Just when you think there is nothing new under the beer sun, somebody kicks open a dusty barn door and finds a trove of historical obscurity just begging for research and reinvention. That may be happening in Northern Europe, if the work of Lars Marius Garshol is any indication. A fiercely intelligent techie from Norway, Garshol’s obsession is studying the mostly forgotten farmhouse brewing traditions of the Baltic and Nordic countries.
You’ve probably heard of sahti. You might have heard of gotlandsdricka. Fine. What about kveik? And what’s “raw ale”?
One way to think about these beers is in this context: It should be obvious that farmhouse brewing—common sense shouts at us, if we bother to listen—was never unique to Belgium and France, which heretofore have inspired most American farmhouse beers.
“If the craft beer world could comprehend that sahti and gotlandsdricka are merely the best-known members of a huge family of beers that would be the first step,” Garshol said. “The second step would be to realize that the entire world of brewing that people know today is a monoculture based on industrial practices as taught in brewing schools based on scientific research and economic requirements. Apart from a few oddities in some Belgian and British breweries, the entire world of modern brewing is pretty much identical everywhere.
“The farmhouse world is a completely different place, where people proceeded by trial and failure, and where the drivers were totally different. The result is an amazing, almost incomprehensible, variety of methods. And these methods are in turn connected with raw materials, equipment, methods of dispense, et cetera et cetera, all of which were totally different from anything we know today.”
Despite plenty of variety, Garshol has found plenty of broad similarities, such as the prevalence of what he calls “raw beer.” In short, the wort isn’t boiled before fermentation—or if it is boiled, only for a few minutes. Another common technique is the use of hop tea, in which the hops are boiled in water, instead of the wort, then added to the fermenters.
“If you’ve ever been in a Norwegian farmhouse brewery you’d find yourself pretty well at home in a Latvian one,” Garshol said. “So the farmhouse tradition is essentially this huge alternate or parallel tradition living beside the commercial/craft tradition. Norwegian farmhouse breweries are much more similar to Latvian farmhouse breweries than they are to Norwegian craft breweries.”
These home breweries also tend to have a family yeast culture shared among neighbors and over generations—that would be the kveik, in Norwegian. Its characteristics vary, but it can produce a variety fruity or spicy aromas of varying complexity. And it must be said, the aromas and flavors are not always pleasant—this is a home-brewing tradition, after all, sometimes falling well short of commercial standards or consistency.
Lately Garshol has been spending more time writing books on this theme, encouraged by the curiosity of others. Last year he self-published Lithuanian Beer: A rough guide—a book on the traditional beers, breweries and pubs of that country. (Watch future pages on DRAFT for more on that topic.) Currently Garshol is writing a book on traditional Norwegian brewing—in Norwegian, but he may eventually translate it into English.
“I’ve been totally fascinated myself, from the moment I stuck my nose through the door,” he said. “This subject just sucked me in, and would not let go. It’s taken years, but now I finally feel like I’m beginning to get somewhere.”