Matthew Curtis finds the fun in brewing’s most fashionable yeast
Saturday 10 April 2021
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Trends in craft brewing come and go like the tide. Is there anybody out there who still cares for Brut IPA? Remember when breweries were obsessed with trying to make beers as tooth enamel-strippingly bitter as possible? How long will we keep chasing ever-stronger and more intense hype double and triple IPAs until we get bored and want something else?
It’s true that some of these occurrences can probably be considered fads, but sometimes something comes along that—although it might appear temporary—in reality could be a game-changer for the entire beer industry.
Enter kveik. Pronounced “kuh-vike” this collective family of yeasts originate from the scattered farmhouse breweries of rural Norway. In fact the word “kveik” itself translates simply as “yeast” in the Norwegian dialect. A direct relation to saccharomyces cerevisiae (that’s brewers yeast to you and I) kveik is fascinating in that it ferments faster, and is more resilient than typical strains. Whereas a typical pitch will ferment at around 20-22˚C, kveik is content at temperatures of up to 40˚C. And the kicker is that—unlike conventional strains—when it does so, it doesn’t throw off unpleasant flavours like acetaldehyde, diacetyl, and fusel alcohols, in the same way. All very desirable things if you’re a brewer.
Kveik is fascinating in that it ferments faster, and is more resilient than typical strains
Despite having long-existed in the villages and townships around rural Norway, kveik’s rise to prominence is actually only very recent. In 2014, Oslo-based software engineer turned beer writer Lars Marius Garshol was enthused to visit the farmhouse breweries of Norway after reading a volume bought for him by his wife about traditional Nordic brewing. Inspired to see brewing techniques of the pre-industrial era up close, he would undertake a trip that would change the course of his life forever.
Largely documenting his travels and findings on his website, Larsblog, and through published works such as Historical Brewing Techniques, Lars became the de facto authority on kveik. Brewers, of both the professional and home variety, lapped up his work and discussed it extensively on brewing forums such as Milk the Funk. I remember being fascinated by his work the first time I read about the yeast rings and stirring sticks (essentially, bits of wood used in Norwegian farmhouse brewing that yeast lived on) that are used to inoculate wort.
The characteristics between kveik’s regional variants, such as Voss, Hornindal, and Granvin was particularly interesting to me—each region’s kveik having something of its own terroir—adding their own distinctive flavours to beer through the esters they produce during fermentation. From strawberry and peach, to orange, clove, and more besides.
Following the explosion in interest in kveik directly due to Lars’ research, commercial yeast labs began to show interest. Eventually these labs, such as the Canada-based Lallemand, began producing commercial strains of kveik, available in a packet you could order direct. The magic now able to be transported directly from the farmhouses of Norway to the modern brewery production floor.
“Beyond the function and performance I think on another level there is interest in kveik because it offers a window and a snapshot into what brewing practices and culture used to be like,” Lallemand’s European sales manager Robert Percival says. “Now largely forgotten and lost to modernity... this is something Lars has really championed and educated us on.”
Robert explains to me how Lallemand first acquired kveik strains from a group of homebrewers in 2017. Describing them as a “wide and complex range of cultures” he says that they obtained no less than 35 different varieties of saccharomyces cerevisiae, along with other “wild” yeast and bacteria present within these cultures.
The first challenge was to screen each strain and see which were suitable for trials before an immense amount of R&D eventually led to the commercial release of the manufacturer’s ‘Voss Kveik’ in February 2020. Robert describes the project as something of a personal passion of his, and says that Lallemand worked closely with Lars, along with other kveik experts and enthusiasts, to do so in a way that was as respectful as possible to its origins.
“The key thing is to be open and collaborative in exchanging [information] and to really understand the world and history from where this all comes; to work with and respect the people and traditions you are ultimately tapping in to,” Robert tells me.
And then breweries started making New England IPA with kveik.
Call me cynical (many do) but after tasting a few of these beers I feel perhaps something has been lost in translation. For starters, I began to see breweries making “kveik IPAs’’ with no hint of irony, somehow deciding kveik was a style and not an ingredient (and just a word for “yeast.”) I also realised I didn’t really get on with several of them, coming across weird flavour combos; clashing the swords of tropical hops against those of the stone fruit and citrus notes created by kveik. I recall trying one IPA that tasted distinctively of strawberry petit filous—right down to a slightly tart, yoghurty finish. It was unpleasant, but I shall spare you the identity of the perpetrator, because they typically make excellent beers, and taste is, after all, subjective.
I also respect that there’s a learning curve when using ingredients which have never before been commercially available, but I found a dissonance between my reading about the farmhouse traditions that gave us kveik, and then seeing it used to make the most modern styles of beer possible. What does craft beer owe, or care about the history of these fascinating yeast strains? Should there be as much effort to preserve its history and context, as much as kveik itself?
Should there be as much effort to preserve its history and context, as much as kveik itself?
“We have done several full sized brews using Lallemand’s Voss as well as a few pilot batches,” Alex Rowlands, a brewer at Reading’s Phantom Brewing Co. tells me. “While we haven’t had any major issues with flavour profiles, I did have a pretty bad time trying to make a milkshake IPA with the Voss reacting weirdly with lactose.”
