a very high temperature in the upper 30s, almost 40 degrees Centigrade but that is a peculiarity of the traditional brewers who use kveik). Despite having a refrigerator the yeast ring is a good option as a long-term backup. You will have to grow up the yeast to a quantity suitable for pitching into a brew of course.

* I have since learned that the photo above was the first and only time Sigmund has actually used the ring with yeast. Apparently, no one uses them at all nowadays. Aah, what a shame.

Yeast ring made by Martta Pöllänen and discovered on the blog of Hans Haverman
Unfortunately the photographs of yeast rings I had seen were rather low resolution, so it wasn't easy to see the design of the components or how they fitted together, or even how many pegs there were. But by thinking the problem through in three dimensions I had an idea of how it worked. I searched the internet for more images but only came up with one other design (above) made by Martta Pöllänen ( and that was an even lower resolution picture, although the design was more elegant than Sigmund's.

I went to Voss in September 2015 on a mission to taste some traditionally brewed 'maltøl', or more specifically 'vossaøl' as made around Voss in Western Norway (see previous bogs My Trip to Norway parts 1-4). While I did meet Sigmund and he very kindly and generously gave me a couple of litres of vossaøl I never got to visit him at home, nor see his yeast ring 'in the flesh' before my schedule took me back to Oslo. I also visited the Voss Folkemuseum where there is a perfectly preserved set of ancient wooden farm buildings (Mølstertunet) including a brew house but they didn't have a yeast ring on show and though I have inquired since, if they have any yeast rings in the collection, I am still waiting to hear back from them.

In November 2015 I began to think about making a yeast ring like the design by Martta Pöllänen and drew some pegs to scale, guessing at the design and dimensions by taking clues from the photographs. Fingers and eyes of people in photographs tend to be fairly fixed in size, so by using them as a scale I got some idea of the size of the pegs. Sigmund's yeast ring looked as if it had 90 pegs and the design from Martta Pöllänen had 63 (both multiples of 3 I noted). I began to make a few pegs from any old wood I had around, which was cheap pine timber. The photographs suggested to me that the Norwegians used pine.

I had my portable work bench set up in the brewery and was working away with circular saw and hand tools. I was interrupted by a charming couple from Nottingham who were interested in buying some beer. Naturally we got chatting about what I was up to. The gentlemen, whose name was Gerry Gamble, could see that I was making hard work of it by cutting out every peg, one at a time, by hand, cutting slots and whittling with a craft knife. Indeed, it wasn't efficient but I was feeling my way to create a prototype and to find out how it all fitted together. I wasn't worried about speed or efficiency at that stage. I had created half a dozen pegs by then and I could see that by slotting one peg through the back of the previous, they would all join up eventually. What I could not get my head around was how they would join up at the last peg to complete the ring. There would have to be a modified last peg I reasoned but I would solve that problem when I came to it.

This chance meeting with Gerry was one of those strokes of luck that I keep alluding to in my blogs, for it turned out that not only was he retired but was also in possession of a well-equipped workshop and he was keen to use it. Furthermore, he had acquired a baulk of the finest Baltic pine timber that had been taken out of the belfry of an old church. And here he was, exactly at the right moment! He offered to machine me up a quantity of blanks that I could finish off by hand and moreover he suggested that if he made me a jig or template to help me I could drill out the slots accurately and quickly, two at a time. True to his word, about ten days later a parcel arrived containing 70 beautifully made blanks of fine- and straight-grained Baltic pine and a steel jig for drilling. When I lined them all up they looked like the keys of a piano.
Machine-cut blanks in which I have drilled and cut slots.
So over a couple of days at New Year I finished off the pegs, using 70 of them to make a ring on the lines of the design by Martta Pöllänen. On the final peg I shaved the 'beak' down until it just slotted through the tail of the first peg and, due to the curvature of the ring, it stayed in place by shear friction. I used that peg to carry the string, which also ensured that it couldn't come undone. All the pegs available were used in order to close the circle. I think if the tails were thinner - 5 mm rather than 6 mm - it would go round a tighter, smaller circle with fewer pegs (e.g. 63 just like the original). To my relief it was still small enough to go through the aperture in the top of my fermenter and small enough to lay in the bottom of my large stock pot for the sterilisation boil and for beginning the starter when the yeast was re-hydrated. By having 70 pegs, which is not a multiple of three, one has to introduce a twist in order to get the ring to couple-up and that is an interesting feature not seen in the two examples for which I have images: a Norfolk twist, so the speak. If thorough cleaning is required the ring can be disassembled quite easily and put back together again.

