Wednesday, 18 November 2015




A Most Northern Beer Pilgrimage

October brought the opportunity to travel to Norway for on business. So how could I resist using it as an opportunity to explore the craft beer scene in Oslo, taste some Nøgne Ø on it's own turf and take a trip to Macks Ølbryggeri (The Mack Brewery), the Northernmost Brewery in the World!

So grab a great beer and read on!


A Grand Opportunity

Landing in Oslo it was immediately apparent that it is a beautiful city and the very essence of autumn was on display with an amber hue on the surrounding landscape and in the city's many green spaces as the trees prepared for the oncoming winter.

Whilst in Oslo I stayed in the Grand Hotel which is a stunning old building and is where the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are housed when that most auspicious circus is in town. I doubt I had either President Obama nor Nelson Mandela's old pad but nevertheless it was an incredible place to stay and in a great central location being situated in the main square between the houses of parliament and the royal palace. This offered a fantastic base for exploring some of Oslo's best cultural sights and craft beer offerings.

So it was from here that each night, wrapped up tight with a fist full of Norwegian Krone and my warmest drinking boots on, I went exploring.

Rebel Without a Coors

Whilst walking around the Oslo harbour area I stumbled across a small place called "Burger Joint". It's a recently opened burger bar where the retro style burger van has made it's way into the internal décor, a nice touch I thought! It offered a couple of taps of local craft beer, various bottles and some of the best burgers I've tasted. I managed to get a laugh from the barman when I asked for my burger to go and kindly requested he throw in one of the bottles of beer in the bag too, hoping to polish off the burger on the walk back to my hotel and the bottle when I got back there. When he smiled and laughed at me I asked "What's funny?", to which he said "Oh you're serious?! You can't take beer to go - that's illegal in Norway!". After explaining that my request wasn't out of a rebellious nature but good old fashioned ignorance, I settled for a swift pint of Amundsens Pale Ale whilst waiting for the burger to be cooked. So good was the burger that half way home I almost turned back to order another. I settled instead for visiting again the next day and then again later on my last night in Oslo.

Thanks to those at Burger Joint for allowing me to use their photo (far better than mine!) 

Everybody's Shuffling

Another great find near the Harbour Area was Beer Palace. A vibrant and bustling sister establishment to Burger Joint, with a wide selection of draft craft and bottles as well as two long shuffleboard tables (it's like the pub games equivalent of indoor curling) and a darts board to boot. I couldn't get a go on the shuffleboards either of the times I visited this pub as it was so popular.

A Craftsmen's Lodge

The best pint I had in Oslo was in a charming and rustic little pub called Håndverkerstuene which my best efforts to translate from Norwegian comes out at 'Craftmen's Lodge'. A very fitting name indeed in my eyes as this place's beer selection was the very epitome of the craft beer culture. Championing delicious local craft brews with knowledgeable and passionate staff. If there was a place to be converted to the craft it's here and with the stained glass windows you could be forgiven for having a near spiritual beer experience here. My favourite drop in Olso was from here, the 7 Fjell Kniksen India Red AleA fine example of how the maltier IPAs can really bring more balance to a hoppy beer.

Håndverkerstuene's Bar. I especially like the way the black board beer labels are strung to the taps.
At this point it's probably worth mentioning the extremely high price of beer in Norway. A 400ml glass is at least 80 Norwegian Krone, about £6 or $9 USD. This can make a night out very expensive but the way I see it is if you're going to spend that much on a pint then it had better be a good one and all mine have been!

The One about the Fishmonger, The Mack Beer and The Seagull Eggs

As the first weekend approached it was time to say goodbye to the Grand Hotel and meet my girlfriend Laura in Oslo airport to fly to Tromsø in the far north of Norway. Full of excitement we ventured 200 miles north the arctic circle, dreaming of the northern lights, killer whales and the Mack Brewery.

Coincidentally there is an obscure legend linking The Grand Hotel and The Mack Brewery that I discovered whilst researching the history of the brewery.

The story goes that a fishmonger from the far north, who within a short space of time had earned a great fortune, travelled to Oslo and one day visited the Grand Café. The waiter came to take his order.

