Kjetil Dale and friends brew vossaøl as part of the Norsk Kornølfestival 2020

Part 3 in a series covering the brewing of farmhouse ale during the Norsk Kornølfestival 2020.

Session 1: https://youtu.be/eTDX6fds7EU
Session 2: https://youtu.be/LNIbYj_J2QI

From sunup to sundown, just about, the brewing world was treated to a special event Saturday, October 10th: the Norsk Kornølfestival 2020. First happening in 2016, the festival quickly grew a fine reputation for the place to be for anyone interested in farmhouse brewing and the phenomenon of raw ales. In 2020, instead of canceling, the festival went virtual and for a whopping 12 hours anyone interested could follow the brewing of three different styles of farmhouse beer at three different farmhouse locations.

 Lars Marius Garshol, of Larsblog fame, and Amund Polden Arnesen, brewer at Eik & Tid, hosted the slow-TV festival. When brewing activity would be minimal, viewers were treated to several talks: Mohammed Tawfeeq, from University of Leuven, talked about Traditional Beers as a Source of New Yeast Biodiversity, Mika Laitinen demonstrated the brewing of Finnish bread/beer taari and Martin Thibault looked Beyond Kveik at 3 Unexplored Hotspots for Heirloom Brewing Yeasts.

During the 12 hours, three farmhouse ales were brewed using three slightly different processes. Hornindal brewed a raw ale, Stjørdal a 1-hour boil ale, and Voss brewed a 4-hour boil ale. Each group of brewers did things in a slightly different way: as they said themselves, where you have 50 brewers, you will find 50 different methods, and each brewer thinks their beer is the best!

In a way, farmhouse brewers do use different house recipes for different live events. But the ingredients and process of traditional farmhouse brewing does not leave all that much room for large changes. The hops are grown by the house, the yeast is house yeast and many would use their own malt kiln to produce their malt. One could change strength – brew low ABV (alcohol by volume) for summer and high ABV for Christmas, or perhaps use sweet gale for childbirth – but with the single brew process there is not much room for each brewer then to brew their own unique type of (farm) house beer.

I spent a wonderful Saturday glued to the TV watching these different brewers chat about beer, while taking copious notes to fine-tune my own open-air medieval brewing demos. The videos of the live festival are by now released on YouTube and to make navigating the two 6-hour videos a little less daunting, I will annotate each brew, step by step, as they appear in the videos (the times listed can be plus or minus a few seconds). Third up is vossaøl by the brewing team at Voss.

Brew #3: vossaøl

The third brew is demonstrated by Dag Jørgensen, a professional brewer at Voss Bryggeri, and Kjetil Dale, farmhouse brewer and owner of the old brewhouse. They are assisted by Ivar Geithung, farmhouse brewer, Ivar Husdal, farmhouse brewer, Sigmund Gjernes, and Atle Ove Martinussen, of Western Norway Cultural Academy and responsible for the UNESCO application to give kveik world heritage status. Vossaøl is often grouped with the beers in the style called “heimabrygg,” which literally means homebrew. The beer is quite different from the beers from Hornindal and Stjørdal as the brewers will use a long mash and a very long 4-hour caramelizing boil. The process demonstrated at the festival can be found described in detail, and with a recipe, as “Sigmund Gjernes’s Vossaøl” in Lars Marius Garshol’s book Historical Brewing Techniques on page 311.

Kjetil’s brewhouse is a fantastic timber frame structure with a Viking-style slate flanked raised hearth in the middle of the room. The large copper brew kettle hangs suspended off chains from a large beam resting on the ceiling rafters. This beam actually is loose, to my surprise, and the brewers can lift it up to slide along to rafters to maneuver the kettle closer or further away from the wood fire.

Adding juniper tips to the kettle.

50:29 – 56:23 (indicating the minutes:seconds in the video)

Kjetil and Dag start the brewing day with making the juniper infusion. Their kettle holds about 150 liters and they add about 3-4 kilos of juniper sprigs to this (it looks to be the volume of about a 5-gallon bucket). They prefer the tips of the plants, the shoots, not the barked twigs. This infusion is used throughout the brewing process as a cleaning antiseptic medium plus it also gives a nice acid and a spicy taste. And as an antiseptic it gives preservative qualities to the brew and they don’t actually need to use hops. Plus, it acts as the sieve during lautering – a more versatile brewing ingredient you won’t easily find!

They infuse the juniper tips at temperatures of 75-80C, not too hot as otherwise you get different flavors. Other brewers use thicker branches and hotter water and get different flavors. This is reminiscent to the difference in taste between steeping black tea and boiling black tea, and no-one likes boiled tea. Ivar Geithung, who is wearing an (urban) 18th century eastern Norwegian costume, says of making the juniper infusion that “it smells like the forest; we are boiling the forest!”  The infusion is steeped for an hour after which the brewers would start mashing in. They both agree that “Now it is time for a little beer. Just a little. We have to always make sure to stay awake at the end! That is important [laughing].” The brewing of vossaøl is a marathon, not a sprint: the process takes up to 12 hours, plus or minus 2 hours, from beginning to end.