Number of pegs :   70 (identical, except for the last one, which has a slimmed down 'beak')
Length of pegs   :   83 mm
Width of pegs    :   16 mm
Height of 'beak'   :  10 mm
Length of 'beak' :   30 mm
Thickness of tail :     5 mm
Slot                   :     7mm x 20 mm
Diameter of ring :  245 mm
Weight of ring    :  256 g

A finished peg with the beak shaped by hand with a craft knife and the corners chamfered.

To assemble the ring keep pushing the tails through the back of the
previous peg and with the beak in the same orientation as the one below.

The finished ring. Note the spiral twist.

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.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Trip to Norway: Part 3. The New Way: Voss Bryggeri

The final stage of the bus journey up Kytesvegen (Kee-tess-vay-gen) to the Voss Bryggeri gave me déjà vu, for I had rehearsed it on Google Earth Street View in case I decided to hike up there on foot (see video). The scenery was more spectacular than I expected, the mountains closer and the peaks higher. As the familiar yellow building hove into view I was thinking "what a great place to have a brewery, but why all they way up here?" Soon we arrived at the hairpin adjacent to the brewery and the bus stopped to let me off. After a quick gawp at the mountain opposite I made my way in.

Credit: Lars Marius Garshol
It wasn't quite what I expected. Instead of a bar it looked as if the malt delivery van had just left. Pallets of Belgian malt lay around in a space that could have been a general store or a café before it became a brewery in 2012. There was a small bar but it was mainly used for dispensing growlers to the locals that came up here for their weekend refills. Apparently they only open for a bar night every couple of months or so but they are open 4 til 7 on Thursday to Saturday for growlers. What luck that I would be in Voss from Thursday to Saturday. Eventually a fair haired guy appeared and I introduced myself. 
"Hi, I phoned a few days ago. I'm the brewer from England". 
"I know", he said, "you spoke to me".  
He hadn't been too forthcoming on the phone but now I could see that he was friendly really, just very laid back. This was Dag Jørgensenone of the three owners.  "Come on", he said, "let me show you around."

Dag Jørgensen
Just a few steps away I found myself staring down on some very swish stainless steel. Squeezed in to a tiny space but extending over two stories of this building on a hillside was a very neat 10 hectolitre brewery. They brought it in through the back door and then stood the tanks upright. Very nice. "That was a big investment", I said. He didn't answer but it clearly was. The original brewhouse was manufactured in Portland, Oregon and additional fermentation tanks from Italy.

 Jeanette Lillås
On our tour we met one of the other owners, Dag's partner Jeanette Lillås and their delightful baby daughter. She and Dag are from the east of Norway, outside of Oslo but lived in Voss for a decade before starting this venture and now live in the brewery. From the balcony at the rear was that gorgeous view of the mountain again and evidence that they had recently been brewing some vossaøl: juniper in a large pot, a cauldron and remains of a hearth. 
"Yeah, we make real vossaøl once in a while, 3 or 4 times a year but we can't sell 8% beer to you in a growler. We have to sell it to the state monopoly because it is over 4.7%."

