Nøgne Ø brews an unlikely beverage
A Norwegian beer company is bringing the Japanese rice wine to Norway—and the US
M. Michael Brady
Sake, the Japanese rice wine, has been brewed for more than 12 centuries, almost exclusively in Japan. Then, about a century or so ago, in step with the burgeoning taste for it, sake brewing spread afar, to the USA and to Europe. The oldest extant sake brewery in the USA is Ozeki Sake of California, founded in 1979. The first European sake was brewed in 2010 by Nøgne Ø, a microbrewery founded in 2002 in Grimstad, Norway.
The entry of a beer brewery into rice wine making is more logical than it may seem at the outset. Ethanol, the principal type of alcohol in alcoholic drink, comes from the fermenting of sugar caused by yeast. In making wine from grapes, the sugar naturally present in the grapes ferments when exposed to the ambient yeasts in air. Rice consists mostly of starch, so the making of rice wine starts with the conversion of starch into sugar that then is fermented to alcohol. The process is much like that used in brewing beer. So in the lingo of alcoholic drink production, one speaks of sake brewing as opposed to winemaking.
The sake story
The Nøgne Ø sake story started in 2009, when Kjetil Jikiun, a cofounder of the company, attended a course in sake brewing at the Daimon sake brewery in Osaka, Japan. There he met Brock Bennett, a Canadian industrial chemist and avid amateur beer brewer, also intent on learning how to brew sake. Jikiun returned to Grimstad to set up sake production at Nøgne Ø and invited Bennett to join him as the Toji (master sake brewer). Bennett agreed, and together with Jikiun set up a sake production venture that they named Hadaka-Jima, the translation into Japanese of Nøgne Ø.
An Ibsen connection
The name Nøgne Ø comes from the first two lines of Henrik Ibsen’s epic poem Terje Vigen, first published in 1862:
Der bode en underlig gråsprengt en
på den yderste nøgne ø; –
In the National Library of Norway reference translation into English, those two lines read:
“There once lived a man, very grizzled and grey,
On the furthermost reef there could be; -”
In which the significance of Nøgne Ø is lost in translation. It literally means “Naked Isle,” a poetic description of any one of the innumerable reefs and skerries of the archipelago off the coast of southern Norway. That loss of detail corroborates the opinion of English poet Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) in his definitive biography of Ibsen (1907) that “Terje Vigen will never be translated successfully into English,” because it’s a ballad written in a poetic style that defies replication in translation. Ibsen based the poem on the stories of Norse maritime pilots of Grimstad, where he lived in his late teens, worked as an apprentice pharmacist, and began writing. In 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars, Norwegian seaman Terje Vigen attempts running the British blockade in a small rowboat to carry food from Denmark to his starving wife and daughter in Norway. He is captured and imprisoned by the British. Released in 1814 after the wars, he returns home to find that his family has died of starvation. He becomes a maritime pilot and while at sea years later rescues an English Lord whom he recognizes as the commander of the ship that captured him in 1809. He sees but does not take the opportunity of revenge. With time, Terje Vigen has become Norway’s most-read poem, taught in schools and integral in annual festivals. So the name Nøgne Ø extracted from it connotes something unequivocally Norwegian.
Today, the Nøgne Ø brewery exports its products to 20 countries, including the USA. For further information, visit the website at www.nogne-o.com (English).
Where to buy Nøgne Ø sake:
Shelton Brothers of Massachusetts distributes Nøgne Ø sakes and craft beers in the USA. Its website at www.sheltonbrothers.com/wineries/nogne-o has a list of regional wholesalers across the country and suggests contacting them for the locations of shops selling Nøgne Ø products; for areas not covered by the wholesalers, contact the head office at (413) 323-7790 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.