I don’t really know what those lyrics mean. My sense is that the Beatles don’t really know either. After all, they did a LOT of drugs. Ultimately, the words aren’t important…I only referenced the song because I always think it looks classy to start a post with quotes or lyrics. The important thing here is the song title…”Norwegian Wood”. Why is it important? Because that’s the name of the beer I’m reviewing. That’s literally the only reason I quoted the song. I don’t even particularly like the song. But sometimes there’s a man…well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. Aw, I lost my train of thought here…
Norwegian Wood is a smoked beer produced by the Haand Bryggeriet outfit in…you’ll never guess…Norway! Haand is a small craft brewery (mostly run by just four guys) that produces quirky, interesting brews in a variety of different styles. The name translates to the “Hand Brewery” which symbolizes the hand-crafted nature of their beers. Their most famous creation on this side of the pond is the Norwegian Wood…a beer that epitomizes the blend of traditional and non-traditional brewing that Haand strives for…
Let’s digress and talk about malting for a minute. During the brewing process, the barley (or other grains) are allowed to germinate to a certain point by soaking them in water. The germination is then halted by subjecting the grain to dry heat in a process called “malting”. The purpose of this process is to release sugars…the key ingredient in making fermentation work since that’s what the yeast is feeding on. When the grain germinates, complex, stored carbohydrates are converted to simple sugars which the sprout burns as energy to grow. By halting the process with heat, the sprout stops growing and the converted sugars remain. This “malted barley” is the base ingredient in almost every beer you’ve ever consumed. It’s the gasoline that makes the fermentation engine go and it provides the color, body, and most of the flavor (unless you’re drinking a VERY hop-forward beer).
For most of the beers on Earth, the malting process takes place in some form of kiln. As you probably remember from pottery class, a kiln is basically just a big oven…a large, insulated thermal chamber where you can apply indirect heat to cook and dry an object. Since production-level brewing began a few centuries ago, almost every major brewery has kilned their malt which allows for easy control of temperature and fairly uniform drying/heating.
But such was not always the case. While kilning technology has been around for millenia, other methods were often used during the malting process. The most basic…and most obvious…was malting with the cheapest and easiest source of heat available to humanity…the sun. While sun-dried barley may sound wonderfully natural and pure, I suspect you can see the problems with this approach right away. Temperature regulation would be a bitch. Clouds and rain would completely screw up the process. It only works during daylight hours. And what’s to stop animals and insects from stopping by to ingest and/or poop in your lovely layers of drying grain? While sun-dried barley may have been the malting method of choice for many ancient peoples, it clearly wasn’t ideal.
But there’s another obvious method as well…one that helped inspire the Norwegian Wood. Quoth the Beavis: Fire!
Ah, fire. Second only to fermentation in the annals of human discovery. The use of fire in the malting process makes perfect sense. Unlike sun-drying, you have some control over temperature…plus you can do it year-round, in all sorts of weather, and even at night! Glorious! The one problem with this approach? Where there’s fire…there’s smoke. Drying malt over open flames certainly works, but the smoke created in the process adds a distinct flavor and aroma to the malted barley. Just like grilling meat, there’s no way to avoid that smoky acridity when fire is involved. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Who doesn’t enjoy a little smokiness in their bratwurst or steak? In some cooking styles, like Southern BBQ, that smokiness is the entire point! But for beer, which is a bit more “delicate” than a pig haunch, that smokiness can overpower the other flavors. That’s why you don’t see too many smoked beers on your package store shelves. They’re interesting…sometimes even great…but they’re more of a novelty than anything else. German-style Rauchbiers are the most common (Aecht Schlenkerla’s offerings being the most famous), but there are some great American smoked beers as well including smoked porters from both the Stone and Alaskan brewing companies.
The Norwegian Wood is a smoked beer made in a very traditional Norwegian style. According to the Haand website, farms in Norway used to be required to brew their own beer and most dried their malt over open flames. To counter that smoky flavor, the beers were “spiced” with juniper twigs and berries. Haand buys smoked malt from Bamberg, Germany (where most Rauchbiers are made) instead of smoking it themselves, but otherwise they stick to traditional methods. They use fresh juniper twigs with berries still attached and add them whole to the mash tun. The result is an intriguing dark beer replete with smoke and spruce and an excellent mouthfeel.
The Norwegian Wood pours a hazy mahogany color topped with a dollop of tan foam that lingers for awhile before disappearing into wispy, oily lace. The smoke dominates the nose, of course, but it isn’t that overwhelming “bacon” aroma you get from other Rauchbiers. Instead, it’s a nice, subtle, smoky foundation that allows faint hints of juniper and spruce to shine through and a goodly dose of sweet, dark malt. Much better balance than other European smoked beers.
The taste, like the nose, is smoke-forward. It’s got an unctuous, bacony flavor which is both delicious and disconcerting at the same time. The juniper and spice is a little more present in the taste than it was in the nose, but it’s still extremely subtle and I wouldn’t have noticed it if I didn’t know it was there. The malt sweetness comes through nicely in the middle of sip before again giving away to the smoke in the finish. The mouthfeel is oily and viscous, but has wonderful effervescence which keeps it light and frothy on the tongue.
Drinkability is low, of course…smoked beers are the antithesis of session beers. But as far as the style goes, I found it to be a very enjoyable sipping beer. A definite winner from the fine folks at Haand. 3 Hops for a well-crafted traditional brew.