Juniperus communis, gathered from the hillsides to make a juniper infusion
We saw the lower level of the brewery and then came back round to the bar and there was American brewer Wright Hollingsworth filling up growlers. He had once been production manager in a big brewery in Montana  but was enjoying being part of the small team at Voss Bryggeri. He didn't like the state control of alcohol in Norway at all but Dag was quite philosophical about it. 
"It make sense in a way", said Dag. "It secures the consumers a broad selection at reasonable prices.
" Do you mind? Do you live with it?"
"Yeah, I think its good. I like it. Without the Monopoly you see the selection drop and the prices go up. If the bigger brands or importers have the funds to push their products to the retailers, you see the same product in every supermarket. In Norway you can go the Monopoly and get a nice imported product at a reasonable price. So yeah, I like the Monopoly even though it limits us in a way. It benefits the consumer. It would be nice to sell bigger beers out of the brewery but we've got used to it."

A beer was thrust in my direction, VPA (Vossa Pale Ale) 6.5% and I sipped it reverentially. It was good stuff: juniper infusion, fresh and interesting, fruity, grapey Nelson Sauvin NZ hops. We continued to chat, about how their name was growing and they struggled to keep up with demand. 

Then another beer was proffered. "That's vossaøl."

My first vossaøl
Here it was; the object of my journey. I held it up to the light. Distinctively deep dusky orange-brown, slightly hazy and gently carbonated as it had been kegged, with a tight white head. The aroma was slightly of orange marmalade but with something else. The first sip confirmed the weight of malt that went into the brew, it was malty, dry but with a peppery kick. It was nicely balanced with gentle hops, which Dag told me were Strisselspalt. There was an orange note but in addition there was that dry pepperiness that pervaded the beer, a flavour I had never encountered in a beer before. This was the juniper infusion that is typically used for washing down equipment (it has a bactericidal property) and also as the brewing liquor for vossaøl. It was a real quality brew and completely new to me.

I bought a t-shirt; dark grey, with their distinctive v-shaped logo of a glass of yellow beer with a white head. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the Dag was filling a two-litre growler. I thought it was the tap that he had got the vossaøl from. I bought a second t-shirt as it would make a good present one day.

Wright Hollingsworth, Dag Jørgensen filling two litre growlers plus two of their customers.
Dag served up a third taster, this time a black beer but I don't know what they call it. It had a strong roasted malt aroma but tasted much lighter body than I expected and drier that expected, heavy black malty flavour. Luscious.

He left me alone while I sipped the beer and he talked with his customers. I can't speak Norwegian but could make out the word "humle" in the conversation a couple of times and "vossaøl" and "kveik", so they were clearly talking beer. What else in a brewery?

"I'll be leaving in the next five minutes", Wright whispered in my ear, offering me a lift back to Voss. I went to say my goodbye's to Dag and wished him luck with his enterprise and with the growing family.

"I have a surprise. I am filling a growler for you", said Dag.
"You are?? You said you couldn't!".
"I can't, but if you come to Voss from England to explore the local brewing tradition..."
"You'd better work out a price", I said.
"Can't sell it to you, man".
"Well, I'll just leave it on the doormat then. How much is the glass growler?"
"One ten...or another t-shirt."
"We'll do that then. One-ten and another t-shirt".

I said my goodbyes and expressed my gratitude for the hour and a half's visit and a whole growler of vossaøl, saying that if he ever came to England I would give him any assistance I could. I then jumped in to the car with Wright and off to Voss, where he dropped me, of all places, right outside the Vinmonopolet - the state wine monopoly that controls the sale of everything over 4.7% alcohol. Ha!

Friday 16 October 2015

Trip to Norway: Part 2. The Old Way: Mølstertunet

Norway, like many countries, is experiencing a healthy growth in the number of startup breweries but it also has a farmhouse brewing tradition going back centuries that it is alive and well in the districts of Voss, Møndal and elsewhere. On my first day in Voss I got to see examples of both: the old at the wooden farmstead of Mølstertunet, part of Voss Folkemuseum (this post) and the new brewhouse at Voss Bryggeri some 12 kilometres away from Voss (see Part 3). 

[By the way: the o slash character ø is fairly common in Norwegian and is pronounced somewhat like a German o umlaut ö. To say the word for ale - øl - round your lips and push them forward while saying "earl". Hope that helps.]

