Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Nøgne Ø

Nøgne Ø from Grimstad in Norway is one of Hashigo Zake’s favourite breweries. When we opened in 2009 our desire to stock their products led to a strategic relationship with their Australian importer. It has been our pleasure to stock many of their beers and one of their sakes. Their beers range from faultless interpretations of classic styles, like porter, witbier and tripel to big, unconventional beers, like the smoked barley wine (and staff favourite) Sunturnbrew and the 17% sake yeast-fermented red ale called Red Horizon.

In 2010 we entered the lambic-style fruit beer Tyttebær in the BrewNZ awards where it won a gold medal. The same year Nøgne Ø was named Champion Brewery at the Australian International Beer Awards.

Below is an account of a recent pilgrimage to the brewery.

Grimstad is a small city on Norway’s south eastern coast, a few hours drive from Oslo. It’s a classic coastal tourist town – full of traditional timber houses and leisure boats and surrounded by forests, lakes and bays. If the Nøgne Ø brewery wasn’t located within a former, very small, hydro-electric power station then surely the location would have been a timber mill or boatshed.

Evidence remains of the building’s former purpose – a neighbouring dam and a gigantic pipe from it to the building. And the brewery itself is housed where turbines once spun. But my tour with Kjetil Jikiun, Founder and Head Brewer and Scott Larrick, Sales Manager, began a floor above the brewery, in what is primarily a grain store. In spite of the imposing variety of malts present, the most striking thing about the room is the pleasant aroma emanating from the plethora of spices at one end.

The chilled hop room has surprises too: Nelson Sauvin and Pacific Gem hops and an estimated $50,000 worth of civet cat coffee. This is for brewing Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Brunch Weasel – a handful of Mikkeller beers are made at Nøgne Ø.

There are plenty of other features setting Nøgne Ø apart, including Europe’s only sake brewery. It’s idle right now because, as Kjetil says in a matter of fact fashion, “there is no market for our sake”. That sentence should send a shiver up the spine of anyone with an interest in the business, except that it was strikingly similar to another offhand comment: “for the first two years there was no market for our beer.” But rather than dumb down the beer Nøgne Ø (the self-styled “uncompromising” brewery) painstakingly built a market locally and offshore to the point where demand exceeds supply and the business faces a daunting two year project to relocate to a dedicated new complex but attempting to increase production in the interim.

That increase in production will be achieved by installing two new 25,000L fermenters at a temporary, separate location and using a tractor with a modified axle and bolted-on tank to move unfermented wort then fermented beer between the two sites.

Our tasting began with another surprise – a beer that looked and smelled like an imperial stout, finished with an assertive coffee-like bitterness, but had so little alcohol (0.3%) that it can be marketed as alcohol free. Called Stuten, it’s being developed partly because Norway’s drink-driving laws are so strict that someone drinking conventional low alcohol beers can still find themselves over the limit.

Norwegian laws and conventions are a recurring theme in discussions over the brewery’s output. Only beers under 4.5% ABV can be sold in stores – stronger beers must be sold through the state managed monopoly, which annually selects a finite number of products for its portfolio. So a number of beers are designed to sneak under the 4.5% threshold. The rest must be selected by the monopoly or sold only through cafes and bars or exported.

Then there are excise tax and sales tax. Excise is 4 kroner per litre, per percent of alcohol. So a 400ml serving of a 5%ABV beer will include nearly $NZ2 in excise. In New Zealand the equivalent would be $NZ0.52. On top of that is 25% sales tax. Which partly (but not completely) explains why a glass of beer in a bar typically costs around $NZ20.

Discussions with Kjetil and Scott turned to the relationship between Nøgne Ø and Hashigo Zake. It was revealed that Nøgne Ø have changed their Australian importer. As a consequence we have agreed to explore the possibility of shipping Nøgne Ø direct to New Zealand. This should give us better prices and more control over what we can buy. It also means we would be bringing in bigger quantities and hoping to share them with the outlets around New Zealand that we’ve recently been supplying.

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