Traditional Norwegian Kveik

To be honest with you, at first I didn’t have much interest in kveik, the strains of indigenous symbiotic yeast culture from Norway that seem to ferment at warp speed and at unusually high temperatures. From what little bit I’d heard about it, it seemed gimmicky, like a trend or fad that wouldn’t last long here in the U.S. Beyond the quick fermenting power of kveik — with its ability to turn around a beer from grain to glass in just a matter of days — I didn’t see what the hype was about. That was before I met Ivar A. Geithung. Ivar is a Norwegian homebrewer and family man who lives on a picturesque farmstead in Vossetrand, about 30 kilometers west of Voss, with his wife and four kids. He is passionately determined to keep alive a very old and traditional way of Norwegian farmhouse brewing, a way of brewing — and life — that he invited me to come from my home in Minnesota to see myself. What I learned during my week in Norway is that this method is about more than just kveik; it’s a generations-old story of a special wort made over the course of a very long brew day with culturally important local ingredients. The resulting beer is quite a treasure to behold.

Transatlantic Kveik Connection

Before I take you to Ivar’s brew cellar in Norway, let me tell you a bit about our transatlantic friendship prior to the trip, and how he and kveik won me over. As a fan and follower of my Chop & Brew homebrew web series and social media accounts, Ivar had direct access to my inbox. He first messaged me in the spring of 2017 via Facebook Messenger asking if I’d ever brewed with real kveik. I explained to him that I had not brewed with any kveik, let alone that which might not be whatever real meant to him. He was asking about native Norwegian kveik, true cultures of yeast — not the single, isolated strains made available by most North American yeast labs. 

In countless messages and conversations Ivar taught me about the many indigenous kveik strains in Norway, how they differ from one another, that each strain has a specific type of wort it prefers to ferment and a set of conditions it operates best under. He spoke with intensity, knowledge, joy, and nostalgia about kveik and the farmhouse traditions of his region of Norway. He graciously sent me dried flakes of kveik inside loose plastic wrap along with suggested recipes for making a wort that the yeast would go well with. Twice he sent me boxes containing multiple two-liter soda bottles filled with different versions of his homebrews, or haimabrygg, the ancient brew of Norway. They shared common characteristics in that they were rich-bodied with bold malt sweetness, a medium-to-high level of smoke, and a wonderful citrus flavor from the kveik that is complemented by a woody, piney taste from the use of juniper and alderwood. They were unlike any beer I’d ever had before, and I was immediately drawn to them.

His beers are fermented with a kveik strain originally given to him by Sigmund Gjernes, who also lives in the Voss area, and Ivar has kept going for years by both drying to store and pitching directly in liquid form from previous brews. His brews are made in what he and other brewers from the area call “the old style.” Per tradition, these beers are mashed high and for a long time in a wooden vessel called a gil, then boiled for many hours in a copper kettle over an open fire, and then brought back to the wooden gil where it is fermented at high temperatures. The first servings are drank directly from the fermenter on the third day of fermentation in a social event called oppskåke. So many things about this process seemed unreal and mystical. Check your modern homebrew assumptions at the door.

After nearly two years of communicating with Ivar online, watching short video clips he’d send at all hours of the day, following every link he sent me about the science, mystery, and magic of kveik, I finally took him up on the invitation to come to his home and experience the old way of brewing firsthand, to participate in two daylong brews, and visit with local brewers and historians. More than anything, he wanted me to learn about and document for others the importance of kveik to his area, to see that it’s not just a quick-fermenting culture of yeasts to be pitched into just any random style of beer, but that kveik is life itself. Ivar tells me that in the Voss region of Norway the word kveik means to bring life to, or to give life. 

“When you spark the fire under your brew kettle or on your kitchen stove,” he explains to me, “they say you kveik it. When a child is born, you say it is kveik’d into the world.” 

It was clear that this trip was going to be about much more than just a faster method of fermentation.

