English language History Stavanger

Stavanger’s beer history from 1503 to 2003. Part 1: Farmhouse Brewing

In 1503, the bishop in Bergen, acting on behalf of his majesty, declared that the citizens of Stavanger themselves had the authority to decide who were allowed to serve “ale, mead or any other drink” in the city. Since then it has become a lot stricter.

The history of beer in Stavanger is a journey through time from a period of no alcohol regulation through to today’s maximum-two-beers-at-a-time-and-only-if-you-feel-properly-ashamed-you-sinner-yes-we-know-that-Jesus-turned-wine-to-water-but-we-don’t-like-it attitude. It is also a journey from a time when beers where exclusively home brewed, through a period of local brewing monopoly, to the current plethora.

The first Norwegian brewery that we know of was founded in Oslo in 1776, the year of the American revolution. Before then, it was all about traditional, Norwegian farmhouse brewing. It was one of the housewife’s duties to brew, although in Rogaland it was common for the men to take responsibility for the malting.

Besides water and milk, ale was the most common drink. Wine was too expensive, liquor was too strong, and coffee, tea or chocolate were yet to be imported to Europe.

In truth, we don’t know much about farmhouse brewing in Stavanger in the 16th and 17th centuries. The traditions that are described here, were written down much later and are not from Stavanger per se but from around Rogaland. We will use these as a guide to how brewing was performed.

Odd Nordland writes, in the book “Brewing and beer traditions in Norway”, that both barley and oats were used for brewing in Rogaland. Near the coast, such as on Jæren, where the climate was wet, oats were grown, while barely was grown along the fjords, in places such as Suldal and Røldal. If you had barley to brew with, you would. If you didn’t, then you would simply use oats in which case you would end up with an ale of poorer quality – paler and with less taste. Farmers who grew oats would often set aside a small section of their field for barely intended for brewing.

A digression: All trade in grains was left to the Danes who ruled the country. They had the right to all exports, but no obligation to import anything. As a result, in years of poor summers such as 1739-42, there was widespread famine in Norway. In 1741 it got so bad, the Danes lifted the trading monopoly, but they reintroduced it as soon as they could – already in 1744. It’s unsettling to think about this when we know that few farmers were able to grown enough grain for their own consumption. Anyway, three fifths of all grain grown in Norway were oats, only one fifth was barley. This distribution continued until the 1800s. Barley needed for brewing was mainly imported, and this was under Danish control. Much later, the Danes would yet again take control over brewing in Stavanger when they bought Ringnes and shut down Tou, but we’ll get to that later. Digression ends.

The sprouting of the grains often took place in the attic where the grains were spread across the floor directly above where the fireplace was located. Or it was done in special malt-bins nailed to the walls in the bath house. If the grains weren’t sprinkled to keep them moist, wet bags or a layer of wet straw was used to cover the malt. The malt would be dried in the eldhus, the «fire house» which served as the kitchen. Some places the malt was smoke dried, such as in Avaldsnes.

Juniper extract was commonly used as mash liquid and/or sparge liquid as was usual in many parts of the country.

Both strong ale and weak ale was made from the same mash, so a version of the party-gyle method was common.

In some areas the wort was boiled, but there are many areas in Rogaland where the wort was not boiled, or only partly boiled. Raw ale was common in areas such as Høyland, Avaldsnes and Heskestad. At Helleland, they only boiled the first bucket of wort – together with the hops. These methods required less time and energy (firewood) than a full boil, and the high temperature during the mashing would kill most, if not all, bugs. Raw ale was probably the norm in farmhouse brewing back in the day.

Hop gardens were uncommon in Rogaland in the 17th century, even though those who grew their own hops elsewhere in the country thought that their hops were just as good as the imported hops that could be bought in the cities. In a hop garden overview from 1667, there is no mention of any hop garden anywhere along the coast from Skien to Hardanger. Still, there is only one place in Vestlandet where we have documented use of wild hops – in Hjelmeland where they would pick wild hops growing in the hillsides. Other Rogaland brewers presumably used hops bought from traders from Hardanger, where they had huge numbers of hop gardens, or they used imported hops. The hop gardens we know from Rogaland were probably planted in the 18th century. From Klepp, where they boiled the wort for an extended period to concentrate it, we know that they used 1/2 to 3/4 kg hops per barrel of malt. Using a large amount of hops reduced the chance of the beer going sour.

Bog myrtle sometimes replaced hops.

The yeast, which was called kveik, was preserved between brews. With the limited access to grain, Norwegian brewers could not brew continuously like brewers would on the continent. And without refrigeration they were not able to keep a liquid culture alive between brews. Thus, they needed a yeast that could handle drying. All kveik can be dried. The yeast would be collected on a kveikstokk or a ring of straw and hung up to dry. In Suldal they would crush the flakes of yeast after it had dried and keep them in paper bags. At Stjernarøy, they would rub the yeast into the bark of a birch log and let it dry there. When they wanted to use the yeast, they would simply place the log in a bucket of lukewarm juniper extract. At Klepp, they used a kveikstokk. Everyone who brewed, would harvest the yeast, dry it and reuse it. Over and over again, for generations. In the Stavanger region the yeast would always be bottom harvested, whether it was to be used for the next batch of ale or for baking. At Helleland they didn’t even consider the krausen to be yeast, but only referred to it as foam, collected it and threw it out. In central and northern parts of Rogaland, top harvesting was more common.

