Lars Marius Garshol has done groundbreaking beer research and erased many blank spots from the beer map. His greatest achievement is the research and conservation of Norwegian Kveik yeast strains, but he has also traveled to many other countries. In the podcast we talk about his experiences, but also about the upcoming projects…
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Markus Raupach: Hello and welcome to another episode of our podcast BierTalk. Today we make a very interesting journey. We go in the northern part of Europe visit a beer writer, beer author, who maybe discovered a whole new range of beer or beer ideas, whatever. We meet Lars Garshol and he wrote some books about beer. And it’s nice to have you here. And maybe you introduce yourself a little bit to the listeners.
Lars Garshol: Yes, hi. My name is Lars Marius Garshol. I used to be just an ordinary beer enthusiast, but got very, very interested in traditional farmhouse ale, and have spent the last decade or so working on that.
Markus Raupach: Yes and you had a huge impact on the whole beer scene, what is very interesting, and what really brought very interesting findings. So we’ll talk about that. And we last met in Prague at the Brewers Forum. We had an interesting talk with other beer judges or people about in general, what is the idea of beer and beer styles and all of this. But maybe we go a little bit back in history. So you started blogging about beer in 2005. And interestingly, you started with a journey through Franconia, which was my country. And so you discovered our beer culture. So maybe first question, what are your impressions? And have you ever been to Bamberg?
Lars Garshol: I was in Bamberg on that trip and this was really when I was first getting started as a beer enthusiast. So I was not super knowledgeable and I was still, learning the art of really tasting a beer and all of this. So I found that very interesting. I liked the German lagers very much. But it seemed to me that the Franconian beer scene was not doing well. I saw a lot of closed breweries back then.
Markus Raupach: Yes, it was maybe the end of a time where we had some closures. But at around this time, so 2005 to 2010, the tide was turning. So now we even had an increase in breweries in Franconia until Covid, of course. Now, it’s a little bit unsure at the moment, how it will continue. But yes, there was a time of, let’s say, a little bit decay, just because I think many of these family run breweries, they were, the children did something else. So have no really interest in continue the brewing. And so some of them had to close. But now, I would say brewing or becoming a brewer is again, a little bit more sexy. So brewers like to become brewers or children of brewers like to become brewers again. And we see that in many examples, which you have here, also around the area. So but could we say that we here in Franconia, a little bit started your interest in writing about beer?
Lars Garshol: I never thought of it that way. But I guess that’s true. Yes. It was, I had done a couple of trips before that to explore beer in different places like in Brussels, and so on. But this was a bit more of a serious trip, since we were bicycling through the Franconian countryside and seeing things that everyone’s seen the beer bars in Brussels, but not everyone has seen the places way out in the sticks in Franconia. So I guess I felt that I was seeing something that a lot of people hadn’t seen. And having gone to all the struggle to find these places, it seemed kind of silly not to leave any sort of record of what I’d found.
Markus Raupach: Yes. And maybe you will also have discovered the idea of letting other people know about your interesting findings. And you did that later on. But maybe first, you now live in Oslo. And what about the beer scene in Norway? How is it at the moment? And what are the ideas to development at the moment?
Lars Garshol: I guess, the craft scene in Norway has developed very much like in most European countries. That we first had a wave of craft brewers and we were relatively early with that. And then they have gradually gone more and more in the direction of fruited sours, and the hazy IPAs and the pastry stouts. So in many ways, I feel the Norwegian beer scene is much bigger than it used to be and also, to a large extent less interesting. There are less known breweries that go in other directions. But when you go into craft beer bar, it’s typically the, to be a little blunt about it, the beer that has flavors that are designed to appeal to people who don’t like beer, fills a good proportion of the taps. Let’s put it that way.
Markus Raupach: Okay. Yes, that’s in happenings in many places in Europe at the moment. I also discovered there’s a bit of cider in Norway. Is that true?
Lars Garshol: I guess you have to define a lot. So there is a fruit growing region in Western Norway called Hardanger. And they had a little wave of cider production roughly 100 years ago, 120 years ago. And then it sort of went away. But the last 30 years, the apple farmers there have come up with the idea of doing cider and managed to build it into a combination of a tourist and drinks industry. So there is such a thing as wheat and cider. But I mean, it’s not big in volume, and it’s not very big in impact in bars, and so on. But it definitely does exist, and it definitely does appeal to the people who travel there.
Markus Raupach: And what about the Norwegian idea of going out for a drink being cider or beer or whatever? Is it, like, you live somewhere in the countryside and then you drive to a pub or to a bar? Or is it more you bring the stuff home and drink it there? Or what is the normal habit in Norway, if you say let’s go for a beer?
Lars Garshol: Well in the countryside, people don’t usually go to bars or anything like that. Some places in the countryside, like 30, 40 years ago had pubs but now people mostly drink at home. They invite people or something like that. We have never really been very big on any sort of pub culture. And part of that discourse is because everybody was brewing their own beer. So why go out and buy something that you had for free in the cellar?
Markus Raupach: So now we are right in the heart of my next questions, because today, you are very famous for your work on Nordic farmhouse brewing. So when did you first come across that? And how did it then develop to be your main topic?
Lars Garshol: I think the first time I came across it, was somebody, some friends of mine, bought a bottle of the type of beer that is called Stjørdalsøl in central Norway and took it home to a tasting here in the Oslo area. And the thing with that beer was that it just didn’t taste like a modern beer. It was radically different in so many different ways that it couldn’t really have, it was radically different but it also couldn’t, it wasn’t realistic that this was the invention of a single brewer. It had to belong to a different tradition of beer, basically. And it was through my work on Lithuania that I figured out that the reason Lithuanian beer was so special was that it was farmhouse ale and then that’s when it sort of clicked for me that, oh, but we have this in Norway. I have to see what this is.