On Selland Farm, in the Motherland of Kveik

Before I tell you about the experience of brewing with Ivar at his home, I want to set the scene and describe some of the unique pieces of equipment used for brewing. My wife and I stayed with Ivar for a week on his farmstead called Selland, the name of his wife’s family who has lived there for many generations. Selland farm sits near the base of a forested mountain slope; below the farm there’s a beautiful lake called Opphemsvatnet surrounded by mountains. Around Ivar’s house are other previously functional sheds, barns, and other farm buildings, some housing agricultural and brewing artifacts. His wife’s uncle, a brewer himself in his earlier days, lives in another house on the farm.

Historically on the farm, as far back as the 1600s, brewing was done in a smaller farm building called an eldhus. This is where beer was brewed, flatbreads baked, meats and fish cured, dried, and smoked; it was a multifunctional space for producing food and beer. Beer brewing was central to Norway’s agricultural community. Each farm produced beer for the family, workers, and neighbors using ingredients grown on the farm: Barley and other grains, hops, and a special house kveik. Beer was brewed to celebrate holidays or changing of seasons, weddings and births, and was essential at funerals to properly honor the recently departed. (See the American Gravøl recipe at the end of this story for more on this).

“This kind of brewing is the strong pillar of the Norwegian peasant society,” says Ivar. “Everything was related to brew. If you made an important agreement or contract, that would be signed with brew. Then, over time, it was erased. Small, remote places took care of it. When the new Pilsner style of brewing came people just chose that instead. Even people who had copper kettles went for the modern way.” 

Selland does have a dilapidated eldhus that will one day be used for brewing activities again. Until then, however, Ivar has a unique brew space in the basement of his house.

Brewing the Old Way

Walking into Ivar’s brew cellar is like taking a trip back in time. Your attention is immediately drawn to the large deep-set hearth blackened by hundreds of years of fire and smoke. Inside of it a massive kettle is suspended by two thick chains that hang down from inside the chimney. It looks like a giant witch’s cauldron or something out of a fairy tale. The kettle is copper, rolled in one piece and nailed down one side. It holds about 48 gallons (180 L) of wort. I’m amazed when Ivar says that older kettles were even larger, built and nailed together from three separate pieces.

Near the door, atop a sturdy and well-supported bench, there is a large round wooden vessel, sort of like a barrel but straight-sided and much larger; it is equally as impressive as the kettle. This is the gil, the traditional dual-purpose mash tun and fermenter. The room smells of past fermentations, like mushrooms and smoky bread dough. With our senses fully captivated, we are ready to brew.

The first thing I need to say about brewing the old way is that it takes time. A lot of time. But that is part of the principle and philosophy of the brew, and Ivar says that out of respect of the tradition you cannot rush it. 

“Like the old brewers will tell you,” he says, “the best thing for your brew is patience. You have to do everything slow and wait for everything.” The brew day I’m about to describe took us about 13 hours from start to finish. It was intense, exhausting, and enlightening. It was also quite a social affair. People from the community see smoke coming from the chimney and they know Ivar’s brewing. Throughout the day friends and family come by to see what’s going on in the brew cellar, taste mash, smell the farm hops, and lend a hand. During the day, they bring food and coffee. In the late night and early morning hours they bring beer and laughter. They want to be a part of this old way of brewing.

The aforementioned kettle and gil are two larger pieces of equipment used for brewing. There is also a much smaller cast-iron kettle that will be used during mashing. Possibly the most important and symbolic item used during the brew is the kjenge, a traditional hard-carved wooden bowl with a handle. Kjenge come in all shapes and sizes and with different adornments; Ivar’s holds about two quarts (2 L) of liquid. Symbolically it is used for scooping, serving, and drinking from. But functionally, in the brew cellar it is also the scoop used to move water and/or grain and mash throughout almost every part of the daylong process. No pumps, hoses, or gravity systems here. This is a labor of love, moving hundreds of quarts/liters of mash and wort multiple times across the brew cellar one kjenge at a time. All. Day. Long.

Juniper branches and alderwood are added to the brewing water and heated in a massive kettle that hangs from chains over an open fire. 

Ingredients that are unique to this process and to the flavor of the brew include alderwood, juniper, and kveik. On this trinity of ingredients Ivar tells me, “If you ask one of the old brewers how long these things have been being used, they say ‘forever.’” Ivar says that juniper is considered a holy wood among Norwegians. You find it in cooking, in smoked and cured meats, soaps, in cleaning and sanitizing. Before hops, brewers used juniper as a means of bittering, flavoring, and preserving beer. 

The brew begins early in the day or even the night before by preparing the first sprakalog, or juniper-infused water, for mashing. The larger copper kettle is filled with water and many branches of juniper — the branch, green, and berries. Freshly chopped chunks of alderwood are also added to this first round of steeping water. Juniper provides a piney, herbal character to the water and resulting brew. The alderwood not only provides earthy, woody notes but also adds color as the wood oxidizes upon being cut and coming in contact with the water, lending a reddish-orange color to the water. Over the course of a few hours, this is brought to a near-boil and then allowed to cool a bit.

While this is happening, Ivar cleans the gil and constructs a layered filter in preparation for mashing. The wooden gil is cleaned using ash from the prior brew’s fire combined with the dried herb meadowsweet and some of the hot juniper-infused water; this ashy paste is brushed throughout the interior of the large wooden vessel and then rinsed. Once cleaned in this fashion, a filter bed is built from rostatre, pieces of jagged, slotted wood sanitized in the kettle; these are fitted into one another almost like a puzzle on the bottom of the gil in a way that leaves space for liquid to escape through the bottom spigot or pour valve. On top of these wood pieces a layer of the steeped alderwood chunks is placed around the pour valve, with handfuls of fine hay on top of that, and all capped with the thick layer of boiled juniper branches. This creates a wonderfully efficient natural strainer for the wort.

Here I should note that Ivar generally doesn’t take measurements with modern tools like thermometers, hydrometers, etc. He gauges things with a much more folk-based understanding, using his fingers, hand, and elbow to measure heat; tasting water, juniper, grains, mash, and wort to know that things are moving along accordingly. He humored me a few times when I insisted on taking measurements, but eventually I gave up, put down the refractometer, and let the ancestral method do what it’s done best for hundreds of years. Ivar tells me the mash is ready to begin when the temperature of the sprakalog “is so high that your mind should say ‘no’ to putting your finger in but you should manage to do it, convince yourself to do it. That’s when we start mashing.”

The mash process happens in small batches in a cast-iron kettle that is set on the ground. The grist is mainly malted barley (pale ale) with a small percentage of flaked oats, a nod to the type and ratio of crops previously grown on Selland farm. For this particular brew, Ivar was aiming for a bigger beer than his typical 6-8% ABV brews; we were aiming more for a barleywine strength beer. The total grist was about 198 lbs. (90 kg): 176 lbs. (80 kg) pale malt (11 lbs./5 kg of which was dried/cooked in the old-style near the fire in a small cast-iron pot) and 22 lbs. (10 kg) oats — for a brew that ultimately yielded about 37 gallons (140 L) at approximately 13% ABV! (Okay, so I snuck in a few gravity readings along the way.) A portion of the grist is poured into the smaller cast iron kettle. Hot mash water is added to this grist, and the mash is stirred, adding more water until the mash reaches an oatmeal-y consistency that allows for the stir stick placed upright in the middle of the mash to stand straight and not fall over. 

After holding that mash for about 10 minutes, it is transferred one kjenge at a time from the small kettle to the larger gil, filling it in a pattern as to not disrupt or destroy the filter system. After many rounds of this lengthy process of mixing, mashing, and moving mashed grain to the gil is complete, the rest of the water is carried from the boil kettle to the gil — nearly full by the end — and topped with a large wooden lid. It is left to rest for an hour or two or more. Ivar aims for a mash temperature as high as 160 °F (70 °C) at the start. 

Ivar scoops the mash one kjenge at a time from the small kettle to the wooden gil.

