Nobody appreciates hometown flavor like the globetrotter, or like the prodigal child who returns. Just ask Torkjel Austad.
This well-traveled beer enthusiast, brewer, and software engineer lived, studied, and worked abroad, including in Japan, for many years before returning home to Norway. As his work took him around the world—and he began homebrewing with colleagues—he always made a point to enjoy the local beers, wherever he was.
Then he came home to rediscover his own.
Austad’s family hails from Setesdal, on the upper end of a valley that runs inland from Norway’s southern coast. It takes about 90 minutes to drive there from the sea—“It’s a very long valley,” he says—thus it’s one of those isolated places where old brewing traditions survive. Even the dialect there is different—similar to Icelandic, and nearer in kin to Old Norse than modern Norwegian is.
About 120 years ago, Austad says, every farm in this rugged area was still brewing its own beer, each with its own kveik. Brewing around Setesdal is no longer universal, but there are still a few who keep it going. In 2017, Austad learned that one of those was a relative: his mom’s third cousin, Jon Rysstad, who was then in his mid-70s. So, Austad reached out to ask if he could join Rysstad for a brewing session.
“There were a lot of interesting things because [there are] a lot of old beliefs when it comes to brewing,” Austad says. “He still believes that you can only brew when the size of the moon is increasing—when it’s going toward full moon. You cannot brew when it’s going the other way.” There were many such superstitions in the old days “because it was so important that the beer would turn out well—very important, because people put a lot of labor into it, and people were very poor. They were using some of the best grains they had on the farm for beer-brewing—grains that could have been used for food.”
Like many other farmhouse brewers, Rysstad brews with juniper-infused water. Juniper is useful stuff, if you can get it—it adds flavor and color, has antibacterial and preservative properties, and is available in Norway year-round. Among traditional brewers, opinions differ on when it’s best to use the juniper tips—when there are no berries, when there are berries, or even when those berries are green or when they’re blue. After using them to infuse the mash water, those twigs can also go into the bottom of the mash tun to serve as a filter. Lautering tends to happen slowly, over many hours.
Unlike some other brewers, Rysstad boils his wort for a long time, to get a denser wort and stronger beer. Another divergence: Rysstad uses baker’s yeast instead of kveik, which has disappeared in Setesdal. Austad is now working with researchers to find residual kveik on old kveik rings and vessels from the area, to see whether they can resuscitate it.
However unusual Rysstad’s own brewing methods, the experience was more than enough to give Austad the bug. He began learning everything he could about the surviving traditions, visiting the brewers when possible—sometimes with Lars Marius Garshol—and collecting different kveiks, too. He frequently experimented in brewing with various methods and kveiks at home—and he became known for it, taking his beer to share at the Norsk Kornølfestival in Hornindal, an annual gathering dedicated to Norwegian farmhouse ales.
Despite rising interest in these traditional beers, in Norway and overseas, that festival remains one of the few places where people can reliably try them.
In that gap, Austad sees an opportunity.
“I saw I can help educate people about Norwegian beer heritage,” he says. “We have something really special that more people—both in Norway and around the world—should get the chance to learn more about and taste.”
So, he launched Bygland Bryggeri to make more of those kinds of beers commercially.
The Beers of Bygland
Bygland is the name of Austad’s hometown, in the Setesdal valley, and the name of his brand. He currently contract-brews beers at a few different commercial breweries in the region while building out a brewery of his own in Bygland. Virtually all his beers have names in Setesdal’s old-timey dialect, drawn from folklore and colorfully illustrated.
The range includes a few different IPAs, a blonde ale, a brown ale, and a stout, among others. Yet all of them are fermented with various kveiks. There is one exception: the pilsner, which gets lager yeast. “But the pilsner has juniper-infused water,” he says. “So, we have an element of tradition in there.”
For the traditionalists—or anyone simply curious about the farmhouse ales—he produces a special series of beers called For the Love of Kveik. The art on these cans features the kveik ring, and each beer features a different yeast—Espe, Framgarden, Stalljen, and so on. The brewing technique borrows from traditional farmhouse methods: They’re raw ales, not boiled; the mash water is juniper-infused; they ferment very warm, typically about 86°F (30°C).
Because the beers need to be safely canned, Austad adds a precaution: After runoff, he heats the wort to 176°F (80°C) for at least 30 minutes to pasteurize it without boiling. However, he doesn’t go higher than that, to minimize the risk of breaking down some DMS precursors that could create some nasty off-flavors.
“When I do homebrewing, I never heat it up after the mash,” Austad says. “I just run out the wort, and [I’m] done with it. But we do this as an extra measure at the commercial brewery.”
That’s also when they add the hops at the brewery: in the whirlpool, before cooling it to fermentation temperature. It adds flavor and preservative qualities without much bitterness. Typically, Norwegian farmhouse ales are not bitter at all, and brewers use different methods to add hops, including hop teas. (Another trick that Austad uses at home is running off the wort over a mesh bag of hops, then removing it before pitching the yeast.)
Below are more tips from Austad for anyone, anywhere, taking a crack at these traditional, kveik-fermented farmhouse beers—whether at home or in a commercial brewery.
On the juniper twigs
“They don’t need to be super fresh. As long as they are green, they can be used weeks after harvesting, as long as they are kept cool. Berries don’t really matter, in my experience.
“There are three factors to juniper infusion that are equally important to its strength: amount, temperature, and time. I generally use half a normal grocery shopping bag of juniper and either leave it [in the mash water] overnight or give it a quick boil for two or three minutes. How much juniper character you want is really individual [taste], though.”
On kveik pitch rates
“If using original or self-stored kveik, you can generally pitch a spoonful of kveik for 19 liters (5 gallons). I always recommend a starter, so you can evaluate the health of the kveik, especially if you haven’t used it for months. Some say you should under-pitch to stress the kveik and get more esters—but you do risk ending up with too high of a final gravity.”
On harvesting kveik
“I recommend top-cropping. Simply scoop some yeast from the kräusen into a sanitized jar and keep it cool for up to a year. That yeast is viable and healthy. After you have collected the kveik in a jar—and this only goes for top-cropping—you can put it in the fridge. But it’s important to only fill the [jar] half full, as it will expand. For the same reason, the lid must not be tightly sealed, as the jar will explode. When the kveik has settled, it will sink to the bottom and wort will be on top. After a few days, pour out any wort leftovers. You can keep the kveik this way, wet, for at least a year.
“You can then choose to dry the kveik at about 30°C (86°F) for several hours. Drying the kveik is usually done by spreading it on baking paper. You can use a fruit/mushroom drier—or the kitchen oven on the lowest temperature, but keeping the door open, to not go much above 35°C (95°F). Then break it into pieces and keep it in a freezer, where it will last forever.”
On the shelf life of raw ale
“Raw ale is great fresh but also, generally, can be drunk long after bottling [or canning]. The main difference is [whether] you use original kveik cultures, which often contain bacteria, or pure kveik yeast coming from labs. Beer using original kveik with bacteria will more often change character with storage. Some might become [tart]—but that doesn’t mean it will be a bad beer, just different. Raw ale with pure lab-cultured kveik has just as long a storage life as other beers in similar styles, like saison or other farmhouse ales. The fruitier esters from the kveik might fade a bit—but that’s it. I’ve [had] two- and three-year-old canned or kegged raw ales that still taste great.”