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Arthur's last brew in ale's Lost World

Should you leave Britain's shores by a northeasterly route, you may discover that the next city is Bergen, Norway, in which case you will be well on the way to a Lost World of brewing and beer culture.

From Bergen, I took the country train on a journey of about an hour and a half to the resort of Voss, where people go to fish for salmon or to ski. Was this the train that Arthur Apulethun had until recently driven, I was to wonder later?

A year or two after his retirement, Arthur Apulethun learned that he would soon die. He called his daughters Gerd and Anne-Magrethe and communicated to them his last wish: "I would like to think that our family will always have beer to give our guests, and that it will be a brew we ourselves have made. I don't know whether you girls can brew, but I would like you to try." Arthur died in the summer of 1988, and one of his legacies to his daughters was a small stock of barley malt. Since then, the sisters have made beer four times, but they have saved their father's malt for their summertime brews.

Each July, they have made a brew to commemorate their father. They have made sure to brew it before July 21, after which local lore dictates that, even in the mountains of Norway, the weather is too warm for malting or brewing or the hanging of meat.

These practices may not be resumed until the "dog days" of summer are gone, when there will be new barley to harvest and plump lambs to slaughter.

"Our malt is still our father's. Our yeast is, and will always be, our father's. It is his yeast, and it is still alive. When it gives us beer, it is like being with our father again. It means home and family and sociability," Gerd said to me.

From Voss, it is about 10 miles, the last couple on rocky tracks through dense forest, to the clearing and the spruce cabin where the sisters brew.

In the middle of the cabin is an open fire, above which their cauldron-like brew kettle is suspended from a metal crossbar. When they are not brewing, sides of meat can be hung to smoke. Or the fire can be partially covered with a metal hotplate on which crisp-bread can be baked.

"When we decide to come here, we don't tell our husbands we are going to brew," Anne-Margrethe told me. "We say we are coming to clean the place. Our husbands are not good brewers. When we made our first brew, they said we had beginners' luck." Family code was different in Arthur Applethun's day. He would ask his wife to get up at five in the morning to light the wood fire beneath the kettle. Her orders were to call him when it was boiling.

As well as being an engine driver, Arthur had a smallholding, by the cabin, where he kept horses and sheep. People would pass the cabin on their way to their own smallholdings.

Until the 1960s, most people travelled by pony-and-trap or, in winter, sledge. If Arthur had a stock of beer ready, he would go out and work his horses, in the hope that neighbours would pass and be tempted to join him for a drink.

In the Voss area, perhaps eight out of 10 farmers make their own beer. Whoever is brewing sends involuntary signals of smoke and steam from the vent on the gable of his cabin, and soon all the neighbours are there to help.

Each will bring along "one I made earlier." The sisters think of family and sociability, but for most participants the ritual is one of male bonding.

Brewhouses become public. They are fundamental public houses, in which no money changes hands.

If Arthur Applethun's wife thought his sociability was getting out of hand, she would secretly decant some of his stock into bottles and bury them in marshland near the cabin.

In a day or two, he would start complaining that his stock was exhausted, and that he really fancied a beer. She would pop out and magically return with a glass full.

A sample of their brew was fetched out by the sisters for me to taste. They were worried that, having been brewed in early July, it might be past its best.

It had an orangey color, not unlike that of the Belgian monastery beer Orval. In palate, it also reminded me of a Belgian beer - a traditionally dry Lambic. Despite its intense dryness, it was very drinkable and refreshing.

Each brewer in the area has his own ideas as to how his beer should taste. The sisters like theirs to be smoky. Their favourite combination is home-brew and salted, smoked sheep's head. The latter is a ritual delicacy. Once the new season's lambs are slaughtered, the people of the valleys around Voss look forward to the sheep's head festivals of early October. The sheep's head season continues until the last Sunday before Christmas.

"Home-brew and sheep's head!" one of the sisters exclaimed to me. "Without the home-brew, you may as well leave the head on the sheep."

That evening, I drank home-brew with sheep's head, obeying the injunction to begin with the soft fat behind the eye. People who did not grow up in the rural west of Norway (and did not) find it notoriously difficult to eat a smiling profile displayed on a plate ore them. It is a matter of honour to do so.

Once I had hardened myself against the rictus, the substance seemed mainly to be fat and skin and the odd scraping resembling what the British would call salt-beef and the Americans corned beef.

For my steadfastness (or insensitivity?), I was decorated with a silver lapel-pin in the shape of a sheep's head. There were further investitures involving men and women wearing helmets spiked with bulls' horns.

At a later stage of the evening, I seem to recall drinking from a vessel shaped like a truncated Viking longship, with dragons' heads for handles.

Next morning, at about 7, I headed breathlessly up the hillside with Svein Rivenes, who farms sheep and horses while doubling as head of Public Works for the Rural District of Voss. Svein was carrying a saw, with which he set about a juniper bush. He cut enough branches to fill the 700-litre, bath-shaped tank that serves as the hot liquor vessel and kettle in his brewhouse -once again, a pruce cabin. Juniper features strongly in the agricultural brewing traditions of Norway, and in similar customs in Sweden and Finland. The latter's rustic brewing practices also overlap with those of Russia. The juniper serves several purposes. Svein felt that the branches (bearing berries) in the hot liquor helped him achieve a better extract from the malt, and acted as a preservative.

His water source is a stream that tumbles down the juniper-clad hillside and right past his brewhouse. He places sacks of barley in the stream, so that the grain will germinate.

A neighbour has turned his garage into a kiln, powered by a domestic fan-heater, to complete the malting.

W hen the hot liquor has been added to the malt, the mash is run over more juniper twigs to filter the wort. Although the juniper also adds flavour, the wort is nonetheless boiled with hops. The yeast has been passed

from one generation to the next, and Svein likes to think it dates from Viking times.

Svein gave me a beer he had made earlier, at a brew-in with the local sheriff, as it turned out. Svein likes his beer to be malty. It was, with lots of fruity tastes but not to the overpowering degree that can afflict some home-brew.

It was clean and appetizing, with a syrupy body, a great deal of flavour, and a notable juniper character. Like most of the home-brews I tasted, it probably had a good nine or 10 per cent alcohol.

As in most of the Nordic countries, Protestant influence has brought extreme restrictions on the commercial sale of alcohol. This has not inhibited home-brewing in the rural West, it is too deeply rooted in the local Norse culture.

Indeed, I would not describe it as home-brewing at all. I would call it agricultural brewing on a community scale.

To interfere with that might anger the pre-Christian Norse god Kvase, who became a bird in order to steal the secret of beer from Odin.

Does the name Kvase remind you of anything? To me, it recalls Kvass, the beer-like drink made from bread in Russia. Bread was also used as the first step to beer by the Sumerians, at the beginning of civilisation.

In a relatively short journey, I believe that in Voss I touched upon a link to the birth of beer and of civilisation.

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: DEC 1, 1991
In: What's Brewing

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