My trusty mobile has become an invaluable tool and now I almost entirely depend on it to run my life. A bewildering array of tools and services that only a few years ago would require a van load of devices and documents to provide its functions are now available in my trouser pocket. It is truly marvellous and yet my careless reading of the digital map of Norway on my phone would twice lead me the wrong way. Eventually I found the path up the hillside to the Voss Folkemuseum but not before I had the opportunity to inspect a lot of Norwegian domestic architecture and garages on the outskirts of town. More interesting than you would think actually.

A genuine turf roof, laid on layers of birch bark
What every man would want: a shed with a turf roof.
I was probably the only visitor up there that morning so Brita Tveite, the museum attendant, had to take a great bunch of keys to open up the ancient farm buildings for my inspection. Abandoned in 1927 when the two farming families who had occupied its 16 buildings built themselves new houses nearby, Mølstertunet remains untouched by the passage of time. Its dark wooden buildings beneath turf roofs and local slates (skifer in Norwegian) look just as if the old inhabitants would come around the corner at any moment.

I was left to my own devices and I wandered from building to building. Though it was a museum, the intervention of labels was almost non-existent and that made it easier to be transported one hundred, two hundred, three, even five hundred years into the past and I imagined the hearth alight, the smell of wood smoke and the conversations in Norwegian dialect as the days' chores were done. Everything was of wood: walls, ceilings and floor, utensils and containers. In contrast to the echoing terrazzo and marble of Italian rooms, the atmosphere is hushed, homely and wonderfully warm to the touch. And yet, when I looked closely I could see through the gaps where the walls meet the floor. "Wasn't it cold and draughty?", I enquired. "No", I was assure. "When it was occupied, all the gaps were stopped up and when the fire was lit they were very cosy."

The farmhouse with hops growing beside the door

Outside, the small farmyard was perhaps greener now than when rough shod boots tramped over it but there were huge slabs of flat rock laid in strategic places. Hops grew up the wall beside the farmhouse door.

Included among the cluster of buildings was the all important brewhouse, for beer was an important component of farm life, providing hydration and sustenance for hard workers, relaxation and entertainment after the day is done and comfort on long winter evenings. Back in the day they produced lower strength beer for daytime refreshment but today the only beer that seems to be brewed is the strong, dark vossaøl and modern variants of it. At the very least vossaøl is brewed in the autumn, ready for Christmas. Some brewers make vossaøl five or six times a year or for special occasions such as weddings. The attendant showed me the brewhouse, with wooden mash tun, copper cauldron suspended over the hearth, wicker sieves and wooden ladles. They had all the equipment to brew a vossaøl. The farm even produced its own malt, for there was nowhere to buy it and of course they used "kveik", the family yeast, that was handed down through the generations. It was preserved by drying in freshly ironed linen or on a complex wooden puzzle called a yeast ring, to tide them through periods when they weren't brewing regularly.

This open hearth room dates from around 1500 AD.

Mash tun (left) and fermentor
I asked Brita Tveite about traditional brewing but she professed her ignorance of the details, saying she would try to contact one of their joiners who was a traditional brewer. "They must be fairly thick on the ground", I thought. "That's three I know of already."

The modern Voss Folkemuseum building, cast in concrete using coarse wooden shuttering in imitation of the wooden farm buildings just downhill (to the left).
Sure enough, Magnar Garatun came and found me in the museum galleries and we had a half hour conversation, which I recorded, amongst the displays of traditional wedding costume and Viking drinking vessels (ølkjenge). He lives on a farm at Mjølfjel, to the west of Voss that has been in (his wife's) family for about 300 years and he learned about vossaøl brewing from his 80-year-old father-in-law, who also made his own malt when he was young. He evidently enjoys brewing with father- and brother-in-law for while it takes all day (and father sometimes nips off for forty winks in the middle of the brew) the occasion is a convivial one as they consume plenty of vossaøl while they brew. That might explain why he was hazy on the details of temperatures and gravities but he said that it was all written down in a book which they referred to on the day. They brew normally once a year, in October for the Christmas beer, or more often if they are going to have a party or a wedding. Their vossaøl is strong, around 9 or 10% and it has to be dark and thick if it is for Christmas.