Typical gjærstokk

When the kveik was pitched, the wort was still warm. You should be just able to keep your hand in the wort – then it was at the right temperature. Pitching yeast in hot wort was frowned upon in the period of enlightenment, as they thought it would make the beer particularly strong.

In Heskestad, where they brewed raw ale, they would make sure not to let the yeast work too long or else the beer would be too strong or it might be sour. In Helleland, where they partly boiled the wort, they would let the yeast work for 24 hours when brewing strong ale, but only half that for weak ale. Both of these places are in Eigersund. The focus on fast fermentation is often seen in areas where the teetotallers had a strong influence.

There was a lot of superstition related to brewing – understandably so as they didn’t understand what made wort into ale. There was something magical about it – both the process and the drink itself. in Bjerkreim they would sacrifice a little wort in all four corners of the living room on Christmas eve, and there’s a story about a farmer named Sigbjørn in Heskstad who always sacrificed the first drops of wort. He would poor a little into each corner of the room saying “that’s for them”, and then a little into the fireplace saying “and that’s for Ildgrim”.

The belief in the supernatural was the reason why they’d never use the proper name for things when doing something important like brewing. Andreas Leiro explains, in the book “Skikkar og truer ved ølbryggjing”, that they were unable to abstract the name of something from the thing itself. If they avoided using the real name of something, then that thing was secret, the supernaturals, sometimes called vette, wouldn’t learn of it and would not be able to spoil it for you. It was also important to be very quiet when the ale was fermenting. If the process was disturbed by noises or vibrations then it would stop. If a person who was dying happened to peek into the fermenter at this crucial stage, the process would also stop. Keep this in mind next time you’re brewing – at least if your ambition is to brew the traditional way.

From Karmøy it was said that three things could spoil the beer:

  1. If a dead body had been carried across the field that the malt came from
  2. If the sack with the crushed malt had not been closed properly and the vette had been able to blow their black magic into it
  3. If underworldly creatures lived under your house

Make sure to check for these potential issues before you brew again.

There were also many rituals related to the drinking of ale. Ale was brewed for Christmas and other important events such as marriages and funerals. From Bjerkreim it was said that the corpses weren’t buried until the ale was brewed, and sometimes that took a while. From Klepp there’s this story from 1743 from the farm Nedre Øksnevad where the 80 year old Kari Rasmussdotter had died. Her death came as no surprise, because the attic did not only contain her coffin but also two barrels of ale – no more than what was needed for a proper sending off. The guests drank ale and booze both before and after her body was lowered into the ground, and it all – rather predictably – ended in violence before the night was over.

As soon as the ale was finished, it had to be tasted. They called it oppskåke when all the neighbours came to taste the ale or the brewer carried the fresh brew around to all the nearby farms in order that they might all get a taste. Hospitality was a virtue, but it was also a way to get feedback on your beer, like when current home brewers hand out bottles of their finest to other beer geeks.

If you didn’t consume farmhouse ale in Stavanger, then you were probably drinking German ale. This imported ale was quite bitter as a lot of hops were used to prevent spoilage during the long sea voyage. It was said that the rolling back and forth created a better and stronger ale – pretty much the same as what is being said about the linjeakevitt. The Hanseatic League based in Bergen had reserved the right to all import of ale to Vestlandet and Northern Norway, but that monopoly was challenged when traders from Bremen came to Stavanger and settled here in the 1550s. They sold low cost ale that was both thin and flavourless but so cheap that the Hanse could not compete even though they were exempt from import taxes.

Since there were no restrictions on the sale of ale, there were a lot of bars in Stavanger. The authorities preferred that people drank ale rather than booze – the law from 1756 banning moonshine had been abolished in 1816, just two years after Norway joined the union with Sweden. In 1820, the politicians removed the sales tax on ale completely. An inspiration to current lawmakers?


In part two, we’ll be looking at the period up until World War 1 – a period of massive societal changes including the introduction of factory brewing.

Sources for all three parts:

  • Odd Nordland: Beer and brewing traditions in Norway
  • R. A. Lorentzen: Aksjeselskapet Tou 1855 – 1955
  • Øystein Øystå: Øl til glede: den norske Ølboken
  • Andreas Leiro: Skikkar og truer ved Ølbryggjing
  • Lars Marius Garshol: Gårdsøl
  • Astri Riddervold: Drikkeskikker
  • Dr. Olav Johan-Olsen: Om Øllet og dets udvikling fra fortid til nutid
  • E. Kielland Sømme: Avholdsbyen II utgitt i Stavangeren nr. 3 1997
  • Nils Vogt: Schous bryggeri 1821-1921
  • Chr. P. Killengreen: Den norske bryggeriforening
  • Nils Stabenfeldt: Stavanger: Udsikt over byens historie og næringsliv
  • Hans Olav Barka: Ikke kødd med ølet vårt!, masteroppgave UiS 2011
  • Birger Lindanger: Klepp bygdesoge fram til 1837
  • Alkoholpolitikken i endring – Utgitt av Sosial- og helsedept.
  • Stavanger 1125-1425-1925 – Utgitt av Stavanger Kommune
  • En by i kamp – Utgitt av Stavanger Kommune
  • Stavanger by i det 19de aarhundrede – Udgivet paa foranledning av Stavanger Børskomite
  • Wikipedia
  • http://norbrygg.no/
  • http://www.fridahansen.no

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