Markus Raupach: And in Lithuania, you were just starting as a tourist? Or have you been looking for beer when you went there?
Lars Garshol: I was looking for beer. So I mean, I was looking for beer every place I went. But when I went to Lithuania, I’d read a book by a Danish brewer. He was trying to come up with what he called Nordic beer. So his goal was that when you had the beer from the Nordic countries, you should be able to taste it and tell that it was Nordic. And so he went to the farmhouse brewers for inspiration. And he visited one in Lithuania, where I read what he wrote about this brewer, although I didn’t quite understand, really get it. But what he wrote was, the guy grew his own barley, and then malted it and the hops grew on his farm and the yeast came from a jar in the well and the brewing process was completely weird. And I thought, this sounds like an interesting country. And I just went to Vilnius to see what I could find and I was just blown away.
Markus Raupach: Is it true that some of it survived, especially because of the Soviet times because they had to brew like a little bit secretly in secret places?
Lars Garshol: There does seem to be a connection, yes. So during the Soviet era, the government took over all the breweries, and there were six recipes that were devised in Moscow that the different breweries brewed in rotation. And in the communist system you had a quota. You should produce so much malts or so much beer. But nobody cared very much how good it was right? So the breweries had difficulty getting good raw materials and they didn’t often care very much about the stuff that they produced. And meanwhile, of course, the farmers knew how to brew out in the countryside. And they kept doing it. So even the kind of a shadow economy in the collective farms where some people were really brewing for pay, not necessarily for money, but in goods. And some of the collective farms started using this beer as a sort of river, a shadow currency in a sense. And so many of the breweries that still exist in the Lithuanian countryside, they actually started under communism. And then when the Soviet Union fell and you were allowed to start a business, then they started legal businesses. But strictly speaking, they were operating before that point.
Markus Raupach: That’s very interesting. And to be honest, on some occasions, I also experienced that beer can be a very nice currency, especially when you are on several affairs or things where people have something you’d like to and you are the one who has beer. So that’s normally something that always works. But back to Lithuania, when you experienced their brewing process, what was the thing that mostly surprised you when you were watching what they do?
Lars Garshol: Well, Lithuania was not an easy country to get into, unlike Norway. Because most of these brewers don’t actually speak English. So you need translators, and it’s very hard to find people. So the first farmhouse brewer that I actually visited in Lithuania was Ramunas Čižas who is a commercial brewer. And what shocked me with him was that he was using the oven he was making baked beer. Keptinis alus as it’s called in Lithuania.
Markus Raupach: So he was baking the mash? Or he was producing bread and mashing the bread? Or how was it done?
Lars Garshol: I never found out because I was on the tour there with other people. And at that point, I hadn’t yet understood the importance of the brewing process, that the actual process of brewing can be as important as the ingredients. So we left there without me ever having fully established what it was he did. But if you make a proper keptinis alus then there is no bread involved. What you do is you take the mash in a bread like shape, but it’s not, it’s not actually a bread that you can eat and you bake it in the oven, yes. You caramelize the sugars.
Markus Raupach: That’s really interesting. So but before that some saccharification had happened.
Lars Garshol: Strictly speaking, there are two types of oven based beers. One is where you mash beforehand, that creates all the sugars and then you bake it. So that becomes like a caramel balm. It’s a kind of beer that … people know about Schwarzbier and Porter, this is another category entirely that tastes very different. And that, but you can also actually use the oven to heat the mash. That was how it got started. And but that produces completely different flavors, because you can’t … it’s very difficult to have this much caramelization then unless you want to burn out all the enzymes.
Markus Raupach: Yes, that’s the question. So because afterwards all the enzymes will be killed.
Lars Garshol: Well, yes. So but in the version where you mash first, you do a normal one hour infusion mash and then you bake. There’s no, you could destroy the enzymes as much as you’d like because they’ve done their job, right?
Markus Raupach: Yes, in the first version, yes. But in the second version?
Lars Garshol: In the second version, you need to be a bit more careful. But I’ve seen the second version done. And basically you don’t overheat the oven and then what you put in has enough water and thermal mass that it goes through a fairly slow saccharification. So it’s like a slow step mash if you like but without any steps of course.
Markus Raupach: Yes, so it goes through the time temperature of saccharification and then it also goes above, and so this is hard. That’s very interesting, yes. And in terms of yeast, did they have something like yeast cultures? Or was it like wild fermentation?
Lars Garshol: I don’t know about any wild fermentation in farmhouse brewing with the possible exception of the Swedes who claimed to be making yeast out of the dew on midsummer and morning. That’s kind of a weird story. I don’t think those people, they must have been using something like sourdough yeast, I think. But apart from them, everyone else seems to have used domesticated yeast in one form or another. But originally, all the farmers had their own yeast that was domesticated and that was local to their area. So Ramunas Čižas still has a yeast culture that he got from his father who got it from his grandfather. He’s very secretive about this yeast. So he tells you upfront, we can talk about my house, we can talk about my gun, we can talk about my wife, we’re not going to talk about my yeast.
Markus Raupach: Okay.
Lars Garshol: So the the only person in his family who is even allowed to go close to the yeast is his oldest daughter, because his intention is that she will take over the brewing. And so she needs to know how this works.
Markus Raupach: And do you know how he’s stores yeast? So like, on wood, or in a specific box? Or like this?