 “Most of this brewing is thought like it’s a part of things that happens in life. Sometimes a thing is quite personalized towards the gil. They think that it’s a person doing stuff here. You give the gil porridge,” Ivar laughs at the analogy, “and the porridge should be thick and sweet in the stomach of the gil. When we say meske, you call it mashing, it actually means digesting. The gil digests the food you give her.”

Another fire is lit under the boil kettle to make another full batch of juniper-infused water that will be used for sparging wort and also for cleaning and sanitizing the dairy cans that will be used for cooling wort before fermentation. 

After an hour or two of mashing, Ivar begins running off the wort very slowly into the small cast-iron kettle below the spigot. It is moved from there one kjenge at a time back to the large copper kettle. (You can see why Ivar says time and patience are key.) Hops are added to the kettle now, basically a first wort hop. In most brews, Ivar uses a low-alpha acid hop, not so much for bitterness as for a bit of spice and primarily for preservation. He doesn’t want hops that will overpower or interfere with the flavors of his long-boiled wort and fermentation of the kveik. He generally uses about 17.6 oz. (500 g) of Hersbrucker pellets. In our brew, Ivar also added about 7 oz. (200 g) of his own farm-grown hops during one of the rounds of run-off to make it extra special. 

And then the long wait begins, first to bring nearly 53 gallons (200 L) of wort to a boil, then for the four-to-five hour boil to achieve the deep, richly sweet wort that Ivar describes as “hard-boiled.” This obviously gives the brewer plenty of time to scoop out the mash from the gil and get the vessel ready for fermentation. Also, by this time in the evening a group of friends has filled the brew cellar and are telling stories, sharing jokes, and razzing each other as they enjoy cups and kjenge of haimabrygg. Over the hours, they depart one by one, leaving just Ivar and me there to tend to the brew kettle. I’m exhausted from the daylong brew session on the heels on an international flight, but Ivar’s dedication and enthusiasm for the brew keep me awake and grounded.

Around 1 a.m., when the boil is complete, he slowly puts out the fire. Using the kjenge we scoop about half of the hot wort into a set of large metal dairy canisters, which are then placed in tubs of cold water and pre-cooled by a chilly early-autumn Norwegian night to cool down to closer to the range of kveik pitching temperature, in the lower 100s °F (lower 40s °C). The cooled wort in dairy canisters is then poured into and blended with still-warm wort from the kettle in the gil to achieve our pitch temperature. Ivar pitches dried flakes and for good measure a bit of kveik slurry from a previous brew. We top the gil with a loose-fitting wooden lid and leave it to do its thing. It’s 3:30 a.m. and the brew day is over.

Fermentation takes off within hours of pitching the kveik. The brew cellar smells of baked bread, oranges, cinnamon, and smoke. Every day we crack the lid slightly to check on the active fermentation. The brew is topped with an undulating kräusen — Ivar calls it a sticky lid — of proteins, hop matter, and kveik yeast. Our hope is that it will be ready for oppskåke on the third day. Ivar’s method for determining when the beer is ready for oppskåke is to drag a stick through the surface of the fermentation, cutting a line through the kräusen. If this layer immediately comes back together in the wake of the stick passing through, it is not ready. However, if the kräusen remains separated with a channel down the middle, it is now time for oppskåke. Ivar uses the kjenge to make a wider part in the foamy top and fills the scoop with the freshest beer you can imagine drinking. This is a tradition that has been happening inside this cellar for many, many years. I can feel the spirits of past brewers in the room as we toast. “Skol!” I say to Ivar. “Got ol!” he says to me. It means, “good ale.” The beer fermented from 1.120 to 1.020 in just three days and was still holding a temperature in the lower 90s °F (lower 30s °C). (I checked. Wink wink.)

Back in the old farm days, the oppskåke would carry on for many hours with music, singing, dancing, and beer enjoyed by people from all around the farm community. As you can imagine that kind of a crowd would’ve helped put a nice dent in 37 gallons (140 L) of beer. However, these days, after a much smaller but still ruckus and wild oppskåke, Ivar kegs some of the beer, and shares a large portion of it in big soda bottles. A portion of the beer also holds well as the kveik continues to condition in some large plastic storage totes, the bottoms of which hold many liters of healthy kveik slurry for future brews.

