Beer Gynt, an aquavit barn & historical pils
One editor’s adventures in Norwegian fullness, from Oslo to Lillehammer to Venabygd
Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American
One of my favorite things to do when I visit a foreign country is to sample their local alcoholic beverages. In Greece I drank ouzo (one taste was enough!); in Italy and France mostly wine; in Cuba rum went in everything.
The first time I went to Norway, I was introduced to Ringnes, Bergen’s beer of choice. That trip was also the first time I tried aquavit, and I’ll admit that I didn’t care for it. Like most aquavit novices, I assumed that the most prevalent brand represented the whole of what the spirit offered, and it hit me hard with a somewhat licorice-y taste that only went down with a big gulp of that Ringnes.
We did drink a little of the good stuff, from the top shelf of my father’s cousin’s liquor cabinet. I couldn’t tell you what brand it was, but I was left with the vague recollection that there had been aquavit I liked.
After starting this job, I decided I needed to get to know Norway’s primary liquor better. This is hard to do in the U.S.! There is exactly one Norwegian aquavit sold in this country, the famous Linie. With all due respect to Linie, one version of anything isn’t enough.
When planning my recent trip to Norway, aquavit was on my mind. Specifically, I had the goal of bringing back my one-liter limit of alcohol in the form of good Norwegian aquavit not available in my local liquor store.
This proved harder than I’d imagined because first, my schedule prevented me from visiting a Vinmonopolet—the only place in Norway to buy liquor—and second, the duty-free shop in the airport had fewer brands available than their website promised.
But I’m skipping ahead to the unsatisfying conclusion, and leaving out the very satisfying middle, in which this editor drank delicious things! So if you find yourself in the parts of Norway I visited, here is my very brief guide to sampling aquavit and beer.
My quest began in Oslo. I asked a local university student to recommend a restaurant with a large selection of aquavits, and though she said she doesn’t drink the stuff herself, it only took her a minute to come up with a place so exactly what I had in mind that it was like I’d invented it myself. Fyret, located on Youngstorget, has a full page of aquavits on their menu, from A to Å (though the last one was actually in Æ, Æsir Yggdrasil, which I tried). I recommend doing some research on a site like Norske Akevitters Venner (www.norsk-akevitt.org, Norwegian only) beforehand, so you know what you’d like to sample. Bonus: Fyret offers various sizes, which means you can opt for tiny tastes of more aquavits.
The food is also pretty good, and the décor is… just go look. It’s as if a maritime swap meet exploded. Fyret means The Lighthouse, and the restaurant delivers on that promise. But kitschy décor aside, the place did not feel like a tourist trap, and it has outdoor seating above the square that I’m sure I would have loved if it had been summer and not… August.
But if Fyret’s menu was good, I discovered an even more impressive collection of aquavits in an unexpected location. Spidsbergseter Resort Rondane, in the mountains north of Lillehammer, boasts many amenities, but my favorite of these is the akevittfjøs (“aquavit barn”). Inside this barn from 1850 you will find a world of aquavit. Ola, who showed me around, estimated that there are 140 different bottles, mostly from Norwegian producers, including the resort’s own label, 1850 Fjøsakevitt, which is made by Egge Gård and uses mountain-inspired spices including røsslyng (heather), and mountain spring water from the Rondane area.
The aquavit barn is worth a trip, but be advised that it is only open a few hours on the weekends or by prior arrangement. Even though you may have to make an appointment to visit the barn, according to Ola, “it’s easier to go out than in” the barn’s low doorway, because after a few drinks you may be crawling out anyway.
One thing that struck me on this trip was private label beers. Both Spidsbergseter and the Peer Gynt Festival had their own beers, with clever names and pretty labels. The festival’s beer was described to me as “Beer Gynt,” which of course meant I had to try it.
But the main event for me, beer-wise, was Lillehammer Bryggeri. Run by beer enthusiasts as more of a passion than a business, this local gem is tucked away almost underground in a building with a long and storied history as a copper plant and a distillery. Take the journey. Go up the hill along the river, and when you see Bryggerikjelleren restaurant, you’re almost there. To the right of that building, go through the passageway. Hard to find? A bit. Worth it? Yes.
Wiggo Slåttsveen was my guide through this local brewery, introducing both the beers and the location in a whirlwind of history and tall tales that my frantic note-taking could do no justice to (particularly the more beer I sampled). What I took away from it is this:
• These guys really elsker beer.
• The brewery adheres to “Gulating,” which if I understand correctly was a brewing law that Denmark used to trick Norway out of brewing and distilling, so that the country would have to rely on Danish imports. It requires beer to be made of only three ingredients: barley, hops, and water (because at the time they didn’t understand that yeast was an ingredient and not magic). To this day, all of Lillehammer Bryggeri’s beers are made using only those ingredients, and they take this very seriously.
• The brewery’s philosophy rests on four elements:
1) handcrafted beer, which is unfiltered and unpasteurized,
2) local food (I had a moose burger!),
4) and having the “biggest stage in Norway.”
This last is totally tongue in cheek, as it might qualify as the smallest stage in Norway—you actually have to walk through the “stage” to get to the toilets.
Don’t take my word for any of this, though. Go in and pull up a seat at the bar and get one of the proprietors chatting. It will certainly be worth your time.
A bar with a view
Atop the Mølla Hotel in Lillehammer, a former grain silo, sits the bar with the best view in Lillehammer.
I sampled nothing particularly Nordic at Toppen. I had been advised to try the daiquiri, but that felt like the totally wrong latitude, and faced with inconsequential decisions like drink orders I tend to freeze. I had a Ringnes.
What makes Toppen special is the view and the atmosphere. The official Olympic museum is down the road a bit at Maihaugen, but Toppen is almost a museum of ski jumping. Not only can you see the Olympic ski jumps from it, but its walls (the ones that aren’t windows) are adorned with pairs of skis, photos, and other memorabilia from that very Norwegian sport. One of the bar benches is made of a little piece of Holmenkollen, the ski jump outside of Oslo.
Even on a Wednesday night, Toppen was hoppin’, yet laid back. It seemed to be the locals’ bar of choice to watch a little Olympic handball, which felt very fitting.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.