Written by Bryan Harrell or Celebrator Beer News
Norway was once a country without any craft beer. Perhaps this is the main reason Kjetil Jikiun found craft beers so captivating during layovers in the U.S. while flying as a pilot for a major European airline. It certainly influenced his homebrewing hobby, to the point where he decided to open up his own brewery in 2002 under the theme of “the uncompromising brewery.”
“Essentially, we started with a noncommercial idea, with the intention to make new beer styles and better quality beers available to the public,” explained Jikiun. “We started in a garage with homemade equipment created from dairy tanks and scrap metal. Basically, our aim at Nøgne Ø has been to brew authentic beer, and anything we make should be true to its original style.” It should also be noted that all of the beers are unfiltered and are conditioned in the bottle or keg.
The brewery name itself means “barren isle” and is pronounced “nug-ne oh.” It is taken from the first two lines of the poem Terje Vigen by Henrik Ibsen, one of Norway’s most famous poets. Ibsen was originally from the town of Grimstad, where the brewery is located.
Initially, Nøgne Ø brewed only American- and British-style beers, which were later followed by Belgian-style beers. These days, Jikiun and the brewery are striking out toward new horizons, using such diverse ingredients as heather honey, spruce shoots, rhubarb and lingonberries for unique ales with a distinctive Norwegian touch.
While Jikiun’s original intent was to have a local brewery, it never worked out that way, as a great deal of the production is shipped out of the country. This includes a few Danish beers brewed under contract, such as Mikkeller and Bere Here (previously made by Ølfabrikken). At present, some 50 percent is exported to 14 different countries, with the remainder going to major Norwegian cities such as Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim.
Nøgne Ø brews nearly 30 different beers throughout the year. Since a core value at the brewery is diversity, many of these beers reflect the use of new ingredients or approaches. Three are Christmas ales, varying from 4.75% abv to 8.5% abv, with only one of them spiced, while another one is an Easter ale at 7.5% abv made with wheat malt. More popular varieties include a pale ale, a brown ale, an amber ale, an IPA, an imperial brown ale, a porter and an imperial stout.
While the portfolio of beers has increased, production has ramped up at an even greater rate. In 2003, it was a mere 300 hectoliters, rising to 800 hectoliters in 2005 and then to 2,500 hectoliters in 2008. Estimated production for 2009 is 2,800 hectoliters. However, Jikiun told me they do not wish to get much bigger and will instead direct efforts at strengthening the knowledge of, and demand for, craft beer in Norway.
Initially, all ingredients were imported. However, the brewery has recently started working with the Norwegian government to find barley types suitable for Norwegian climates. The barley grown in Norway will be malted at the brewery’s own facility and used for brewing. A similar project has been planned for using locally grown hops.
While this form of help from the government is welcome, the fact that beer taxes are so high makes the beer quite expensive. In fact, it is cheaper to buy Nøgne Ø in the U.S., and even in Japan, than in Norway.
Another obstacle to brewing operations in Norway is that commercials, PR and even information about alcoholic beverages are banned in the country. In fact, the authorities told Nøgne Ø to close its website or lose its license to brew. However, Nøgne Ø found that a site for export promotion was acceptable and therefore switched to an English-language site on a dot-com domain with a U.S. server, which is perfectly legal. Fortunately, nearly all Norwegians read English.
Despite its location in rural southern Norway, the brewery has become quite multicultural. In addition to the majority of employees, who are Norwegian, there are also employees from Burma, Croatia, Malaysia, Sweden and the U.S. Jikiun himself already has a fair amount of international exposure, having participated in a guest brew at Stone Brewing Company in Southern California and at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Michigan in 2008, as well as at Shiga Kogen Beer in Japan in early 2009.
“I believe we have been the main factor in changing Norwegian beer culture,” Jikiun told me. “When we started, there were no real Norwegian craft breweries around, nor were there many imported beers available. This has changed radically. Now there are around 100 imported beers available, and at least four or five craft breweries in the country.”
Until a promotion about two years ago, Jikiun often flew between Tokyo and Copenhagen. During his short stays in Tokyo, he became enamored with saké, a distant cousin of beer. He has devoted a great deal of effort to learning how to brew it, and starting next year Nøgne Ø will become the first brewer of saké in Europe.