The fishmonger asked: "Have you got Mack beer?" to which the waiter replied that unfortunately they did not but that the café had many other excellent beers to offer. The fishmonger then asked: "Have you got seagull eggs?". Again the waiter replied that they did not, to which the fishmonger remarked "shit hotel" as he disapprovingly left the establishment.

Disappointingly, the famous Grand Café in the hotel had recently closed it's doors so I didn't get to rehearse the scene with the waiters.

The reason I love this story though, is it gives a perfect image of the stark contrast between the very civilised and pristine capital of Norway and the ruggedness of the far north and of those trappers and fisherman who made it their home.

Today, however, Tromsø is commonly regarded as the largest city in the arctic and has more students than trappers or fishermen. The University of Tromsø, like the brewery, is also the northernmost in the world.

We decided to stay in the Radison Blu Hotel, a fairly standard hotel but with great views over the sea to the mainland and The Arctic Cathedral.

The Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø which, very aptly, a seagull was kind enough to pose for.

Polar Bears and Polar Beers

After the irresistible charm of the Grand Hotel in Oslo, the interior of the Radisson Blu came as a bit of a let down. A fairly standard hotel as you'd expect from a big chain. About the only thing which gave a hint of the romantic fishing and trapping efforts of the northern wilderness of old was the stuff polar bear in the reception. A somewhat sorrowful beast missing claws and without name or recognition of it's threatened status. 

Our moods lifted when we entered the Rorbua Pub connected to the hotel which did offer a fantastic rustic ambiance with fishing nets on the ceilings, old traps and ship's steering wheels on the walls and yet another stuffed polar bear. This turned out to be one of our favourite places in Tromsø to stop for a pint and had live music and a good selection of beer including 8 taps worth of the local Mack offerings.

We tried the
Bayer, a fairly clean and drinkable amber lager as well as the Mack 1877 a quaffable and refreshing Pilsner with surprisingly more character than you'd expect for a beer of this style.
The bear, the bear and the maiden fair.
As impressive a sight as these beasts are we felt quite ambivalent seeing them stuffed and on display like this but chose to take it as a tribute to the history of the city as opposed to a disregard of the plight of these creatures. To learn more about the dangers which threaten these magnificent creatures please check out the following link to the world wildlife fund's page on polar bears.

After Rorbua we headed off to a nearby bar called Circa for another pint, this time a couple of
MACK IPAs and a bite to eat in the upstairs Presis Tapas restaurant. Oddly enough some of the seating in this place are just swings hanging from the ceiling. As we couldn't trust ourselves to behave on them we settled for some more regular seating in the corner. The tapas was fantastic, I especially enjoyed the reindeer carpaccio. The IPA was a fairly solid offering if a little harsh in bitterness.

Is it a Bird, is it a Plane or is it Something to do with Methane?

On the way back to the hotel from the restaurant a seagull (our new lucky sigil) flew by very low overhead causing us to look up. Astonishingly, above us were the northern lights dancing a surreal green jig across a crystal clear sky. Not believing our good fortune or how we'd not spotted them sooner we headed down to the relative darkness of the dockside to enjoy the view. It lasted about half an hour before subsiding and was the perfect cause for a celebration - another pint of Macks at the Rorbua Pub and by now some live music had started up too. 
There's no way my poor phone camera could capture the magnificence of this natural phenomenon but here is the best I could manage with the tools to hand.


One of the main reasons for the trip to Tromsø was the possibility of seeing orcas. We were inspired to do so after watching Blackfish recently. This documentary is as good an argument against the captivity of these marine mammals as I've ever heard (if such an argument was ever needed). This film seems to have had a significant impact on SeaWorld's practices and recently they have announced changes in their policies for the treatment of orcas. A small step in the right direction but the march of progress can only come step by step.