Brewing with Ivar taught me that there is much more to kveik than a unique yeast that can just be added to any modern style of beer for the sake of a quick ferment. The true beauty in the way that Ivar brews is in the tradition and the dedication to producing a time-honored and unique wort through the use of local, largely symbolic ingredients. It is a wort unlike anything I’ve ever seen brewed, a recipe that over the course of hundreds or thousands of years has been passed down on the farms to be perfectly suited for kveik from the area. The resulting beer is like a smoked barleywine with the malt body of an epic Scottish ale with rich juniper notes and a fragrant citrus fruitiness.  

During our week in Norway we not only brewed with Ivar, we also visited with Rune Midttun. Rune is a professional brewer brewing more modern styles at Voss Fellesbryggeri in Voss, but he also brews in the old way with the help of some modern medium-scale equipment at an eldhus at the end of the lake, not far from Ivar’s home. We talked with him about his family history and his project to bring haimabrygg techniques into his professional brewery. We also visited with an older gentlemen named Ivar Husdal, a homebrewer and historian who shared a lot of wonderful stories and information on the cultural importance of kveik and farmhouse brewing in the area of Vossestrand. A series of videos from our trip can be found at

Commercial Kveik vs. Traditional Kveik (sidebar)

The kveik strains that are commercially available in the U.S. are not the same as the indigenous strains you’d find in Norway or other Scandinavian and European countries. Why not? Think of kveik similar to how you think of a SCOBY used to ferment kombucha. SCOBY actually stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, which is to say it is a group or colony of different yeast and bacteria that work together to ferment in a special way to create a unique end-result. Kveiks are basically SCOBY or mixed cultures for fermentation.

There are currently 62 different kveik strains registered in Europe, a number that grows each year with lab testing and confirmation. They are generally named for the family or farm from which they were harvested. Almost like a family sourdough starter that is built up over many years and is kept alive by brewing with it. Depending on the kveik, the colony might include up to 10 different strains of yeast and/or bacteria. They also might be considered top-fermenting or bottom-fermenting. They might be better suited for raw (unboiled) wort or boiled (sometimes for hours on end) wort. These kveik can live and be reused for hundreds of years.

The kveik strains available to most homebrewers in North America, however, are light years apart from their traditional Norway ancestor. Why? Because what most yeast labs do in producing their commercially-available kveik is dissect the collection of yeast and bacteria, then propagate only the cleanest, most reliable, replicable, and flavorful single strain. “If you don’t isolate, and you try to grow a mixed culture, you’re providing people with snowflakes,” says Owen Lingley, owner of Imperial Yeast. “From our standpoint, to make sure that we can keep things diastatic-free and provide repeatable results to people, we have to isolate, and that means cleaning it up.” 

Imperial Yeast offers several single-kveik strains as well as a three-kveik blend called Kveiking. Lingley says it’s exciting to help brewers understand how these strains work and the flavor profiles that can be achieved with proper management and fermentation. “A lot of those flavor profiles are completely different from, yet complementary to, the beer styles that are coming out now. They mimic different hop flavors and produce unique esters that are not available in other yeast strains. I think you’ve seen kveik strains continue to grow in popularity because they push the envelope on flavor and provide consumers with something different.”

The traditional farmhouse brewers I met in Norway are not upset that a cleaned up version of kveik is being embraced by American brewers. In fact, they are excited that the world is taking notice and interest in kveik. They do, however, want to make sure we all know of the long tradition of brewing very special beers with indigenous kveik, a tradition tied to family, community, the seasons of the year, and important events: Births, marriages, harvest times, and deaths.

