Dark magic from the land of the night

Jonny Garrett explores the Baltic nations’ long-standing love affair with rich, dark beers


When I think of Norway’s main exports I think of two things that, if you were presented with a glass of each, would be difficult to tell apart by sight. 

One is crude oil, that thick sludge created through a combination of time, heat and pressure. The other is Imperial Stout, that thick sludge created through a combination of time, heat and, if not atmospheric pressure, then societal pressure. 

It only takes a glance at the top rated Norwegian beers on Untappd to see that Imperial Stout is an obsession for the country’s beer geeks. Forty of the top 50 beers fall under the style, and most of them are the kind of Imperial Stout that pours like oil and burns pleasingly on the way down. 

Many of those beers come from one legendary brewery, Stavanger’s Lervig. Imperial Stouts are what the brewery is best known for, and their huge barrel store is loaded with variations from the world-renowned Konrad Stout – all liquorice, brown sugar and toast – to the spicy vanilla pudding that is Three Bean Stout. All together Lervig now makes around 80,000 litres of imperial stout a year, of which around half ends up in barrels.

“The Norwegian flavour palate is quite tame, but when it comes to imperial stouts they don’t hold back,” he says. “It’s not most of what we make, but it’s most of what people talk about.”

Murphy is American but has been brewing in the region for decades. During that time he’s had a hand in the conception of many styles and famous beers, but says the culture of loving Imperial Stout was here long before he was, and even “before beer geeks existed”. 

The Norwegian flavour palate is quite tame, but when it comes to imperial stouts they don’t hold back.

But Norway is far from alone in its obsession with Imperial Stout in the far north-east of Europe. Murphy recalls meeting Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, who went on to found Evil Twin, at a beer shop in Denmark just weeks after he moved from Italy. Jarnit-Bjergsø presented him with Thisted Bryghus’s deep, smokey Limfjords porter and told him “This is what we live on, everything else is Pilsner”.

Murphy says that Sweden’s Närke Kulturbryggeri, run by brewing pioneer Håge Viktorsson, was also a revelation to him and the “holy grail” for stout nerds. Viktorsson’s Stormaktsporter, brewed with heather honey and aged in barrel for several years, inspired hundreds of rich and dark beers, as well as the use of less usual ingredients. Meanwhile, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all have a history of producing Imperial Stout’s nearest cousin, the Baltic Porter. In the countries where night can last nearly the whole day, dark beer is big business.

“During the height of winter it’s common that you’ll go to work and come home without seeing a shred of daylight!” says Chris Pilkington, head brewer at Tallinn’s Põhjala Brewery. “It’s very natural that a rich, sweet dark beer will become a go to beer throughout the season – it sustains you and keeps you warm.”

PHOTO: Flickr/Bernt Rostad (CC BY 2.0)

If that makes it sound like everyone above 55 degrees north turns alcoholic every winter, Pilkington also notes that pours are smaller in bars throughout Scandinavia and the Baltics. A “pint” in most countries is just 400ml, while 250ml – a large glass of wine here in the UK – is also a standard pour. Normalising these more sippable sizes means that trying a few different imperial stouts in a night won’t entirely ruin your morning.

It is, of course, worth considering the actual flavour of these beers, too. In a part of the world where the fire is probably always going to be lit, smoky flavours will feel more fitting. If there’s no fire and the central heating is simply cranked to sauna levels, these beers also taste pretty great warm thanks to the richer malt body, sweetness and higher alcohol. Those boozy beers could hardly be a juicy Triple IPA – the cognitive dissonance of the tropical aroma might be a bit much when you haven’t seen the sun for a month. They could, however, easily be barley wines or Belgian Quads. So to understand why Imperial Stout, with its roasted coffee, dark chocolate, red berries and brown sugar, has come to be the tipple of choice we need to go back around two centuries.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, British brewers did a roaring trade of big, dark beers through the Baltic sea. Much of it was Imperial Stout bound for the upper classes in Russia, but they were sending other beers to locations on the way too, including strong Porter beers known as Double Brown Stouts. According to beer historian Martyn Cornell, these beers were widely available in Poland and fetched a serious premium – a quart (around 1.1 litres) of British Porter was often nearly the same price as a whole barrel of local beer. 

In a part of the world where the fire is probably always going to be lit, smoky flavours will feel more fitting.

Unfortunately, Poland was part of the Prussian Empire and when relations between Prussian and Britain soured, the exports were banned. Seizing the opportunity, Polish breweries started making their own versions. What resulted was a sudden explosion of local brewers making strong, dark Porters. Many were directly inspired by the British brown beers, and were effectively a lower alcohol take on the Imperial Stouts that once went sailing past. Some, however, used lager yeasts and lager temperatures to make a slightly crisper beer – a style that (nearly two centuries later) became known as Baltic Porter. These beers were extremely popular in Poland, even when British Porter imports struck up again a few decades later. Despite sitting at a challenging 7% or higher, the style has the benefit of being a little cleaner and lighter than big Porters and Imperial Stouts. They became even more prevalent as pale lager grew in popularity and brewers were increasingly adept at dealing with these cold-loving yeasts.

The sun eventually set on all those beers, though. Pale lager’s rise was irresistible throughout the 20th century, and Baltic Porters became a local curiosity until the craft beer revolution led to a resurgence of the style throughout the Baltic nations. Perhaps it was fuelled by the desire to show off their native style and brewing heritage, or perhaps the idea behind it never quite dissipated – just the market for selling them.

But it was another local innovation that really got local breweries and drinkers excited about big, dark beers. The term “Pastry Stout” was still a decade away, but the concept was alive and well with the experimental contract brewers of Scandinavia. In 2007 Mikkeller released the now seminal Beer Geek Brunch, a dry and roasty imperial stout giving a serious kick and aromatic liquorice quality from a massive dose of French Press coffee. The beer was voted best in the world in 2006, and put Danish beer almost single handedly on the global brewing map. It has since spawned tens of variations that track the progress of adjunct imperial stouts through the following 15 years – first vanilla, then bourbon barrels, followed by lactose, before a descent into chocolate, waffles and other delicious nonsense. The brewery that truly sent Pastry brewing mainstream, though, hales from Sweden. 

PHOTO: Flickr/Morton F (CC BY 2.0)

Omnipollo is the brainchild of avid homebrewer Henok Fentie and artist Karl Grandin. Together they have blurred pretty much every line there is in beer – the ones between brewing and art, objects and culture, beer and dessert. Their instagram is a wall of ALL CAPS beer names, beautiful graphic images and beers topped with slushies, ice cream, sprinkles and biscuits. But underneath the playful toppings always lies a good base beer and an understanding that it’s the memories of a moment that last, rather than the beer itself. That has inspired Omnipollo – and other Swedish brewers such as Gothenburg’s Dugges – to push for bigger flavours and stranger combinations. The price of beer, which is famously high across Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and the fact that the amount of alcohol tax isn’t attached to the ABV of the beer in question also encourages brewers to turn the numbers on the dial to the max.

“The willingness to pay for something that is truly expressive is here,” Fentie adds. “As a result Scandinavian brewers, cheered on by the Scandinavian consumers, have continued pushing the flavour threshold using not only hops, yeast, malt and water.” 

With such a rich heritage and so many modern innovators, the variety of dark beer available around the Baltic Sea is staggering. Porter was the fuel behind a brewing revolution in this part of the world, and its imperial cousin continues to fan the flames of excitement in the beer geek scene. It surely can’t be a coincidence that the Norwegian and Swedish word for beer is öl – pronounced extremely close to oil.

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