Lars Garshol: He wouldn’t talk about it.
Markus Raupach: Okay, good. So you didn’t even see some case or anything?
Lars Garshol: No, nothing.
Markus Raupach: No. Okay. Awesome.
Lars Garshol: Absolutely nothing.
Markus Raupach: And then you continued your journey through Lithuania and you also published a book about that.
Lars Garshol: Yes, this was something that didn’t really happen, there was never any conscious decision. I just, why am I writing this book. It was just, I gathered all this information, and I just had to write it down. And I knew right away that a Guide to Lithuanian beer in 2014, there’s no point in even looking for a publisher. So I self-published it. But it was basically everything that I was able to learn about Lithuanian beer so that people could discover this really, very unique tradition and also find the beer. And I had the trouble with going to Lithuania. So you go to a bar in Vilnius. You can order a lot of beers. But you don’t get any information about what the beers are. And the labels are, of course, completely opaque being written in Lithuanian, and you can’t remember the names and it’s very, very hard to orientate yourself in this.
And I discovered much later that even people in Vilnius who were really into beer, they didn’t know that these beers were farmhouse ales. Like one of the bartenders at one of the main bars in Vilnius told me this, and I was like, I was very surprised. But then I remembered that my friend who was my guide in Lithuania, he went on a tour of Northern Lithuania in like 1996 or something, and came back to tell people in Vilnius that there are 300 little breweries in North Lithuania and people just loved that in, that can’t be possible. But it was, it was true. So what I’m getting at is even for Lithuanians, this stuff was hard to figure out. And so it was something I just had to publish.
Markus Raupach: Yes, very interesting. And was it like every of these person had their own idea of the beer they made? Or was there something like a common sense on some things? Let’s say like, beer styles, or ideas of beer or something like that.
Lars Garshol: There are definitely three clear farmhouse beer styles in Lithuania that you can distinguish. But of course, there’s a good bit of a variation within those but there are like three broad main categories. One of which I think is dead now from Western Lithuanian. But you have the keptinis alus, the baked beer. And there is also the straightforward kaimiška, which is a raw ale with with pale malts. But it varies quite a lot because some people have unusual ingredients or they have their own yeast, or they don’t have their own yeast which adds a lot of variation. What is truly weird is that that was their starting point, that and industrial lager brewing. And then because of certain legal changes and so on, some of these breweries then started brewing lager beer. But of course, they didn’t brew lager beer like normal brewers. So some of them for example, then brewed lager beer but without having a kettle. So they brewed a lot raw lager. And then there was a lot of creativity. So they did bizarre thing with spices. And coming there in 2014, or even before that, it was really a shocking beer scene. It was very difficult to work out what was going on. And new brewers appearing all the time and that was really, really something unique.
Markus Raupach: Coming back to these lagers, the only thing which that had in common with normal lagers was the yeast. So everything else might have been different.
Lars Garshol: Yes, I would assume that they used infusion mashing, for example. So yes, they would be quite different.
Markus Raupach: And about the temperatures, they were having like the cold temperatures for the lager yeast? Or were they fermenting also at warmer temperatures?
Lars Garshol: No, I’m pretty sure they fermented cold. But I don’t know this for certain. I haven’t visited all the breweries, and not all of them are willing to answer questions.
Markus Raupach: Have you returned to Lithuania since then?
Lars Garshol: Oh I’ve been there almost once a year. I mean, Covid of course. So last time I was there was December.
Markus Raupach: Did you make them more open? Do they now give you more information? Or is still there are a lot of secrets?
Lars Garshol: It varies. So some people have become much more open and some don’t seem to change at all. There’s a lot of internal politics in this. So it seems that some of them are really good friends with the guy who was my guide, and others of them seem to hate them. But it was impossible for me to know are they like this with everybody or just him or? But holidays people in the countryside can be very closed to outsiders.
Markus Raupach: Okay. So and then after that, you went back to Norway and tried to discover your home farmhouse brewing.
Lars Garshol: Yes, yes. So I just figured out okay, the Lithuanian beer was interesting, because it was farmhouse ale, or at least the origin was that. And I knew that we had this in Norway. And so I teamed up with Canadian journalist, Martan Ball, who’d done an expedition in Lithuania the year before. And we sat down to try and crack the Norwegian knot. And we spent nine months preparing a trip of one week. And the trouble is, in Lithuania, there’s commercial breweries, and those are easy to find. In Norway, it was all homebrewers and they’re not in the cities, they’re way out in the countryside. And you don’t even know what are the places where they can be found. But we knew there was one place and we tried everything. We called the Tourist Information Bureau, we wrote to local restaurants that seemed like they might have some connection. We tried, somebody gave us a tip about this famous skier who had the, she was from there and she had some sort of business there. And we wrote to her, we never heard anything. And the breakthrough was actually when, by chance I got invited by family, members of my own family to join a farmhouse brew. Posted about that on my blog, it got posted on Reddit, and somebody on Reddit said, Oh, that’s interesting. My best friend’s father, Bruce, kind of like this, and they have their own yeast. And I’m like, What did you say? And I managed to tell them, no, we want to come to him, brew with him and see what he does. And I’ll fly and some people from Canada, and we’ll bring cameras and notebooks and we really, really want to do this. And after a little back and forth, he said yes, okay, my best friend’s dad said you can come. It’s fine.
Markus Raupach: Well, I’m just having this image in my head that you appeared with a dozen of guys and cameras and laptops and occupied the whole place. How was that experience?
Lars Garshol: We were three people.
Markus Raupach: Okay, okay.
