Pints at the planet’s northernmost brewery
Something just seems right about the existence of the Svalbard Brewery.
After all, there certainly should be a brewery on the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. And it certainly should be in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement of the largest island.
And it goes without saying that this establishment should be Earth’s northernmost brewhouse, crafting a deliciously sudsy survey of some of the planet’s most representative beers: stout, pilsner, pale ale, IPA, and weissbier.
The Svalbard Brewery, or bryggeri in the native Norwegian of its founders, was formed in 2011. But it was not until 2015 that it was able to brew its first batch, due to Svalbard’s 1928 prohibition against alcohol – a prohibition the brewery’s creators, Robert Johansen and Anne Grete, compelled the Norwegian Parliament to change.
Bob and Doug McKenzie would be proud.
These days the Svalbard Brewery is a popular Longyearbyen attraction, drawing residents as well as the area’s ample tourists looking to kill some time before embarkation.
We had a chat with Ida Larsen, head of the brewery’s visiting center and administration, and learned all we could about its origins, operations, and most importantly, its beer.
What made the company’s founders so determined to make this brewery that they were willing to change laws to do it?
Robert, our CEO, always wanted to start something up here in Longyearbyen, since we didn’t have anything that was being produced here.
In the stores, you can obviously find Svalbard aquavit, cognac, and prosecco, but none of that is produced here in the islands, so he wanted to be the first to start something up here that we could call our own.
He also wanted to contribute to the tourism that’s getting bigger and bigger in Svalbard.
Tourism is a huge part of the city, and Robert knew that a brewery would be an exciting option for this small island.
Then allow us to personally thank you all on behalf of our passengers. How exactly did the brewery start out?
To begin with, Robert’s plan was mainly local sale. But he also understood that this beer is exciting for the rest of the world, especially with the glacier water as an ingredient.
Also, beer from the world’s most northern brewery is something people find very interesting – and for a good reason!
So we extended our sales in the supermarkets and liquor stores in the mainland of Norway.
Then in January of 2017, we got a call from Norwegian Airlines: They were interested in buying our beer to sell on their flights.
That’s certainly a brewery game changer.
Yes, it must be the biggest dream for every brewery, to see your own beer on an airline!
And especially for us, as we had only been open for about a year and a half at that time, with just three people working here. But we saw this as a good challenge, and of course we accepted that challenge.
How did that deal impact beer production?
To begin with, Norwegian wanted 10,000 cans per month. After checking our capacity, we figured that was possible.
But after a few months, they started taking in more and more beer, around 19,000 cans every month. Honestly, we were struggling a bit to meet those new orders while also making beer for locals and for mainland Norway.
Did being so successful so soon lead to any difficulties at the brewery?
I remember one time we accidentally sold beer that was meant for Norwegian Airlines to some of the bars in town, and we had to buy back all that beer to be able to ship the order to Norwegian Airlines.
That’s what we call a luxury problem!
Yes. We’d like to feel sorry for you, but…
Well, it took us a few months to get into the routine. But when we figured it out, it all went amazingly.
Norwegian Airlines is still selling our pale ale on long-distance flights all over the world, and they are our biggest customer to date.
The Arctic cruise industry must also keep your brewery quite busy.
Our busiest season is from May to August, when the Arctic travelers arrive.
In 2018, 95% of the cruise and expedition ships took our beer to sell on board, and based on what I’ve heard, it sold out pretty fast.
We deliver the beer directly to the ships. Most of the ships also offer beer tastings at the brewery, where you get to hear our story, taste the beers, and see the factory.
How busy can it get with all those international passengers coming to the brewery?
Some days we have 13 beer tastings a day, with 40 people in each group.
But as busy as it gets, it’s great being able to tell people about changing the law to open the brewery.
And Robert’s previous jobs as a pilot and a mine worker are interesting subjects, as well as Svalbard culture. It’s wonderful to see everyone enjoying the stories as much as they do.
With so many tourists who like to treat themselves to a party before or after their Arctic cruises, we are never scared of not selling enough.
With all that holiday traffic, do locals still come to the brewery.
Yes, and local people will always be our top priority. They are the most important customers for us, so they’ll always have a place at the brewery.
Without Longyearbyen people, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
We’ve talked far too little about the beer itself. Let’s end with that, shall we?
Robert’s favorite beer is and always has been the stout. But when he’s planning to go a bit crazy, he treats himself to a few of the blonde beers.
There seems to be a hidden meaning there, but we won’t delve too deeply.
Only that the beer is so delicious!
We take inspiration from other breweries, naturally, but we don’t really have a specific brewery that we try to emulate. So everything is just based on what we like, what our customers respond to, and what our brew master thinks up.
Our brew master, Andreas Hegermann Riis, is an amazing brewer with a lot of experience. He creates products that he just knows in his heart will be great.
Well, his heart has very good taste.
I agree. So far, so good!