In western Norway, farmhouse beer has evolved into a distinctive style called heimabrygg, also known by geographical designations of vossaøl, hardangerøl, and sognøl. These immensely flavorful ales are fermented with kveik, flavored with a generous amount of juniper branches, and caramelized by a long boil. In winter 2020 I traveled to Voss in Norway to learn about these beers and farmhouse brewing techniques. This story passes on what I have learned.
In the beer circles, the district of Voss in western Norway has become known for its farmhouse yeast, kveik. Many commercial kveiks originate from Voss and are hence named something like Voss Kveik.
Kveik is an outstanding part of beer heritage, but let’s not forget the beers that made people go through the troubles of maintaining kveik for centuries. In Voss, I enjoyed the local farmhouse beer vossaøl so much that I have started to brew it regularly at home.
Heimabrygg translates as homebrew, and for the locals it stands for traditional homebrewed farmhouse beer of their region. Voss is the hub but similar beers are also brewed in the nearby districts of Hardanger and Sogn. In all these areas this kind of beer is heimabrygg but these beers have geographical names as well. In Voss heimabrygg is known as vossaøl, meaning the beer from Voss. Similarly, there’s hardangerøl and sognøl.
In this story, I’ll concentrate mostly on brewing aspects. If you want to know more about farmhouse brewing traditions and techniques, please check my book Viking Age Brew. It will give you a highly readable introduction to fascinating world of northern European farmhouse brewing. If you wan’t know everything, you’ll need Lars Marius Garshol’s excellent book Historical Brewing Techniques. Excellent articles on western Norwegian farmhouse brews have been also published in Brew Your Own (by Chip Walton in issue Jul/Aug 2020) and Zymurgy (Stan Hieronymus in issue Sep/Oct 2019).
When I was in Voss in February 2020, I met beer writers Claire Bullen and Martyn Cornell, and their stories from Voss are fantastic: The Land of Fire and Kveik and Oppskåka: the true meaning of beer. Garshol has also written excellent blog stories about Voss, see for example Norwegian farmhouse ale styles and the links therein.
Farmhouse Brewing Traditions of Western Norway
In the days of yore, most people in western Norway were farmers and they brewed farmhouse beer. The beer was brewed from the farmhouse’s grains and yeast. Juniper branches were picked nearby and hops were part of the recipe too. Brewing vessels were self-made from wood. They brewed raw ale (no wort boil) because they didn’t have big kettles.
At some point, perhaps starting in the Late Middle Ages, farmhouse brewers in western Norway began to obtain big copper brew kettles and boil their wort. It seems that nobody knows why or how – big kettles were extremely valuable before the 20th century. The wort boil is also in sharp contrast for example to the Hornindal (around 250 km north of Voss) where farmhouse brewers still proudly brew raw ale without the boil.
Today the wort boil is a valued part of the farmhouse brewing tradition the districts of Voss, Hardanger, and Sogn in western Norway. Just look at wood-fired copper kettles in the photos below and you’ll be convinced that this is not a recent addition to the tradition. If you have the opportunity to taste authentic vossaøl and heimabrygg you’ll also notice that the flavor differs markedly from both modern beer and raw farmhouse ale.
The farmhouse brewing is very traditional in many parts of western Norway. Kveik tradition is very much alive. The home malting faded relatively recently. Many brew houses are still gorgeously traditional with wood, stone, and copper.
I learned a lot about vossaøl from Dag Jørgensen, one of the founders of Voss Bryggeri. Dag came to Voss in the early 2010s with his skydiving team. The team trained there for one month and he liked the area so much that he settled in Voss. In 2012 he founded Voss Bryggeri with two friends.
From the beginning, they wanted to include local beer traditions in the brewery’s lineup. Dag interviewed local farmhouse brewers and researched the traditions. He experimented with kveik fermentations even before it was “discovered” in the mid 2010s.
Voss Bryggeri Vossaøl was launched in 2014. Dag found out that in the past vossaøl has varied in time so much that they needed to date the style of vossaøl they are trying to capture. They dated their vossaøl style to 1814, two hundred years before the launch.
At first, Dag was a bit nervous about how the traditional brewers would receive the beer. He was relieved to hear from the locals that Bryggeri’s Vossaøl is “as close to traditional vossaøl as a commercial beer can get.“
Voss Bryggeri’s Vossaøl is an excellent beer but Dag likes to state that “Vossaøl is our only beer where making the best possible beer is not our first priority. Our first priority is to make this beer as traditional as possible.”
