Kveik is the resurrection
It’s an ancient yeast that’s enjoying a real renaissance
Tuesday 29 September 2020
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Norway is a land of myths and legends. Its overdeepened valleys are flanked by the towering, petrified remains of warring troll clans, caught mid-battle by the cresting dawn and turned to stone. A monstrous sea beast terrorises its coastline. There are tales of tribal gods and undead superhumans who can swim through solid rock.
And some of Norway’s creatures, though they may be microscopic, are becoming no less legendary - at least in brewing circles. After clinging to survival for centuries in isolated, mountainous farmsteads, a family of brewing yeast - unique to Western Norway and known collectively as kveik - is enjoying a startling renaissance. Enraptured by its muse, modern craft brewing is breathlessly writing new chapters for a story that had so almost reached an end.
In the last few months alone, leading lights of the UK craft scene including Northern Monk, Duration, Gipsy Hill and North Brew have released beers brewed with kveik strains. They’re a regular feature on Loka Polly’s production schedule, and Manchester’s Beer Nouveau has been experimenting with them since 2017. In July, Yeastie Boys switched its house yeast to kveik. In homebrewing, too, kveik has found devoted converts - on Facebook, groups with thousands of members all over the world share tips and brew day logs, or swap ziploc baggies of dried kveik as though trading rare baseball cards.
Martin Warren, founder of Norfolk’s Poppyland, was the first UK brewer to use kveik in a commercial beer. Back in 2014, Warren had read in a then obscure beer blog - part travelogue, part chronicle of scientific discovery - about some of its unique properties. Kveik could be pitched at crazy high temperatures, went off like a rocket and fermented out in a couple of days. It could be stored, dried, on clean linen or a knurled fist of wood for decades. And - depending on the strain - it threw out ester profiles ranging from milky caramel to crushed citrus zest and Christmas spice.
Poppyland had built a reputation for brewing esoteric and edgy beers. Warren - now retired - handed the reins to new owners in 2019, but started his 300-litre nano brewery in 2012 after years spent hacking homebrew kits with different yeasts, hops and souring bacteria. He turned to traditional European styles for inspiration and in 2015 found himself sat open-mouthed on a train carriage as Norway’s Bergensbanen railway hosted the unfolding geological spectacle of the Scandinavian Mountains.
Warren was heading to the Voss region in search of a Norwegian farmhouse beer called vossaøl, a rich, plummy amber ale made with an infusion of juniper tips, and boiled over an open fire for up to six hours. His voyage followed in the footsteps of Oslo-based software engineer and beer historian Lars Marius Garshol, whose name, blog and books have become synonymous with kveik’s resurrection story. A year earlier, on a road trip which would prove life-changing, Garshol had brewed vossaøl with farmer Sigmund Gjernes, rediscovering in the course of their brew day the kveik culture known now as ‘Sigmund’s Voss’, and catalysing six years of enthralled research.
“I couldn’t get it together to meet up and have a beer with Sigmund,” Warren recalls. “But he very kindly arranged to have a large Coke bottle of his vossaøl to be dropped at my hostel, with a note saying: ‘promise you will drink it all up at once.’ Bearing in mind this was eight or nine per cent, it was quite a tall order - but I did as I was told!”
After an evening on the vossaøl courtesy of another farmhouse brewer, John Nornes, Warren returned to the UK with a pot of his host’s kveik, and used it to brew Poppyland’s ‘Norwegian Farmhouse Ale’, with spruce tips from a garden centre Christmas tree standing in for juniper.
Meanwhile, Garshol was busy cataloguing western Norway’s farmhouse yeasts in what has grown into a database of 64 known kveik. In truth, most are mixed cultures containing several strains of saccharomyces cerevisiae, or brewer’s yeast. Some, including Hornindal and Ebbegarden, bring an added, souring lick of lactobacillus bacteria.
No one can say for sure how long they’ve been around, but Norway’s farmhouse brewing traditions date back to the early 1600s, and kveik would have been passed down from generation to generation, as well as swapped with neighbouring farmsteads. Although the yeast cultures differ from farm to farm, many share defining traits: they survive dry storage well, withstand higher gravity beers, and ferment quickly at temperatures in the mid-to-high thirties, without contributing ‘hot’ fusel alcohols or phenolic off flavours.
Is this an evolutionary nudge, I ask Garshol, caused by a farmhouse brewing tradition of pitching yeast into warm wort?
“What seems to be showing up in scientific research is that wild yeast also has this high temperature tolerance,” he counters. “And the original form of brewing was farmhouse. So it seems like it’s the other way around - that commercial cultures have adapted to the strange way of brewing in modern commercial breweries. It’s not a proven thing, but that’s what it looks like.”
After centuries spent bending yeast to the demands of the modern brewhouse, brewers are now spotting potentially revolutionary boons in using kveik. In fruity pales and IPAs, a strain like Sigmund’s Voss takes a beer with a juice factor of 10 and ramps it up to a Spinal Tap 11. Rapid fermentation with a short lag reduces infection risk and frees up vessels for another batch. High pitch temperatures saves on energy usually used for cooling. Similarly, strains such as Omega Yeast's Lutra Kveik and Bootleg's Oslo Kveik produce crisp, clean lagers without the need for chilled fermentation.
