As more people have gotten to know Norwegian farmhouse ales, they’ve become especially associated with two things: kveik and unboiled wort. One style that actually has both of those things is kornøl, from western Norway.
I say “style,” but that’s a concept foreign to farmhouse ale. As a farmhouse brewer, you brew what your father brewed, and he brewed what your grandpa brewed, and so on. The ingredients were those you had on the farm, so there was very little choice involved.
Yet the way that cultural influences spread over many centuries still leaves some clearly delineated areas where people brewed in similar ways. Northwestern Norway is one of those areas where everyone brews in more or less the same way, and they all call their beer “kornøl”—literally, grain beer—unlike in the rest of Norway. So, effectively, kornøl has become a style.
The kornøl-brewing area is in the two traditional districts of Nordfjord and Sunnmøre, with Hornindal at the center. That location is a bit misleading—Hornindal is an isolated, remote valley, so the only way it is central to the region is how it looks on the map. Of course, that isolation is why the tradition survived, and why it’s now viewed as a regional center of farmhouse brewing. The reason for that isolation is easy to see on the map: It’s essentially ringed by mountains on all sides, and some of those mountains are covered by the biggest glacier in continental Europe.
Historically, this region had no cities at all and hardly any sizeable towns. It does, however, have some of the most dramatic landscapes in all of Norway: In some places, the mountains rise 1,500 meters (about 4,920 feet) straight out of the fjords. People live in narrow valleys squeezed between the towering mountains, and they used to make their living from whatever relatively flat land they farmed.
So, in one sense, it’s not that odd that the region should emerge as a bastion of raw ale. Oddly, the same region also stands out in traditional cheesemaking because it’s an area where the milk for cheese was never boiled either. There must be some deeper historical reason for that, but it’s unclear what that is.
Brewing Kornøl: It’s a Scream
As with all farmhouse ales, historically, people made the malt for this beer themselves. The most common method was drying it in the sun or on the floor in a heated room, producing very pale malts. Many people used kilns that produced smoked malts, but that seems to have ended almost completely, so today the beer is very pale.
The farmers overwhelmingly preferred barley for the beer. However, barley didn't grow very well in this cool, wet coastal climate, so many would resort to malted oats. Yet they looked down on oat beer as not very good—it was “poor people’s beer.”
The actual brewing process is surprisingly uniform. They would first make a juniper infusion by steeping the branches in hot water. Then they would pour that onto the malt and stir. After an hour or a little longer, the mash goes into the lauter tun, which would have straw or juniper or both in the bottom. Alder sticks also were common, probably for both color and taste.
Then they would run off the wort, slowly, and pour it straight into the fermentor. (Remember: no boil.) Once the wort was roughly body temperature, they would add the kveik, often with a loud scream—the gjaerkauk—to frighten away any supernatural creatures who might ruin the beer.
For the hops, there was a lot of variation in how they were added. They used pretty much every possible method: Put the hops in the mash, lauter through a bag of hops, boil hop tea, boil hops in a little of the wort, dry hop, and so on. Not that the method matters much: They use so few hops in kornøl that you can hardly taste them anyway. These beers get their balance from the juniper and the raw ale character.
Two days after pitching, the beer was normally finished. At this point it was time to celebrate. In this area, that was usually done by going around to each of the neighbors with a bowlful of beer.
The Challenges, and a Quest
The finished beer has the classic raw-ale look: opaque yellow, with a coarse froth from the low carbonation. It typically smells of grain, juniper, minerals, and straw, with some tropical-fruit notes from the kveik fermentation. In the mouth, there’s a slightly abrasive texture, which is also typical of raw ale—not quite scraping, but grainy and at times even slightly sharp. That unusual mouthfeel effectively balances the sweetness in place of the bitterness, of which there is usually very little.
The flavors produced by the kveik can have quite a lot of variation and nuance. In the kornøl from Hornindal, for example, there is usually a taste of milky caramel. This may come from the bacteria that coexist with the yeast in these kveiks, and it’s a trait that doesn’t seem to emerge in other parts of the region.
Kveik from a lab usually contains only a single strain, or sometimes two, but these northern kveiks tend to be very complex cultures consisting of many strains. The strains in a single kveik can be surprisingly diverse, and they often fall into two or three different groups, sometimes even four.
You can taste the difference between a single-strain kveik and the full culture. The full cultures are more complex, often with extra flavors that are missing from the single-strain kveiks. One commercial beer had lovely notes of pineapple that would come and go when I drank the beer—it always made me think of the sun peeking through the clouds when a burst of pineapple flavor appeared. The next batch of the same beer used a single-strain kveik from a lab, and sadly, the pineapple disappeared.
For brewers in most parts of the world, the trickier part about brewing kornøl is the juniper branches. Those can be difficult to get in many places, including the United States, but there is also another challenge: how to get the right flavor out of them. It’s easy to overdo it and ruin the beer. It’s also easy to overheat the branches, giving the beer a taste that resembles chemical cleaning agents. The best advice is to use branches that are thinner than your little finger, and to never heat the branches above 176°F (80°C).
It can also be a challenge to find commercial versions of these beers so you can taste them. There are a couple of decent ones on the market in Norway these days, though they tend to come and go from the shops. It’s also hard to find them in bars, and if you travel to western Norway, I don’t recommend randomly knocking on doors in the hopes of finding someone willing to give you a beer.
Here’s your solution: There is a fest devoted to these beers, the Norsk Kornølfestival, held in Hornindal in October. The farmhouse brewers come to this festival and sit there like homebrewers—which, of course, they are—handing out samples of their beers. Many even have dried chips of the family kveik sitting in front of them, and they hand these out to anyone who wants it. If you want to try the real thing, that’s by far your best choice.
True, this plan involves traveling all the way to Hornindal, which really is in the back of beyond. Yet the landscape more than makes up for it—and then you get to drink the beer.