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I used to go to London in early December every year, and if you want a broad range of English beers at one place, including hard to find cask ales, this is the place to go. Good, inexpensive snack food, sale of books and memorabilia, obscure beers from the Continent and stronger beers to take home by the bottle.

This is organized by the East London and City branch of CAMRA, and is staffed by volunteers. Well worth a visit if you are in town.

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“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).

We all know this, of course. And Norwegian craft brewery Færder Mikrobryggeri decided to brew one beer named after all the three gifts as their seasonal offering. Gull, Røkelse and Myrra in Norwegian.

Røkelse, frankincense, has a Norwegian name with association to smoke, so this beer had to have some smoke malt. It ended up at the top of the list at the most comprehensive Christmas beer tasting, hosted by regional newspaper Adresseavisen.

Færder Mikrobryggeri is a family business, with Mathias Krüger as head brewer. He is educated as a medical doctor, put has put his career on hold to follow his passion for brewing. His parents are also very involved in the business.

You’d be very lucky to find a set of these beers now, but other Færder beers are broadly available in Norway and on the Color Line ferries between Norway and Denmark. And during  the summer moths, they have a pub in the back yard of the brewery in Tønsberg, a town about an hour by train from Oslo. And it’s right by the railway station.

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I aim to publish short daily pieces during December, let’s see how it works.

I haven’t read Henry Jeffreys Empire of Booze so far, but it is certainly on my own wish list. It was recommended on the BBC Food Programme (you should subscribe to their podcast)

As a side interest, this book was successfully crowd funded, but that should not distract you from the  contents. This is about how Britain created the first global drinks. The India Pale Ale is in it, obviously, and I don’t know how this retelling will hold up to the scrutiny of historians like Martyn.

But what caught my interest was the story about Sir Kenelm Digby, the inventor of the modern wine bottle. It made possible the production of champagne, but they started out as bottles strong enough for sparkling cider. The cold climate made it impossible to make domestic wine, and wars with France, Spain and the Netherlands put a stop to imports. Cider was then embraced as a substitute. You can read this fascinating chapter online.

From the book:

Other members of the Royal Society in London took an interest in apple growing, cider making and putting fizz in the bottles. The greatest minds in the country turned themselves to perfecting this home-grown product. It was soon noted that the bubbles would be all the more vigorous if extra sugar was added to fuel the secondary fermentation. John Beale from Herefordshire cider country and formerly of King’s College Cambridge read a paper to the Royal Society on 10th December 1662 in which he describes putting a ‘walnut of sugar’ into bottled cider. This is about 20g of sugar, roughly the amount of sugar (‘dosage’) added to modern dry champagne.

You can buy this from amazon, but the authors Unbound page offers more alternatives.

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We had decided that Oranienburg was a promising destination for a day out from Berlin. A shining renovated palace, hopefully a picturesque town, too. And I had a lunchtime spot penciled in.

It’s about an hour’s train ride from central Berlin by the rather slow S-bahn, with nothing spectacular to watch along the way. Some of this is rather drab DDR suburbia, probably better to be seen in midsummer.

The town of Orianienburg is not much to write home about, either. Seems like half of the shops and cafes on the main street at named Am Schloss, showing where the focus is.

The palace goes back to the 17the century, and our guide took us through the centuries, starting with prince electors who were pretentious enough to make themselves kings of Prussia. Beautiful tapestries and paintings have survived burning, looting and warfare, while there is not much original of the building itself.

Photographs are not rnormally allowed, but when we were shown the beautiful 30 liter beer glass (with a small tap on the side for cheaters), I asked in my best German if they could make an exception. Permission granted.

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I bought a booklet in the souvernir shop on the way out – Beer and winemaking in Brandenburg. The man behind the counter gave me a piece of advice:

-Frankly, the wines of the state of Brandenburg are not up to much. But there is some really good beer here, I would recommend the Schwarzbier.

Time for lunch at the Alte Fleischerei, as the name implies, the old butcher’s shop. Very good food, I had a slow boiled shoulder of mutton – Lammhaxe. With this a glass of Oranier, a local beer from a brewery as yet undocumented on Ratebeer. But  frankly, the beer was not up too much. So I wouldn’t make an excursion just for that!.

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There is no lack of beer books, even in Norwegian. Some retell the old tales, some are national versions of multilingual books. But, once in a while, something genuinely unique comes along.

Author Lars Marius Garshol (disclaimer: I am proud to call him my friend, even though I have not been involved in this project) is a well-known name in beer circles. He has been blogging in English for a dozen years, illustrated with his excellent photos, sharing intelligent journalism and analysis.

He has also done an amazing job documenting Lithuanian traditional brewing, in spite of linguistic challenges, resulting in a self-published book in English – Lithuanian Beer – A Rough Guide.

But now he has looked closer to home, where there are other treasures to be documented. The result is just out: the book Gårdsøl –literally Farmhouse Ale.

Some of his source material has been published before, but mostly in obscure and long out of print publications. More important, he manages to tell the story both on the micro and the macro level. This is done by alternating the style of the chapters of the book between journalism/participant observation and historical or other scientific overviews.

Lars Marius manages to convey his great enthusiasm for the brewers he meets and the traditions they share with him. And while the broader picture is well written and educational, it is the living tradition, often spiced with local dialect words that illustrate the process, that makes this book really shine.

The book gives an overview of brewing in various parts of the country, climatic conditions and traditions vary widely. Norway has a tough climate, and wheat was never an important crop until very recently. That means that barley and oats were important for food in most of the country, and in lean times there was not much left for brewing.

The book is richly illustrated, both by diagrams of brewing processes and the author’s photographs. This visualizes both what he observes today and it gives the opportunity to show old brew houses, beautiful drinking vessels and more.

