A brewing rock star happened to be in town last weekend. Kjetil Jikiun is a founder and head brewer for Nøgne Ø (“nonya – o”), Norway’s leading craft brewery. He and his wife (and business partner) Cathie had just arrived in country at the behest of Wellington beer bar Hashigo Zake owner Dominic Kelly. We were lucky enough to spend some time with them as they checked out the local scene.
You are probably thinking “Rock star? I’ve never heard of him.” We hadn’t either until we stumbled into a tasting at Hashigo a few years ago. Now, however, we are quite aware that Nøgne Ø has 20 beers scoring 95 or better out of 100 on ratebeer.com, representing a range of styles from traditional to experimental. Just the sort of thing we beer geeks revel in, which explains why we have four of his beers aging in our cellar at this moment, awaiting the perfect reason to open them.
There was little chance that many other people in Nelson had the same feeling, sort of like the rock star who is “big in Japan.” (In fact, Dominic first met Kjetil, who also brews sake, in a pub in Tokyo.) So, while we couldn’t judge public reaction to him, we did want to see what this larger than life brewer thought of New Zealand beers.
We found Kjetil and Cathie to both be gregarious and immediately likeable people with open, self-deprecating senses of humour. Kjetil describes himself as just a homebrewer who wouldn’t stay at home, starting with no formal training and just a very short 5 years of brewing experience. And Cathie jokes about learning by getting practically a new beer a day from the US when Kjetil was working as a pilot. They seem to have fairly similar tastes in beer, liking lots of hops, but preferring a strong malty balance with it.
Nothing was more telling of Kjetil’s personality than the way he managed beer selection at Nelson’s Free House. He started with a real ale, because it’s very hard to go from sparkling back to flat. Then, he tasted the two IPAs, and found one to have lovely hop aroma, and the other to have a nice malt balance, so he ordered a blend of the two.
He found many beers here to be slightly out of style, which prompted a conversation about the local hops and consumer palates. Our thought was that local hops give beers a fruitiness that accentuates the slightly malty bias of NZ consumers.
We suggested he try Mussel Inn’s Captain Cooker Manuka Beer as a boundary pushing local brew. After all, Nøgne Ø does make a sahti, the traditional Finnish juniper beer. He enjoyed the well balanced quaff, but had a hard time imagining anyone drinking it regularly. “It seems a special beer, perhaps once a month or so.”
He also had some curiosity about all of the contract breweries he was finding. The home brewer in him wondered about having enough control, and the businessman asked about the risk of the contractor getting too busy with their own beers.
So what was the final verdict? The two were impressed with the abundance and variety of local product, but too polite to pick favourites. (It took a couple of tries to convince Kjetil that we had so many breweries in our region.) They concluded there is a bright future ahead for craft beer in New Zealand, having faced many of the same issues in Norway, a country with higher alcohol taxes and a smaller craft beer market than here. Says Kjetil: “All it takes is time.” (Nøgne Ø beers are available from www.cultbeerstore.co.nz)
Originally published in the Nelson Mail.