Studying one of the best beers in the world
The world's fifth (!) best new beer is brewed in Gvarv in Telemark. However, ‘beer farmers’ Ingeborg Lindheim and Eivin Eilertsen want to keep on developing both themselves and their products. Nofima Food Research Institute is a part of the exciting process of breaking new ground in the art of brewing.
The current keyword is spontaneous fermentation of beer.
Eivin Eilertsen and Ingeborg Lindheim own and operate the Lindheim Gård fruit farm. Fruit farming has long traditions at the farm in Telemark. But then there was Eivin’s great interest in beer. Could the fruit and beer be combined in some way?
The combination is quite unusual, but the couple behind Lindheim Ølkompani wanted to exploit the resources the farm commands. With great raw materials on its doorstep, they use their own fruit in many of their beers. Sour cherries, plums, raspberries, blackcurrants and morello cherries find their way into the beer vats.
They found inspiration to combine beer and fruit in untraditional ways in Belgian Lambic. It is here the method of allowing beer to spontaneously ferment instead of adding yeast is most developed. Eivin started up in 2014 – and was soon left with a series of questions on the process and optimisation that he was unable to resolve himself – and was unable to find information on. The idea of a research project thus arose.
“I have a Master’s degree in epidemiology myself, so I’m not unfamiliar with science. However, even on a global scale there is relatively little research into this way of brewing beer. For this reason, bringing scientists on board has been very exciting”, the ‘beer farmer’ says.
The couple were awarded project funds to develop the brewing process through research from Oslofjordfondet. And the expertise to start development came from the technical-industrial research institution Tel-Tek and Nofima Food Research Institute.
Ferments by itself
Water, yeast, malt and hops. Those are the traditional ingredients for boiling wort and brewing beer. But there is another way:
Lambic is a very special type of beer that is produced exclusively in Belgium. There are similar types of beer in the USA, but there it is called ‘coolship ale,’ as the Lambic name is protected. In Norway this type of beer is often called ‘sour beer,’ as it has a distinctively sour note. The method is special in that yeast is not added to the beer when brewing, but that the wort instead is cooled in open cooling vats (koelschip in Dutch/Flemish), so that microorganisms from the air and surroundings join the mix. After cooling, the cooled wort is transferred to wooden barrels – which also have their share of microorganisms. The beer is stored in the wooden barrels for quite some time, from one and up to six years. The beer thus ferments ‘by itself’, and such beer is thus often called spontaneously fermented beer. The microorganisms that have contaminated the wort start to grow, and this is how the spontaneous fermentation process arises.
Fermentation is a catabolic reaction in which sugar is converted to alcohol, acids and carbon dioxide by the microorganisms. This also takes place in normal brewing, but in this case by adding specific yeasts and bacteria. The types of yeast and bacteria found in spontaneously fermented beer are different and result in a very characteristic taste. It was such a process and taste Eivin Eilertsen and Ingeborg Lindheim wanted to achieve for their farm and their beer.
– Particularly qualified
“The owners of Lindheim Ølkompani have a vision that the fruit farm makes it ideal to achieve this process. The microorganisms that provide the desired fermentation in spontaneously fermented beer normally reside on fruit, among other things. Our role is to take numerous samples of the air, fruit, cooling vats and the finished product and then analyse these. Using modern DNA-based methods, we can analyse entire microbe communities with greater accuracy than ever. This method – which only a few professional communities in Norway are capable of carrying out – in combination with general fermentation expertise, make us particularly well-suited to identify the conditions for spontaneous fermentation. For example at what time of the year it is most favourable to start the fermentation process, how long the process needs, and so on,” says Lars Axelsson with Nofima. He is senior researcher in the field of safe and preservable food, and heads the research on beer.
The researcher can help give the brewer answers to just the questions he wants to ask:
“In Belgium they carry out the fermentation processes between October and April. Is that when it is most favourable in Telemark too? Or is it – as I believe – more favourable here in the autumn, when there is a natural high level of airborne microbes? I can’t find answers to these questions in textbooks. And I can’t carry out the experiments that can provide the answers myself,” Eivin Eilertsen says.