Learn more about kveik strains and their yeast/bacteria make-up at the Farmhouse Kveik Registry maintained by Lars Marius Garshol at:

American Gravøl recipe

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.080  FG = 1.018
IBU = 15  SRM = 7  ABV = 8.2%

This recipe is brewed in a way that I feel pays homage to the ingredients and processes I saw being used in Norway. That’s not to say it doesn’t involve a lot of improvisation. I used kveik given to me by Ivar (which he got from Sigmund Gjernes), but commercially-available kveik (some of which come from Gjernes’ homestead) will result in a tasty beer too. The resulting beer was a highly aromatic and malty beer, dark orange-amber in color. It had very strong notes of smoke, pine, berries, citrus peel, and a rich malt sweetness.

12 lbs. (5.4 kg) Simpsons Best pale ale malt
2.25 lbs. (1 kg) applewood smoked malt
2.25 lbs. (1 kg) cherrywood smoked malt
3.5 AAU Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops (1 oz./28 g at 3.5% alpha acids) (first wort hop)
6–7 small branches of juniper (see Tips for Success)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) apple wood chips
Imperial A44 (Kveiking) or Omega OYL-061 (Voss Kveik) or The Yeast Bay WLP4045 (Sigmund’s Voss Kveik) or LalBrew Voss Kveik yeast
1⁄3 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by step
Prepare mash water by steeping juniper branches and apple wood chips in 7 gallons (26.5 L) of 160 °F (71 °C) water. Let steep for at least one hour to infuse flavor and color, stirring and punching down the cap frequently. If your steeping vessel doesn’t have a false bottom or other means of straining, remove juniper and apple wood chips with long-handled scoop or colander, and set aside. 

Heat water to 170 °F (77 °C) for a mash temperature of 160 °F (71 °C). Mash grains for at least two hours at 160 °F (71 °C). (You could mash even longer if you’d like.)

During the long mash, bring sparge water to holding temperature and add back juniper and apple wood chips. Let steep to infuse flavor and color. After mash rest, remove the juniper and wood chips from the sparge water and sparge mash to collect at least 6 gallons (23 L) of wort in boil kettle. Add the first wort hops. Also collect 1–2 cups (240–480 mL) of this wort in a sanitized jar and add kveik flakes; stir several times to reconstitute into a pitchable slurry. Keep this at room temperature, if not warmer.

Boil collected wort for two hours then use a wort chiller (or cool naturally) to 103 °F (39 °C). Pitch rehydrated kveik slurry. Fermentation should start very quickly after (if not almost immediately upon) pitching this mini-starter of kveik slurry.

Allow temperature to drop to 90–95 °F (32–35 °C) and maintain that temperature. Check gravity and temperature every day. My beer fermented to 1.018 in three days with the yeast I used. Condition for one week at least. For packaging, go with a low carbonation level at around 1.5 volumes.

Tips for Success:
Gravøl is what Norwegians call a beer brewed for a funeral. Of course the passing of a loved one is a sad occasion to brew, however, the intense fermentation power of kveik makes it possible to make a beer quickly so that the deceased can be honored with a living brew. I brewed this beer for a dear friend whose father passed in October 2019. I drank and shared about a half-gallon (2 L) of the live beer straight from the fermenter to celebrate the traditional oppskåke I’d learned about in Norway. I bottled two gallons (8 L) of the very young beer between plastic PET bottles and flip-tops, and kegged the remaining beer. 

Since I wouldn’t be brewing over an open fire, which would over the long boil impart a smokiness to the wort, I decided to use some apple and cherry wood smoked malt. Instead of the alderwood that is used traditionally in western Norway for steeping in the mash and sparge water, I used applewood chips (yep, the kind that you might use for grilling). I used about one pound (0.45 kg) of chips for the full 5-gallon (19-L) batch, but you could go with more if you’re not seeing a big color difference in your mash or sparge water. I was lucky enough to find a type of juniper tree in a local Minneapolis park that a forest guide friend uses for making wilderness teas so I felt safe using its branches and berries. Note that not all juniper and its relative family of cedar trees are safe to consume. Please take caution with both the juniper and wood chips. For the hops, go with a low-alpha acid variety; hops are not really for flavor here, more for some balance and preservation. We want to highlight the flavors of the kveik, juniper, and wood chips.

Check out this video for more discussion of process and tasting notes from Chop & Brew:

Issue: July-August 2020