If you want to try brewing in the traditional way, or at least get inspired by it, there is plenty of documentation for that as well.

Two important aspects of Norwegian traditional brewing have been kept alive in different parts of the country, both described in detail in the book.

One of them can be found in the fjords and valleys of the Western coast, with a epicenter at Voss – kveik. These are local yeast strains, some of them in symbiosis with bacteria, which behave in mysterious ways. They work at high temperatures and give complex aromas in the beer.

The other is the malt of the Stjørdal region. Farmers grow their own barley and malt them in small scale malt houses. The malting takes place using smoke and heat from local alder wood, giving a pronounced smoky flavor to the beer.

Could I ask for more? The original manuscript was much longer than the published book, so perhaps a directors cut as an e-book sometime in the future?

And yes, this important part of the Norwegian brewing heritage also calls for an English edition. But, knowing the author, he probably wouldn’t want anyone else to translate it. We’ll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, check out his blog, where there is a lot of information to be found in English.

And maybe we’ll do a blog collab about the commercially available beers using stjørdalsmalt or kveik, Lars Marius?

Back to Berlin

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I have visited Berlin repeatedly over the last decade, and there has been interesting beers to seek out, particularly among the brewpubs scattered around the city. At the same time, the industrial brews generally available are not all that interesting, and there are juste echoes of the old brewing heritage of the city. The Berliner Weisse that the waiter poured over syrup in your glass now comes pre-blended in bottles. But while the old is not very present, the new is moving in, and things are happening fast.

Sometimes I travel primarily for beer (and beer writing), sometimes it’s business or family holidays. This time it was the latter, meaning limited time to seek out new bars and new breweries. But I still have a few nuggets to share with you, and even a suggestion for a day out.

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While Berlin has not yet seen the staggering number of breweries you can find in London, the number has been growing fast. Ratebeer lists a bewildering number of contract breweries, but there are still a few dozen bricks and mortar operations scattered around the city. Some of them have their won brewery taps, others are to be found in specialist beer bars and shops – or just in restaurants  and shops where they have managed to get in. The most concrete example of small scale – well, they call it craft in German as well, they are surprisingly eager to adapt English words – beer finding new markets is in the restaurant and bar of one of the Berlin landmarks – the TV Tower at Alexanderplatz. Three beers from contract brewery BrewfactuM are not only listed, but they are given a whole page of descriptions in the menu, a bit inaccurately identified as a Berlin brewery, but you can’t get it all right the first time. Pity I was there having breakfast…

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One place close to Alexanderplatz to have a beer is Kaschk.  I’m pretty sure there is Norwegian ownership here, they have a strong selection of Scandinavian beer, and the name is a phonetic spelling of the nickname of the staple drink of Norwegians – coffee, sugar and home distilled alcohol. Never mind, they are open at lunchtime, and there are always some local beers on tap, too. Very studenty at midday, taking advantage of free wifi and decently priced coffee.

Ten minutes away is a charming second hand bookshop, dedicated to cookery books and related items. Bibliotheca Culinaria, but it is far more gemütlich than its pretentious name. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of food books,  including publications from the DDR. Some shelves of beer and brewery books, too, well worth browsing into.

And a piece of advice if you want to open a pub: Instead of buying the interior from someone who makes replicas of English or Oirish pubs, go here and buy their selection of original beer mugs. There were at least fifty different ones on display, including a number of fine ones with pewter lids on sale for ten Euro a piece. I am sure this is a good place if you are looking for more rare beer books, too. Thanks a lot to Micromaid for the tip!

That’s all for to today. But stay tuned. There is a side street beer shop with friendly natives, Stone Berlin – and a 30 liter beer glass coming up.

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The reluctant brewer

I’ve been seeking out small scale breweries across Northern Europe for a dozen years. Most of them are happy to open their doors, give me samples from their tanks and send me home with a bag of goodies. Sometimes we don’t find the time to meet, but we have a Messenger chat, exchange e-mails or have phone conversations.

I use the opportunities I have when I travel for business or leisure, and with close to 200 Norwegian breweries, there is a long list of microbreweries I want to visit in all parts of the country.

This summer I was able to seek out a few of them, and found eager brewers happy to tell me about their beers and how they fit in with food and other ways of making money.

But there is always a first. In Sømna, the gateway to Northern Norway, father and son Trond and Bård have started Nordgården Gårdsbryggeri. I get in touch with Bård, and he tells me his father is at the brewery the day we are driving by.

It’s a beautiful summer day, the brewery is located on an idyllic farm a few kilometers away from the main road, there is a nice beer garden in front of the house.

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I get a rather lukewarm greeting. I explain what I am doing, show a copy of my book, and tell him I try to keep a total overview of all Norwegian breweries, and I’d like to have photos and descriptions of his beers in my book.

  • I’d don’t want to be a part of your book, Trond tells me.
  • -But you have a license to brew, you sell your beers here and elsewhere, and even have a pub in your garden?
  • Sure. But the beers are not where I want them to be yet. If you print descriptions, they will be out of date too soon.
  • But this is an opportunity for publicity and I’m not charging you for this?

Trond makes it perfectly clear that he is in no way ready to present his beers in any book project in the foreseeable future. There is no point in stretching out my visit, he makes no gesture of putting the kettle on. He is in no way comfortable about my visit. But he allows me to take a few photos for web use. And I persuade him to trade a few bottles for a copy of last year’s book.

I’ve later tasted the beers, and I have to admit he has a point. The beers taste like home brew. Perfectly drinkable home brew, but nothing outstanding compared to other beers you find in Norwegian supermarkets. Maybe it’s right to wait a few years before I get back to him. Or at least until next summer…

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