Because it takes several years to produce spontaneously fermented beer, it would be ‘nice to know’ as early as possible how the process can be optimised.
In the context of research projects, the Lindheim beer project is a small one. However, researcher Lars Axelson is positive towards using food research institute Nofima’s experts to develop niche products too. In the past 14 years more than 50 microbreweries have been established in Norway. Beer is the new black. The research at Lindheim will thus in all likelihood be relevant for others in the brewing community.
“And this beer thing is interesting too,” Axelsson smiles.
Brewer Eilertsen couldn’t agree more with the latter statement. So let it be that at times it can be difficult to be a good scientist while also being a good brewer.
“To me it’s important that the beer is good. Preferably I would like to take action to optimise the beer all the time. For example mix the contents of several of the storage vats when evaporation makes it natural to do so. But then I would muddy the research. And it does take a while, this research. And all the samples that have to be taken can coincide in time with other tasks I would prefer to be doing,” Eivin Eilertsen says.
Even though the project at Lindheim is small in a research context, is huge for Eivin and Ingeborg – both financially and in every other way in their life.
“All in all I am quite content that our beer is the subject of research – and with the answers it may provide,” Eivin Eilertsen says.
Among the world’s best
The result of the brewer’s painstaking work and enthusiasm has already become so good that the Lindheim beers achieved fifth place out of more than 3,800 beers when one of the world’s largest beer sites, RateBeer, published its annual ranking of the world’s best new beers in 2015. It isn’t just a lucky punch for one type of beer, but an assessment and feedback on the entire selection from Lindheim that forms the basis for the ranking. Albeit not the spontaneously fermented type, which is still at an experimental stage.
RateBeer’s list is considered an unofficial world championship in brewing, and Lindheim Ølkompani is described by the website as “The new star on the Norwegian beer scene, exploding out of nowhere”.
By expanding the selection with a Lambic-inspired beer, Lindheim Ølkompani hopes to further cement its position as one of Norway’s most unique microbreweries.
The Norwegian Association of Brewers: Great interest
Managing Director Petter Nome of the Norwegian Association of Brewers believes Nofima’s research on the Lindheim beer will be studied with great interest in the sector.
“Many Norwegian small-scale breweries provide extremely high quality and receive broad international recognition. Among the small breweries there is a widespread culture for sharing everything from recipes, knowledge and expertise to practical assistance and exchange of raw materials. New experience from one brewery benefits all, and the Nofima project will be studied with great interest. These people are thirsty for knowledge!” Petter Nome says.
The head of the brewer’s association refers to the fact that beer brewing has been a central part of the Norwegian culinary tradition for almost 3,000 years. However, developments over the last decade are completely without precedent.
“Now more than 1,000 genuinely different beers are brewed by hundreds of small-scale breweries all over the country. This has also stimulated the large breweries who now offer beer styles that were virtually unknown in Norway only a few years ago: Stout, porter, IPA, pale ale, blonde, brown ale, wit,” Nome says.
The Managing Director believes that the fact that Nofima is researching new ground in the brewing industry is a form of recognition. But he isn’t particularly surprised that the art of brewing has become the subject of scientific interest.
“I compare the artisan brewing wave flooding across the world with world music. Melodies, syncopes, rhythms and sound travel across borders, are mixed with local traditions and creative invention among individual musicians/brewers. The new beer wave was inspired by Europe and developed in the USA, and now we see a clear tendency that local raw materials and old local brewing traditions are becoming a part of the mix and completely new tastes are arising. Norwegian small-scale breweries have used apples, cherries, pine shoots, birch sap, yarrow, honey, blackcurrants, ginger, sweet gale, oatmeal, meadowsweet, birch leaves and dandelion flowers to imbue their beers with new and exciting flavours,” Nome says.
He’s looking forward to what lies ahead.