Local beer drinkers didn’t immediately flock to Nogne O, a 10-year-old microbrewery in the far southeast of Norway. A few years ago, the brewery shipped 65 percent of its output abroad, confides Tore G. Nybo, general manager. “Wherever I was going, I brought a six-pack. I left beer in bars all over the world.”
As more and more Norwegians deserted industrial lagers for hoppy American and British-style beers, exports were cut to 25 percent, adds Nybo. But this tiny microbrewery (it turned out about 8,000 barrels last year) still sends its brands to 20 countries, including the United States. Nogne O Pale Ale (very dry, with a grapefruit-and-orange citrus tang) came in second in our international Beer Madness contest in 2010.
Nybo and Kjetil Jikiun, Nogne O’s founder and brewmaster, were guests at the Norwegian Embassy last Thursday. The previous evening, they had been feted at a beer dinner at Birch & Barley. The two are on a transcontinental journey that will eventually take them to San Diego, where Jikiun is scheduled to deliver a talk on beer-sake hybrids at this week’s Craft Brewers Conference. (He actually brews such a beer called Red Horizon.)
Jikiun is a strapping fellow with a full beard that’s braided on both sides. He’s a former airline pilot whose travels brought him into contact with beers from around the world and awakened his desire for a new career. Over the course of a year, he estimates, he turns out 25 beers on a regular basis, not including seasonals and collaborations. (His most recent collaboration, an imperial rye porter, was crafted with the help of Terrapin Beer Co. in Athens, Ga., and should be wending its way toward these shores. Check out the video here.
The embassy reception featured a half dozen of Nogne O’s beers: a basic stylistic mix including pale ale, IPA, saison, porter and imperial stout. Most interesting was the Tiger Tripel, a Belgian-style strong pale ale to which Jikiun has added his own personal flourish — a smidgen of peat-smoked malt that adds a whiskeyish note.
Disappointingly, the embassy reception didn’t include any of Jikiun’s Yamahai sakes. Both Nogne O and Yamahai, he notes, translate as “naked island.” His Japanese customers, he laughs, regard the name as slightly salacious, signifying a nude beach. Actually, the phrase was coined by 19th century Norwegian poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen to describe the craggy outcroppings off Norway’s coast. (Ibsen once worked at a pharmacy in Grimstad and wrote his first play there.)
Nogne O, according to Jikiun, needs to import most of its ingredients, and even what little barley is grown in Norway has to be sent to the U.K. for malting. As a result, Nogne O products will never be able to compete with mass-market beers pricewise. At Chevy Chase Wine and Spirits, where Jikiun has been a customer over the years, half-liter bottles of his beers sell for $10 apiece.
A bit pricey? Hanna Pincus Gjertsen, who works in the communications department of the Norwegian Embassy and has tended bar in her native land, mentions that in Norway, where alcohol is taxed heavily, these bottles would cost the equivalent of $22.
Are we Americans lucky or spoiled? Maybe a little bit of both.
Note: Jikiun says he’s entered 10 of his beers in the World Beer Cup, an international competition held every other year since 1996. Possibly the largest beer judging ever held, the 2012 contest includes 3,949 beers from 828 breweries in 56 countries vying for medals in 95 stylistic categories. Winners will be announced on Saturday during the Craft Brewers Conference, beginning at about 11:45 p.m. Eastern time. Log onto justin.tv for live coverage.