11 August 2007

Norway? Way!

You won't find too many travel agents offering beer-drinking holidays in Norway. I'm all about niche products, however, and so it was I found myself in Oslo last week, seeking a brewski in a land where alcohol is tightly controlled and taxed into the stratosphere. I was very surprised, therefore, to find that the range of beers brewed in Norway is substantial. So much so that I've had to divide this post into four, and I begin here with the mass-produced stuff.

I'm not entirely sure if alcohol advertising is totally illegal in Norway, but it must be pretty close if it's not. Usually, on arrival in a new country, it's pretty clear who the big breweries are. You can depend on seeing ads for beers, and beer-sponsored events, at least a couple of times on the journey from the airport. Not so in Norway, however. My assumption of who the big players are is based solely on bartaps and shop shelves, and the brewers appear to be Hansa, Ringnes, Borg, and Aass. That's right: Aass. Titter now and get it out of the way. Danish brand Tuborg also has a sizeable presence in the Norwegian market.

All these big brewers make an ordinary pils, mostly of quite a decent quality. Hansa is golden and malty; tasty but gassy. Ringnes, conversely, is sharp and quite nasty. Borg pils is light and dry, with slightly citric notes notes making it a good aperitif. Bringing up the rear, Aass (I said stop tittering) is similarly light and slightly bitter. Oddly, there's a UK beer called Bass and a Korean one called Cass. Pint of Dass, anyone?

Each big brewery also produces a range of subsidiaries. It being August, the shelves were full of the respective summer beers. These are mainly lighter than the regulars, Hansa Sommerøl being particularly light and vaguely bittersweet, as is Ringnes Sommerøl, which carries a slightly peachy fruitiness but not much else. Aass Sommerøl, conversely, is grainy and dry, but not very exciting. Finally, the only foreigner of the whole lot, Tuborg Sommerøl is the blandest of the bland: light fluffy and practically tasteless. Additionally, for some reason, Ringnes make another light summery lager called Skjærgårds. This is slightly maltier than the sommerøls, but really not much different. I really don't understand how, in such a tightly-squeezed marketplace there is room for all these varieties of the same dull product. Anyway, so much for the dreck.

Before moving on to the darker side of the main players, a note about Ringnes Weiss. This is properly orange and cloudy, like its German cousin, and quite flavoursome, if a teensy bit bitter. I'd opt for this in summer over any of the above.

It seems they like their bock in Norway, and they're mostly pretty good at making it. Frydenlund Bokkøl from Ringnes is one of the weaker ones, being rather dry and more watery than one would expect. It's priced accordingly, however, costing a mere €3 a bottle in the state-owned off-licence: dead cheap by the standards of Norwegian strong beer. Aass Bock is also quite easy-going, but makes up for it with a rich fruit and toffee flavour: not watery at all. Finally, Borg Bokkøl is exceptional: heavy and pitch black, with smoke, caramel and liquorice. I think this is a superb beer, and I'm no fan of bock in general.

I'll end this post by touching on two dark lagers, a style called "Bayer" in Norway. Frydenlund Bayer, is rather light and sweet, reminding me of Smithwicks more than anything: another miss by Ringnes. I preferred CB Bayer, which is a tad fizzy, but with caramel and lip-smacking sour notes that make for a refreshing red-brown lager.

That's a small cross section of what the big boys are doing in Norway. So in a land without beer advertising the craft brewers should be thriving, right?

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