Raise a glass to kveik
Brewer’s yeast from Norwegian farmhouses makes waves in U.S. craft-beer industry
CHRISTY OLSEN FIELD
Taste of Norway Editor
Sourdough has enjoyed a surge of popularity this year, with so many of us at home during quarantine. With a bit of time and wild yeast, flour and water can be transformed into a crackling, satisfying loaf of bread.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been learning about another form of yeast that I am excited to share with you: kveik!
Kveik is a family of brewer’s yeast strains from farmhouses in western Norway, and it’s making quite a splash in the U.S. craft-beer industry.
My first kveik beer was by coincidence (or perhaps kismet?) while vacationing on the Oregon coast last summer. My husband, Carl, and I went out for a rare happy hour date at Beachcrest Brewing in Gleneden Beach, Ore. I ordered a pint of the South Pacific Haze, a west coast IPA made with “experimental yeast from Scandinavia” and New World hops from New Zealand.
Fast forward to this spring, when I ordered a few bottles of the Rock the Spot Hops Juicy Norwegian IPA by Figurehead Brewing in Seattle, delivered by my neighbor (and also Norwegian American) Jenny Boyd. I admit that I first ordered it solely because of its name (how could I not?!), but I was hooked after one sip of its bright, fruity flavor.
I wanted to know the inspiration for the Juicy Norwegian IPA, so I called Bob Monroe, co-owner and head brewer of Figurehead Brewing.
“We have people coming into our taproom here in Seattle asking for a Hazy IPA, which doesn’t really fit into the types of beers that we brew. I learned about this Norwegian yeast called kveik that’s been popping up, and I researched the history behind Norwegian farmhouse brewing. I decided to take that yeast and pair it with a high-level dry hop beer to create our answer to the Hazy IPA,” said Monroe.
Figurehead’s Juicy Norwegian IPA is brewed with juniper berries, spelt, and Norwegian kveik, with five different hops. The resulting beer has aromas of pineapple, guava, and citrus, with a 5.8% alcohol by volume (ABV).
Monroe told me that he was working on a few different beers made with kveik, including a red ale, Extra Special Bitter rye, and more.
Intrigued, I started to dig deeper about this Norwegian yeast that was being used in many styles of beer, not just farmhouse ales.
Next, I called up Mark Schwarz and Lance Shaner, the co-founders of Omega Yeast, the first company to sell kveik in the United States.
Based in Chicago, Omega Yeast supplies a range of liquid brewer’s yeasts to commercial and home brewers in all 50 states and 15 countries. Omega Yeast includes microbiologists, homebrewers, professional brew staff, and craft-beer fans to make brewing beer easier for everyone.
Shaner and Schwarz heard about kveik about five years ago but thought it sounded too good to be true.
Shaner said, “Our thought was that the Norwegians were either making terrible beer or these were remarkable strains.”
It was definitely the latter. Shaner obtained a sample of kveik from Norwegian beer expert Lars Marius Garshol. They made split-batch fermentations where the only variable was temperature, and they couldn’t reliably distinguish the batch fermented at 95°F from the one fermented at 70°F, which was a stunning surprise.
“English ale would taste like diesel if you brewed it at 95°F,” quipped Schwarz.
Traditionally, kveik would be scooped out of the pot when the beer was done brewing, and the clumps of yeast would dry on wooden kveik rings, wooden paddles, or even cloth. Today, farmhouse brewers store the dried yeast wrapped up in the freezer and reactivate it for the next brewing session.
Omega Yeast sells five strains of kveik, from individual farms in western Norway, each with their own flavor profile, from citrus to mango, pear to honey, and my personal favorite, “tropical fruit cup.”
Over the course of our conversation, I learned a lot about kveik from a yeast perspective and what makes this particular family of yeast different from, say, German, Belgian, English, or American yeasts.
“Yeasts are asexual by nature. We can hybridize yeast in our lab at Omega Yeast to make different strains, but it is very, very rare that they hybridize in nature or on a farm. But that’s what happened with kveik. We aren’t really sure when this hybridization happened, maybe it dates back the time of the Vikings?” said Schwarz.
“When you look at the DNA of kveik, it has characteristics of English brewer’s yeast but survives like a wild yeast. It’s really remarkable,” he added.
Three things set apart kveik from other yeasts for brewers:
Heat tolerance: Kveik has an impressive temperature range for fermentation, about 68°F to 100°F. Most yeasts produce unwanted flavors or even die at higher temperatures, but kveik can go all the way up to 110°F with a clean, smooth taste.
Fermentation time: Kveik brews much, much faster than other yeasts. This is a boon for professional brewers and home brewers, because you can complete a batch of beer in days instead of weeks or even months. Faster brew times can translate to more beer and more creativity.
Alcohol tolerance: Kveik can brew with a much higher alcohol level, 12% to 16%. Because of this, kveik can also be used to produce other types of alcohol, from rum, mead, and more.
Omega Yeast has sold kveik to 1,500+ breweries, and they are just one of several yeast companies now selling kveik strains in the United States. Home brewers can purchase kveik in homebrew shops, online via Etsy, and I even found a kveik trading group on Facebook where members can exchange their individual kveik strains and recipes.
Last fall, Burnt City Brewing in Chicago hosted the inaugural Kveik Fest, featuring 30 breweries from the United States and Norway to showcase their kveik beers.
Kveik is certainly impressive for the brewer and the drinker, but what makes it uniquely Norwegian?
For that, I reached out to Garshol, a software engineer and farmhouse beer historian based in Lillestrøm, Norway, who sent the first sample of kveik to the Omega Yeast team about five years ago.
Garshol is internationally recognized for his aptly named Larsblog (larsblog.priv.no), where he writes about his adventures exploring farmhouse brewing in Norway and countries bordering on the Baltic Sea. It’s part history, part science, part travelogue, part photo essay. It’s a fascinating read!
He is also the author of three books about beer: Lithuanian Beer: A Rough Guide (2014), Gårdsøl – det norske ølet (2016), and Historical Brewing Techniques: The Lost Art of Farmhouse Brewing (2020).
In our email interview, Garshol graciously answered my questions about this uniquely Norwegian yeast, including a quick history lesson about Norway’s farmhouse ale tradition:
“Farmhouse ale has been central to Norwegian culture to a degree that’s quite frankly difficult for modern people to fathom. Any kind of social or religious gathering of any importance always featured beer as a central element: Christmas, haymaking, weddings, funerals, childbirth, and so on. If you look at the painting ‘Bridal procession on the Hardangerfjord,’ you’ll note one person in the boat is pouring beer. A farmer’s wedding without beer was just inconceivable, so the painter just had to include it.
“Historically, the way people outside the towns made their living was to grow grain and eat it. Literally. Each rural parish had one farm that was set aside for the priest, so that the priest would also have something to eat.
“This meant that in order to brew beer, basically all the farmers needed was to have a little more grain than the minimum they needed to stay alive. They took a portion of their grain and malted it, then brewed with it. The yeast they used over and over again, and hops were usually growing along the wall of the house. Juniper, the last main ingredient, they could pick anywhere. They actually had the beer for free, in the sense that they didn’t need to pay anything for the ingredients.
“So all Norwegian farms south of the Arctic Circle have been brewing beer for their own use for many centuries. It used to even be required by law (in the Gulathing law).
“These people had no knowledge of brewing science, but they learned from their parents how to brew, and the tradition was passed on down the generations. Some places in Norway never stopped, even though they may not be farmers anymore. And it’s continued brewing according to local tradition that we call farmhouse brewing.
“Each region has its own traditions, so the beer from Hordaland and Sogn is different from that of Nordfjord and Sunnmøre, which is again different from the beer from Stjørdal. And then eastern Norway has its own varieties.
“The temperance and abstinence movements did root out the brewing in some districts, while in other districts they seem to have decided that abstinence applied to everything except the local farmhouse ale.”
Anywhere you go in western Norway, if people still have the old farmhouse yeast, it always turns out to be kveik. But it’s not just western Norway that has its own yeast.
“We have also found gong, which is still alive in Ål in Hallingdal in eastern Norway. Gong is related to kveik but genetically different. We have also found berm, in Tinn in Telemark. Those have not been analyzed yet.” he said.
When I asked him about what makes kveik unique, he mentioned the high temperatures, quick fermentation time, tropical fruit aromas, and the fact that kveik is still in existence.
“In some ways that’s perhaps the most special thing of all, because nearly all the farmhouse yeasts people had across northern Europe are now dead,” he said.
In an interview in DRAFT magazine, Garshol shared the story of Jens Aage Øvrebust, a Norwegian native who has sent Garshol three kveik cultures from different farms in his village in Stordal. Garshol asked Øvrebust, as he does every brewer who shares kveik, whether he would be okay with someone selling his yeast. Øvrebust’s answer? “It’s high time that someone takes a serious look at what we old-timers have been doing before it’s too late.”
So there you have it, an old, old Norwegian tradition that is making waves in the U.S. craft-beer industry and sparking a resurgence of popularity in Norwegian brewing too.
Ask for it at your local brewery—chances are they might already use it!
Omega Yeast supplies kveik to 3,000+ breweries, including:
Chicago—Burnt City Brewing
Minneapolis—Dangerous Man Brewing Co.
Pittsburgh, Pa.—Cinderlands Beer Co.
New York City—Fifth Hammer Brewing Co.
Burlington, Vt.—Foam Brewers
Alameda, Calif.—Almanac Beer Co.
Want to learn more about kveik, or try making your own beer with kveik?
Visit these sites:
Do you have a story about farmhouse brewing in Norway or experience with kveik? I’d love to hear from you! Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.