Monday, February 01, 2010

Scandinavian beer on my mind.

On Monday, February 8, I’m inaugurating Office Hours with the Publican, a weekly Monday evening tasting at NABC’s Pizzeria & Public House (in Prost). It is slated to begin at 6:30 p.m., and run for an hour or so. I intend this and future tastings as self-contained, one-night skull sessions. There will be a nominal fee of $5, and you may order food and drink throughout.

NABC Beer Manager Mike Bauman has set aside bottles from Scandinavian craft brewers Mikkeller, Nøgne Ø and Olfabrikken, and we’ll taste and discuss them. I’m not sure which ones I’ll choose, so you’ll just have to attend and find out. Until then, here is a dab of conceptual back story.


There was a time, not long ago, when the countries that comprise the geographical entity we call Scandinavia were hardly among one’s first choices when planning a European beer hunting itinerary. To suggest that this situation has been reversed is a massive understatement. Let's see why.

There always were specific local brewing traditions in Scandinavia, and many have survived, like the time-honored practice of homebrewed Sahti in Finland. It can be made from a variety of grains, spiced with juniper berries, and filtered through twigs. Mead, a fermented honey beverage, was a Norse staple, and big wooden “mead halls” were built to facilitate its consumption. Indigenous wheat ale is another example of old-fashioned brewing. It was kept alive in recent times, albeit tenuously, by larger brewers in search of a light specialty brew.

The Industrial Revolution launched the age of large-scale commercial brewing, and Scandinavia’s brewing companies have predictably entertaining and instructive backgrounds. Carlsberg’s founder is said to have personally transported fragile lager yeast to Copenhagen, keeping it cool in his stovepipe hat – or something like that. Tuborg’s “Thirst” advertising poster always will be a classic. Even with larger breweries, there is a strange charm attached to the decades of loyalty they inspired, and the cultural identities that came to be associated with them. Otherwise, we'd have no breweriana collectors.

As in other places, the inexorable logic of industrial brewing displaced smaller competitors and resulted in the standardization of product lines. Yes, when in Helsinki, you knew the "local" beer was Koff, and you surely remembered the Koff you drank in Helsinki, but not because it was a special beer. You remembered it because you were visiting Helsinki.

By the 1980’s, commercially brewed beer in Scandinavia reflected very little stylistic diversity apart from an adaptive necessity to conform to taxation regimes by producing golden lagers of varying strengths (and prices), and occasional Porter or Stout, and stronger seasonally brewed beers, almost all of them lagers.

It is at this point that I entered the scene. I did nothing to change Scandinavia, but Scandinavia contributed toward changing me.

When my European travels began in 1985, I really wasn’t savvy enough to explore the esoteric roots of local brewing in Scandinavia, although I probably was more aware of them than my fellow tourists, because I knew the beer history that the beer writer Michael Jackson had taught me in his books. In Sweden that summer, I knew to look for mead, and found it in Uppsala.

That summer, Mikhail Gorbachev had been Soviet leader for just a few months, Michael Jordan was preparing for his second year in the NBA, and I considered it a major victory to scrape together a few Kroner for a few bottles of different Ringnes formulas from a state-owned retail shop in Oslo.

Yet, in spite of being a novice whose only connection to the beer business was part-time work at a liquor store, I knew about the free tours at Carlsberg and Tuborg and took full advantage of them, eventually learning that when the tours came to an end and the participants were seated at tables where sample beers already were lined up and ready, the best strategy was to find a family with children and sit with them. They tended to drink less, leaving more for me.

I also had enough presence of mind to write the Hansa brewery in Bergen, Norway, requesting a personal tour. Through a long-forgotten importing arrangement, Hansa had become available in New Albany, and I’d been stocking it at Scoreboard Liquors. It was a golden lager beer that struck me as above average in quality. I enclosed a business card, and pretended to be someone important. To my surprise, a man wrote back and asked me to call upon arrival in Bergen.

Unfortunately, I misplaced the confirmation letter and phone number. Battling timidity, and with time expiring, I walked across town and found the brewery, managed to get past the guard shack, then was chagrined to discover that my export department contact had gone on holiday. Without credentials or much else in the way of a clue, I did the only rational thing, which was to look pathetic, and consequently was given a brief tour of the plant conducted by an amused company bigwig who could see quite clearly that I was nobody at all.

He had a sense of humor, though, and I’ve always appreciated that.

The golden lagers he gave me afterwards were crisp, clean and gratis, and about the only other thing I remember was a rural cabin relocated to Hansa’s backyard, and used to make the point to visitors that Norway’s brewing origins were in the kitchens of the countryside, where national law at one time required farm owners to provide beer to their laborers. This impressed me at the time. It may even be true.

While Viking blood does not run through my veins, it remains that two of my fondest memories of Norway – a place I have not been since – have to do with fish.

In the capital, I splurged for a breakfast buffet at the station diner after coming in on the overnight train from Copenhagen, readying my plastic bag to fill with meats and breads for lunch later in the day, and only then seeing a row of ceramic pots. They were filled with pickled herring, which I still adore.

A few days later, acting on the advice of a budget travel guidebook, there was a palpable grimace on my face at the prospect of blowing the equivalent of $15 on a seafood buffet at a famous restaurant in Bergen, and yet I did it, and haven’t forgotten the bounty.

To make this long story somewhat shorter, I’ll skip forward, ignore the many intervening, Carlsberg-laden visits to Copenhagen, and offer that beer appreciation has exploded throughout Europe’s north, especially between visits to Denmark’s capital in 1999 and 2009. After all those years of technologically perfect, otherwise uninspiring lagers, the beer landscape is completely altered. Breweries, beer cafés and consciousness have appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and last May, I found myself seated outside, enjoying a sunny Danish spring day, while drinking an American-style IPA on draft. It would have been unimaginable just a few years before.

Later, my sandbagging friend Kim Andersen took me to a bottle shop with a remarkable selection from Denmark, Belgium and the US, not bothering to tell me until later that the proprietor with whom I was chatting was Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, founder, brewer and guiding intelligence of Mikkeller, arguably one of the top-ranking craft brewing innovators in the world.

My point in all this is that for all the well-deserved plaudits given by beer aficionados to breweries like Mikkeller, Nøgne Ø and Olfabrikken, perhaps the extent of the craft brewing revolution in Scandinavia eludes those who never saw what it was like before, and how it likely remains today the further one travels from the larger metropolitan areas. I'm fortunate to have experienced it, and equally lucky to witness the wonderful changes.

Those mild pilsners in days of yore still tickle taste buds in my memory, most notably when I think of smoked herring, and yet in 2010, it’s a whole new ballgame, and a profoundly welcomed shift of priorities. Is it the remarkably high level of education and economic achievement in Scandinavia? Did the creative energies unlashed by the fall of Communism in 1989 have something to do with it?

And: How amazing is it to walk into a bottle shop in Copenhagen and see bottles of Three Floyds on the shelf?

Pretty damned amazing, if you ask me.

No comments: