Tracing the Origins of the Yeast That’s Disrupting the Brewing World
The ﬁrst Sunday of last September, Lars Marius Garshol settled into a seat on a train bound for Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city. He pulled out a notebook and began to write about what he had learned during a particularly good day in the Dyrvedalen Valley.
“I’m glad I got to meet Svein. That was a big hole in my portfolio,” he said.
Svein Rivenes brushed up against fame in 1991 when beer writer Michael Jackson visited, later sharing the experience in a London newspaper column. The encounter didn’t exactly make Rivenes a rock star, but he has a collection of clippings from magazines that established him as Norway’s best-known farmhouse brewer in the 1990s.
Leaving Bergen in the morning, Garshol talked about having taken a similar path into the Voss region in May 2014. “It’s amazing all that has happened in four years,” he said.
Garshol has been central to understanding that kveik, a family of yeast strains with origins stretching back centuries, may ultimately be more disruptive to brewing than something like brut IPA. He also introduced readers of his blog (garshol. priv.no/blog) to novel brewing topics such as raw ale, baking mash in an oven, the yeast scream, “roaring the beer” (which has nothing to do with the yeast scream), and considerably more. He’s dug through records from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Austria to help make sense of a brewing world that wasn’t exactly kept secret, but that has been overlooked.
He’s written about the practices he found in Historical Brewing Techniques: The Lost Art of Farmhouse Brewing. British beer writer Martyn Cornell has already suggested that Garshol’s “writings have made him the Michael Jackson of gårdsøl (farm ale).”
Garshol, a software engineer by trade, lives outside Oslo. He began blogging in 2005 about both beer and technology, writing about the beer scene in Latvia one week, and big data and the semantic web the next. More recently, most of what he has posted has been about beer, especially as it relates to farmhouse brewing.
His beer focus began to change in 2010 after his wife gave him a book by Danish maltster Per Kølster, one of the founders of the New Nordic Beer movement. Kølster wrote about farmhouse beers in Lithuania, inspiring Garshol to visit Vilnius when he had a weekend oﬀ.
“The ﬁrst beer I had was amazing, massive straw [character],” he said. “It felt like the beery equivalent of being dropped from a crane, face ﬁrst into a bale of straw that had baked in the sun all day. This beer was on my mind for days and days afterwards.” Other beers were equally mystifying, and he determined that people brewing them had no idea about what is generally considered modern brewing.
Returning home, he realized he had heard stories about farmhouse brewing in Norway. “Why didn’t I look into this before?” he asked himself. After nine months of planning, he and two friends left Bergen in a rental car, stopping ﬁrst in Voss to brew and collect kveik. They continued north to Stjørdal, spending a week that left their heads spinning.
Garshol wrote about it in his blog: “We were all astonished that this isn’t better known. As Martin (Thibault) put it, ‘this isn’t exactly the Congo.’ Indeed, we’re talking about one of the richest countries in the western world. It’s more or less overrun with tourists every summer, and Norwegians travel all over the globe. And still, in the middle of a global craze for beer that’s good and diﬀerent, the traditional beer remains almost secret, in places even in danger of dying out completely. And, despite how many people would be dying to try it once they learn of it, you can’t actually buy the beer at all.”
He and his friends recognized there was a whole culture they didn’t know about. “It was just stunning,” he said. “Exciting, and embarrassing. I just had to learn more.” By the spring of 2015, “I came to the conclusion that commercial brewing was only half the beer world.” He’s written his book to tell the story of the other half.
Garshol talked about these discoveries heading north out of Bergen. Although he would collect information for his book during the day, he had organized this trip as a courtesy to me, and to Joe Stange, who writes about beer for many publications. The three of us had spoken at Bergen Ølfestival during the previous two days.
Sjur Rørlein met us at the train station. In addition to farming, he teaches courses on traditional malting and brewing, and he organizes the Voss Ølfestival in the fall. “It’s in his blood,” Garshol said. When Rørlein was growing up, he said, there were 40 or 50 farms on his side of the valley and 14 of those farmers brewed beer. Now there are fewer farms and only three make beer. He stopped the car at a spot with a view across much of the broad valley and pointed. “There were two breweries there,” he said, before pointing to another area. “Three breweries there.”
Rørlein talked about when all the barley used from brewing was grown and malted in the valley, then pointed to another farmer. “They made good beer down there. Now they brew maybe two, three times a year,” he said. “My grandfather, he was never out of beer.”
To emphasize the farm brewing connection, Garshol described when, in 1350, the owner of one of the biggest farms in western Norway died. The document that describes the division of his estate listed three copper kettles among his possessions. Those three kettles were valued at eight cows.
Around the Valley
Svein Rivenes apologized because he had none of his own beer to share. An aching hip had kept him from brewing for some time. Standing in the building beside his house, he happily discussed how he had learned to brew, how he brewed, and—of course—about the time Michael Jackson came to visit. Garshol translated, smiling and nodding as he listened to stories he’d long been waiting to hear.
Rivenes is a storyteller. He described in detail how his grandfather would dip a ring of straw into the slurry of kveik (yeast) left after brewing, then hang it high in the rafters of the barn to let it dry. This preserved the yeast to use in future brews. The fact that birds nesting in the rafters would sometimes defecate on the straw ring of yeast did not bother him. His grandfather would simply knock oﬀ the excrement and toss the ring into waiting wort. Rivenes was laughing by the time Garshol ﬁnished translating.
He also talked about when Jackson came to visit. Jackson wrote (in part):
He showed me the stream where he had tied a sack of barley so that it would germinate—a primitive form of malting. On the hillside we cut juniper bushes to use in his next brew.
As soon as a ﬁre was set under the kettle and the smoke issued like a signal from the chimney, neighbours started arriving to help. Each brought samples of beer, so that we could quench our thirsts in the best of the brewhouse. “This is our equivalent of a pub,” said Svein.
The scale of activity rendered the term “homebrewing” insuﬃcient: Svein had 700 litres in his kettles, and I would call that “community brewing.” By law, farmers can brew as much as they like, so long as they use barley they have grown themselves. I heard stories of illicit truckloads of barley- malt arriving in the middle of the night. “Don’t the police stop it?” I asked a community brewer in another town. “Not here,” he replied. “I’m the chief constable.”
Jackson also wrote that every farmer would “say that this precious resource (his yeast) has been in the family ‘for as long as we can remember, probably from Viking times.’” Rivenes chose his words carefully, explaining that the yeast would have been passed around the valley. (When a farmer’s yeast began to produce sour beer, he could get a healthy batch from a neighbor, a practice made more diﬃcult as the number of farmer brewers shrank.) He looked particularly thoughtful, then said, “To claim this comes from the Vikings, I cannot do that.” Again, he was laughing before Garshol ﬁnished translating.
Jackson had taken kveik from Rivenes back to England to be used in a beer that would be called Norvig Viking Ale. Rivenes had also provided detailed instructions about how to make a beer like he did. He later tasted a sample of the beer. Garshol asked him if it tasted like his own.
He shook his head.
No translation was needed.
Sending Smoke Signals
Bjørne Røthe had been brewing for hours when we entered one of several small buildings that surround his farmhouse. This one, which he also uses as a smokehouse, has a cupboard with 1776 carved into the front. The building next door, which has been renovated and can serve as a guest house, dates to the 17th century. These buildings made it easier to imagine a continuum of farmhouse brewing that has spanned centuries.
Out front, Garshol inspected a trailer full of juniper as Røthe explained that he always cuts too much. Juniper infusions are used in many Norwegian households to clean wooden vessels and, likewise, by brewers. Røthe has also used the infusion for his strike and lautering water, slowly ﬁltering wort through juniper branches before using a ladle to transfer it into the kettle where wort is already boiling.
During ﬁve to six hours of boiling, about 300 liters (almost 80 gallons) of wort would be reduced to 150. Although the recipe includes only pale malt, the ﬁnal beer would be reddish brown, thick, sweet, and strong. Traditionally, farmhouse brewers didn’t measure gravity, so they didn’t know just how much alcohol beers contained. The ones Rørlein did measure, that his neighbors judged acceptably potent, were 10 to 12 percent alcohol by volume. “My record is 12.99 percent,” he said.
“In the old days, if you served weak beer it meant you were poor or a crappy brewer,” Garshol said. To tell a brewer, “You must live by a lake,” was an insult that meant the beer tasted watered down.
Røthe’s grandfather made beer, but his father did not, and the brewing equipment sat idle for 20 years. He learned to brew from his uncle. “They say it tastes like my grandfather’s beer,” he said. Chatting as Røthe used a small pan to skim foam oﬀ the boiling wort (“removing the headache”), Garshol explained that brewers to the north, who make “raw ale” without boiling the wort at all, call those in the Voss region “again boilers.” Røthe had never heard of brewing without boiling, a reminder that farmhouse brewing encompasses multiple traditions that don’t always intersect.
One tradition, called the oppskåke, is common across much of western Norway, and it is a party that does not require an invitation. The word means “shake up” because it refers to racking beer immediately after primary fermentation. When using kveik to ferment beer, that means after only a few days. Oppskåke has come to mean something more. “People aren’t invited. They just show up,” said Rørlein. They sample generous pours of the beer and chat about it. They know when to stop by because they’ve seen smoke coming out of the brewery three or so days before.
That’s a party we wish we could have stuck around to see.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2019 issue of The New Brewer, the journal of the Brewers Association.
Stan Hieronymus is a professional journalist and amateur brewer who has made beer his beat since 1993. His travels have taken him to breweries in every state in the country. He is the author of four books and a frequent contributor to The New Brewer.
Addendum: Brewing with Kveik
Perhaps it is best to begin by establishing three important things kveik is not:
- A beer style
- A substitute for saison yeast
- A single-strain yeast
The word kveik has two meanings in western Norway. One is to breathe new life into something, such as a ﬁre being kindled. The other is simply yeast. Etymologically, it comes from the same root as the English “quick” in the sense of being alive, as in the expression “the quick and the dead.”
Norwegians more often use the word gjær to mean yeast. In the Voss region, brewers often say kveik to refer to yeast that has been shared within the region for generations and gjær for yeast acquired from a yeast supplier.
Several suppliers now oﬀer multiple strains of the kveik family, and commercial and homebrewers alike ﬁnd them attractive not just because of the ﬂavors and aromas they create, but because of their unique brewing qualities. Kveik yeasts ferment beer at shockingly high temperatures without producing oﬀ ﬂavors, making them particularly suitable for brewers who do not have the resources to control fermentation temperatures.
Depending on the strain, kveik yeasts may be pitched at 86 to 108° F (30 to 42° C) and will ferment high-gravity beers in about 48 hours—lower gravity beers even quicker.
These yeasts are non-phenolic, so more like British or American ale yeasts than German weissbier strains or Belgian varieties used for abbey beers and saisons. More technically speaking, kveik yeasts are phenolic-oﬀ-ﬂavor- (POF-) negative and do not produce 4-vinyl-guaiacol, the clove-like, peppery character prominent in weissbiers, some abbey beers, and various saisons. Genetic sequencing has established they should be placed on the Beer 1 side of the family tree of yeast, but they have attributes that make them distinct from other Beer 1 strains.
Because there are diﬀerences within the kveik family, brewers should be aware of the source of the kveik they use. For instance, the #1 Gjernes kveik (which Lars Garshol obtained from Sigmun Gjernes during the May 2014 trip) may be pitched at 102° F (38.9° C) and produces aromas of orange peel and spice. The #3 Stranda imparts banana and melon aromas.