Last time I visited the Garage Project inAro Valley, the former service station wasempty and cold. This time it was full of people.Along with head brewer Pete there were halfa dozen others, most toting cameras, as wasKjetil Jikiun.
Jikiun is the head brewer of Norway’slargest craft brewery, Nøgne Ø. He was in thecountry as the guest of Hashigo Zake and,while also partaking of a little tourism, wasdoing collaboration brews with some NewZealand brewers.
The name Nøgne Ø means ‘naked island’,a poetic term used by nineteenth-centuryNorwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen todescribe any of the countless stark, barrenoutcroppings that are visible in the roughsea off Norway’s southern coast. It’s a fittingmetaphor. When Nøgne was started, Norwaywas awash with awful watery beers. Frothy,tasteless, low-alcohol, European lagersfrom major breweries. This seems to be therepeating scenario wherever craft breweriespop up.
I sat down with Jikiun after he had mashedin with Pete. They are making a rye blond thatthey describe as a “Christmas beer for a NewZealand summer”. Pete is nervous as he hasn’tbrewed with rye before and it tends to makea sticky mess in the boil. Jikiun, meanwhile, iscalm and smiling.He’s a big man, well over six foot with alarge beard that he had tied into a ponytail inthe middle. If it wasn’t for the spectacles andthe smile, Jikiun would look like a Viking.
He told me that he had always wanted Nøgne to be a local brewery making localbeers, but it didn’t quite work like that.
Currently a third of his kegs are shipped tothe United States alone. Oddly though, thishas meant more Nøgne beer being drunk inNorway as the brewery continutes to pick upinternational awards. Much like New Zealand,Jikiun notes that Norway is a small countrythat “doesn’t trust its own judgement” andneeds international awards to tell themwhat’s good.
But this beer is good. When Jikiun startedhis goal was to change the Norwegian beerdrinkers’habits. He wanted them to drinkbetter beer – and beer is a popular drink inNorway, if you were wondering.
In fact Norway has a nationalised alcoholdistribution system. If you make an alcoholicdrink stronger than 4.75 percent then thegovernment is in charge of distributing it.This is good and bad: you know your beer willget to everyone, everywhere, but it can takearound 60 days for product to get to shelves.Some beers won’t last that long.
Working on homemade equipment, withno thoughts of expansion or profits, Nøgne Ø carved itself a solid niche in the Norwegianmarket. Beyond this they found that theirbrewery was a catalyst for other brewers andbeer drinkers to start drinking interestingnew beers. Today craft beer in Norway has0.3 percent of the market – really, that little.Which is a shame in some ways, but Jikiunisn’t phased and will continue to brew hisbeers to keep turning people to craft beer.
At this point Pete calls Jikiun back to theboil; they’re about ready to run off the wort.Pete is nervous as the sticky gluten seems tobe causing the wort to run off very slowly. Atthis point Kjetil recounts a story about a 22-hour run-off, which doesn’t seem to calm Petedown much. But it eventually flows.
This was my first taste of wort (it’s likewarm Weet-Bix) so my ability to predict thefinal flavour is limited, but the brewers lookcontemplatively happy. Nøgne Ø and GarageProject’s Cøllab has already been and goneon tap at Hashigo Zake, but both breweries’regular products are continually available foryour consumption.