How has the reception been for Borg?
Valli: Being part of a big company there is a tension between sales people and brewers. So basically we haven't really been able to keep up with demand. It's a good thing, but it does hold back our creative abilities.
Stulli: This is to make the owners happy. When I was starting I had to make a compromise. I got to brew an IPA if I made something they would like. So what I was going for was a lager with a twist. What I was thinking at the time was a sort of blend of a Munich Helles beer and something Belgian. It is a full time production beer.
|They get bolder as you move from left to right.
Stulli: Our first beer was Brio, it was a 4.5 ABV German style pilsner, our second beer was a 4.5% brown ale [ed. note Austur] that I made for a bar downtown, the third was Úlfur which was the odd man out because I got to make it but it was a compromise because I would have wanted to make a 9% IPA. Then Bjartur a 5% lager like beer, a 4.5% amber lager, then when things changed you see Stekkjarstaur a 6% brown ale, Surtur, our imperial stout which is 12%, Benedikt, a belgian which is 7%, and so forth.
Stulli: On Surtur, our imperial stout we ended up changing our final pretty drastically.
Valli: It became a totally different beer.
Stulli: I had this goal, this dream for many years to produce the first IPA in Iceland.
Valli: I was head brewer at Ölvisholt when it started, but because I live here in Reykjavik I basically couldn't afford to work there anymore. [ed. note Olvisholt is about an hour drive from Reykjavik and gas is very expensive on the island] So that is why I came over here. When we started at Ölvisholt I had promised to myself that I would never make a lager because that was all there was available in Iceland so I wanted to bring some change in. The only demand the owners had was to make a pale lager, but I made a steam beer so technically a lager. That was Skalftji. I didn't know I was making a steam beer, I had a lager but I wanted to brew it at a higher temperature to get more flavors to it and stuff. It wasn't when we started to export to Sweden that someone pointed out that this is steam beer then. It wasn't intentional, after that I tried to create beers that hadn't been produced in Iceland before which wasn't really hard though. All the things I made in Ölvisholt had never been produced here before.
That is a cool opportunity to break new ground.
Valli: Well the brewers have actually been ahead of of the public. We are pushing out the new stuff, it is not because of the demand but because we want to do it.
Stulli: Of course there is a small group of beer fanatic nerds, Haukur being one of them. The majority of people here just sort of tag along, they either love what we are doing, not necessarily every beer we make, but the creative things and new things at a small scale, or they hate it and just keep on drinking their regular beer.
Valli: Well both groups keep on drinking their regular beer and that actually has been a problem. When Ölvisholt actually started we had a lot of good feedback to just bring something new and something different and we will pay whatever for it. We had huge amounts of people telling us that and we had great hopes and we were planning to expand the brewery before we even began brewing but when it came down to it people who had promised to buy nothing else didn't buy a single bottle of it. There is a lot of conservatism, people pick their brand, 'this is what I drink, this is my favorite.' People are starting to try different flavors and try different beers.
Does that work in your favor when Icelanders go abroad?
Valli: The thing is when Icelanders go abroad they go to a bar and ask for a cold beer. They get a Tuborg or a Heineken, and that is great for them because they are abroad, drinking, and that is enough. Although beer culture is better in most countries you still have to look for the quality and craft beers.
Are you planning on exporting?
Stulli: Quality-wise, being Russian River alum, I'm not going to export anything I am worried about like my IPA. Don Feinberg has put in an order for our imperial stout which we are hoping to ship out to him, but we have to try and find time to produce it.
What is the status of home brewing in Iceland?
Stulli: It is illegal in here, technically…
Valli: …you can't produce anything about 2.5%, that's the limit.
How much of anything you brew is import?
Valli: The raw materials?
Stulli: Everything is imported.
Valli: Actually we are bringing out another beer, Snorri, which we will bottle next week, [ed. note: this is now available at the duty free in Keflavik International Airport] made with Icelandic barley which is unmalted but with added enzyme.
Stulli: It is no secret that the only way to make the raw barley usable is with added enzymes. It is just to get through the same process that is done in malting but in the kettle or mash tun. It is something we inherited from upstairs.
Will there come a day when you can actually get malt?
Stulli: In Iceland?
Valli: I doubt it, just putting up a malting facility would be so expensive.
Stulli: To make it profitable you would have to make so much malt and I doubt that enough malt is grown in Iceland.
Valli: To make this beer a little more interesting we decided because it is so light to get some kick out of it we used english al and it's spiced with an Icelandic herb called arctic thyme. You can make it sound great, but then of course I think it is commercially acceptable. We run what we call beer school here and we had a trial version of it on tap and apparently the reception of the beer was very good.
Stulli: We are going to bottle it unfiltered and try to make a new type of style, Icelandic barley beer. (laughs)
Valli: We boosted the spices in the next batch.
Stulli: It is an exclusive beer for the duty free.
It feels like you are doing research and development for Egils. Will something come out with their brand name on it that was your creation?
Valli: That is one of the many parts of Borg, we are the research brewery for the big brewery. In the long run the goal is to produce beers that can move over to the big brewery for mass production. What we produce is on such small scale that in sales for the company it really doesn't matter on the books. The value for them is more marketing than anything else. Of course we produce beers that I know will move over to the big brewery.
What was your inspiration to come back to Iceland and brew beer?
Stulli: Having an Icelandic wife, kids on the way. It is great to live here other than beer, but I came to try and change that.
Come back tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion where Stulli and Valli discuss what's next for Borg, maintaining their creativity in the shadow of a giant, and what's been their best success to date.