As is often the case, what’s old is new again and for many brewers kveik is proving to be no different. To put it simply, kveik (think “kuh-vike”, as a native speaker would pronounce it––not “kwike”) is a traditional Norwegian word for a type of ancient, domesticated yeast. It originally comes from southern and western Norway, but after generation upon generation of homebrewers cultivating it, passing it down, and reusing it, this hardy yeast has begun making a name for itself on a much larger scale.
Where most of today’s brewers utilize modern methods in order to carefully isolate their yeast strains for specific flavor profiles, historically, those brewing with kveik relied upon a decidedly different fermentation process. That is, prior to the rise of complex systems for separating and preserving yeast, brewers would use everything from bottles and linen to yeast logs and wooden rings in order to grow their cultures. Brewers naturally preferred to use fresher yeast, so in the event of mold they would borrow some from a neighbor in their town or the next one over. Cultures between different towns could vary widely, and as a result, traditional kveik would likely contain a blend of strains sourced from many different brewers. While some commercial brewers using kveik have changed to keep up with demand, many have continued to use those same tried and true techniques.
Until several years ago, kveik brewing had been mostly a lost art, but with Lars Garshol’s tireless research collected while traveling around Norway, brewers have begun to rediscover the unique qualities which make this yeast so special.
Most notably, kveik has proven to be an extremely resilient yeast. In contrast to most widely used yeasts which are happiest at ~70ºF in a moderately alcoholic environment, kveik ferments not only at extremely high temperatures (up to about 110ºF), but also at significantly higher alcohol concentrations. Where other yeasts would produce odd flavors or die, it’s under these conditions that kveik’s magic happens.
Kveik also produces a variety of flavors depending on the temperature at which it’s fermented. So even though it may be comfortable at extremes, it yields great results at more typical fermentation temperatures, too.
Because of its high heat tolerance, the chemical reactions occurring during fermentation do so very quickly, making kveik quite the time-efficient yeast for brewing. For instance, Lars Garshol reports of one extreme example in which dried and dormant kveik had begun visibly fermenting within 30 minutes. Also, kveik can be easily dried and reused, allowing cultures to be preserved even after the batch is complete.
Given the remarkable characteristics kveik has going for it, it’s no wonder that it’s recently exploded in popularity. But how did one of the beer world’s best-kept secrets make it onto brewers’ radars in the United States? Enter Chicago’s Omega Yeast.
For those that don’t know, Omega Yeast is a carefully curated team of microbiologists, brewers, and craft beer fans dedicated to sourcing strains of yeast for both the pro- and homebrewer. Omega Yeast founders Lance Shaner and Mark Schwarz first heard about kveik through Lars Garshol’s blog in 2015, at which point they decided to give the Norwegian yeast its big stateside break. That same year they received a package from Garshol containing a strain of kveik he himself had collected and sent away for isolation. The Omega Yeast team then brewed a split batch at various temperatures using the supplied kveik, reporting “beautiful results at both low ale temperatures and higher ones.” Seeing the promise of the Norwegian yeast, Shaner and Schwarz decided to cultivate their strain (called HotHead®) and sell it to professional brewers and homebrewers alike.
When asked about Omega Yeast’s decision to carry kveik, co-founder Mark Schwarz seemed particularly excited about the yeast’s application for homebrewers. That is, because of kveik’s resilience, he notes that it “doesn’t require the sophisticated temperature control setups of other yeasts.”
Kveik’s benefits aren’t limited to homebrewers, though, as Omega Yeast’s Lance Shaner reports: As a result of the yeast’s speedy fermentation, “pro-brewers can make beer in half the time, allowing them to double their productivity while also getting more mileage out of their equipment.” Kveik has the potential to make both homebrewing more accessible and commercial brewing more productive––it’s about time people started talking about it.
Though kveik has become an increasingly global phenomenon, Norway’s Nøgne Ø is just one example proving that the country’s domestic breweries aren’t missing out on the trend. Tom Young from Nøgne Ø was excited by the kveik boom because it meant they could “for the very first time brew a beer by solely using local and Norwegian ingredients.” Nøgne Ø’s first beer made with kveik was their Nøgne Ø Norsk Høst (Norwegian Autumn), but Young said that they have since “brewed around 20 brews using kveik, exploring the use of kveik in different beer styles from lagers to traditional Norwegian raw ale.”
Maine-based Mast Landing Brewing Co. has a resident kveik advocate in head brewer Simon Burhoe. He sees the kveik boom as a product of New England IPAs becoming more popular because “some kveik yeasts can be insanely tropical/fruity which really works in NE IPAs and compliments all the fruit-forward hops brewers are using.” He adds that “some kveik cultures exhibit very pleasant ‘saison-like’ character which works really well for anyone brewing a saison or Belgian-inspired beer with kveik.” If those styles aren’t your thing, don’t fret––Burhoe feels that although “kveik is still in its early stages of popularity and remains a pretty niche ingredient,” it’s likely that “we’ll see it become more popular and be used in a wider range of styles.”
Kveik has quickly become in vogue and has progressed from niche trend to a brewing mainstay. And, if nothing else, kveik’s brought some much-deserved attention back on fermentation. But, if there’s one takeaway from those who know kveik, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In Simon Burhoe’s words, “these yeasts have a lot more to offer the brewing community than just being quick fermenting, fruit bombs.”
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