Friday, May 10, 2013


It's been nearly five years since I had my first beer from Norway's HAANDBRYGGERIET and coined the ingenious marketing catchphrase, "Haand Me A Haandbryggeriet", which I'm still baffled they're not using in all of their marketing and press materials. Since then I've tried numerous bottles from them, which are brought into the US via world-changing Shelton Brothers importers, and not once has a Haandbryggeriet beer been anything less than better than just about everyone else's. They're easily my favorite non-Belgian "international" brewer, and I've been trying to make the case on this blog and my previous blog that they're one of the more wildly inventive, wickedly experimental and yet reverently "traditional" brewers on the planet. If you haven't tried Norwegian Wood, Odin's Tipple, Fyr & Flamme, Royk Uten Ild, Dobbel Dram or any of the others – you're missing something pretty special.

So my trip to Norway last month got me comfortable with Norwegians in general. They're pretty fantastic people, by and large - and they're deservedly proud of their exploding craft beer culture. I figured, what the heck – let's interview Haandbryggeriet. Head brewer and co-founder JENS MAUDAL was kind enough to answer Beer Samizdat's emailed questions about his brewery and beermaking passion; the result is this Q&A.

BEER SAMIZDAT: You mention on your web site that you were 4 guys who loved beer and had traveled around Europe tasting it, and decided to finally start making it yourself. When was this? Tell us a little bit about how you built the brewery from that point.

Jens Maudal: Myself, I started homebrewing in 1989, and got to know other brewers just after that. I remember that in those days we were very few people doing this activity, and we had great difficulty finding the raw materials and equipment needed. We basically had to make it. The only available beer we could find was pilsner; this country was a 100% lager country. Apart from Pilsner we had pale and dark munich, that was it. The terrible thing was that consumers were proud of this local beer.They didn't know of anything else.

As we brewed more and more beer styles ourselves and became more and more fed up with the local Pilsner, we started to travel around Europe seeking out the gems. This was a real eye-opener. In those days my job was in textiles, and the Chinese took all the production. We had been thinking of starting a small brewery for a long time, and when my workplace closed down we decided to move ahead. This was in 2005; we scraped together a small amount of cash and went off to the UK to look at some (very simple) brewing equipment. It was cheap, and to us it looked great. The deal was made and the premises, a building I owned, was prepared for the brewery equipment to arrive.

To be honest, the first beers we made was far from great, and the trade was very slow. If we had known then what we know today we would never have started. The trade slowly picked up and we experienced a slow growth. We actually started out doing hand bottling, but soon found out that sitting and bottling by hand until midnight was not a good thing, so we soon got ourselves a small bottling machine.

BEER SAMIZDAT: How are decisions made amongst the 4 of you? You're the head brewer; do the others come up with recipes as well?

Jens Maudal: Regarding the recipes, it's been mostly me doing them. It's difficult to hit the correct flavor the first time out; in those days I did many trials on the homebrew equipment before we found the final recipe, but now we just do a big batch and hope for the best. It usually turns out OK.

BEER SAMIZDAT: What makes a "Norwegian" beer, and which beers of yours would you say are the most Norwegian?

Jens Maudal: Norway has a long beer tradition, beer has ben the most important drink for hundreds of years. In the old days the farmers were by law obliged to make their own beer for themselves and their employees. This beer tradition is still alive in some regions, and beer is still made the same way as in the old days. Haand was early out, reviving some of these beers. The first one out was the Norwegian Wood, made with Juniper branches and berries that we hand-pick in our local woods the day before brew day. We also use some smoked malt to try and give this beer the authentic flavours from the old days, when all malt was kilned over open fires.

We have also made a traditional harvest ale; this beer was made at every farm to be a thirst quencher for the farm workers.

In Norway we celebrated all important occasions in life with a toast of beer - like birth, christening, weddings, Xmas time and of course funerals, so we have made a funeral ale called Farewell, this was to toast the deceased off to a good journey to the next life.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Did you always have it in your mind to export Haandbryggeriet beers to the US and other parts of the world? Did demand for the beer drive that?

Jens Maudal: We never ever dreamed that we would export our beer, and we have never made any effort trying to do so. The first importer that made contact was Daniel Shelton of Shelton Brothers and we felt sky high. Just to think that they wanted our humble beers was just unbelievable. Since then we have been contacted by importers from all over the world, and we do our best to supply them.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Are there bottled beers of yours that are only sold in Norway, or is everything sent to your distributors?

Jens Maudal:
We don't export many of the session beers; importers around the world normally want the special beers, but we are seeing that this is slowly changing. Beer drinkers enjoy drinking more than two beers, and the very strong beers on the market get you drunk too quickly.

BEER SAMIZDAT: The history of your brewery sounds interesting, too -  a 200-year old building that's been used for many purposes over the year. Are there ways in which you use the building's history to your beer's advantage?

Jens Maudal: Yes the old building had lots of history and served us well for the first years until we sadly grew out of it. We have now moved the brewery to a hundred-year-old brick building that used to serve as a workshop for the old railway company. This building also has lots of history well-suited for the Haand image.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Some of your more well-known beers have very marketable "Scandinavian" names, like Odin's Tipple and Norwegian Wood. Are you looking to use local imagery and legends in how you name your beers?

Jens Maudal: Finding a name isn't always easy, sometimes it just gets you and other times you must work on it. For the historical beers it's easy to find good names, like the Norwegian Wood we wanted the name to reflect the beer's history and ingredients used, and that this also would be the name of a Beatles song didn't do any harm. We always try to find a name that will relate to something with the beer being either history, ingredients or other things.

BEER SAMIZDAT: What's been your most successful beer to date, and do you have a personal favorite of all the things you make?

Jens Maudal: It's hard to say which is the most successful beer, i.e. is it in terms of fame, flavour preferences, best selling, or what. Personally i like the Norwegian Wood because this is a very historically authentic Norwegian beer in terms of both methods and ingredients used, and i think it tastes good. It's very difficult to choose one of your children over the others. I always like the last new beer we make a lot. My favorite beers should be fruity, fresh, dry and flavourful, but it all depends on the season and your mode.

What does the rest of 2013 hold for Haandbryggeriet? Are you expanding or keeping things at its current level?

Jens Maudal: Haand is growing very fast and we have no idea where it will take us. We live day by day and just try as best we can to keep up with demand and make better quality beer every day. If we try and look 5 years ahead we will have grown a lot, that's for sure.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Finally, what are some of your favorite beers – beers that inspired you to do what you do (or continue doing what you do) at Haandbryggeriet?

Jens Maudal: Starting to drink beers other than simple lagers was a huge eye-opener, and I liked everything except the very sour Lambics that I now have learned to love so much. Great Pale Ales's, stouts and not to forget Belgian Saisons, Du Pont comes to mind and Rodenbach. The flavours were great, new and very exploring.

It's so many that I can't name them. Its not so much beers but styles that triggers me. Orval is an old favorite, I have always liked the wild yeast (brett) beers and Haand was very early with doing beer aged in wooden barrels, fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria. We are still exploring this field. Basically I like most beers and beer styles, right now IPA's are great - what will be the next?

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