It's a sunny, breezy spring afternoon, the sort of flawless day that amnesias you into forgetting winter and loving New York City again. But in lieu of flinging Frisbees in Prospect Park or sipping Gowanus Yacht Club’s icy Pabst, I’ve slunk into subterranean beer hall Jimmy’s No. 43 to meet Norwegian giants— of brewing, that is.
“Norwegian beer?” you ask. “Isn’t that oxymoronic, like government reform or MTA’s bus schedule?” Sadly, in that frigid Scandinavian land of reindeer jerky and smoked salmon, more than 90 percent of the country’s quaffs are light lagers and neutered pilsners: Brews about as complex as Coors Light. Moreover, many Norwegian bars pour just one tap beer, providing drinkers as much choice as voting in a dictator’s election.
“Norwegians,” laments bearded giant Kjetil Jikiun, cofounder and brewmaster of Norwegian microbrewery Nogne O, “don’t know much about craft beer.” Consider Jikiun an exception. Since launching Nogne O (naked isle) six years ago, the gregarious, bespectacled Norwegian has begun transforming his country’s carbonated landscape. With an artisan’s touch and missionary zeal, he crafts bold, flavorful porters, stouts, India pale ales and herb-packed oddities more in line with experimental American microbrews than Norway’s watery swill.
In many ways, it’s a return to Norway’s norm. A couple hundred years ago, the government ordered farmers to grow hops and brew beer. If farmers refused, they were fined or could lose their land. Special brews were even crafted to honor deceased Norwegians. “In the summertime, this could be a problem,” explains Nogne O manager Kjell Einar Karlsen. “Because of the hot weather, beers could take six to eight days to brew— and you couldn’t bury the body until the beer was ready.”
Similar to America, the temperance movement, taxation and big brewing killed tradition. Enter Jikiun. Formerly an airline pilot, he sampled suds wherever he landed, developing an affinity for marvelous microbreweries such as Stone and Dogfish Head. He began homebrewing, looking toward American for inspiration. Perhaps too much.
“I brewed what I thought was my best IPA ever,” Jikiun says of his riff on hoppy, West Coast ales. “I entered it in a homebrew competition—only to receive the second-lowest score of any IPA.” To the judges, Jikiun’s brew was as alien as those saucer-eyed Roswell creatures. Still, “everybody else I served my homebrews to liked them, so I though there’d be a market,” says Jikiun. He started Nogne O with more optimism than money. “Our first three years, we were about to go bankrupt every month,” Jikiun says, laughing. In Norway, brewers pay taxes commensurate with their beer’s alcohol percentage: a higher ABV equals higher taxes.
“Our beers are more expensive in Norway than in America,” says Jikiun, whose beers often flirt with an eye-spinning 10 percent ABV. A second factor is that the government restricts sales of beers stronger than 4.75 percent ABV (comparable to a Bud) to specially licensed shops or the state-run Vinmonopol chain—unsurprisingly, it translates to “wine monopoly.” Even crazier is that Nogne O was barred from publicizing its beer online. “The government said, ‘If you don’t close down the site immediately, we’re going to close it down,’” Jikiun recalls. Their decree was as strange as the solution: The brewery could tout its beer provided it was written in the language spoken in Nogne O’s export markets— English. “And Norwegians speak English,” Jikiun says, laughing.
Despite Mount Everest odds, Jikiun re fused to compromise his mission to craft unfiltered, unpasteurized and bottle-conditioned brews. Incrementally, Nogne O found success with spiced Christmas ales like Underlig Jul (“peculiar Christmas”), which is inspired by mulled wine glogg and light, fruity Easter ale God Paske. Now the brews are America-bound, armed with flavor profiles that should resonate with microbrew lovers.
The India pale ale is similar to California hop bombs: bold and rich, the beer’s sweet, malty backbone keeps the bitterness from going overboard. The saison is a funky summertime refreshment redolent of pears and apples. The oil-thick imperial stout packs a coffee and bittersweet-cocoa flavor punch, making it perfect for brownie pairings. Still, the standout is #100, a beer originally unintended for public consumption. “We wanted it to be beer for the brewers,” Jikiun says. “Not many bars in Norway wanted craft beer—but they wanted this one.” Understandably so: The barleywine-like brew possesses a spicy aroma complemented by cardamom and a lovely, lingering belly warmth owing to its 10 percent ABV. It tastes familiar, yet distinctly foreign.
“We’re inventing a Scandinavian brewing identity,” Jikiun says. I’ll drink to that, again and again.
Try Nogne O at Jimmy’s No. 43 (43 E. Seventh St. betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves., 212-982- 3006) or Whole Foods’ Bowery Beer Room (95 E. Houston St. betw. Bowery & Chrystie St., 212-420-1320)