Alex has worked with Voss kveik a fair amount since it’s Feb 2020 release, both commercially and as a homebrewer in his spare time. Despite the setback mentioned above, he tells me that working with the strain has been largely positive, benefitting from fast fermentation times and little need for temperature control (a huge benefit for homebrewers without access to cooling loops and heat exchangers.) He notes that the pithy, orange characteristics of Voss compliment West Coast and East/West hybrid (sometimes called “Mountain” IPAs) styles in particular, contributing to their inherent pithy, citrusy character.
When it comes to the provenance of the yeast, however, Alex says he remains in two minds on the subject.
“I love the history and mystery around the origins of this yeast and would love there to be more notice brought to these traditional brewers making beer in farmhouses for their local community,” he says. “These beers tend to be strong (around 10-15% ABV), flat, smoky and very sweet. This is obviously very different from the beers I’ve experienced in the UK which tend to be already established styles replacing their usual yeast with Kveik. I don’t feel it’s a form of cultural appropriation.”
The latter point is something I find myself stuck on. I would love to try the beer styles kveik originates from, but that would require a trip to Norway, as UK breweries (as a whole) are showing little interest in recreating them. Is it right then, to immediately take a commercialised version of kveik and use it to make the most in vogue styles? Without the families of Norway keeping this strain alive, it wouldn’t exist at all, let alone in a 440ml can of hazy, juicy IPA.
“It’s yeast at the end of the day so a bit hard to ring fence as ‘belonging’ to any one person or brewery,” Derek Bates of Norfolk’s Duration Brewing says. “I do believe these stories and traditions should be told and credit given due where people have done this for generations. But much like other tough areas to discuss the folks keeping it alive should be the ones to ultimately answer if they are ok with it, not us as brewers, or even writers.”
These stories and traditions should be told and credit given due where people have done this for generations
One brewery which has wholly embraced the kveik-phenomenon is Yeastie Boys. Originating from New Zealand but now based in the UK and brewing its beers at Utopian Brewery near Exeter in Devon, the brewery has been experimenting with the Voss strain for over two and a half years. First it was just with a few specials, but now it’s used to ferment core beers like Gunnamatta Earl Grey Tea IPA—a beer I tasted during the arduous research I undertook for this article.
“I liken it to a really clean Belgian-style yeast where it enhances fruit, especially citrus, and has a lovely rounded (and quite subtle) alcohol profile,” Yeastie Boys founder Stu McKinlay says. “It’s like adding another member to the band who brings a depth of character that you hardly knew was missing.”
Gunnamatta is a beer I know well. I first tried it when visiting New Zealand several years ago, and have enjoyed it becoming a staple in the UK. The bergamot flavours of the Earl Grey work especially well with the citrus character from its hops. However I am certain the kveik has changed this subtly, with a distinctive orange and clove character now part of its character. Although this could be conjecture. Would it have tasted any differently if I did not know it was fermented with Voss kveik?
“We’re not throwing the words Kveik, Norway, Norwegian or farmhouse around commercially as we want to avoid the idea that we’re using it to create a certain style (like “Kveik IPA”) and we’re certainly not claiming anything that relates to the Norwegian traditions,” Stu tells me, while also mentioning how thankful he is to all the work that’s been put in by people such as Lars Marius Garshol into bringing the strain into our collective consciousness over the past few years.
“We call it ‘Cosmic’ in our beers,” Stu adds.
“We use it our own way, it has its own character in our beer, and we’re discovering every week or two that we’re at the bleeding edge of using it as a house strain.”
Another brewer that reached out to me during my research was Ciaran Febers of a new, Glasgow-based fermentation project known as Acid Brewing Cartel. I was intrigued by the fact that, instead of using commercially available kveik, he was making beers with un-isolated strains—closer to what the original farmhouse brewers of Norway would use.
“While I had some experience with commercially available Voss Kveik, it wasn’t until I read Lars Marius Garshol’s Historical Farmhouse Brewing that I developed a true interest in these unique yeasts, particularly the mixed-cultures,” Ciaran says. “Many of these commercially available strains are very different to those that were originally discovered in Norway,” he adds, saying that an Ebbegarden strain from Storndal was “night and day” when compared to his beers made with Voss kveik.
Despite being a relatively new brewery, I was fortunate enough to try one of Acid Brewing Cartel’s beers. Called ‘Industrial Farmhouse’ it fermented with the Ebbegarden kviek strain that Ciaran tells me is a mixed culture of several saccharomyces and lactobacillus strains. The beer was indeed a world away from the beers I had tasted that use the commercial strains of kviek; sharp lemon zest acidity balanced with a light dry-hop of Citra and Mandarina Bavaria, this truly was a stunning beer.
I don’t say that lightly either. As someone who tastes a lot of new beers, it’s not often one stops me in my tracks like this one. And not just because it tasted so good, but because it felt more organic, and in tune with farmhouse brewing—evidence perhaps that kveik’s destiny is now unchained. Just like it’s “wild” yeast origins it’s now free to be interpreted by each brewer as they cross its path.
My two pence worth is that respecting kveik’s origins and the folks who stewarded these fascinating yeast strains to this point deserve every ounce of respect and credit for keeping their traditions going. Something I feel every brewer using these fascinating yeasts should consider when using it for their own beers.
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