Aass Brewery is Norway’s oldest
A long and hoppy history
M. Michael Brady
At age 16 in 1852, Poul Lauritz Aass left the family farm near the bucolic hamlet of Skotselv in Buskerud County, bid farewell with his father’s instruction “Jeg har lært deg jeg kan lære deg. Nå får du greie deg selv, gutten min” (I’ve taught you all I can. Now you must cope for yourself, my boy.) For the time, it was a commonplace parting. By tradition, boys of 16 left home to start their working lives. The young Aass went to the burgeoning commercial center of Drammen, where his uncle Lars Aass had a company. There he worked for his uncle and for a grain company in Oslo. He also attended business school and at the age of 25 qualified for a business license on April 24, 1861.
Toward the end of his studies, Aass began looking for a way to start a business. An opportunity came in 1860 with the death of Halvor Ellingsen, a ship chandler in Drammen who owned a company founded in 1834 that in addition to provisioning ships dealt in household supplies and had a bakery and a brewery. Aass learned that the company was to be sold. He had neither money nor financial backing but had a friend who did, shipowner H.L. Gjessing. The two bought Ellingsen’s company and renamed it Gjessing & Aass.
Despite the name, Gjessing remained a shipowner. Aass was left to manage the company, to the surprise of Gjessing, who remarked “Jeg skjønner ikke hva Aass vil med det bryggeriet.” (I don’t understand what Aass wants to do with that brewery.) It was a challenge. The way Aass and his descendants responded is the story of the Aass Brewery, told and illustrated in a commemorative book published upon its 180th anniversary in 2014 (further reading).
In 1867, founders Gjessing and Aass formalized their differing commercial interests. Aass bought out Gjessing’s share to assume sole ownership of the company, including its land and buildings on the north bank of Drammenselva (The Drammen River). The company grew apace, and the brewery was awarded medals for the quality of its beers at international exhibitions in Amsterdam, Melbourne, Copenhagen, and Paris. At the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, Aass beers together with those of eight other Norwegian breweries were awarded the Grand Prix.
Poul Aass died on Aug. 3, 1904, and his oldest son took over as the CEO of the company. That set a tradition that exists to this day—Aass Brewery is a family company, passed on from generation to generation. It’s a resilient tradition that has resisted the temptations of moneymaking, most recently in 2007 when the Aass Brewery rejected an offer of takeover by Hansa Borg, Norway’s second-largest beer company, an amalgamation of three local breweries.
The family company tradition is entrenched in its official name, AS P Ltz Aass (an abbreviation for “Poul Lauritz Aass Inc.”), registered by the second-generation heirs on Nov. 19, 1904. Thereafter, the company story reflects the evolution of brewing and beer consumption in Norway.
In June 1917, Norwegian beer taxation was revised into four categories according to alcohol by volume (ABV): Class A: near beer with an ABV of less than 0.7%, Class B: lettøl (light beer) with an ABV of 0.7% to 2.75%, Class C: seldom used, with an ABV of 2.75% to 3.75%, Class D: butikkstyrke (shop strength) beers as sold in supermarkets. Beer over 4.75% ABV is called sterkøl (strong beer) and is sold only by Vinmonopolet (government-owned wine and liquor shops). Beers for export usually have higher ABVs; the five Aass beers for export have an ABV of 6.5%.
From the beginning, logistics was an essential part of company operations. Until the late 1920s to early 1930s, beer was delivered by horse-drawn beer wagons. Then Ford Model A open-cab pickups were phased in. By 1944, during the World War II occupation, the Aass Brewery had 11 trucks and 12 horses in service. A 1950s photo of the delivery fleet shows only trucks plus one American Jeep used for deliveries on roads too rough for the other vehicles.
Like other breweries in Norway, Aass also bottles soft drinks. Their most popular original has been Solo, a Norwegian brand of carbonated orangeade. Also like many other breweries, Aass brews varieties of beers from abroad, including India pale ale (IPA) and India pale lager (IPL), so named because they were developed in the 1840s in England by breweries near the East India Company docks for export to India. Another popular import is vøerteøl, a non-alcoholic carbonated malt beverage similar to the Malta soft drink popular in Latin America.
Today the Aass Brewery catalog includes 44 beverages for the Norwegian market plus five strong beers for the export market, all described in its websites (further reading).
Pronouncing Aass (hint: not a body part)
English speakers often mispronounce the name Aass, sometimes facetiously. The mistake is one of the many accidents in the histories of the languages that evolved around the North Sea. The initial Aa letter group is a leftover from medieval times when doubled letters were often used to write long vowels. Attempts to represent the long a vowel sound (like the O in rope) with a single grapheme date from the 16th century, when historian Olaus Petri (1493-1526) introduced Å, now called “A ring,” in a Catechism published in 1526 in Stockholm. In the 18th century, Scandinavian linguists tried to modernize orthography by proposing that the letter Å be introduced in written Norwegian. In 1917, Å replaced the aa in official spellings and in 1938 was made mandatory in public documents and schoolbooks. General acceptance lagged. The upshot today is that the Aa letter group and the single letter Å coexist in written Norwegian.
• Norges Eldste Bryggeri 180 år (Norway’s oldest brewery now 180 years old), commemorative book by Reidar Heieren, Aass Bryggeri (in Norwegian).