Lars Garshol: It was deeply strange. So we just show up at the local train station. They come and pick us up with a car. We drive way up the mountainside and suddenly we’re in this house and these people that we’ve never met come and say hello, and everybody’s kind of feeling each other’s teeth. But I think that they very quickly saw that we were not just genuinely interested, but passionately wanting to know exactly what they did. And also that we really respected what they were doing. We were trying to understand it on its own terms. And so we went from being utter strangers to being almost friends, by the end of the 24 hours. It was really strange. And then, a week later, when the beer was finished fermenting and we completed our tour, we went back to Voss in order to try this beer. And I remember lugging my suitcase with Martan up this steep hill, thinking about now we’re going to meet Sigmund again with a smile on my face, because by now I new Sigmund and I knew that he would light up in the smile when he saw us because he’s just like that. And of course, he did. So and basically almost all of the visits on that trip were like that. So people meet this with skepticism, because their farmhouse ale has met perhaps not always been treated well by outsiders. And they sort of see our attitudes and then complete turnover by the time we leave.
Markus Raupach: Is it in general legal to brew farmhouse ale in Norway?
Lars Garshol: It’s like making a cake. You can do it anytime you want, and nobody cares. That’s not business of the government’s.
Markus Raupach: Okay, so that was not their problem that you may be tell us or something like that.
Lars Garshol: No, no, no. But if you distill it, that’s forbidden.
Markus Raupach: And what was the taste? Could you remember when you had it first time?
Lars Garshol: Oh yes, that’s easy. Yes. Sigmund’s was strongly caramelly, somewhat bitter from the juniper and then with this spicy orange character from the yeast.
Markus Raupach: And the juniper was added? Or did they lauter on juniper? Or how did that come to the process?
Lars Garshol: Almost all Norwegian beer is … the starting point is that you take a kettle, you stuff it full of juniper, fill it with water, and then you heat it up. So you’re making a kind of tea from juniper branches, and that’s your brewing water. You normally also lauter through the juniper branches. But I think most of the flavors from the infusion.
Markus Raupach: That’s very interesting. I’ve been many times to Finland and had a lot of experience into sahti. There, they always told me that they only lauter on the juniper, but you have a very intense juniper flavor in the beer. So as you explain it, maybe they do the same. I don’t know. Have you ever been to Finland too?
Lars Garshol: Yes. Martan and I did an expedition there in I think, 2017. And some Finnish brewers use infusion, but it’s not that common. So I would say in Norway, historically, maybe something like 80% of the brewers did it because of which regions the brewing survives. And now probably 95% do it in Norway. In Finland it’s the other way around. It’s maybe 10% that do it.
Markus Raupach: And is there any reason why they make this juniper branch tea before they start to brew with it?
Lars Garshol: Yes. Because the person they learned to brew from did it.
Markus Raupach: Okay.
Lars Garshol: So everything in farmhouse brewing is like this. Nobody really knows why they are doing the things that they do. I exaggerate a little bit because sometimes they’ve been able to figure it out, or they learned modern brewing textbooks and they know something. But in general, that was the way that you learned farmhouse brewing. It was just a series of steps from beginning to end that had to be repeated. So nobody ever really specified what the reason was. So there’s been speculation that the juniper infusion lowers the mash pH and gives you better efficiency. There’s been speculation from microbiologists that the oil in the juniper actually acts as nutrients for the yeast. Of course, it adds flavor, it adds bitterness. And if you heat the juniper for long enough, the infusion turns like deep golden or even brown. So that could be a way, a reason to do it, too, because people want the darker beer.
Markus Raupach: Yes, very interesting. So also my findings in Finland was that many of the traditional people use juniper mugs to drink their sahti out of it and that also added aroma to the finished beer in the end. And they reused it very often and it always, the aroma stays. So it’s really almost endless, usable and always has this juniper aroma. And I also kind of like that, so that’s also interesting. It’s an interesting wood I never had before.
Lars Garshol: Yes, the drinking of juniper mugs, which they do in Estonia too is really quite an experience. Interestingly, that’s not something that people seem to have done much of in Norway, at least not in the regions where people are still brewing. So they still use wooden drinking vessels there as well. But those seem to be made from birch for the most part, and they’re not. The Estonian ones are built from staves that you put together almost like a barrel. And the Finnish one have a cup-like size, cup-like shape, but the Norwegian ones are bowls for the most part.
Markus Raupach: Yes, okay. And also in Finland, it was interesting that only very few people are left who are even able to make these juniper wood mugs. So that tradition will maybe die out very soon.
Lars Garshol: It might. It might. This is one of these skills that, at least in Norway, there are people actually working actively to preserve them. So Western Norway Cultural Academy, for example, has arranged courses in making your own beer bowl.
Markus Raupach: That’s a nice idea for my next holiday. Great.
Lars Garshol: Yes.
Markus Raupach: I think the thing that mostly impacted later on on the brewing world is that you found out that they were using these special organisms or let’s say yeast strains like the kwak. When did you discover that it’s definitely a different yeast in these farmhouse beers in Norway?
Lars Garshol: That was really while we were brewing with Sigmund. So the first hint was when we tasted the remains of his previous beer. Because we knew the ingredients were juniper branches, Pilsner malts, and Saaz hops, plus his own yeast, and then it tastes of oranges. And that shouldn’t be possible, right?
Markus Raupach: Yes or no.
