Heimabrygg: Homebrew from the Fjords and Valleys

Long to mash and boil yet quick to ferment, these robust, juniper-tinged, barleywine-strength ales represent a farmhouse tradition worth celebrating—and you can raise a glass just a few days after brewing.

Lars Marius Garshol Dec 13, 2022 - 9 min read

Heimabrygg: Homebrew from the Fjords and Valleys Primary Image

Photos: Matt Graves

Most people who’ve heard of Norwegian farmhouse brewing associate it with three things: kveik, raw ale, and juniper. The style known as kornøl has the trifecta—as discussed in Kornøl: The Tale of the Ale of the Grain—yet western Norway is actually home to two very different styles of farmhouse ale. The second is known as heimabrygg—literally, “homebrew” in the local dialect.

If you look at the map, it’s not difficult to see why the region has two styles of beer rather than one: Jostedalsbreen, the biggest glacier in continental Europe, separates the kornøl area to the north from the heimabrygg area to the south.

Like kornøl, heimabrygg is from the fjord country, but the most central area is not by a fjord. Heimabrygg is brewed in Hardanger and Sogn, by the fjords of the same names, but above all in the district of Voss. The geography is likely a large part of why Voss became so central to farmhouse brewing.

The geography that makes the area so beautiful is not very easy for travelers to cross, so people used to travel mainly by boat on the fjords. That was very effective in Sogn and Hardanger, but not in Voss, which has no fjord. So, until car ownership became widespread after 1960, Voss was quite isolated. By the time that changed, kveik and farmhouse brewing were both well on the way to being seen as cultural heritage rather than an outdated relic of the poor past.


What Sets Heimabrygg Apart

In many ways kornøl and heimabrygg are similar, but once they are in the glass, you don’t even need to smell the beers to tell which is which. Heimabrygg is typically deep brown in color and clear, obviously different from the paler, hazier kornøl.

The starting point is malted barley—always barley, because using oats was a sign of poverty in the old days. It meant you didn’t grow enough barley that you could afford to use it. Although the finished beer is deep brown, it’s most common to brew it with only pilsner malt. (We’ll get to that.)

Brewing starts with a straightforward infusion mash, using juniper infusion instead of water, at the usual temperatures or a little higher—153–162°F (67–72°C). The mash is usually quite lengthy—as long as four hours, in some places. The brewer also lauters the wort slowly, adding another bucket of juniper infusion every time a bucket of wort has been drawn for the kettle. Like the mashing, the lautering can take hours, and the enzymes are working all the while.

Once the lautering is well underway, we get to why heimabrygg is so different from kornøl: The wort is boiled with hops in it. (So, plainly, this is not a raw ale.) Not only is the wort boiled, but it’s usually boiled for hours. In Voss, the brewers boil away half the wort volume, and that takes about four hours.


Of course, this is how the beer comes to be deep brown, despite the pale malts. During the long boil, Maillard reactions turn the wort a dark, reddish brown, and caramel flavors also develop. Some people also add sugar to make the beer stronger, but that’s a modern thing. In the old days, people couldn’t afford to buy imported sugar.

The relatively high mash temperatures can cause these beers to be sweet, and the caramel flavors can make them seem even sweeter, so it’s been common to boil a good bit of hops in the wort. People might use as much as 13 grams of hops per liter of beer—or about 8.7 ounces for a five-gallon batch—which, even with low-alpha Norwegian farmhouse hops, still leads to a pretty bitter beer. These days, the beers are usually not that bitter.

Heimabrygg tends to be stronger than kornøl, at 8–12 percent ABV, and part of the reason is the long boil that concentrates the wort. Originally, the boil apparently was a trick for getting stronger beer out of the same amount of malt. As you lauter more and more wort from the malt, rinsing out the sugars, the gravity keeps dropping—and at some point, you typically need to stop, or else your OG will drop too low. However, there is still sugar left in that malt. By continuing to lauter and by making use of the weaker wort, then by boiling off the excess water, you can get more sugar out of the malt without making the finished beer weaker.

After the boil, the brewer allows the wort to cool and pitches the kveik—usually, anyway. In Hardanger and Voss many people use kveik, but in Sogn most people use baking yeast or modern beer yeast. While the kveik for kornøl is usually pitched at about 86°F (30°C), in the south, the normal range is 99–108°F (37–42°C). The beer ferments quickly, in three or four days. (Of course, the brewers using modern yeast will pitch at lower temperatures and get a slower fermentation.)


The kveiks from Voss are especially suited for heimabrygg because they tend to lend the beer a slight acidic tinge, which can be perfect for balancing the sweetness and the caramel flavors. The kveik from Dyrvedalen, No. 2 Rivenes, is particularly ideal in that way.

In Dyrvedalen, Voss, Norway, brewer Bjørne Røthe shares a taste of vossaøl on brew day, poured off his kveik from a previous batch.

Celebrating Heimabrygg

Done well, heimabrygg can be a fantastic combination of a sweetish caramel body with a solid bitter backbone under a shimmer of spicy orange and pine-like, fruity juniper. Carbonation is always low, allowing the malt to shine. In fact, heimabrygg has a lot in common with English barleywine, but with extra fruity character from the kveik and more flavors from the juniper.

Historically, the malt usage in heimabrygg was more complicated than it is today. The most common way was to dry the malt in a Norwegian sauna, which produced lightly smoked brown malt. In Voss, however, many people made wind-dried malt (though they called it sun-dried). That would be something like modern pilsner malt, but with much more complexity. Some people in Voss also produced intensely smoked malts, not unlike that from Stjørdal. The poorer brewers, however, might simply have dried their malt in an iron pot. Exactly what that would have been like, nobody really knows.

Now that kveik is available commercially, it’s possible to brew heimabrygg anywhere, but it will always be a bit like drinking an English mild in Tokyo. Mild belongs in a true English pub; in the same way, the best setting for drinking heimabrygg is at the oppskåke, the traditional party when the beer has finished fermenting, just three or four days after brewing.


The brewer will ladle the beer right from the fermentor into a plastic glass, to be enjoyed in a rustic brewhouse—a farm shed, essentially—against the backdrop of the rugged mountains of western Norway. Imagine a bunch of neighbors in farmer’s working clothes sitting on stools, buckets, or folding chairs, jabbering excitedly in heavy dialect about growing fruit, about farm accidents, and about people getting too drunk. Even if 15 to 20 people show up, with 150 liters of 10-ish percent ABV beer, there’s plenty to get everyone pretty well drunk.

There is a story about one old farmer in Hardanger who, decades ago, the day after his oppskåke, felt the need to relax with a beer. His wife went down in the cellar, but she came back to report that the barrel was empty—because they’d drunk it all at the oppskåke.

“Well,” he said, “you can’t expect it to last forever.”

Indeed. Come experience heimabrygg while it still lives.