Stavanger is a fairly small town on the south west coast of Norway. Comfortable Norwegians walk around in all-weather jackets, while in the sea to the west oil is being sucked from the seabed. It’s a town that has benefitted greatly from the oil wealth. We landed in this idyllic haven early on a Friday. We were there to check out the latest hot ticket on the Norwegian beer scene – a festival by the name What’s Brewing. It’s the brain child of a few guys at local brewery Lervig and other dedicated beer fans from Stavanger. We were there to drink.
We stumbled around town while waiting to check into our AirBnB. At Vinmonopolet, Norway’s state regulated alcohol retailer, we marvelled at their beer selection, and bought ourselves a bottle of Boulevard Saison Brett, just to make sure we would get a good night’s sleep. After the check-in, conducted by a man reeking of booze, it was time to get down and dirty at the festival. It all took place at a venue called Tou Scene. A sprawling industrial building, all bricks and concrete and metal. It’s an old brewery which has been turned into an art and concert venue. There were graffiti covered walls and at the end of an archway we found a huge swastika made out of Facebook logos. It all had a whiff of punk and it looked like some serious head banging had taken place there.
The brewers were scattered around in different rooms and archways. The festival employed the same pouring strategy as some of the best festivals, where the brewers have to pour their own beers, helped out by a few volunteers. They also had a token system, 5 tokens for about 12 quid, which were exchanged for 100ml pours. Some of the more exotic beers cost 2 tokens, which felt excessive, paying almost 5 quid for a small amount of beer. This annoyed us until we remembered we were in Norway where prices have a tendency to make your eyes bleed.
The festival had struggled with some seriously difficult alcohol laws in the lead up. They weren’t allowed to announce which breweries would attend as this would count as alcohol advertising by the pious Norwegian bureaucracy. The government’s approach is to pretend that alcohol doesn’t exist. The festival did a good job of turning this to their advantage by poking fun at Skjenkekontrollen (The Pouring Control), the alcohol police tasked with monitoring Norwegian’s alcohol consumption. This fear of brandishing alcohol labels was also evident at the festival, where all the breweries had to put black tape over any name or logo on their t-shirts. For the average punter it didn’t really matter, apart from laughing at the stupidity of it, but for the people arranging the festival it caused a lot of unnecessary headache. James Goulding and David Graham, two of the main guys responsible for the whole thing, told us in an email “I’d imagine that it’d be harder to do what we did in a place like Iran or Kuwait, but for a country that seems to love beer as much as the Norwegians do, it’s baffling that the laws are still so archaic.”
We found our bearings in the massive concrete compound and homed in on a hall with a good few brewers lined up against the wall. With so much choice it’s always tricky to know where to start. What if the first beer is terrible? No one wants that. I felt the pressure, as well as the awkwardness of my empty glass. Glancing around the room I could see a few Norwegian breweries, like Kinn and and Grünerløkka Brygghus, as well as De Molen, Italian sour masters Loverbeer and an Estonian brewery by the name of Põhjala. At the back of the room, framed by a massive window exhibiting the grandness of the ocean, we found Beer Here. Brewer Christian Skovdal Andersen was wearing a grin and an apron. He had four taps going. He grabbed my glass and filled it with his black IPA Dark Hops. One sip and the whole trip was suddenly worth it. The beer is good. Dark and full but with an enthusiastic choir of hops, stomping their feet to the beat and howling at the top of their voice. It set the bar high for anything to follow.
We quickly got into the swing of things, making our way through the venue one beer at the time. In the basement we found the likes of Mikkeller, To Øl, Evil Twin, Lervig and Beavertown. It was a good place to be. At the To Øl stand we chatted to Tore Gynther, one of the two brewers, and he gave us some samples of his beers. I want to go on record and say that To Øl is my spirit animal. There, I’ve said it. For me they won the festival. Every time I took a sip of one of their beers fireworks would go off inside my head. Their cognac barrel aged imperial stout Liquid Confidence – next level. Their red wine barrel aged Belgian ale Fuck Art This Is Architecture – mind blowing. Their imperial lager Brown Paper Bag – fuck yeah! Fist pumps all around. But what really had me weak at the knees was their Sur Mosaic, a sour mash pale ale – sharp, fruity and clean as a knife. So easy to drink. A head full of fireworks. Shaboom.
We drank the hours away, walking from room to room and from tap to tap. Beavertown had a few spanking brews on – their sherry barrel aged saison The Sun Also Rises, which they did with Naparbier, and their blackberry gose The Gose Strikes Black, as two specific highlights. We poured it into our heads and felt happy. In an archway we got chatting to a brewer from Austmann, a Norwegian brewery based in Trondheim. The name means man from the east, and is often used of someone who has to traverse a difficult path, often a mountain or an ocean, which is how they see themselves and their Gung-ho approach. Trailblazers. He told us they remortgaged their mums’ houses to afford to buy a brew kit made out of old dairy tanks. Sounds wild and reckless, but their beer was pretty decent and I wish them all the luck on their journey.
