Norse Nectar #1 at Slate Creek Brewery
Two brothers tap into their Norwegian heritage with an ale based on a Viking Age brew
Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho
Norse Nectar may sound like a drink meant only for Freya, Odin, Thor, or other Viking gods, but in fact this pale ale with a juniper tang, while closely modeled after a Scandinavian sahti, is available to ordinary people at Slate Creek Brewery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
But how did it get its name? And where do they get the juniper?
Ryan Wing, one half of a brother duo that owns and runs Slate Creek Brewery, has answers to both questions.
The brothers are proud of their Norwegian heritage; hence, Norse Nectar. As for the juniper, Ryan confides he acquires the foot-long twigs with berries “here and there about town.” He smiles and adds, “until we have our own juniper farm.”
These twigs are placed at the bottom of the brewing barrel, a strategy that differs from the use of only the berries. It gives Norse Nectar a fruitier flavor than can be achieved by berries alone. Though most brews featuring juniper use only the berries, Ryan wanted to create an ale that closely paralleled the ingredients from sahti, a traditional beer of Finland. There is archeological evidence of sahti residue in wooden barrels found on Viking ships from Norway.
According to Kevin Cullen in his article on the anthropology and archeology of brewing, sahti was made by women across Scandinavia. According to tradition, reports Cullen, the first running, “strong sahti,” was for the village men, while the second, known as “nosedrop sahti,” was for the women.
The family name Wing might suggest that the brothers’ Norwegian heritage comes from their mother.
However, their great grandparents were but one family among many in their Iowa community named Johnson. They thus chose to revert to Vinge (pronounced Wing-ah) after their area in Norway. Somewhere along the way the e was dropped and the W used in spelling, following American conventions to get to the Norwegian pronunciation.
Their dad, like many Norwegian Americans, came from Minnesota. Their mother, whose ethnic roots are Polish, was from nearby Michigan. But the two met in Los Angeles, moving to Coeur d’Alene in 1990 after their father retired from his career as a police officer. Ryan finished high school in Coeur d’Alene.
Now in their early forties, both brothers are firmly anchored in North Idaho where they enjoy a panoply of outdoor activities. These interests are also reflected in their brewery’s name, names for various brews, and the decor for their tap room.
Slate Creek is a tributary of the well-known St. Joe River, the only in-flow to Lake Coeur d’Alene. Located in a secluded, deep canyon, Slate Creek is known, among those who discover it, for its trout fishing and white water kayaking. A triple drop waterfall is one of its features, and a section of this is depicted in the brewery’s logo.
Salmon Run Red, which uses some Belgian Special B Malt, is one of the names reflecting their outdoor interests. A line of increasingly strong IPAs will be named after fly rod weights, such as the first in the line, 6 Weight IPA, which includes Chinook hops. But other sports are represented too, such as Back Country Brown and Double Diamond.
However, Harper Stout isn’t named after a sport or a heritage. Harper, four, is Ryan’s daughter and this particular beer was first brewed just two days before her birth. What’s more, the closet in her room was used for fermentation, since its temperature was a constant 68 degrees. It would still be more than a year before Slate Creek Brewery became a business.
Most of their offerings have been subject to extensive experimentation with subsequent adjustments. Not so with Harper’s Stout. Neither it nor Norse Nectar have ever been tweaked.
And in the latter’s case, the maxim “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” must apply, since this is not only their most popular brew, it also won an award this year from a widely circulated news magazine in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area, the Inlander. They gave it their Reader’s Choice Award for 2015 Best Brewery in North Idaho.
Not bad for a business just two and a half years old. They opened in March 2013, but Jason began experimenting with home brews in his early twenties, picking it up again years later, long after he completed law school. Today legal cases comprise very little of his work life; his main job is General Manager of Slate Creek Brewery.
Ryan, still a full-time firefighter for the city of Coeur d’Alene, sampled some of his brother’s brew, which he expected to taste like the proverbial bathtub gin. Pleasantly surprised at the very drinkable product, he was hooked. A gift certificate from his wife for a home brew store cemented his interest.
He decided to investigate the options for a Christmas beer for the family. In his research he became intrigued with the Scandinavian sahti. Norse Nectar was the result.
Before long, the brothers were ready to take their hobby to the next level. A former car wash with automotive trench drains in place suited their needs better than any downtown building they were able to find, so they are in a bustling area a few blocks off Interstate 90. That car wash was part of the old Knudtsen Motors Complex now located in Post Falls, and is another local family-owned business with Norwegian roots.
Across one wall of the taproom are dozens of beer mugs in various colors and shapes, all holding 22-24 ounces for members of their Slate Creek Mug Club. All are thrown by Jason’s wife, a potter who incorporates their waterfall logo into each mug. When patrons purchase a mug, each is assigned a number matched to the owner’s name. Their subscription to the club garners them several extra ounces of beer per serving, two free fills on their birthday, and other perks.
In addition to having brewery hours, Slate Creek makes appearances at assorted events throughout the year to showcase their products.
In June 2014 Norse Nectar was served during Hospitality Night at the Sons of Norway District Two Convention in Eugene, Oregon. As hosts for the upcoming 2016 convention, members of Harald Haarfager Lodge wanted to showcase local beer and wine. When calling local breweries for ideas, Convention Chair Pamla Silk looked no more as soon as she heard two words: Norse Nectar. Their 2016 convention theme of “Viking Spirit United” made Norse Nectar the perfect fit.
Slate Creek’s goal is to follow traditional practices with newer equipment. Centuries ago wooden troughs or hollow logs were used to prepare sahti mash. The trough would contain straw and juniper branches. Mash would be poured in one end and out the other.
When they first began brewing, the Wings used gravity to accomplish the same result as the tilted trough, employing a 10-gallon job site water cooler with the juniper branches at the bottom. Now their new equipment does this with pumps and allows far better temperature control than the hot rocks added in ancient times. Initially they could make only two barrels at a time, yielding 62 gallons. In October 2014 they installed a 15-barrel system, which enables them to brew many more gallons at once. This they do every two weeks.
Today their base malt comes from British Columbia, while their rye malt and others are acquired on the west coast. They buy an Irish yeast strain because it has the closest profile to that used for the Scandinavian sahti.
While they have a line of eight taps, generally only six or seven are available at once. This is because when they get low on one, say Norse Nectar, the public’s favorite, this puts pressure on the remaining ones and then, says Ryan, “they fall like dominoes.” Some are still brewed in their older, smaller system due to lesser demand.
Asked about his own “personal fave,” Ryan acknowledged it varies by time of year. The darker beers appeal to him more in cool weather. His wife’s favorite is Norse Nectar.
With respect to future plans, Ryan noted they will bring on an experienced brewer October 1, freeing Jason to focus more on marketing. While Ryan does their artwork, he claims, “Jason is our wordsmith.”
They also aspire to become a regional brewery that would market to western Montana, eastern Washington, and also develop “better penetration in Idaho.” One means to becoming more regional is to have availability in cans, an avenue the younger Wing brother expects to open up in the next few months. Another strategy would be to increase their product line.
Said Ryan, “Our identity is with an active, outdoor lifestyle. We appreciate our heritage and try to exemplify that.”
A visit to Slate Creek Brewery won’t make you into a Norwegian, but sampling the Norse Nectar just might help you feel like one of the Viking gods.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.