Magnar Garatun, the museum joiner
Because there are many brewers they can nowadays buy malt, for instance Münich malt at Voss Gass in Skulestadmo, where they also sell propane gas and brewing equipment: everything they need really. They have a special room on the farm, with a big 180 litre 'copper' fired with wood. They use juniper (einar) infusion for washing down and brewing liquor (made from a couple of plastic bags full from the woods) and they mash in a plastic mash tun. Proceedings start at 7 o'clock in the morning. They brew all day and finish maybe at 8 o'clock. They boil the wort for "some hours", so they start with 120 litres and reduce it to 90 litres. Other people have said it is boiled for 3 hours. At the farm at Mjørfjel they like a good hoppy taste so they use vacuum packed pelleted hops (but he couldn't remember the variety) but he also uses the wild hops that grow around at the museum. For dispense, they use a Cornelius keg nowadays but previously they used plastic (Coke) bottles, which were not so good he says and before that it was wood, of course. They normally keep the beer a fair time before it is all gone; "we can't drink it all at Christmas."

A selection of ølkjenge: communal drinking vessels with horse's head handles
In Voss they have had a competition for the last 5 years, although last year may have been the last as the numbers had dropped off. It took place in a small guest house on the way to Bordalen (about 20 minutes from Voss) and  30 or 40 brewers used to enter one and a half litres of beer and there were 4 or 5 judges. They tasted all the beers and ranked them. There was a variety of beer, both good and bad and sometimes there was some discussion because some were thought not to be in the traditional Vossaøl style. I asked if many of the brewers used kveik and he hesitated. He said there was one man he knew of who was regarded as a good traditional brewer, his name was Himmler, but it is not so usual to use kveik nowadays as it was easier to buy yeast from the store.

A Voss marriage procession. Note the bride in the third row wearing the headgear unique to Voss
The wood carver made two identical sets but only this one survives.
The toastmaster on the left is carrying an ølkjenge for the vossaøl.
 I wandered around the museum and enjoyed the display but I didn't see a yeast ring; that would have been good. I wonder if they have one in the collection. The centre-piece is a beautifully carved wedding procession (Ridande vossabryllaup) made by a well known carver, Gudleik Brekkus. A similar second set was lost in a fire, so this is the only one surviving. I was also very taken with a temporary exhibition of cartoons by the talented and much loved Voss man, Ivar Kvåle. He was a little older than me and died only recently although he looked very fit and athletic in his recent photos (he was a marathon runner too and a musician). The clock ticked round and soon it was time to head back down the hill to take the bus to Voss Bryggeri (see Part 3). 

Thursday 1 October 2015

Trip to Norway: Part 1. Providence and Serendipity

I suppose it all started with my eye. A naevus (a kind of mole) in my eye had been under observation since 2010 and this year it started to show signs of change. That’s dangerous because there is a good chance that it is eye cancer (choroidal melanoma) and so it had to be treated, just in case it was malignant. I went to London for an operation and then to Clatterbridge Hospital on the Wirral for proton beam treatment in June and here I was, post-treatment and apart from minor irritations, I was in good health and with fairly good sight. But it had made me aware of my mortality and it made me think.

“Life is for living”, said Stef. “Where do you want to go on holiday this year?” I briefly considered South Africa but then said “Norway”. Selfishly, I wanted to do some research there because for a year or so I have been following the blog of Lars Marius Garshol, a Norwegian and he had got me interested in Norway’s traditional farmhouse ales – maltøl, or more specifically vossaøl, the farmhouse ale from Voss in the west of the country. More to the point Lars had actually deposited some of the family farmhouse yeast – kveik- at the UK’s National Collection of Yeast Cultures which is in Norwich and as it happens I had also recently made their acquaintance when they visited Poppyland Brewery on a fact finding tour. Talk about coincidences!

