Monday, April 20, 2015

Looking for polar beer on Svalbard

The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard isn't the most accessible tourist destination. Its remoteness, located about halfway between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole, combined with a very limited number of hotel beds make it necessary to plan well ahead for a visit to the main settlement of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen.

I was fortunate enough to be part of a group going to Svalbard to witness the total solar eclipse on the 20th of March 2015, but because every hotel bed was taken and the prices on private accommodations had sky-rocketed we ended up renting a small ship in the Port of Longyearbyen. Though my main motivation was the solar eclipse (which turned out amazing, by the way) I also wanted to explore the beer scene as I had heard about some interesting developments recently.

View of Hiorthfjellet across Adventfjorden on Svalbard

A few words about Svalbard
Before delving into the issue of beer you may want to know a little bit about the history and geography of Svalbard and how to get there. Svalbard is a group of Arctic islands, located between 74° and 81° north latitude and 10° and 35° east longitude. It means you've basically got 4 months of darkness, 4 months of midnight sun and two months in the spring and two months in the autumn with both daylight and dark nights. Winters can be brutally cold, often at -20 C or below for weeks, while summers are rarely what you'd call warm - the highest temperature measured on Svalbard is 21.3 C at the airport in 1979.

The largest and only inhabited island is that of Spitsbergen, where you'll find Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Ny-Ålesund in decreasing order of population. The majority, 2185 persons at the start of 2015 [SSB], live in Longyearbyen while the Russian settlement in Barentsburg has around 500 inhabitants.

Since 1925 Svalbard has officially been part of the Kingdom of Norway, but it's largely an autonomous part and not included in the Schengen agreement - so you're leaving Europe when going there. The islands are open for industrial development from all nations that have signed the Svalbard treaty, but today there are mainly Russian and Norwegian companies on Svalbard.

While whaling and trapping were important sources of income in earlier times and coal mining the driving force of the 20th century, Svalbard of the 21st century is turning more towards polar tourism and Arctic research. Spitsbergen is home to SvalSat, the largest satellite ground station in the world, the EISCAT radars for atmospheric research and the Kjell Henriksen Observatory for northern lights research. Longyearbyen also has a modern University Center with around 600 students and 69 professors from 44 countries, they make up 25% of the town's population!

Port of Longyearbyen - an ice free port in the Arctic

Because of the Gulf Stream, Longyearbyen at 78° north is the northernmost ice free harbor in the world, and therefore a great starting point for polar expeditions. Longyearbyen or Longyear City was founded by the American owned Arctic Coal Company in 1906 and named after its owner, John Munro Longyear, in 1926. For a long time the town remained a male dominated, coal miners settlement but since the early 1990s an effort has been made to make it more family friendly and today many young families live there. For a population of a little over two thousand it's quite impressive to find three kindergartens and a large public school.

As a visitor to Svalbard you'll be limited to stay inside Longyearbyen, venturing outside is forbidden unless you carry a gun or go with a local (who carries a gun). The reason is that Svalbard has a larger population of polar bears than people, though the majority of the bears live far away from Longyearbyen they can trek over long distances in a short time. People have been killed near Longyearbyen and the most recent attack took place on the morning of the total eclipse when a tent camp was taken by surprise and a man injured (only the bear died).

As mentioned in the intro you need to plan your visit well ahead as hotel beds are scarce. And I do underline well ahead, because apparently, from time to time, less enlightened visitors arrive at the airport in Longyearbyen only to find out that there are no rooms available. Anywhere. And they can't stay at the airport (which closes at night) or at the bus station (there is no such thing). So do plan well ahead of going there. You can catch a plane directly from Oslo or Tromsø on the mainland to Longyearbyen.

Arriving in Longyearbyen you'll find most of the interesting places within a short 10 minutes walk, along the pedestrian street that goes from the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel to the Kroa restaurant. Along this 500 meter long street you'll find two shopping malls (Svalbardbutikken and Lompensenteret), the only bank and post office, a decent coffee bar (Rabalder) and a nice café (Fruene) as well as several pubs and restaurants. Let's start from the top of the street and head downhill to the Radisson hotel.

View down the pedestrian street in Longyearbyen

Kroa which can be translated as "The Inn" is a popular restaurant and bar in Longyearbyen, according to one of the bartenders it fills up pretty much every day during the tourist season from May to August but less so during the dark winter months. During my visit in late March it was pretty crowded so I made sure to get there early in the afternoon to secure a seat at the bar.

The restaurant has been built with the same kind of material used by trappers of old, worn wooden planks brought along from the mainland. The walls are covered with old weapon and traps, some old photographs too, while tables and benches are of solid wood. The place radiates a nice old atmosphere.

Though the bar offers mainly hard liquors, ranging from Gin and Cognac to Whisky and Akevitt, Kroa has started to expand its beer menu and now offers several types from BrewDog, Sierra Nevada, Ægir and Nøgne Ø. And in proper glassware too. But so far, all the interesting beers are in bottle only, on tap they offered just Mack Arctic and Mack Bayer. I enjoyed a fairly fresh Sierra Nevada Torpedo, which came as a nice surprise. According to a bartender I spoke to, Kroa will start to import beer from Gotlands Bryggeri in Sweden.

As for the food at Kroa you get large portions of simple (i.e. not fancy) dishes for a reasonable price, I enjoyed both fish and meat dishes and would certainly recommend Kroa just for the food and atmosphere.