Lars Garshol: So that was the first hint. And then when he made the starter, and the starter started showing activity, I smelled the oranges again. And then, of course, there was the moment when he had the wort cooled and placed in the fermenter. And then he wraps the fermenter in an insulating mat. And Martan looks at him and goes, Why are you doing that? And he says, Oh, so the yeast won’t be too cold. And we’re like, too cold. What temperature are you pitching at? says Martan. And Sigmund says, well 39 degrees. And we go, what? While we’re looking at him like gaping fish, you can see that okay, these guys are apparently surprised by something. So he adds, yes, but my brother measured temperature during the fermentation to 42. Like, two exploding heads, of course. That’s when we knew that, okay, well, we found something interesting here. This is not normal yeast.
Markus Raupach: So you discovered it’s a different temperature and also, because it’s warm, it’s going way faster.
Lars Garshol: Yes, it goes faster actually at normal temperatures too. So it turns out that kwak has a shorter lag time, which might partly be because it’s keeping more sugar around after it’s done fermenting. So it has energy and it’s kind of ready to go when it’s pitched. And also, it has genetic modifications that really allow it to ferment faster even at normal temperatures.
Markus Raupach: So modifications that came because of the long-term use in the brewing process?
Lars Garshol: One must assume so. And the modification is a really simple one. The main limitation on fermentation speed for all beer yeasts is how fast you can pull maltose into the cell. And this is done with a port in the cell wall and there’s a gene called mal that makes these ports and kwak has more copies of that gene, which translates into basically more ports. And the farmhouse brewers historically and also now ferment very, very quickly. So a really, really short time period before they harvest the yeast. So there has been strong evolutionary pressure on these yeasts to ferment fast.
Markus Raupach: So they were like domesticated or something like that.
Lars Garshol: Or they are domesticated, there’s absolutely no question about it.
Markus Raupach: And they keep it with these wooden rings with the kwak rings? Or how do they preserve the yeast?
Lars Garshol: So the yeast strains have existed in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, also in Hungary, and the British Isles, I think. They haven’t been used only for yeast. But as far as I can tell, they have always been quite rare. So there was never the normal way to keep yeast anywhere, it seems like. And I don’t know of anybody who uses them today. So that famous photo of Sigmund holding the yeast strain, that’s something he did just to show us what it was like in the old days. So he himself keeps glasses and glass jars in the in the fridge. And if he wants to preserve something for longer, he uses a mushroom dryer to dry the yeast, turning it into yeast chips. So actually drying the yeast and keeping it as chips is the most common in Norway today.
Markus Raupach: Almost impossible to kill it.
Lars Garshol: Oh it’s easily possible. I mean, just heat it to 50 degrees and it’s dead.
Markus Raupach: Of course. Okay.
Lars Garshol: So historically, the way that you preserved your yeast in Norway was nearly 100% through drying. And I think the reason was the people didn’t have so much grain that they could have beer all the time. So they brewed once or twice a year and then drying the yeast is the best way. But of course, that meant that yeast couldn’t be dried, would never survive in Norway. And I said that the yeast, the kwak, I keep sugar around after it’s done fermenting. This sugar is a special type of sugar that helps it survive drying also helps it survive high temperatures. So it’s really has adapted to being dried.
Markus Raupach: And how long can it survive in the dry state?
Lars Garshol: Depends how you keep it. So if you just keep it as dry chips, a couple of years would be no problem. If you put it in the freezer, then the most extreme example I know was a guy who took yeast that he put in the freezer in 1996. He took it out and he vacuum packed it and sent it to me. And I unwrapped it and found this balloon that I got by mail. And I called him. It’s like, What on earth have you sent me? And he didn’t understand anything because the package was flat when he sent it. So this 20-year-old yeast basically found enough sugar and liquid after it thawed to start fermenting in the mail.
Markus Raupach: Wow. So it’s really a very powerful yeast.
Lars Garshol: It was in very good shape. And Richard Crease, he’s a microbiologist who runs a yeast company in Canada, he said that when he’s measured viability of yeast chips that people have dried with mushroom dryers or heated shoe racks, viability of that yeast is better than what the billion dollar companies can produce. But of course, this yeast has adapted to dry.
Markus Raupach: And if we talk about yeast, do we talk about single strains? Or are they multiple organisms together?
Lars Garshol: So this is, they are multiple strains. And that’s the same way that it was with all the commercial yeast cultures before the yeast labs purified them. So when Carlsberg invented modern yeast handling, they found multiple strains in their lager yeast, which they then isolated. And so after that they were working with single strains. But there are actually English ale breweries that have never purified their yeast and so they still have multiple strains. And so it is with these farmhouse yeasts that until 2014 had never seen the inside of a lab.
Markus Raupach: Yes, I think if you mentioned the English I think there’s also the reason why they can brew ales and lagers with their normal yeast cultures because the changing the temperature of fermentation so that means which strain will be the predominant.
Lars Garshol: I don’t know, to be honest. The breweries that I know of, they still have multiple strains, as far as I know, they only brew ale.
Markus Raupach: I didn’t ask that question. But I quite often saw that they were offering lagers and if I asked, okay, what are you using to make lagers? They say okay, we use our normal yeast, we just ferment a little colder.
Lars Garshol: Oh, okay.
Markus Raupach: And that would mean in my eyes that these yeasts are still like a mix of maybe bottom and top fermented yeast. And then depending on the temperature, some win and some losers. Maybe I’m not sure.
Lars Garshol: This is one area where people get really confused because what I found with the farmhouse yeast is that some brewers harvest from the top and some harvest from the bottom. And you can see that these yeasts behave differently. The ones that are harvested from the top, they really want to float on top of the beer. Whereas the ones that are harvested from the bottom, once fermentation is done, they really want to drop to the bottom. But they are all ale yeast, every single one.
