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.


  1. Fantastic write up Martin! I wondered where you had been. I hope the operation and your eye is all ok?

    I must admit the blog post ended just as it was getting excinting are you following this up??

  2. Oh yes, but I am busy brewing in the week between Norway and the second trip to Bologna. I will write up more as soon as I can. Cheers.