A sample of the slate used to line the bottom of the mash tun.

1:37:05 – 2:00:51

At this point the brewers get ready to prepare the mash tun for mashing. The mash tun is a blue plastic barrel, similar as those used by Hornindal. It has a spigot at the bottom and is placed off the floor on top of a bench to leave room for a bucket to drain into. To prepare the mash tun, they move the already used juniper branches (reusing these instead of fresh minimizes the juniper flavor) from the kettle to the bottom to create a filter, and lay flat rocks on top to weigh them down. The wet juniper branches are lifted out of the kettle using heat-resistant gloves: “if you are a true Norwegian, you would just use your hands!” at which his fellow brewers all start laughing “no, no, never!” The flat rocks used are slates, normally used on the top of roofs (but thicker than the roofing slates I’ve seen in the US). Then they add a couple of buckets of juniper infusion to the mash tun to preheating it, the sample shown looks a bit like apple juice, and then it is time to add malt and infusion in succession.

The hot infusion water is transferred from the copper kettle to the tun with a stainless-steel bucket. The mash paddle used to stir the mash looks a bit like a boat paddle, but crooked – presumably carved from a juniper branch.  They use a pale malt, and, like with the other brewers, alternate the adding of the malt and water to help mix and dissolve the dry goods better to prevent clumping. This does not seem to be measured; they fill the mash barrel to the consistency that the mash paddle can stand up (reminiscent of Hornindal). We can hear the mash paddle scrape over the stone floor, indicating how well this seemingly simple addition works to keep the gnarly branch filter in place.

The mash takes no less than 1 ½ hours, on average 2 – 2 ½ hours but sometimes up to 4 hours – this differs from farm to farm. The plastic barrel mash tun is insulated with a fiberglass blanket which is wrapped around it, and is topped off with a towel. Voss uses the longest thermometer I have ever seen, at least a meter long, that can reach all the way to the bottom of the mash tun! The mash water (the infusion) was at 80-85C, the mash itself measures at 67.6C.

In the past they would not measure temperature, they’d stick in their finger; they would not measure the sugar, but taste it. The brewer’s reminiscence they did not depend on instruments but on their senses. As the two explain: “It’s kind of a different feeling, brewing in this traditional way and the micro-brew we do nowadays.” “It’s two different worlds.” “I have two kinds of mindsets when I do this. The modern brewing, I do in the kitchen, I measure, I have a formula, stuff like that, and I am kind of rigid. Here, I use my feelings, my experience. Two different kinds of thinking about brewing.” “When you are micro-brewing, it is important to know, it is smaller scale, and if you want to make these new modern beers you have to take measurements, to verify, to be able to make the same beer again and again. This is slightly different, from time to time, sometimes you can get it pretty much like last time …” “But it is not industrial, this is more like a feeling; how did my grandfather do it, how did my father do it.”

Both brewers then lament that neither know for sure how their grandfathers did brew, as they both come from families which had two generations without brewers. “We kind of have to start from the beginning.” They are happy to find that in Voss there are plenty of farmhouse brewers willing to share their experiences. But quickly ran into the age-old issue: “they don’t have the same answers! You have to pick one, and figure out your own way of doing it. But that is part of the fun about it: every brewer, they think they are making the best-ever beer!”

Heating the water for sparging.

3:59:49 – 4:11:47

The sparging water in the copper kettle has a blanket of steam flowing on top. As they will need the kettle for boiling the wort, and it is still full, they will lauter – drain the wort from the mash tun – into plastic buckets first. While the wort is draining, the hot water is sparged on top of the mash tun’s grain bed to help leach as much of the sugars out as possible. Voss also circulates the first run-off back onto the grain bed to have less particulates which aids clarity. The brewers remark “looks like the juniper filter worked well this time; it’s very clear.” The wort is yellow and almost clear, like a Hoegaarden, and it is commented it tastes very sweet. When the kettle is empty, the wort is put back in and heated for the boil. The brewers estimate they will lose about 50 liters in the boil.

1:23:45 [session 2]

The wort is at 85.4C and is approaching protein break. We can clearly see foam on top of the wort as the kettle is pretty full. To while away the time, Ivar Geithung performs some songs on his mouth harp.

Ivar Geithung performs on his mouth harp.

1:44:54 – 1:50:57

They put a handful of hops in the wort, and the wort is starting to approach the boil. They are looking at a 4-hour cooking time, and realize they perhaps will have to cut it a little short to fit the schedule of the festival, but are confident it should still be well-reduced and well-caramelized.