Markus Raupach: Really interesting. And when did you start collecting the yeast at the first moment when you have been at these Norwegian breweries? Or did that start later?
Lars Garshol: No, before I went on this week-long trip in 2014, I bought a bunch of little plastic bottles. So I intended to take yeast samples if I could, while we were traveling. And I’d already contacted the National Collection of Yeast Cultures in the UK. And I knew that they would receive samples if I could send them. So it started on that trip, basically.
Markus Raupach: Wow, a lot of research and also a little bit like espionage, whatever. Very interesting.
Lars Garshol: Well, I mean, I asked them straight, can I have a sample and they gave it to me. So it’s, when you brew beer, you always have more yeast after fermentation than you had when you started. And so there’s always been a surplus of yeast. And in all of these villages, people were used to just giving each other yeast when there was a need. And later on when there were quite few brewers, some of them sort of developed a role as yeast suppliers. So there was one guy in Voss, not Sigmund, somebody else, that I knew was, I was told he was supposed to have his own kwak. And I just called him. Yes, hello, he says. And I asked him, So I hear that you have your own kwak. And he says, Oh, yes. Are you brewing? Like instant assumption is that I’m going to, I want yeast because I’m going to brew and of course he’s going to supply. So they were very open handed with that.
Markus Raupach: Interesting, and the word kwak, is it just a normal Norwegian word? Or is it a special word for that way of brewing or for the yeast?
Lars Garshol: In standard Norwegian, the word for yeast is Yad. But there have been many different dialect words across Norway for yeast. And in Voss, the dialect word for yeast was kwak. So originally when they said kwak, it just meant yeast. But then, they got into the position where there was also a type of yeast there was in the shop that you could buy. And that said Yad in big letters on the label. So eventually, they started distinguishing between kwak, that’s our yeast, and Yad, that’s what you buy. So kwak became the name of that type of yeast in Voss. I picked that up, and then I thought that applied everywhere. So I was asking brewers all over Western Norway, like, do you have kwak and treating it like that was an established word. And they never complained. But later on, I found that they didn’t do that further north. But well, I just started using it like it meant this type of yeast. And that’s what it seems to mean now.
Markus Raupach: Yes, and now it’s an international word.
Lars Garshol: Yes it is.
Markus Raupach: And as far as I understood your books then you discovered that there is a mountain area between two parts of Norway, and there is one, like yeast strain on one side, and another one on the other side, and they all have their sisters and brothers and whatever. But these two are quite separate. Is that right?
Lars Garshol: Almost. We don’t know if it’s two or three. So in Western Norway, they have kwak because I’ve collected something like 40, 45 different cultures. And each of those contains lots and lots of strains. So kwak is literally hundreds of individual strains of yeast. So the biggest cultural divide in Norway runs basically north south through the middle of the southern half of the country. And it’s because of the huge mountain chain that runs through there. So you can’t get from Eastern Norway to Western Norway without driving for at least an hour through areas where there’s no trees at all. You’re really up in the high mountains. And that’s the reason why the yeast that survived in Eastern Norway is genetically different from what’s in the West. So they are closely related. They are each other’s closest cousins, if I can put it that way, but they’re not the same. But there’s two areas in Eastern Norway where yeast cultures survive and we don’t know if those two areas have the same type of yeast or not.
Markus Raupach: And is it known when it started or when they started doing that how many hundreds or thousands of years ago?
Lars Garshol: Well, you can find writings from say 1100 from Iceland, describing people deliberately pitching yeast into beer. And we don’t really know of any period of time when brewers in Europe were not deliberately pitching yeast. You can’t document a year and say in this year we know that they were spontaneously fermenting or something like that. There are texts from roughly the year zero from Egypt that describe people deliberately pitching yeast. And there is also a very interesting archaeological find from Hallstatt in Austria, from the salt mines, where they managed to isolate genes from ale yeast. And I’ve always seen, then they found that they were domesticate already in 600 BC. So when did this process start? We don’t know. But clearly it started a very long time ago. And when did you know the yeast that is in Norway, really branch off from other yeast? We don’t know. If you look at the family tree for yeast, for ale yeast in general, I mean, you can see that there is a Belgian German branch of ale yeast, and then the branches off into the UK and further to the US. Now, there was a time when we know that there was a massive migration from the low countries of brewers to the UK. That was the time when the UK word for beer became beer, because originally it was ale, right? This is the 15th century. So did that branching happen, then? I’m not going to say that it did. But it’s definitely possible. Kwak branched off from these guys before that.
Markus Raupach: After you were researching all these Norwegian farmhouse brewing, what was then your next step? In Sweden, for example? Or again to the Baltics? So how did you proceed?
Lars Garshol: Well, I decided I wanted to learn as much as I could, basically. And that was through two main activities. So one was traveling to meet brewers and the second was to do archive studies, collect archived documentation, because there is massive amounts of archived documents describing historical farmhouse brewing in different countries. So I went to Denmark and got stuff from the archives there, went to Sweden, Estonia and so on, managed to get friends to grab stuff in Lithuania and so on. I don’t remember exactly the order in which I did this. So because I traveled to visit brewers in Estonia. We did Finland. I went to Russia, there was a Latvian and Lithuanian trip. More trips in Norway. A small trip to Scotland and Sweden. Yes, still planning a trip to Gotland in Sweden in October this year.
Markus Raupach: And did you also discover like kwak, so specific yeast strains in these other countries?
