Beer in Norway—the twists of quenching

A brief history of Norway’s most widely-consumed alcoholic beverage

Photo: M. Michael Brady Four popular beers in half-liter (16.9 fl. oz., slightly more than a U.S. pint) cans.

Photo: M. Michael Brady
Four popular beers in half-liter (16.9 fl. oz., slightly more than a U.S. pint) cans.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

As elsewhere in the world, beer is Norway’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage. Yet Norwegians are comparatively moderate beer drinkers. According to recent statistics, the annual per-capita beer consumption in Norway is about 51 liters, on a par with Sweden but considerably less than that of the U.S. (77.1 liters a year), and just under a third of that of the Czech Republic (148.6 liters a year).

Though Norwegians consume less beer than do the peoples of 30 some other countries, the history of beer consumption and production in Norway is among the more curious. Like baking, brewing was long done in homes in sparsely populated Norway. The country’s first brewery was established around 1800 in Christiania (now Oslo), centuries after breweries had been established in the Czech Republic and in Germany.

Thereafter, the business of brewing caught on quickly, and by 1857 there were 343 breweries in Norway. The subsequent prevalence of bankruptcies, mergers, and acquisitions of the 19th century and the industrialization of the 20th century cut the number of breweries to 15 in 1987. Today there are two large brewery groups. Ringnes, the largest group, is owned by Carlsberg of Denmark and produces eight brands of beer. The Norwegian-owned Hansa-Borg group produces six brands of beer. There are also three medium-sized breweries, each with one brand: Aass of Drammen, Mack of Tromsø, and Grans of Sandefjord.

In 2003, the law regulating the production of alcoholic drink was amended to permit microbreweries. Today there are more than 100 microbreweries in the country, serving rural tourism destinations, brewpubs, and local markets for artisan beers.

Of the 17 corporate brewery brands now produced in Norway, four may claim countrywide fame. Two brands are the leading sellers of their respective brewery groups. Ringnes of Oslo is the top seller, followed by Hansa of Bergen. Their claims are subject to the verifiable sales statistics of Ringnes group’s annual sales being three times those of the Hansa group.

The two other claims to countrywide fame are truths with some qualification. Aass of Drammen is said to be the oldest brand in Norway. The company was founded in 1834, well after the country’s first brewery, subsequently rebranded Schou, was founded in Oslo. But the Schou brewery closed down in 1961. So as Aass now mentions, it is Norway’s oldest still-operating brewery.

Mack of Tromsø long claimed to be the world’s as well as Norway’s northernmost brewery. From its founding in 1877, the Mack claim was a truth easily proven by the far north latitude of Tromsø. But in 2012, the company moved its production to a more modern facility in the town of Nordkjosbotn 44 miles further south. Unfortunately for the northernmost claim, the latitude of the Nordkjosbotn plant is six arc seconds of latitude, a bit more than 600 feet on the ground, south of a small brewery in Ilulissat on the west coast of Greenland. So subject to the designation of the location a brewery being that of its production facility, Mack now is Norway’s but not the world’s northernmost brewery.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons Nanny goat Heiðrún of Norse Mythology, from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Nanny goat Heiðrún of Norse Mythology, from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript.

The pre-history of beer in Norway, before the comparatively rapid evolution of brewing over the past two centuries, is a story in itself. Though there’s no record of when the first beer was brewed or drunk in Norway, beer must have first appeared in ancient times. To the Vikings, the quaffing of mead, the predecessor of beer, was one of the greater earthly delights. In Norse Mythology, one of the rewards that a fallen warrior could enjoy in Valhalla was to be inebriated at will by drinking from an enormous tun that was continuously filled by streams of mead from the udder of the nanny goat Heiðrún (“Heidrun” in modern spelling).

In the poetry of the skalds, the ancient Scandinavian poets who wrote and recited works praising heroes and their deeds, mead is held to be beneficial. One account attesting to that is the story of Kvasir, a wise man dedicated to teaching and spreading knowledge. He was ultimately murdered by two dwarfs, Fjalar and Gular, who drained his blood and mixed it with honey to produce the Mead of Poetry, which imbued its consumers with wisdom and the ability to write poems.

The first earthly evidence of the allusions of the myths is in the Gulatingslova (“The Gulating Law”), the body of legislation enacted by the Gulating, the oldest and largest legislative assembly of medieval Norway. The Gulating is named for the commune of Gulen on the west coast of Norway at the mouth of the Sognefjord, where it was held circa 900 to 1300 AD. The exact location of the Gulating in the commune is unknown, but it’s believed to have been at Flolid, the location of the oldest known Stone-Age settlement in Sogn og Fjordane County. So today there’s a Millennium Monument there commemorating the Gulating.

The Gulating is a benchmark parliament in the history of Norwegian legislation. Though not a democratically elected assembly, its laws clearly reflected the interests and needs of the citizenry. One of its regulations obliges established farmers to brew beer, in part for consumption on occasions requiring it, such as the freeing of a bondsman or the acceptance of an illegitimate son into a family. Failure to meet the beer brewing obligation incurred payment to the Bishop of a fine of three øre, at the time equivalent to the price of half a cow. Were time travel possible, might one speculate retrospectively that the size of a brewery could be measured in cow equivalents?

Further reading:
Ølboka, en guide til øl i Skandinavia (“The Beer Book, a guide to beer in Scandinavia”) by Jørn Idal Almås Kvig, 2014, Front Forlag, 355 page large format (10 x 12 in.) richly illustrated hardcover, ISBN 978-8282603294 (in Norwegian).

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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