Lars Marius has a question for the brewers and asks why the Voss brewers used these very long boils? Of course, it is for reduction – the reduction raises the sweetness, the sugars, and thus the alcohol. They will have less volume of beer, but a higher alcohol content and thus a higher quality beer – just as in the Saga’s. If the other person does not stagger away in drunkenness after drinking your ale, then you did not do it right! Another reason, and one we’ve heard before, is that wheat beer malt did not modify very well and resulted in a lower gravity, less sugars in solution, as generally wanted. The brewers also know of another region close by which doesn’t boil for more than an hour, hour and a half, but it was said that was because they did not have as much wood to burn.

Adding hop flowers to the boiling wort.

3:47:26 – 4:08:58

Voss is still boiling, and they sprinkle some more hop flowers, grown on the farm, in the wort.

Atle Ove Martinussen, of Western Norway Cultural Academy, talks about the UNESCO application to give kveik world heritage status.

4:53:35 – 5:03:04

With only an hour to go in the festival – by now we are quite literally at the eleventh hour! – Voss is ready to start cooling the wort. Two of the brewers manually maneuver the beam from which the kettle hangs sideways away from the open fire. A wort chiller is plunged into the wort in the kettle, and gently maneuvered up and down for maximum cooling effect. The hot water from the wort chiller is used to clean the fermenting buckets, with added industrial disinfectant (an acid, I presume similar to Star-San). The fermenters are standard plastic buckets.

The kveik slurry safely stored in a glass jar.

5:17:58 – 5:46:38 (with some sound issues)

Voss is finished with cooling the wort and disinfecting the fermentation buckets. They have about 110 liters left after the boil, which are drained into the fermentation buckets with a piece of hose, and estimates that after bottling they will have about 80 liters. “And how much after [ub skokkur]?!” “5 liters!!!” [much laughing] The yeast is kept as a slurry in a rubber-ring jar. He takes it from the bottom and stores it in the cellar with its stone walls and earth temperatures, he’s had it for several brews. He pitches the whole jar in the three buckets – he does not think kveik can be over-pitched: it’s kveik!

Lars Marius Garshol: “Is it customary to do the kveiking here in Voss?” “No… we never do that in Voss…” [giggles all around] Brewer: “We don’t do it every time, but sometimes we do it, in secret, if we are alone: then we may scream some black metal tunes into the beer! [laughing] Makes the beer extra good, and evil!” Another: “And that is the purpose of the beer!”

5:43:08 Black Metal yeast scream!

Can you make out what he tells the kveik?

I hope you will enjoy this story and their video as much as I did, and that you too will be inspired to brew a traditional Farmhouse ale to feed your kveik. As I cannot think of better words to leave you with, I will give the last word to the brewers at Voss:

“I hope you all have enjoyed this stream tonight all over the world and I would say it was a pleasure to be here with you today so I hope to see you soon! Come on, Ivar, play on with your tunes!”

To brew vossaøl

Equipment:

  • Open hearth with wood fire
  • Copper kettle
  • Plastic barrel mash tun, wrapped with fiberglass insulation
  • Flat stones
  • Stainless-steel bucket
  • Thermometer (extra-long)
  • Mash paddle, juniper
  • Wort chiller
  • 5 and 10-gallon fermenting buckets

Ingredients:

  • Pale malt
  • Juniper, homegrown
  • Hops, homegrown

Process:

  • The brewers start by heating a juniper infusion at 75-80C in the copper kettle for one hour.
  • After the hour, the mash tun is prepared by layering the wet (pasteurized) juniper around the spigot at the bottom, flattened and kept in place by flat stones.
  • Several buckets of hot infusion are poured into the mash tun to heat it up. Then the grist, the coarsely ground malt, is added, followed by more infusion, more grist, etc, until the mash tun is filled up.
  • The mash is at 67C, the mash tun well insulated, and will rest for 1 ½ to 2 hours.
  • Water for sparging is heated (I did not see them put juniper in this).
  • The fermenting buckets are cleaned and used to temporarily store the wort.
  • The wort is drained into buckets, the mash sparged with water from the kettle, and the kettle is emptied (I do not know for sure if they used all the water, or dumped any left-overs).
  • When the kettle is empty, the wort is put in and together with three handfuls of hops brought back to a boil.
  • The boil takes 4 hours, about halfway through another handful of hop flowers is added.
  • When the wort is done boiling, reducing, it is cooled with a wort-chiller. The hot water from the outlet of the wort chiller is used to clean the fermenter buckets, combined with a commercial acid rinse.
  • When the wort is cool enough, it is drained by hose into three 5-gallon fermenters.
  • The kveik added is not proofed beforehand; it is the bottom slurry (lees) of the brew he did before, stored cool in a glass jar.
  • Scream! And much drinking of beer.

The introduction of Brew #3: Voss on the festival website:

The YouTube screen grabs are used with permission from the festival organizers.

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