Lars Garshol: Yes so, the Lithuanian commercial farmhouse breweries, several of those had their own yeast, at least three of them. And then it turns out the farmhouse brewers in the countryside also have their own yeast. I did not collect yeast from the Lithuanian countryside. But my friend Simonus Cocotus, he managed to do it. And in Latvia there’s also been two yeast cultures found by the owner of another brewery, Labietis, Reinis Plṃavinṃš, and he managed to collect two cultures and sent them to me. In Finland and in Sweden, there doesn’t seem to be anything anymore, neither in Denmark, nor in Belarus. But I managed to find yeast cultures in Russia when I was traveling there.
Markus Raupach: And you could take them with you?
Lars Garshol: Yes, yes. So I was there in, I think, 2018. It was 2018 that I traveled from almost from the Ural Mountains through the countryside back to Moscow. And I asked the … these brewers were ethnically not Russian. They were Trurusha Turkic speaking people. And I asked for samples and they were yes, yes and this is no problem. So I sent it to the National Collection of Yeast Cultures and when I got the information, I sent it back to them in Trurusha. And I was very lucky, I managed to get a work trip to Kazan while I was working as a software engineer in Russia. And this was February 2020, so it’s like a few weeks before everything shut down because of Covid. And I managed to persuade some Russian colleagues to drive me to Trurusha and I contacted the people I’d met there before, and they managed to find a new brewery for me. And they had, when I came, they were super happy and they were showing me this, some sort of guide to Trurushian culture. And there was Russian texts saying that Trurushian yeast, beer yeast was really special and had been archived with a National Collection of Yeast Cultures in the UK. And they even had the collection numbers printed in the book. And they were like, yes, yes. So they were super happy. They saw it as recognition and validation of their culture.
Markus Raupach: And what is the closest yeast related to these strains?
Lars Garshol: That’s unpublished research results. I’m not at liberty to tell you. Sorry.
Markus Raupach: Okay. No problem. So we will translate for the publication. You just mentioned Denmark. I was there just a few weeks ago, and I discovered a brewery that is still making stone beer.
Lars Garshol: I don’t think still is the word.
Markus Raupach: Or now making. I don’t know.
Lars Garshol: Yes, yes. I think they have recreated it.
Markus Raupach: In general, they do. And also, when I did my research about beer history, also findings in, on one of the oldest places in Göbekli Tepe, they also used stones for hitting the mash, or the beer, whatever. So did you also find that in the farmhouse breweries that they are stone brewing?
Lars Garshol: Well, I mean, we don’t know if they were brewing in Göbekli Tepe. And we definitely don’t know how. Although there are indications that maybe they did. Stone brewing in farmhouse brewing is still alive. And I really mean alive in the sense that it has been passed on as it continues tradition from the past. So it’s alive in Vologda, Oblast, in Russia, and also alive in Lithuania, and Latvia and parts of Finland. It was alive. It’s recorded in archived documents from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark as well. And also Estonia, of course.
Markus Raupach: Yes, and before we come back to that, just because you said it’s unsure if they brewed at all at Göbekli Tepe that is new for me because I thought it’s quite sure. But what is the reason that you say it’s maybe not was the case?
Lars Garshol: That was an excellently phrased question. So the reason I say it is, the evidence that they have for brewing is findings of beer stone in some containers. So beer stone is something that gets formed in the container when you brew in it, but it can get formed in other ways. So it’s generally not considered 100% certain proof. There have been better methods for detecting beer residues that were developed over the last few years. Has to do with using electron microscopes to look at starch granules. And I know that they did that with the vessels from Göbekli Tepe and they didn’t find the right type of starch granule. This wasn’t published, but there are some PDFs that are on the web that if you really scan through a lot of pages, you can find those results.
Markus Raupach: That’s really interesting because on the other side, I found just recently some papers where they said okay, they were like an industry of producing these stones for making the stone beer. So it doesn’t make sense to have these both. Interesting.
Lars Garshol: Well, then maybe you know something that I don’t. I would really like to know about this paper if you can send me afterwards.
Markus Raupach: Of course, I will send it to you. It’s also quite new. I did a talk at a beer exhibition in southwest Germany, because they had like a jubilee in terms of beer. And there they had even a short film where a researcher team used remakes of this equipment they found in Göbekli Tepe to brew a beer with it. And it worked. I will send that to you. It’s interesting. So yes, great. Well, that’s a fascinating story in general. Also, we do a lot with Matthew Adams. I don’t know if you know him. He is the director of the archaeology in Abydos in Egypt and he digs out maybe the oldest more or less industrial brewery in the world, which was in the old Egypt times. And that’s also very interesting what he tells about how they did it, and the excavation in general. So beer is a very interesting topic in terms of history, of course.
Yes. So but let’s go. Just also because that is interesting, now, in the last years, all the kwak story is a huge thing. And many of the homebrewers are using it. But also there is, yes, the potential that also the big brewers may be interested in using these yeast strains. Because you can produce beer maybe faster, you can produce more aroma, and more other interesting things that the yeast can bring for their beer. So do you see that there is an impact of your findings on the traditional ale and lager brewing?
Lars Garshol: Not in lager brewing, I don’t think. Given that it’s ale yeast, it’s kind of hard for that to have a direct impact in lager brewing. But Carlsberg actually got seriously interested in kwak and did their own studies of it. This was the Carlsberg Foundation, not the brewery. But the foundation does some research for the brewery as well. But being Carlsberg, they haven’t actually published it. But there is actually quite a lot of commercial beer that’s been produced with kwak. I mean, literally thousands of individual beers from commercial breweries. It’s mainly been from relatively smaller craft breweries, as far as I know. But it’s something that seems to be growing. And the brewery, the challenge is that you can’t brew with kwak the same way you do with ordinary ale yeast, because it’s not ordinary ale yeast. It behaves in a different way. But a number of breweries are beginning to learn how to use it and it seems that once they learn how to use it, they start using it in at least some of their beers. They’re not, it’s not necessarily suitable for every beer.
