Upon leaving Oslo, we headed to another of Norway’s leading cities. Bergen is on Norway’s west coast and is the gateway to the fjords.One of my priorities for my time in Bergen (besides the fjords) was to see the city at night like the locals do. We had just finished a great meal way above Bergen at a restaurant called sky:skraper. You take a cablecar all the way to the top of a mountain, 643 meters above the city. On a clear day the views can go on forever.
We were brought up to this place by Linn, a representative of Visit Bergen. As she was pointing down at Bergen, explaining its history and areas of interest, it occurred to me that I had a real Bergen expert in front of me. I got the idea to ask her to suggest a few pubs for me to check out. Places the locals would go. Something off the map for most tourists.
Well as soon as I asked her eyes sparkled in a way that only blue eyes can. She wasn’t merely going to make me a list and shove me in the right direction. She’d escort me on this beer crawl. Score! And no, I don’t mean score in the way you are thinking. I am not that kind of guy, if you know what I mean.
As the plans were being made, Chris from Mutineer Magazine (fine beverage… redefined) and Aja, a PR rep for Jarlsberg USA (one of our hosts) said they wanted to join us! Yea, a party of four– a true beer crawl was in the works. Plans were made to meet later down the hill in Bergen proper
Naboen (Neumanns gate 20) was the first place we went. Already I feel I need to add a qualifier. You see, I billed this beer crawl as the best spots– not in the guidebooks. But Naboen is in the guidebooks. Well at least it’s in Lonely Planet where it is described this way: “Although the cook does a range of Norwegian dishes here, Naboen is best known for its Swedish specialties, such as Swedish meatballs or the fillet of hare (194 NKO).” But you see Lonely Planet was talking about the restaurant upstairs. Linn took us to the pub downstairs. A bit less known. A lot more casual. They serve food downstairs too. But it’s simple plates. The burger looked nice when it passed through my range of vision, or maybe I was just craving a burger.
When we first arrived at Naboen Aja had not yet joined us. So I sent Chris to the bar to make the beer selections for the three of us and suggested Linn use her Scandinavian ways to scope us out a table along the crowded back wall.
Notice how I handled that? I have a rule when I travel. Always pack an expert. Linn talked her way into a great table and Chris chose the beer for me. Which I was surprised to see was to be delivered to my glass via an old-fashioned hand pump. The woman behind the bar really had to work that pump to get the beer going. I don’t know if something was wrong, but I just walked away and let the experts deal with it.
Chris had chosen a traditional cask beer, which I may have never had before. A lot of smaller craft producers are returning to this method. Homebrew is an example of cask-brewed, except the casks are often really just bottles. Still it simply means that the beer has been conditioned (including secondary fermentation) in the vessel from which it will be served without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide to make it fizzy. Also it is often unfiltered and unpasteurized, which again isn’t common commercially in North America. I didn’t know all this going in. I learned it while I was waiting for my first beer of the evening. That’s why I brought an expert!
The beer Chris chose was an American-style IPA for Linn and me. It had a familiar hoppy aroma, and I suspect he may have been testing my palate. That’s no crime because the IPA he chose was creamy yet appropriately bitter, without the burn. It had small well-formed bubbles that made it pretty in the glass. And best yet, I immediately began craving something spicy or maybe even a piece of sharp cheese.
Chris chose a stout in the style of western England for himself, it happened to be from the same brewery as my IPA- Kinn Bryggeri.
American-style this. British-style that. I think pilsner has dominated the Norwegian palate for so long that many of the craft beer producers here are reproducing the tried and true. It seems to be a good strategy too. Because more than one person indicated to me that the beer culture in Norway is growing up and is becoming more sophisticated, although this is not an expert opinion and it’s just my casual observance. That’s not to say that there are not beer makers in Norway developing brews that are uniquely Norwegian, Ægir and Nøgne Ø are two prime examples.
But you look thirsty, and you hate it when I get all geeky. Maybe we should crawl on over to another Bergen beer bar.
Walking in the door of Biskopen (Neumannsgate 18) I was immediately struck by the comfortable familiarity of the place. Tall sofas and upholstered chairs clustered about in small lounge-like arrangements. The layout, the fireplace and the curved corner bar all make it feel very intimate, but it’s kind of a big place. We snagged a window table, right by the bar. I was pleased with Linn’s table grabbing abilities because I really wanted to sit and enjoy the view of the passing nightlife. Remember it’s 10 o’clock at night, but it’s still light out or at least a lot like dusk.
I don’t think Chris even sat down before he was at the bar and making decisions. Besides it was his turn to buy. By now Aja had joined us so I had the table of ladies to myself. Not an eyebrow in the place was raised in mock bewilderment either. I like Bergen.
But I gotta tell ya, in looking at my notes from Biskopen I get a little confused. I know we started out with a wheat beer from a local microbrewery called Waldermars Mikrobryggeri. I remember it being slightly sour with a certain sort of pilsner-like malt. But it was made complex by aromas of clove and banana on the nose. Chris compared it to “bubblegum”, but I gotta admit that was a bit beyond my palate’s vocabulary. I think it’s a good thing though…
Okay, the thing about a beer crawl is it always starts to get weird at some point. Here’s where it gets weird. I can remember laughing at the idea of bubblegum beer. But I can’t remember what my next set of notes mean. All I wrote down for the next round was Riptide Twisted Merciless Stout and Trashy Blond (You Know That You Shouldn’t). We only had one blond in our group and she certainly wasn’t trashy, so I am really unsure if these were becoming our code names for each other or if these were punk beers we ordered from Brew Dogs– a downright mutinous brewery from Fraserburgh, Scotland. Either way, it seems like we were having a good time!
By now it was getting late and Linn took us to Pingvinen (Vaskerelven 14) where everybody seemed to know her name. That’s not just the words from the theme song to America’s favorite fictional bar, but it’s the barometer for all good pubs across the world. This was indeed a lively place. I even talked to someone I didn’t know. We may have even spoken Norwegian. Though I am quite unsure what actually went down. But I do know a great big penguin was trying to sit on me. Because when I look at my notes I see Chris had taken them over and was now writing in my notebook for me. I guess he didn’t want me to miss any pertinent beer crawl information…
It seems Aja had a Hendricks G&T. Did she not get the memo that this was a beer crawl? Harummmph. Chris led the way to a Gonzo Imperial Porter, from Flying Dog Brewery. I know, because like I said, Chris wrote it down for me. I even know that Flying Dog is from Frederick, MD. Man he takes good notes. Linn got an IPA. This one Goose Island– a brew from Chicago.
After that my notes end. But the information I plan to present does not.
Because the next night I went out alone, determined to hit a few more Bergen pubs. Because as I mentioned earlier, there were two more breweries I had heard quite a bit about since I arrived in Norway. The first is Ægir Brewery. I knew something about their beers as I was lucky enough to meet the owner and brew master, American Evan Lewis, when our group was in Flåm just a few days before. Evan started home brewing in 1989 and told us that the germ for the current company started on a ski lift as a way to combine his favorite things “girls and beer”. Well, what started as a hobby grew out of control. He soon had to move out of his mom’s kitchen. He bought a small hotel and café in Flåm right next door to his current location. A Viking themed brewpub was his concept. Which seems to be a good concept. He sold 1400 pints his first night in business.
Now Ægir is available in limited supplies at quite a few places around Norway. One such place in Bergen came to find a prominent spot on my beer crawl list, Baran Café (Sigurdsgate 21). I came specifically for the Ægir. The bar itself has a nice atmosphere. It has developed a reputation in Bergen as being a must stop for beer lovers because it has an excellent selection of draught beers with 16 taps including Haandbryggeriet, Nøgne Ø and Ægir. I came for the Ægir and chose Hefeweizen. Which kind of surprised me. I don’t usually drink wheat beers at home. It was a nice beer with plenty of banana on the nose. I enjoyed it. But felt something was missing.
And I don’t mean missing in the beer either. It was actually really good. I mean that I missed Aja, and Linn and Chris– my Bergen beer buddies. Still I pulled out my notebook and got to work, because I knew you’d be along on this beer crawl and I didn’t want to be a party pooper. Here’s what I wrote: “Quite amber for a Hefeweizen, actually a slightly cloudy golden color with clean white head. Strong aromas of bananas, lemon and clove. Lots of bubbles”.
I moved on. I had one more stop.
Henrik Øl & Vinstove (Engen 10) had come recommended to our group on an earlier evening. But I was too tired to partake that night and politely conked out in my room. But I was curious to see the place. So I decided to end my Bergen beer crawl there. I decided to end it with a bang too. So I splurged big time on a bottle of Nøgne Ø Imperial IPA. I wasn’t prepared for this to be a $30 (or more??) bottle of beer. I’ve certainly never had a $30 beer before. Mind you, I am not complaining, of course it was good, but let’s just say if my math skills had been better I probably would not have ordered this beer– ergo I’m glad that numbers continue to elude me.
I feel I need to tie this up in some educational manner. So I’ll turn to Chris, who summed up our Bergen beer crawl this way: “The beer bars (in Norway) are stocked to the hilt with a best-of-show selections of imported bottles. Some of the American stuff they had, I can’t even get my hands on in the States. My pick for the beer that perfectly sums up Norway? Haandbryggeriet’s Akevitt Porter. It’s an uber-dark porter (think Norway in winter) aged in akevitt (Norway’s national spirit) casks. **Jimmy and Robert had it wrong. The lyric should have been:
‘We come from the land of the ice and snow from the midnight sun where the craft beers FLOW’”
**Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin