If you mention the words ‘Norway’ and ‘beer’ in the same sentence, someone nearby is bound to take a sharp intake of breath and mutter darkly about how expensive it is to drink beer in that country. ‘Ten quid a pint!’ someone will add, knowingly. Well, yes, Norway is known for its high beer prices – not sure if it’s actually ten quid a pint, but there is now more to Norway and beer than the legendary high price tag.
Recently, a quiet revolution has been unfolding in the Norwegian beer industry. It is, at last, the advent of the microbrewery. Whilst micros are hugely popular and plentiful in the UK and the US, Norway at present can claim only 9. But that’s 9 more than there used to be.
Perhaps the most recognised of the Norwegian micros outside Norway is Nøgne Ø brewery in remote Grimstad, a small town in the south of Norway, 135 miles from Oslo. ‘Nøgne Ø’ is a quotation from Henrik Ibsen and means ‘naked island’, a reference to the many bleak outcroppings of rock off Norway’s southern coast. The company was founded in 2002 by two homebrewers who evidently thought they had what it takes to produce extraordinary, comercially-viable beer. The last decade has proved them right.
Their website lists nearly 30 beers that they produce and (bizarrely, it may seem) 5 different sakes (Japanese rice wines).
Fascinated by this success story, I decided to try two different Nøgne Ø bottled beers available here in the UK. The large ‘Ø’ on the labels is becoming familiar to those who seek out fine beers. Both these beers were bottle conditioned and in excellent form.
Nøgne Ø Saison – A strong saison beer. Saisons are originally from French Belgium and are traditionally rather low-alcohol beers, 3.8% or thereabouts, but Nøgne Ø Saison comes in with a fairly whopping 6.5%. It’s a pale yellow in colour, almost straw-coloured, with a massive, wacky foamy white head that is difficult to control during the pour. The bottle warns that there will be sediment in the bottom of the bottle so to pour carefully if you want the beer in the glass to remain clear and bright. Once I’d seen the clear brightness, I dumped the rest of the beer into the glass. It’s a shame to waste good beer just because it’s got a bit of sediment in it. The taste is very sweet, crisp and citrussy. It tastes a little bit like a wheat beer (and it wasn’t the cloudiness that prompted me to think this, it really does taste that way). There is a dry bitterness, especially at the end. There’s pepper in there and something else, something a bit herbal – coriander, perhaps. The taste also carries a spiciness with it that adds a touch of the exotic. This is wonderful beer. I would especially love to drink it on a hot summer afternoon looking out over some great view somewhere. I’m not fussed where I am, just give me the beer.
Nøgne Ø Porter – Here again, they’ve gone for strength over tradition. 7% is strong for a porter, you’d think they would call it a stout. This strong porter pours a deep black in colour, barely red round the edges even when held up to a bright light. The head is dense and brown. It is incredibly smooth with a velvety, creamy mouthfeel. The flavour is dominated by a sweet roasted maltiness with plum and hints of dark, bitter coffee, which slowly dries in the mouth after the swallow. There are slight spirituous overtones, but not as much as you might expect from a 7% beer. This beer is a real mouthful.
If you want to demonstrate to someone the fabulous range of flavours available from beer, you could do little better than to give them these two beers. Wildly different styles, wildly different flavours. Both hugely complex and utterly wonderful.
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