Enjoying Nøgne Ø at Kroa

Svalbar Pub
Right next to Kroa you'll find Svalbar Pub, which focuses on food and cocktails but apparently has a good selection of beer too. Because I got the wrong vibes when I looked inside - it felt more like a modern, soulless cocktail bar than a beer place - I actually never explored the place. But I'd like to mention it since their website claims that Svalbar Pub has the best and largest beer selection in Longyearbyen, so it might be worth checking out. Especially if the cocktail bar atmosphere doesn't bother you.

Karlsberger Pub
Karlsberger Pub first opened up in October 1997, making it one of the oldest pubs in Longyearbyen. It's located inside the Lompensenteret building, at the southern end next to the Thai restaurant; if you come from Kroa take the first entrance and then, as soon as you get inside, the first door to the left. I actually walked past the entrance on my first visit because there are no windows into the pub and the door doesn't look much like a pub entrance.

Once inside, the atmosphere that greets you is the most authentic pub feel you'll get in Longyearbyen, with proper furniture and a long bar curving along two of the walls. Like Kroa, Karlsberger Pub offers mainly hard liquor with an impressive selection of Cognac and Armagnac but also a small bottled beer menu which included Danish brewery Ugelris in addition to BrewDog, Sierra Nevada and Nøgne Ø.

I really enjoyed my visits to Karlsberger Pub, with the friendly bartenders and cozy atmosphere, but would have liked a bit larger beer menu to choose from.

The door to Karlsberger Pub inside Lompensenteret

Barentz Pub & Spiseri
Named after the Dutch polar explorer, Wilhelm Barentsz (1550-1597), who discovered and named Spitsbergen, Barentz Pub & Spiseri is located inside Radisson Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen. It sports a large beer menu, the largest I found in Longyearbyen. Again, most of the beer were on bottle only.

The drawback of the location inside a hotel is that you end up with a feeling of "after ski", not a pub feeling, with people from all over the globe dressed up in ski gear (at least in March) coming for a drink or a quick snack. The kitchen, by the way, is pretty good, it's the same one used by Restaurant Nansen.

Still, with more than 30 types of beer, including several Norwegian micros (Lervig, Ægir, HaandBryggeriet and Nøgne Ø), I enjoyed a couple of hours early one afternoon. And you can't fault a pub that serves the Belgian trappist beer Orval, surely the northernmost pub to do so!

In addition to a developing pub scene in Longyearbyen there is also a couple of potential craft breweries in the making, I visited the one under construction and had the opportunity to talk with one of the owners of the other.

Svalbard Bryggeri
This spring the first brewery in Longyearbyen is being constructed near the harbor, with the shores of the Advent fjord on one side and the main road from the airport to Longyearbyen on the other. When Svalbard Bryggeri opens up later this year, it will be as the northernmost brewery in the world - according to my own GPS readings at 78,22° North. True, there already is a brewery in Barentsburg but the Russian settlement is located at 78,04° N so Svalbard Bryggeri will clinch the title.

The story of Svalbard Bryggeri goes back several years and revolves around helicopter pilot and current Base Commander at Lufttransport in Longyearbyen, Robert Johansen. He had been brewing at home in Tromsø, on the mainland, for some years when he started wondering why the old law prohibiting production of alcohol on Svalbard was still in effect. So he started lobbying the government to make them repeal the law. After five years and numerous letters, emails and phone calls Johansen met with success when the law was finally repealed on July 1st 2014.

Andreas Hegermann Riis (l) and Robert Johansen (r)
taking a 5 minute break inside the future brewery hall

Originally, Johansen just wanted to establish a small brewery to supply a couple of local pubs. He hired the experienced brewmaster, Andreas Hegermann Riis, who has brewed at Oslo Mikrobryggeri, HaandBryggeriet, Dronebrygg and Grünerløkka Brygghus to help him design and build the brewery. Hegermann Riis convinced Johansen that he should think bigger, given that the annual beer consumption in Longyearbyen is 400-450 thousand liter. So the plans were scaled up and a large, 750 square meter warehouse at the Port of Longyearbyen acquired.

When I visited the future brewery in late March, the reinforced concrete floor had been laid but no brewery equipment yet arrived. According to Johansen and Hegermann Riis the brewery will initially consist of a 20 HL brewing kettle and four large 80 HL fermentation tanks. A modern bottling, canning and kegging line will also be installed, allowing Svalbard Bryggeri to provide beer both to shops, restaurants and pubs locally and on the mainland. The brewery has been custom designed by Hegermann Riis and an Italian company.

If all goes well, the brewery may open up this summer.

Trappers Brewhouse
I don't know that much about this brewery which seems to be very early in the planning stages but I believe the idea is to create a small brewery or brewpub to supply Kroa, Karlsberger Pub and perhaps a few other places since people involved in those establishments are among the owners - Steve Daldorff Torgersen owns Karlsberger Pub and the newly opened Gruvelageret restaurant while Jørn Kjetil Hansen is the daily manager of Steakers Svalbard (Kroa).

I did speak briefly to one of the owners and it seems this project is still very uncertain, though some small scale test batches have been brewed.

Despite lagging mainland Norway in the ongoing beer revolution, Svalbard shows signs of an awakening and with the opening of Svalbard Bryggeri later this year I'm sure beer enthusiasts will have much to look forward to, in addition to the breathtaking Arctic nature.

View in through a window at the new Gruvelageret restaurant

Photo sets from my visit to Svalbard in March 2015 can be found at Flickr.

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