16 Feb 2009

Corporate Vikings

So far, most of the Norwegian beers I tasted were of the craft type, some of which I liked a lot. However, as it happens everywhere else, they aren't the beers most people drink.

The Norwegian law that regulates the sale of alcoholic drinks seems to be tailor made for the macros. Only beers with a maximum ABV of 4,75% can be sold at shops and supermarkets, the rest (together with wines and spirits) can only be found at the bottle shops owned by the state. There are also restrictions on when beers can be purchased, and taxes on alcoholic drinks are incredibly high. All this, together with the considerable distances in Norway, put a lof of obstacles to craft brewers. It isn't strange, then, that the market is dominated by a couple of brewing concerns, and we all know what that means.

My friend (and also fellow beer blogger) Kristian brought me five samples of industrial beers from his native country. One from Ringnes and the rest from Hansa, his local macro.

Needless to say, my expectations weren't too high when I started with the two Pils, the one from Ringnes and Hansa's.
I'm going to save you (and myself) time and will transcribe my tasting notes as if I was talking about one beer. Pale gold with rather excessive carbonation, short life head. Not much of a nose, with a slightly metallic note (though that could have been from the can). Body lighter than an anorexic ballerina. Bordering the insipid, boring, with a bit of malt by the end. The only difference is that Hansa Pils is a bit more bitter, like someone, more by mistake than design, added a few more hops pelets in the boil.
I was already prepared for a parade of corporate uniformity when I opened Hansa Bayer. Pours coppery, less carbonation, more head. The difference is not only to the eye, but also to the nose, mild caramel notes with something dry in the back, like dried herbs. Some more body (the ballerina was put on a highly calloric diet). Caramel is the most assertive bit on the palate, with some fruity undertones. The finish is dry, but the caramel is always there. I have to admit that I enjoyed this one. I tasted like a bit of a watery version of a good Czech polotmavé.
Since we still were near Christmas, there had to be a seasonal beer. Hansa Jule Øl. Like the rest, with 4,75%ABV (in fact there are several breweries in Norway that brew two beers for Christmas, one to be sold at shops, the other, stronger, for the state monopoly). A tad darker than Bayer, less aromatic. It also tastes a bit like Bayer, though more boring and less well balanced. To make a Christmas analogy, it was like a gift you buy for that relative you don't care too much about, but you still have to get them something. At least the do brew something special for Christmas, unlike some Czech breweries that only put a seasonal label on one of their regular production beers.
I left Hansa Pale Ale for the end. It was the one I was the most curious about. An ale among all this macrolager, and a craft one at that. Kristian told me that Hansa runs a microbrewery where new recipes are tried, those that turn out to be popular, are brewed on a regular basis. I think Pale Ale is one of them, but it does have that family resemblance. Pours light amber, bronze. Not much of a nose there, a bit dry, some fruit. Watery, boring, mild caramel in the finish. Terribly weak.
Not very memorable beers any of them. If I was in Norway, I would choose Bayer, but not with a lot of enthusiasm. The rest are archetypically macroindustrial, even the "craft" one. I'm glad for the Norwegian beer lovers that they have a far more interesting, albeit limited, choice among the real craft breweries.

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5 comments:

  1. just a note:
    The upside of state monopoly is, if i can draw conclusion from similar one here in Finland, that the beer that makes it to the market is available country-wide.
    Svijany can be bought easily in its region, maybe in Praha, but what about say Pisek or Prostejov? In Finland you would call your nearest Alko and ordered two bottles of that and three of that and pick them up on the day of delivery.

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  2. rbrt,

    That is an interesting point you make! So, provided they gran equal access rights to all brewers, that state monopoly is not such a bad thing after all. Certainly better than the supermarket chains if you look at it from that side.

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  3. No wonder so many scandinavians enjoying going to Prague:) I loved your review and as a norwegian citizen I must agree with you that the most interesting beers comes from microbreweries, but those microbreweries produce ales and not lagers. It seems for me that they think that to be more profitable for some reason. Thats to bad though. We need better lagers up here.

    pingrid

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  4. I once discussed that issue with a microbrewer from Argentina. He told me that most micros brew ales for a couple of reasons: 1- They brewed ales at home and when they decided to go commercial, they, of course, continued doing what they knew. 2- Ale brewing is cheaper, many ales don't need one month of lagering and the brewing can be done at room temperature.
    I also believe that in the minds of many consumers, Ales are a guarantee of something different. Lagers, on the other hand carry the bad image of the macros.

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  5. Thanks for commenting on the Norwegian beers I brought along to Prague in December.

    Hansa is my hometown beer. This is the lager that I have been drinking through my adult life. It is not the best beer in the world, but to me it is OK. If I visit a Norwegian shop, I would prefer it to Ringnes or beers brewed on licence in Norway such as Tuborg, Carlsberg and Heineken.

    Most beers sold in Norway are lagers, but it is possible to find gems here and there. Lately I have been drinking some British ales. Spitfire is easy to get by, and there are many tasty bitters to be found. At Vinmonopolet (our stately alcohol outlet) I buy wheat beers and craft beers. But they are expensive over here. For a bottle of a beer from the Norwegian cult brewer Nøgne Ø I must pay over 60 NOK. These days this is about 6 GBP or just below 7 Euros.

    But I envy you and your Czech lagers. The Kout na Sumave lezak you introuced me to in December is for me the ultimate in lagers, and I hope to be soon back in Prague to try it again.

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