Norwegian Beer Guide

Norway has spent much of it's history as part of a union with Sweden, Denmark or both countries. Since becoming a fully independent nation in 1905 it has sought to develop a strong national identity through the championing of people like polar explorer Roald Amundsen and playwright Henrik Ibsen. In terms of a national identity for beer the basic message seems to be "we'd rather you didn't drink". Whilst prices in the country are high generally they are especially high for alcoholic drinks with a pint of beer bought from a shop likely to set you back 5 pounds and a beer from a bar or restaurant closer to 10 pounds.

Like most Scandinavian countries there is tight state control of alcohol with beers over 4.7% in strength only being available in bars or state run liquor shops called Vinmonoplet. When you get inside one you will spend a long time looking through shelves of wine before you find the beer. Even in the biggest branches in Oslo the beer range is about the same as a medium sized Threshers. However the idea is that you have quality rather quantity with the range generally including a decent spread of gueuze, trappists and other beers you may struggle to find in a regular off licence. Whilst this good taste is to be applauded, a restricted range can prove frustrating - something pointed out by the locals. In fact there are only around 30 Norwegian beers sold through the state run shops which don't bother to stock the lower alcohol beers.

Most smaller food shops will carry no alcoholic beverages at all whilst larger supermarkets may have a reasonable decent range, especially when it comes to English ales which are generally under 4.7% in strength anyway. However you may find that outside the vinmonoplet you are limited to lagers and alcohol free beer.

The most common Norwegian beers are the Ringnes and Freydenlund lagers. These appear to be the default choice in most bars and cafes. There are often dark version of the lager (bayer) with a more pronounced malty flavour available. Both of these brands are now owned by Carlsberg and you can probably guess roughly what they are going to taste like. Hunting around in larger cities should find you a bar with a decent range if you fancy some varieties.

In terms of craft brewing the general attitude of quality rather quantity rules. There aren't a massive range of interesting breweries on the go - in fact there are only about 10 microbreweries in the entire country and a few small independants. However the standard from the ones there are is high across most of their beers. The most highly rated is Nogne O who produce pretty much every style of beer you would be interested in and make a good job of it. The beers are named in English so you can identify what you are getting pretty easily.

The Aass brewery does some good dark lagers and are the only Norwegian brewery to feature in the Michael Jackson 500 great beers book with their Bock beer - though the book was published before the Nogne O brewery had gained international recognition. The Handbrygeriet brewery does and interesting, almost eccentric, range of beers. Describing themselves as "four people brewing in their spare time on an incredibly small scale" their beers may not be the easiest to find but can be strikingly good. In general if you can find native beers it's worth taking a chance on them. The traditional Norse ale called Norwegian Wood is certainly worth hunting out.

In terms of bars around Oslo you will find the usual complement of Irish, English and Scottish theme pubs, sports bars and bars with thumping dance music to draw in the clubbing crowd. A distance out from the centre of town there is the Oslo Microbrewery which has an English style pub where the brewing equipment is on display and it sells it's own beers. The quality of the beer is pretty high, with most of them being of the English style, but the prices are pretty high as well.

Norway is somewhere that doesn't really encourage beer drinking through one way or another. However the opinion seems to prevail that if you are going to drink beer then you should be drinking great beer. This seems to have been taken up by the disparate set of craft brewers in the country who are producing some great beers - if you can find and afford them.

Five Norwegian Beers To Try -

1. Sma Vesen Kvernknurr: Toffee coloured ESB with a taste to match. Sweetened hops but with a balanced bitterness to keep things in check and alight fizz. Smooth mouthfeel, almost akin to a wheat beer. Very good stuff that almost feels like a light abbey dubbel.

2. Aass Bock: Strong dark amber lager with a deep caramel taste and a hint of sweetness. There is almost a feel of carrot cake in the flavour. Gentle carbonation and a dash of bitterness. An interesting bock.

3. Haandbryggerit Norwegian Wood: Brewed in the style of a tranditional Norwegian beer, this is a smoked ale spiced with juniper. The taste is smoky and woody with the spicing lingering in the background but giving a subtle fruity edge. Brown amber colour with a creamy head and bottle conditioned. A herbal note emerges with a piney flavour.

4. Oslo Chief Imperial Stout: Black as night with a creamy tan head this stout has a bitter coffee ground taste balanced by a creaminess that makes it quite smooth. There is a biscuity malt in the finish.

5. Oslo Porter: Classic English style porter with roasted malts but no coffee grounds taste. Smooth and not gassy like so many dark Scandanavian beers. Fairly fresh tasting with a hint of dark chocolate.