In my opinion, because of the wort boil, vossaøl lends itself better to commercialization than most Nordic and Baltic farmhouse beers. Voss Bryggeri Vossaøl is sold in cans and has the shelf life of a typical modern beer. It is available throughout Norway in Vinmonopol (state-owned liquor store chain) but rarely seen outside of Norway.
Voss Bryggeri is a craft brewery that produces also interesting hybrids of modern and traditional beer. The ales in their Kveika series are flavored with juniper infusion and fermented with kveik. My favorite from the series is Kveika Rugøl, a rye beer where the juniper and fruity-umami kveik flavors provide an intriguing twist.
Heimabrygg is a premium farmhouse ale, like most alive northern European farmhouse ales. It has typically been served in feasts and for guests. Therefore, the beer has been a matter of pride and it should be of high quality. Alcohol strength is one of those qualities. At 7.5 % ABV Voss Bryggeri’s Vossaøl is on the low end and some examples go above 10 %.
Heimabrygg is very flavorful and complex in flavor. There’s a firm and refreshing scent of the Nordic forest from juniper branches. Voss kveiks give plenty of fruitiness and intriguing umami flavors. Intensive boiling is a big part of the flavor profile with toffee and smoke. Low smooth carbonation is certainly part of the character.
When I brewed my second vossaøl, I was very pleased with the result. Toffee, smoke, Nordic forest, orange, and mushrooms, all harmoniously in one beer. If I didn’t know this farmhouse brewing tradition my mind would be boggling. How beer can taste like this? Where do these flavors come from? The flavor of vossaøl is simply unique. Brew it yourself with the recipe below.
Heimabrygg stores very well but the flavor evolves a lot in time. If you can restrain yourself by drinking it all fresh, you virtually get two completely different beers: a fresh pint expresses malt and juniper while umami and woodiness become gradually more prominent.
Typical heimabrygg malt bill includes usually Pilsner and/or pale ale malts. Occasionally Munich malt is part of the recipe too. In the past oats were often used along with barley, and for this reason Voss Bryggeri Vossaøl includes malted and unmalted oats. Dark specialty malts are untypical for these brews and the darkness should come from the long boil.
Hops are always used but with varying quantities. Most heimabryggs are mildly hopped but according to Historical Brewing Techniques some examples can be very bitter. Often juniper branches taste more than hops. Sometimes sticks of alder flavor the brew as well and I’ll tell more about that below. The beer is typically fermented with a local kveik.
So, the ingredient list is simple. It’s the process that makes this beer complex and unusual.
Long Browning Boil
In the past long boil allowed brewers to rinse every bit of sugar out of their precious grains and still brew strong beer. The idea is to rinse out malt sugars with plenty of water and then reduce the wort volume with a 3–7 hour boil. This kind of boil, especially with a wood-fired kettle, give plenty of color and flavor. It turns the wort from golden to reddish-brown and gives flavors of toffee, caramel, and smoke. This kind of boil alone would give an unusual twist to a beer.
Traditional brewers are not boiling by the clock. They stop boiling when the wort has been reduced to a certain mark. In Voss, Sigmund Gjernes boils off half of the wort volume and Ivar A. Geithung boils off a quarter.
Dag Jørgensen has noticed that copper kettles promote the browning and the creation of toffee-caramel flavors. When Voss Bryggeri brews their vossaøl, the wort is partly boiled in two wood-fired copper kettles at the brewery’s terrace while the rest of the wort is boiling in the main stainless steel brew kettle. All kettles are fired for four hours. Apparently this works very well because Voss Bryggeri Vossaøl has the traditional color and flavor of an intense boil. With a 1400-liter batch size boiling everything on a wood-fire would be cumbersome.
A wood-fired copper kettle certainly makes a nice brew day but I have managed to get a fairly similar effect on an electrically heated stainless steel kettle with a four-hour boil and 30–40 % boil off. I have also noticed that there’s a flavor optimum. Intense boiling is needed for authentic heimabrygg flavor but boiling too intensively can give overly pungent toffee flavor that reduces drinkability. Therefore, I prefer to boil “only” for 3–4 hours and keep the boil-off rate at 25–33 %.
I’m not sure what causes the mild yet engrossing smoke flavor. Does it come from the burnt caramel or is some of the smoke from the wood fire falling into the kettle? Perhaps it’s both.
Brewing with Juniper Branches
I have brewed with juniper branches since the early 2000s, but in Voss I learned new tricks. In vossaøl, the flavor intensity of juniper varies from noticeable to strong. The methods for selecting and infusing the juniper branches are varied too.
The farmhouse brewers in western Norway use impressive amounts of juniper but they manage to avoid woody and harsh qualities of juniper. I say this out of respect because in some my brews juniper branches have added a sharp taste of wood and solvent.