We set out early on the Saturday with our guides from Tromsø Safari
and were told the possibility of seeing humpback whales was high but that seeing orcas was remote. Our luck continued, however, (must be all those damn seagulls!) as we sighted both orcas and humpbacks and the true majesty of these animals was clear to see. The tour guides were very knowledgeable, friendly and showed a great deal of respect for the whales.
Norway's stunning coastline made more magical by the sight of a humpback whale.
An orca illuminated by the winter sun.
If something is worth doing it's worth doing properly and I appeal to anyone wishing to catch a glimpse of these animals to reserve this pleasure for seeing them in their natural environment and to boycott places keeping them in captivity. I promise they'll look better in the stunning scenery of the Norwegian coastline than in a concrete tank. Make sure to pick a guide who respects the whales and follows international guidelines on approaching whales in the wild. 

From Humpbacks to More Macks

Feeling elated at the days sights we finally made our way to the Mack's Brewery and stopped for a few beers in Ølhallen, the Mack's Beer Hall. With an impressive 24 taps and a fantastic selection of local craft available this place is a must visit for anyone carrying out this most northernmost of beer pilgrimages. The bar is manned by  helpful and friendly staff and, of course, a stuffed polar bear.
The beard, the bear and the maiden fair.
The nod for best beer tasted goes to another fine Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø with their Vic Secret IPA. An intense offering at 7.5% and heavy with apricot in the taste and aroma. This beer also wins the award for most expensive beer I've ever bought, and this coming from a man who's lived in Singapore! A 600ml mug set me back 165 Norwegian Krone - about £12.50 or $19 USD. The Norwegians certainly do prescribe to the philosophy of quality over quantity when it comes to their alcohol consumption.
Ølhallen's Taps

Cool Runnings

The following morning it was time for Laura and I to leave the arctic and return south to sunnier pastures (back to Oslo where at least the day time temperatures were above freezing). We were blessed with a sunny day and spent our last day together on walking tour of the cities fine architectural sights. After checking back in at the Grand Hotel we walked around the house of parliament, the city hall, the foreign ministry building and the royal palace and it's public gardens (a real treat in Autumn). To finish off we visited the Nobel Peace Prize Museum (pictured below). A humbling tribute to some of the most inspirational and compassionate people who have ever lived. I was truly inspired by the story of Malala Yousafzai, a young girl who stood up to the Taliban to fight for the rights of women and who was awarded the prize in 2014 alongside Kailash Satyarthi. Read more here.
Peace be the Journey

A (Sunset) Photo Finish

We finished the daylight hours in Akershus Fortress overlooking Oslo Harbour and were blessed with a truly spectacular sunset from amongst the battlements, a great meal at Hanami for a very modern take Japanese and a few beers at Jarmann. This recently re-opened gastro pub now specialises in craft beer and has a cosy outdoor area which seems unusually typical of a country as cold as Norway. I ordered an Amundsen Pale Ale which was light and hoppy and seemed like the perfect end to the day. I also enjoyed the stronger hoppier variant the Amundsen Ocean IPA.
I can't think of a better place to watch the sun set than the walls of a medieval castle overlooking the harbour as the last ferry leaves for the day.*
*No photo editing or filters on this shot, just the standard phone camera!

Wrap Up

Well that about wraps things up for my first beery adventure blog post. Whether you've made it this far or skipped to the end I hope you found some of this interesting. Please remember to like, comment, post and share this blog with others you think might enjoy it. Don't forget to also get in touch and tell us what I'm doing right, what we're doing wrong, what you liked or didn't like along with any recommendations for future global adventures with beer!

One final request - please remember to take the time to explore and think about the ethical issues raised in this post and also share them with others.

Summary: Norway (Oslo and Tromsø)

Best Advice: Wrap up warm!
Best local brews by: Nøgne Ø, 7 Fjell Bryggeri,
Other notable brews by: Mack Brewery, Amundsen 

Things to do whilst there: Oslo - Akershus Fortress Sunset & Nobel Peace Prize Museum. Tromsø - Whale Watching & Northern Lights
Things to do before you go: Buy warm clothes, Get a bank loan!

Thanks for Your Support!

1 comment:

  1. Fab blog Matt - a really interesting read, I'd love to take the boys there to see the Orcas in the wild. Hope you and Laura are both well x