In the last ten years the Scandinavian countries have been experiencing an explosion in craft brewing resembling what happened in this country twenty-five years ago. Until very recently light lagers produced by just three or four large industrial breweries were the only beers available in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland Now small breweries are springing up all over, making tiny Denmark a world leader for number of breweries per capita. The brewers responsible for this boom are turning out beers influenced by all the major brewing traditions including Belgium, England, and of course the United States. In the last year, More and more of these beers have shown up on store shelves right here in Minnesota. Maybe the state’s heritage is drawing them here, a kind of second-wave of Scandinavian immigration. Whatever it is, these beers were drawing my attention. I decided it was time to try some of them, so “Scandinavia” was the theme for the March meeting of my Beer Tasting Group.
For those who have not read the earlier postings in this blog, I organize a monthly beer tasting group. It is an informal gathering of beer knowledgeable people who come together once a month to taste and talk about new beers. Each month has a theme. Past themes have included “That beer on the shelf that you have always looked at but never actually bought”, Cheap Beers, and “Category 23.”
In all, we tasted thirteen beers from the region, with a range of styles that included ESB, a handful of Double IPAs, two or three Barleywines, as well as porters and spiced ales. From this sampling we made a couple of general observations. First, the Scandinavian brewers, perhaps taking a cue from the Americans, seem to like big beers. Eight of the thirteen we tasted were at 7% ABV or higher with the biggest topping out at 13%. Second, these beers more closely resembled English and continental beers than their more brash American counterparts. One or two of the bottles boasted of the “balanced” character of the beer inside. There were no over-the-top-hop-bombs here. Even in the Double IPAs, one with 100 IBU of bitterness, there was a strong enough malt backbone to render the beer almost sweet.
The only bad beer of the batch was a Brown Ale from Nøgne-Ø of Norway. The bottle we had was described by the group variously as “heavily oxidized”, “garbagy”, and “sour milk.” I have had this beer on three separate occasions. Each time is was a radically different beer, ranging from toasty and delicious to excessively roasty, to whatever was happening with this bottle. It suggests that this brewery has some issues with consistency. Another that met with some dislike was Kloster Jul, a Belgian inspired holiday ale from Ølfabrikken of Denmark. The label describes a beer brewed with tart cherries and spiced with anise root. The dominant flavor was a yeast derived green banana. The cherry notes were subtle but noticeable and partially covered by a pronounced cinnamon and anise spice. Despite the intense banana and somewhat clumsy spicing, I didn’t mind this beer altogether. Others were less generous.
There were many very good beers sampled. I’ll start with Huvila ESB from Finland. This beer was all caramel and toffee malt balanced by restrained floral English hops. It was every bit an ESB and a right good one at that. Another English style ale that everyone loved was the 2006 Little Korkny Ale from Denmark’s Nørrebro Bryghus. This super-fruity English style barleywine explodes with cherries, apricots, plums and a whole cornucopia of other fruits. It is a sweet, malt-forward beer, but it has enough hop bitterness to keep it from being cloying. This would be a good beer to cellar for a year or two.
My favorite beer of the night was Beer Geek Brunch Weasel from Mikkeller. The Mikkeller brewery is an interesting story. Based in Denmark, brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø has an itinerant brewing practice. He rents into breweries all over Europe and the United States creating interesting beers that reflect both his own brewing aesthetic and the tastes of the regions and breweries in which he brews. The Beer Geek Brunch Weasel is brewed at Nøgne-Ø and is itself a bit of an interesting story. This coffee infused imperial oatmeal stout uses Civet Cat coffee to achieve an intense yet smooth coffee flavor. For those who don’t know, Civet Cats eat coffee beans; supposedly only the best. The enzymes in their digestive systems work on the beans to give them a distinctive flavor (as one might imagine). The scat of these bean-munching felines is then collected. The beans, once freed from their fecal pod (and one hopes cleaned) become the rarest and most expensive coffee in the world. I can only say that this is the best coffee beer I have ever tasted. It is well worth picking up a bottle.
The full list of beers at Scandinavia Night included Huvila Arctic Circle, Huvila ESB, Nøgne-Ø Brown Ale, Nøgne-Ø Double IPA, Carnegie Stark Porter 2004 & 2006, Mikkeller/Three Floyds Oatgoop, Mikkeller Big Bad Worse Barleywine, Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel, Ølfabrikken Kloster Jul, Haand Bryggeriet Double Dram, Nørrebro Bryghus North Bridge Extreme, and Nørrebro Bryghus Little Korkny Ale 2006. Those in attendance were Jonathan Crist, Gera Exire Latour, Joel Stitzel, Paul Dienhart, Al Boyce, and Michael Agnew.