Markus Raupach: How safe is it to use it in your brewery along with other ale yeasts? So is there something like an infection potential or something like that?
Lars Garshol: Oh yes. I mean, anytime that you are using more than one yeast strain in your brewery, there is the potential for what’s called cross infection, meaning you pitch strain A into one beer and strain B that you were using before comes along for the ride. I would argue that this probably happens all the time when brewers are using several different yeast strains. But for the most part, you don’t notice because you pitch billions and billions in cells of strain A, and whatever drops in of strain B is very small quantities so it doesn’t end up dominating the beer. Where you get into trouble is when the cross infection is its own yeast, because its own yeast is diastatic, it will consume absolutely all the sugar and there will be bottle bombs and gushers and strange tasting beer. But this is not a problem with kwak because it doesn’t produce any really weird flavors. Your beer might be a little more fruity, but it’s not going to be completely dry. You’re not going to have bottle bombs. So yes, there is cross infection, not just potential. I mean, it happens. But it doesn’t turn into any real problems for the most part.
Markus Raupach: Maybe in all these breweries now there is no let’s say pure ale yeast anymore. It’s already contaminated with a little spike of kwak.
Lars Garshol: Well it might be while you’re re-pitching it, but of course Humson’s method, as it was originally called, the way that people brew now, you throw away the yeast after a few iterations and you start over and then of course, the contamination goes away. But that was the motivation for starting over.
Markus Raupach: Yes, very fascinating stories. That’s really very interesting and something about yourself, you quit your regular jobs a few months ago, and decided to be a full-time author now. So how hard was this decision?
Lars Garshol: It was somewhat hard. I mean, it wasn’t something I could just do without consent from my wife, for example. And it was also, I identified with the job that I had. So it’s really a change in who am I and what am I doing in this world. So it was a decision that took a good long time to mature. And the thing that sort of pushed me over the edge in the end was, I sat down and I made the list of the books that I thought that I should write based on the material that I have. And when I came to the ninth title, I just, oh this is ridiculous. This is not going to work. I need to do something.
Markus Raupach: Yes, and this is good news for the beer scene because now you have the time to do it.
Lars Garshol: I hope so. I hope so. Yes. My biggest problem at the moment is finding publishers.
Markus Raupach: We are all looking forward to have more of your findings. So good luck on that. And I’m really crossing my fingers for you that that will work. Two last questions maybe. What were your experiences in Prague? So did you try beers there and did you like the beers there? Or were you lucky going home again?
Lars Garshol: I definitely tried a good number of Czech beers. The reputation of Czech beer is of course, well-deserved. The quality of the beers were super high. What I was a little surprised to find was that apparently, I’m not a huge fan of Czech lager meaning the things that they do so well aren’t apparently the things that I’m looking for in the beer. So was I happy to go home? No, I think I’d rather have a good Czech lager than the normal Norwegian industrial lager. But, I’m happier in Franconia, or in an English pub.
Markus Raupach: That is very nice to hear. And I also tell many English people that there is a quiet similarity between Franconian brew pub and an English pub, because you have these large tables, people are sitting there cross over together, they have easy drinking beers. Very balanced. Very nice culture so in both countries, and I really like that. The beer is really there just part of the normal life and it brings people together, which is really a very nice thing. Maybe what are your upcoming projects? So can you unveil maybe the next book title or whatever? You don’t have to tell any secrets, but what can we expect from your work in the future?
Lars Garshol: Since I’m not in control of the publication schedule, I mean, I’m having difficulty finding publishers, it’s really hard to say what the next book will be. So the last one that I did was a book in Norwegian, on the Norwegian traditional beers. And it’s really an academic book that goes into detail where you actually, you get the detailed information on how many people were making juniper infusion. Where were they making it? How many used juniper in the filter? Where did they do it? What were the brewing processes? What were the different types of yeast? How were they treating it all? There is a map with dots for where people say they were using yeast rings, or yeast logs or cloths or what have you, blah, blah, blah, all of that stuff, culminating in an analysis of the regional differences on a higher level. And also, going through more of the history more systematically than has really been done before. This book might get published in English as the next one. I also wrote a book in English that is the sort of partly kind of what I told you now, the story of me getting interested in farmhouse ale and then making these discoveries. So it’s kind of telling you about these beers, but as a more or less as a detective story, where I’m trying to work out what exists and why things are the way that they are. But it goes much more into the historical background and what people have seen before. And so I’m using that as a source of stories, basically. So Viking legends, and folktales and stuff like that to really bring the story to life. But it doesn’t have a publisher. I mean, the book has been finished for over a year, two years almost.
Markus Raupach: What a pity. I’m really curious. I’m already looking forward to both of these books. As I said, I crossed my fingers and if some of our listeners know publishers or even are publishers, so that’s the way to go. Contact Lars and help him and bring these books out because we really want them. That’s great. So, thanks a lot. Thanks a lot for your time and I hope you enjoyed the talk and I’m really looking forward to meeting you again and talking about your great findings and also have discussions about beer and beer styles and all these nice things in the beer culture.
Lars Garshol: Yes, that discussion in Prague was great. So thank you for having me on and for all the kind words.
Bier Talk – Der Podcast rund ums Bier. Alle Folgen unter www.biertalk.de