The evening got more and more foggy. Laughter and silly banter reverberated off the industrial setting. At 9 the pouring officially stopped, and people were supposed to enjoy the heavy metal acts and buy their beers from the bar. I had a quick listen and found the band annoying and quite lame. Some people enjoyed it, but I just wasn’t in the mood for aggressive shouting and overly serious men with sweaty faces and erratic movements. I found what I was after at the Buxton stall. Their brewery manager Denis Johnstone was more than happy to keep on serving beer, and I was more than happy to drink it. I’ve got a vague memory of drinking large glasses of their quaffable double IPA Nth Cloud and chatting to different people. It was soon midnight and I struggled to string coherent sentences together. Time to go back to the flat.
The next day was hard. From when I woke up I felt like I was hurting myself. Damn you Denis Johnstone, you generous and lovely bastard. Nothing makes me feel more rock ‘n’ roll than flushing down my blood pressure medicine with a glass of Alka Seltzer and Aspirin. I forced down parts of a breakfast and we all sat around and watched a few hours of Adventure Time on Norwegian cable TV. I focused on breathing. For lunch we shuffled over to a local eating establishment and I had a £20 pasta salad. And then it was time to get back to drinking. I had a chat to Tore from To Øl and when I mentioned feeling a bit rusty he filled my glass with their 12.8% imperial stout Long Time No See and said “here, this is breakfast” and smiled at me. There was no turning back, so I took the plunge and the second day was off to a good start.
One guy I’d chatted to the day before while on Buxton’s Nth Cloud was Chris Pilkington, head brewer at the Estonian brewery Põhjala. He told me that the beer scene in Estonia was growing quickly and that the scene had kicked off due to people’s interest in locally produced products. That sounds opposite to how the scene here in the UK kicked off, where most of it grew out of people’s love of American hoppiness or other foreign beers. Põhjala makes some really solid beers and it’ll be interesting to see and taste where they’re heading.
There was one brewery I was keen on trying on the second day. Lindheim Ølkompani had been pitched to me as one to watch. They’ve done collaborations with Lost Abbey and Pizza Port in the states, and they’ve got their own fruit farm, so it sounded like they knew their shit. Their beer was running late so they weren’t available until the second day. I first tried their Cherry Farmhouse, a cherry saison. It was not nice. Something was wrong. It tasted like feet. But these things happen. I wanted to believe. I then tried their Pizza Port collaboration Nacho Libre double IPA, which was much better. A good standard double IPA. Later in the evening I also tried their Jacobs Hage, a gose brewed with raspberries, which was also quite good. This is the problem with expectation. I was so prepared to be blown away that I felt cheated when it only fizzled. I’ll be back Lindheim, with lower expectations, ready to be amazed.
Right next to their stand was Lervig, the brewery responsible for the whole festival. We caught up with James Goulding there, their logistic guy who seemed to be doing the main brunt of the organisation of the goings-on. His expression was a mix of joy, pride and stress. He said he’d enjoy other beer festivals a lot more now that he knows how much hard work it is. He handed me a glass of their big brutal bourbon barrel aged imperial stout When You Go Black. Holy dog shit, that’s a big beer. Lervig has really made some truly spanking beer lately, and they’d brought it all out for the festival. They had one of the best brews I tried at the entire festival, their Magic Rock collaboration IPA Farmhouse Rustique, brewed with brett and aged in Chardonnay barrels. I go bananas for that shit. Funk and wine just makes me happy.
The previous day I had opted to feed myself by shoving hot dogs into my face. There’s a universal truth that there has to be hot dogs at all beer festivals I think. On the second day the smell of hotdogs made me feel a wee bit queasy, so I opted for the more sophisticated option of sushi, served with a glass of 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueze. Lambic and sushi worked a treat, and it filled me with enough pep to set me on my way. The organisers had decided to not stop pouring at 9, like the previous day, which made everybody very happy and eager to keep on drinking. The evening shambled along, the hangover long forgotten. Throughout the festival bands had been playing acoustic sets around the venue. It added an aura of class to the proceedings. Now a band was setting up to play in one of the main halls. I spotted Christian from Beer Here. He’d poured all his beer and was happy to be free to drink. He handed me a glass of Loverbeer, I don’t know which, it was sour and amazing, and we watched the band. Their name was Hidden Songs. A bearded man was standing on a chair, towering above the gathered crowd, and singing his brains out, red in the face. It felt impromptu, like we were in a pub and someone just got up to sing, but was really good at it. People were dancing and clapping and smiling and drinking.
Next there was electronic music happening in a room somewhere and then an after party. I remember lifting a serving bar up some stairs, getting covered in beer. The after party was a cluster of volunteers, brewers and random people like myself. No one knew what they were drinking. I had a dark beer. It was good. I think. Then the alcohol police turned up and shut it all down. It was about 2 o’clock in the morning. I was fully marinated and satisfied beyond my wildest dreams.
The next day was surprisingly easy to handle. We woke up and spent the day walking around Stavanger. Met up with friends. Drank some coffee. Ate a burger. And then we flew back to London. Two days had felt like a week. We’d met so many nice people, and drunk so many delicious beers. What’s Brewing delivered on all levels, but with a focus on what really matters – people and beer. I can’t wait for next year.
While there we were lucky enough to get to sit down for a proper chat with Tore Gynther from To Øl. His interview will be ready before Christmas. Hopefully. Watch this space.
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