Most heimabrygg brewers prefer to keep the juniper infusion below the boiling point and I think that proper temperature is the way to success. In Voss Bryggeri juniper branches are infused overnight at 70°C. This temperature lower than typically but also the infusion time is unusually long. Historical Brewing Techniques recommend a temperature range of 80–90°C and 2–3 hours infusion time. When I’m brewing vossaøl, I prefer to keep the temperature around 80°C and infuse for a few hours.
On the other hand, Ivar A. Geithung likes strong juniper flavor and he’s not afraid of high heat. He adds the branches to warm water in the evening before the brew day and next morning begins to heat the infusion. He considers the infusion ready when it boils. Ivar’s heimabrygg is tasty with an intense yet not harsh juniper flavor. I suspect that the long wort boil removes some of the harsher elements of juniper. In fact, the beers where I have tasted sharp juniper tang have been raw ales.
The juniper character depends also on the way branches are picked. Most brewers in Voss avoid branches thicker than a finger. Thick branches would add more flavor from the wood itself. Many traditional brewers in Voss pick branches with no or little berries. I haven’t heard a solid explanation of why. Dag said that he prefers to leave the seeds to the forest to grow new junipers. Ivar suspected that by avoiding berries brewers aim for softer flavor. Most of the year berries are green (unripe) and they taste sharper than blue (ripe) berries.
Ivar likes the flavor of both green and blue juniper berries, and he doesn’t reject branches with berries. I like the berry flavor too and usually in my juniper beers branches include some berries. The recipe below is an exception. Just for a change, I brewed the recipe mostly without berries.
Remember, branches with berries will add more flavor. In any case, you need to adjust the recipe for your branches because the flavor quality and intensity depend on your branches and the infusion process.
Measuring or evaluating the amount of juniper branches is never exact. In Voss Bryggeri juniper branches are measured by weight and they use 40 kg branches for 1400 liters of vossaøl. Dag is willing to accept the variation that comes from the varying moisture of fresh branches. Ivar just fills his 200-liter kettle with branches to brew 150 liters of vossaøl.
Historical Brewing Technique recommends using a ten-liter bucket of branches for a 25-liter batch. The volume should be measured without compression and that corresponds roughly to 0.25–0.3 kg. This gives an obvious but not intense flavor that I aim for in my vossaøl.
Authentic heimabrygg requires juniper branches but if you have difficulties sourcing them, you can still brew outstanding beer with these techniques. Leaving out juniper will give you a great beer. Don’t be afraid of this simple but tasty option. You can add juniper berries late in the boil (starting with 30 grams per 20-liter batch) although the flavor of berries doesn’t fully match the flavor of branches. You can also brew with alder or other woods with a technique described below. Just don’t call your beer heimabrygg or vossaøl when the beer is not brewed with juniper branches.
Brewing with Alder
According to Ivar A. Geithung, adding small alder logs to the juniper infusion used to a common tradition in the Voss area. These logs were layered along with juniper branches to the bottom of the lauter tun as a filter. Infusing the logs not only cleans them but also adds flavor and color.
Today, adding alder to the juniper infusion isn’t commonplace although brewers may still use alder sticks in the lauter tun. Ivar keeps up the tradition and adds ten small alder logs into his juniper infusion (150-liter batch). He said that alder adds a raw barrel flavor to his vossaøl.
As of 2020, I haven’t used alder infusion in my home brewery but I’m intrigued by the idea.
Heimabrygg is typically fermented with kveik and that is an important element of the flavor profile. In addition to a wide variety of fruity flavors, kveiks of Voss add an intriguing umami taste (something like mushrooms and soya sauce) that add depth and complexity to heimabrygg. Sigmund’s kveik is the best known but several other good kveiks have been found from the heimabrygg districts.
Voss Bryggeri uses a strain originally isolated from Rivenes kveik. This kveik adds more umami flavors but less citrus fruits than Sigmund’s kveik.
This kveik has been harvested and repitched for years at the brewery. Dag has noticed that the kveik slurry needs to rest between the harvest and the next pitch. Otherwise, the kveik begins to change and ferment the beer dryer.
Ivar A. Geithung was able to revive an old kveik from an old wooden cask found from his farmhouse. This kveik gives cherry stone flavor and even more umami than Rivenes. This kveik is now being analyzed in a laboratory to find out whether it is related to previously found kveiks or a completely new culture.
The fermentation practices of heimabrygg are similar to what I have described in my Practical Guide to Kveik and Other Farmhouse Yeast. Warm fermentations at or above body temperatures are typical in Voss.
My impression is that Voss brewers are moderate in kveik pitch rates. In my limited experience, they pitch less than brewer’s yeast guidelines suggest but avoid the extremely tiny pitches, such as one gram of dried flakes or one teaspoon of slurry per 25 liters. Ivar likes his vossaøl best when he pitches around ten tablespoons of dried kveik or one liter of slurry for 150 liters of beer. I wish I had more data to back this up.
Other Finer Brewing Details
Some details of heimabrygg mashing and wort boiling are somewhat unconventional for modern brewers. However, modernizing even some seemingly minor brewing details may remove some of the rustic and praised heimabrygg flavors. Therefore, I have been diligent about the following brewing details although I’m not sure if they make a difference.
Voss brewers typically mash for three hours or more. In the recipe below I have respected this tradition and mashed fairly similarly to Sigmund Gjernes, as described in Historical Brewing Techniques or Brewing with kveik.
Traditional lauter tuns usually have a juniper branch filter on the bottom. Ivar A. Geithung uses the branches that have already been in the infusion and I suspect that many heimabrygg brewers are doing the same. Therefore, this juniper branch filter probably doesn’t add much flavor and I have omitted the branches from my lauter tun. Anyway, juniper infusion gives enough flavor for my taste.
I asked from Ivar if the traditional brewers try to remove the trub (protein and hop debris) after the boil. He said: “no, just dump it all into fermenter”. During boiling Sigmund Gjernes scoops off scum (removing the headache, as Sigmund calls it) from the wort surface. This removes some proteins but may also remove other compounds (juniper resins?). So, when brewing vossaøl, I remove the headache but I don’t remove the trub, contrary to my standard boiled wort beers.
The following vossaøl recipe is refined for my own palate but remains true to the tradition. This recipe is fairly close to Sigmund Gjernes’ and Ivar Geithung’s recipes presented in Historical Brewing Techniques.
This recipe relies on a typical vossaøl the grain to volume ratio, three liters per one kilogram of malt. This produces a strong but drinkable ale. Perhaps someday I’ll brew a barley wine strength version by just boiling longer. So far I have fermented this øl with Sigmund’s kveik (original culture) using three grams of dried flakes per twenty liters, and I’m pleased with the flavor.
Heimabrygg makes an extremely long brew day and that is part of the tradition too. Start early, invite friends and provide good beer & food!
Brewing Nordic Vossaøl for 20 Liters:
Original gravity: 1.082 (19.8°P)
Final gravity: 1.017 (4.3°P)
Alcohol by volume: 8.5 %
5.7 kg Pilsner malt
1.0 kg Munich malt
Around 50–70 g of low-alpha hops (adjust for 25 IBU)
8 liters (around 200 g) of juniper branches, measured without compressing
Kveik (preferably from Voss)
Let’s figure out the volumes first. I aim to boil off 30 %, and at the end of the boil, I should have 20 liters of wort. Therefore, the wort volume before the boil should be 20/0.7 = 28.6 liters. All mash and sparge liquor will be juniper infusion. Therefore, the amount of juniper infusion is pre-boil volume plus the liquid retained by the spent mash. In my home brewery, one kilogram of malt retains one liter of water. Hence, I need 28.6 + 6.7 = 35.3 liters of juniper infusion.
If you have a big enough vessel, you can just mix branches and water and heat the whole infusion volume to 80°C. Keep the infusion at 70–90°C for three hours.
I find it easier to make the infusion in two steps, first for mashing and then for sparging. The first infusion includes all the branches and enough liquor for mashing. After mashing in, I add more water to make the infusion for sparging. The first infusion can be prepared in an hour or two because the branches will remain to be infused during the whole mash.
Heat the infusion to 75–80°C so that you can arrive at the mash temperature of 69°C. Start pouring the infusion over the grist and mix half of the hops to the mash. Keep adding the infusion until you have a thin mash at 69°C. Save the rest of the infusion for sparging. I normally use ⅔ of the infusion for mash and ⅓ for sparging. Let the mash rest for three hours. The mash temperature can drop but keep it above 50°C.
Begin lautering, and recirculate until the wort runs clear. Sparge with juniper infusion until the pre-boil volume is collected. Add the rest of the hops to the wort and boil for 2–4 hours, until you have reduced the wort to your batch size. Scoop off the headache a few times during the boil. If you need wort to wake the kveik, pull out some from the kettle when the wort has been heated above 80°C.
Chill the wort to fermentation temperature, and dump all the wort into the fermenter. Add kveik along with a loud yeast scream or spell. Ferment warm until complete and then cool the ale. Bottle or keg with low carbonation similar to cask-conditioned ale.
November 13, 2020: Added link to Claire Bullen’s story The Land of Fire and Kveik.