(Twenty-sixth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)
The cheap plastic travel alarm was jarring in its morning report.
Was I still in Norway, and had I consumed half an ocean’s bounty of seafood the night before, prior to falling asleep on a bench during an early evening piano recital?
There were groggy grunts of affirmation on both counts, and the fleeting recognition that this uncomfortable sensation might well be attributed to my first-ever hangover from food, as opposed to drink. It was morning on Thursday, and time to pack. Roughly seven hours remained of my brief stay in Bergen.
The train back to Oslo (and then a switch to Stockholm via couchette) would be leaving at 3:30 p.m., but there was a key item of unfinished beer business yet to be addressed. Owing to my debilitating telephonophobia (yes -- a real word), it was a final act I’d be forced to bluff at the last possible moment.
It seems the pattern of a lifetime already was being cemented at the tender age of 24. Then again, my circuitous, unannounced arrival in Pecetto earlier that summer had worked out, hadn’t it?
Maybe this one would click, too. It was time to give the wheel another big heave, and hope for the best. If not, I’d just hang out in Bergen’s harbor fish market and dream of forks, knives and repeat aquatic performances.
In 1985, my only tenuous connection to the business of beer was a part-time job at New Albany’s long defunct Scoreboard Liquors.
Luckily, the store’s owners were trying their best to listen and learn, and fascinated by the higher mark-ups of “premium” products, they cautiously indulged my comparatively superior knowledge of the imported beer category by allowing me to purchase and stock some of them.
In my defense, it’s easy to know a lot when no one else knows anything, and so the legendary “import door” in the walk-in cooler came to be. It was my first claim to local beer fame.
At the time, the only Norwegian beers available in Indiana were Ringnes and Aaas, but at some point in 1984 another mysterious contestant arrived. It was Hansa, as brewed in a place called Bergen, its cartons festooned with postcard images of sails and gabled mountainous fjord-driven beauty.
As a European history buff, I knew the name Hansa derived from the Hanseatic League.
The Hanseatic League was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns. It dominated Baltic maritime trade (c. 1400-1800) along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages and early modern period (c. 13th to 17th centuries). The League was created to protect economic interests and diplomatic privileges in the cities and countries and along the trade routes the merchants visited.
In truth, Hansa was considerably more prosaic than the confederation, and merely another in a series of inoffensive golden lagers. Appropriately (given its name) it traveled long seaborne distances aboard vast container ships, as intended to quench a weird and steadily growing American thirst for something different from the norm, even if only slightly.
Yet Hansa tasted fresher somehow, and it struck me as being above average in quality. I added it to the list, and naturally proceeded to buy and consume most of it myself.
(There was an employee discount, but even so, at regular intervals I paid them for the privilege of working there.)
At some forgotten juncture, geography finally clicked. I’d be touring Europe, and probably visiting Norway, and if I made it, there’d be the famous train ride to Bergen … so, why not pretend to be someone important, let the brewery know how much I enjoyed its beer, and request a personally guided tour?
Seeing as I’d printed snazzy business cards, identifying me as a “beverage counselor” at Scoreboard Liquors in New Albany, Indiana, one of these need only be dropped into the envelope, and snail mail to “Hansa Brewery, Bergen, Norway” was dispatched.
To my utter astonishment, a few weeks later I received a polite reply from a man in Hansa’s export department. He thanked us for carrying the brewery’s beer, and asked me to call him upon my arrival in Bergen.
This was sufficiently encouraging for me to let matters slide without a second thought. See “pattern of a lifetime,” above.
Months subsequently passed. The travel adventure began. I carried the confirmation letter thousands of miles across the sea and through Europe. At any of my stops, I could have mailed him a postcard, but never found the time.
Conversely, I might ask the nice people at my accommodation in Bergen to use their phone and call for an appointment with (Knut? Thor? Lars?). This didn’t happen, either.
Given my proclivities for procrastination, there was no choice save for looking at a map, walking a mile past the train station to the upscale area known as Kalfaret, which was nestled just below Mount Fløyen, then finding the Hansa brewery complex, showing my weather-beaten letter to the amused non-English speakers at the guard shack, and waiting to see what would happen next.
Soon a casually dressed man emerged, looked at the letter, grimaced, and told me in perfect English that my export department contact was out of town on holiday. He expressed puzzlement that his colleague would arrange to meet me, then leave town.
Embarrassed, candor was my only recourse, so I apologized and conceded having never actually spoken with him.
Lacking legitimate credentials or very much else in the way of a clue, and looking pathetic in the process, it would have been immediately obvious to this man that I was “nobody” in the beer business, and yet (Gunnar? Rolf? Leif?) was remarkably gracious. He could spare an hour or so to show me the brewery, after which I could drink a couple of beers.
By the time I left Hansa, it had been closer to two hours, and I’ve always deeply appreciated his equanimity and sense of humor. Whomever you are, and wherever you are today … thank you. I’ll never forget your kindness.
Hansa was founded in the 1890s, and it had the cobbled-together appearance I would come to associate with breweries of its approximate age. Successive reorganizations and additions produced layers of industrial history, those typically favoring the cameras of visitors over employees trying to work efficiently.
In fact, Hansa’s first century was drawing quite rapidly to a close, and not just chronologically. Soon after my Bergen stay, production moved to a new facility located in a nearby industrial park. In 1997, Hansa merged with Borg, another Norwegian brewery, in a bid to stave off absorption by the voracious multinationals scouring the post-Communist world for booty.
The strategy seems to have succeeded, perhaps because the Norwegian beer market is so small. In 2015, the rump of the old brewery houses a new-generation Hansa Borg brewpub, company museum and headquarters. Much of the old brewery grounds appears to have been redeveloped into blocks of flats and light retail.
This beer-meets-economics neighborhood transformation was destined to be encountered time and time again in my subsequent travels. Older breweries operating on tracts of inner-city urban real estate would become too valuable to continue using for fermenters as opposed to people. They’d sell the property to developers for a big return, and move brewing plants to more sparsely populated areas – or sadly, cease brewing altogether.
The most memorable part of the Hansa tour came during a walk outside the brewery. In the garden stood what appeared to be a log cabin. In fact, it was a farmhouse brewery, relocated from the countryside to the brewery’s backyard.
My guide made the point that Norway’s original beers came from outside cities, where farm owners were required by law to provide a stipulated amount of homebrew to their laborers, under penalty of fines and imprisonment.
This isn’t as unlikely as it sounds. We know that brewing and agriculture are historically intertwined, and in fact, certain strains of Norwegian farmhouse brewing yeast are considered utterly unique. Today, at least one can be purchased from White Labs for home or commercial use. Of course, I knew nothing of this in 1985, although the notion of beer functioning as pay packet oddly mirrored my own package store experience.
The bottled golden lagers I drank afterwards were crisp, clean and gratis. In effect, my final view of Bergen that afternoon immediately prior to boarding the train back across the mountains was something I’d missed upon arrival: Hansa’s huge “Welcome to Bergen” sign on the station wall, facing the platforms.
I was leaving Bergen, and everything had fallen into place. The last bits of my Norwegian currency bought a valedictory sandwich, and I began thinking about Stockholm, where I arrived early Friday morning.
(to be continued amid mead in Sweden)
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 25 … Frantic pickled Norway.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 24 … An aspiring “beer hunter” amid Carlsberg’s considerable charms.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 23 … A fleeting first glimpse of Copenhagen.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 22 … It's how the tulips were relegated.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 19 … Sligo, Knocknarea, Guinness and Freddie.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.
The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.