America’s Omega Yeast Labs was quick to cotton on to kveik’s commercial appeal by becoming the first lab to offer kveik to professional and home brewers in 2015 (HotHead Kveik -- #3 Stranda). Escarpment Yeast Lab, with their microbiologist Richard Preiss, has been instrumental in terms of scientific research, and gene-mapping the kveik family tree. They were followed by the likes of White Labs, Lallemand and Maniacal.
Samples of all of Garshol’s discoveries - and more - are stored at the National Collection of Yeast Cultures (NCYC) in Norwich, ironically a little over 20 miles from Martin Warren in Cromer. For £168 and an annual licence fee of £150, labs can buy a culture, propagate and sell it, or isolate and blend individual strains into their own creations.
Philip Woodnut, from Ireland’s WHC, currently stocks six kveik and plans to add another four or five to the stable.
“Customers who’ve been ordering the same yeast month in, month out, for years are suddenly switching to kveik,” he says. “Brewers used to the New England-style yeasts like London 3 or London Fog are ordering Ebbegarden kveik instead. It has the same tropical fruit profile, but ferments a lot faster and you can get high gravity worts done really quickly. It’s great for double and triple IPAs.”
Customers who’ve been ordering the same yeast month in, month out, for years are suddenly switching to kveik
The genie is well and truly out of the bottle, popularised by kveik’s alluring mystique and superstitions like the gjærkauk, or ‘yeast scream’ - yelling into the fermenter before pitching to ward off evil spirits.
Says Garshol: “You have the story about these things surviving kind of hidden in the countryside for who knows how long. That story is one thing that gets people interested in the first place.”
But does it feel strange that these centuries-old family heirlooms have become so commercially valuable? Garshol is in two minds as he explains that without commercial interest, without people using kveik, it was on course for extinction.
“When we started, I was thinking that if we don’t do anything this is going to die out, it’s going to disappear, and that the only way to preserve it was to get people to use it,” he says. “Which probably was right, but it also meant that absolutely no precautions of any kind were taken. If someone wanted the yeast, I would send it to them.
“It feels a little odd that the labs make money from the yeast, although you could say it’s not strictly speaking the yeast - I mean, I have the yeast, I could sell it, theoretically. But I would need laboratory methods and government approval and all the rest, and I’m just not going to do that.”
Garshol now asks farmers to sign waivers detailing the permitted uses for their yeasts - for research, for homebrewers, or for commercial purposes. “Some people only tick the research box,” he admits. “Some strains aren’t available commercially.”
Yeastie Boys’ Stu McKinlay - now brewing out of Exeter’s Utopian - has been using kveik in special releases for two years. We talk just the day after he’s switched to using Sigmund’s Voss across three core beers, and the majority of his one-offs.
“American ale yeasts really showcase the individual components very, very well, but it can take a little while before they come together as a sum that’s better than all the parts,” he says.
“Voss adds a really nice sub-threshold character to the beer where people don’t really notice things jumping out. It almost fills in the little cracks. Our salesman was asking how different it’s going to be and I explained that while our old beers are almost digital in flavour, this is more like vinyl. It’ll have a softer feel across the whole beer.”
Voss adds a really nice character... while our old beers are almost digital in flavour, this is more like vinyl
Kveik’s unique properties appeal to homebrewers, too, with social media posts thrilling at grain-to-glass turnarounds in under a week. There’s also the sense of being part of a brewing frontier, contributing to a cycle of new discovery.
“There’s a practical reason to have these online groups discussing kveik,” says Garshol. “It’s not like brewing with US-05 because no one really knows the full story of how you’re supposed to treat them.”
Homebrew purists revel in using original, farmhouse mixed cultures - bacteria and all - which has given rise to a thriving grey market for kveik on eBay and Facebook. Cultures are often named with just their number from Garshol’s registry - Sigmund’s Voss is number 1, number 9 is Ebbegarden. Four or five pounds buys a baggie of dried kveik flakes that looks more like something scored in a nightclub loo.
And it’s here that Garshol feels most commercial kveik - which usually contain a single, dominant strain - could be missing a trick.
“The problem is that all the professional, scientific work on yeast has been done on single strains. But different strains may actually make different flavours, so with one alone, you don’t get the full spectrum.”
Ex Fyne Ales and Drygate brewer Jake Griffiths is hoping to change that, with a new venture - Landrace Yeasts - which he plans to launch this summer. Working in collaboration with the NCYC, he aims to licence their full collection of kveik cultures, primarily for sale to homebrewers, and invest the profits in kveik research.
In the meantime Garshol - now with two books under his belt - is venturing onwards, his focus shifting to eastern Norway. When we talk, he’s already gathered four new cultures. Number five will be waiting for him at the local train station in a few hours’ time. For Garshol, it’s a race - to preserve some aspects of the old ways by offering them up to the new.
“When I first came back from Voss with this little plastic tube of brown sludge, I was hyper excited, but I didn’t expect it to take off like this,” he says.
“My interest is in traditional brewing methods as well as the yeast, but it takes a special kind of person to be into that. It’s not going to be for everyone, and it seems it’s much easier for people to accept the yeast as a kind of starting point.
“I’m hoping it will be the thin end of the wedge and all the other stuff will follow.”
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