“Do you really want me to come?” she said. That was thoughtful of her and I tried to be as tactful as I could in replying. “Well, for me it would mainly be a business trip”, I said. “I would be pursuing my goals and would want to be fairly energetic in achieving them. If you came too it would be a rather different trip.” She could see my point and knew she would never be able to keep up. A few days later she said quite out of the blue, “Okay, I’ve just booked you on a flight to Oslo with Ryanair, £10 each way. You leave of 22 September. But I want a holiday too. Let’s go to Italy, I fancy Bologna.” “Okay, you book an apartment in Bologna and I’ll cook for you”, I agreed.

And so it was that I found myself re-reading Lars’ blog and planning my trip to Norway. All that was fixed was that I was landing in Norway on 22 September. I wanted to brew with the kveik from the NCYC but first I needed to know what vossaøl tasted like. I needed to track down a traditional brewer, make friends with him and get him to share a bottle with me. So I decided to head for Voss and take it from there. I would land in Rygge airport, take a train to Oslo, stay overnight in a cheap hotel and continue the journey by train to Voss the following day. When I set off I still had no contacts to follow but thought I might get some leads if I visited the Voss Brgyggeri or the Ægir pub and brewery at Flåm. And then another one of my amazing coincidences kicked in.

Oslo Sentralen Statsjon

Aass Brewery at Drammen. One of the breweries I wasn't interested in, photographed from the train.
I was on the train from Oslo to Voss. Everything in Norway is new and squeaky clean. They have invested all that North Sea Oil wealth in substantial infrastructure improvements and continue to do so: roads, railways, tunnels and so on. I was impressed by the railway; quiet, smooth and comfortable with plenty of leg-room. I had booked a seat at the discount price and it turned out to be the aisle seat but when I got there I found that the window seat was unoccupied, so I placed by bag on my own seat and sat in the window seat. The scenery of forest, lakes, mountain torrents, small fields and the occasional station passed me by and I was fascinated as I looked out of the window. We were standing in a station some way down the line and I was daydreaming when I became aware of someone trying to attract my attention. “Excuse me, but may I sit in this seat?” she said. “Oh I am so sorry! Actually, this is your seat, by the window”. “No that’s alright, you can stay there”, she said. So I moved my bag and we settled down for the remainder of the journey and I continued to watch the scenery swish by. It wasn’t until we got to the mountains that I started to get up and excitedly look out of all of the windows to get the best views of the landscape. It was then that we began to speak. “Is this your first time here?” she asked, as if it wasn’t obvious enough. “Yes, I am going to Voss. I am a geologist, which is why I am so interested in the rock and the scenery but I am also brewer and I want to find out about farmhouse yeast and beer. I have been following a blog and only know the name of one person who makes it in Norway and that is Sigmund Gjernes, who lives somewhere near Voss. So I am going there to Voss to see if I can find someone who will share a bottle of vossaøl with me, before I try to brew it myself in my brewery in England.”

View of Klevavatn (I think) from the train between Finse and Myrdal

“Well”, she said, “I am going to Voss, I live there. And I also know Sigmund Gjernes. I used to work with him.” You should have seen the look on my face. I was incredulous. What were the chances? I was in a foreign country to seek an audience with a particular brewer and found that not only had I booked a seat on a train that carried someone who knew him but I had actually plonked myself in her pre-booked seat!

“I also have a brother and he brews in the old way, with kveik. I could see if he would meet with you if you like. He lives in Bergen but he is coming to Voss on Saturday.” What? I mean WHAT!? It couldn’t get any better if I had planned this for a year. But it just happened, spontaneously. When we got to Voss, her daughter was there waiting with the car and they kindly took me on a short detour through the town, pointing out a couple of bars I might to visit and there were the offices where Sigmund worked.

True to her word Anbjorg called me later that evening to say that she had spoken with her brother John and he would be pleased to meet with me on Saturday evening. This had the makings of a great trip.