I sit down and talk about kveik yeast and the beer industry with Dr. Lance Shaner, Esq., the founder of Omega Yeast Lab in Chicago. Lance flew in to San Francisco for Old Devil Moon's Kveiking Raid 2: The Kveikening event, where we were pouring 18 kveik fermented ales and ciders, many of which were fermented with his Omega Hothead, Voss, and Hornindal yeast.
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WHAT IS KVEIK & WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
Kveik is a group of very genetically varied Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast blends from Norway. It is NOT the name of ale made with kveik, so please don’t call your kveik fermented beer “a kveik.” Kveik refers only to the yeast. Now, if you do want to talk about traditional Norwegian farmhouse ales themselves, then the proper word is maltøl, though different towns have different names for their traditional ales. For instance, in Hornindal, they call their traditional farmhouse ale Kornøl, hence their festival name Norsk Kornølfestival.
Anyway, Kveik are yeast blends that have been used and passed around among family and neighbors in communities in Norway for many many generations — perhaps thousands of years. They are brewer’s yeasts, meaning that their use by brewers in Norway put evolutionary pressure on these yeast, they are not wild yeasts. They are considered "landrace” yeasts, meaning they are local, domesticated, traditional yeast strains. the key term here is “domesticated." In Norway, Kveik is pretty much always a blend of yeast strains, they didn’t have labs growing up single strains for them.
In recent years a guy named Lars Marius Garshol has been traveling around Norway learning about kveik and traditional Norwegian farmhouse brewing. He’s the guy who's responsible for bringing the existence of kveik and Norwegian farmhouse brewing to the attention of the world. It’s through his blog that I first learned about kveik. Lars has been gathering samples of kveik blends and sharing them with labs and purveyors of brewer’s yeasts like Omega Labs and White Labs in the US. What those labs do is, they take those blends and identify the single strain in the blend that they determine makes the best beer, then they grow that standardized strain up for selling to pros and home brewers. That’s where all these new kveik yeast strains such as Voss, Hornindal, Stranda, and others come from — but they are different from the original Kveik you find in Norway because they are standardized single strains.
WHAT MAKES KVEIK SPECIAL?
So the big question is what makes this yeast special? Why should we care? Kveik strains share a few unique features that make them very very special. One interesting genetic feature they share is that they can survive being dried and then rehydrated and pitched. There are packets of “dry yeast” out there for brewers and bakers to use, but those go through an industrial process, with kveik you can just scoop some off the top of a fermenting ale and allow it to dry naturally and then re-pitch it later and it’ll work fine. If you try that with your typical Chico strains of brewers yeast, you’re not going to have much luck.
However, the reason kviek yeast is a game changer for the craft brewing industry is another unique feature — it can be fermented at ridiculously high temperatures, in some case at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 38 degrees Celsius, without creating a bunch of off flavors. In fact, many strains of kveik ferment pretty cleanly at those incredibly high temperatures. Most ale yeast is fermented at somewhere around 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but kveik strains can ferment cleanly in the high 90s or even over 100 degrees. If you try that with most brewer’s yeast your beer is going to have crazy fruity ester production and harsh, solventy, nail polish remover-like acetone flavors. This is not an issue with kveik strains.
Now, as we all know from high school chemistry, chemical reactions tend to happen faster with more heat added, so the reason it’s exciting that kveik strains can ferment so hot is that…it also ferments crazy fast! I’ve done a bunch of collab beers with pro breweries using kveik strains since returning from Norway in late 2018, I’ve been working to spread the word about this yeast. I’ve done two double IPA collabs with Almanac Beer Co in Alameda, an ESB with Freewheel in Redwood City, a hazy IPA with Barebottle in San Francisco, and a Berliner Weiss with Laughing Monk in San Francisco. In every case, the beer has completed fermentation in just a few days. In every case, the final beer was fantastic. I did an 8.2% ABV double IPA with Almanac Beer Co using Omega Lab’s Hornindal kveik strain — we called it Oslo Hot Chicken because HenHouse Brewing was also a collaboration partner. We brewed the beer on a Thursday morning and were drinking it on Sunday night. It was in kegs and at accounts within 7 days. Not only that, but it was freaking delicious!
That changes the economics of beer making. Period. I’m willing to go on record saying that I predict that within a few years most breweries will have adopted kveik strains as their primary yeast choice for making typical non-phenolic ales. I just don’t see why a brewery would say no to being able to make beer in half the time. It’s like, boom you just started doing all your most popular releases with kveik and congratulations, your brewery capacity just doubled! Suddenly, typically sized local breweries look a little more like regional breweries in their potential output. Folks who are planning to build a brewery maybe don’t need to go as big on their equipment expenditures. And can you imagine just how much energy costs are saved…imagine if you’re a brewery located somewhere hot, like in Florida, and you no longer have to keep your fermenters at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You no longer have to chill your wort to below, say 90 degrees, after your boil…you just pitch your yeast and let it free rise up to potentially 100 degrees before you need to cool it. I’ve heard about some of these strains working well up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Celsius. That’s just incredible. Total game changer.
WILL IT CONTAMINATE MY BREWERY
One question I see people asking online all the time is “will kveik yeast strains contaminate my brewery?” The answer is no. Kveik strains are typical Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast strains just like all the other typical brewer’s yeasts that you use to make your IPAs and other ales. It is NOT a wild yeast. Kveik strains are POF negative, meaning they will not produce phenols in your beer like peppery, clove-like, or smokey flavors. They are also non-diastaticus, meaning they do not produce glucoamylase to allow them to break down much longer chain starches and dextrins and seriously drying out the beer like a Brettanomyces yeast strain. They’re very typical and safe Sacc yeast strains to introduce into your brewery.
WHAT KIND OF FLAVORS DO KVEIK STRAINS PRODUCE
Kveik strains tend to produce some fruity esters but are relatively neutral in flavor. Like most Sacc strains, most kveik strains will produce more esters if fermented at higher temps, but again we’re talking about ridiculously high temperature here as compared to normal brewer’s yeasts. The great news is that most of the esters produced by kveik strains are totally appropriate for popular craft beer styles like IPAs, American wheat ales, blondes, or even English ales. The descriptions I’ve heard do vary, but I have experience using several of these strains myself. The most common characteristic I’ve noticed, from the Hornindal and Voss strains from Omega, at least is that they tend to have a mild citrusy, orange-y ester profile, sort of like Grand Marnier liqueur, but can sometimes present as more tropical in character. Obviously, that works perfectly for many very popular craft beer styles. Another thing worth mentioning is that even though these are highly flocculant strains, the Hornindal strain in particular seems to work great for making hazy dry hopped ales.
Of course it’s going to take a few brews to dial in using any of these yeast strains, but I’d encourage all homebrewers and pros to go out there and get some kveik strains and start experimenting right away. Kveik is a tidal wave of change that’s coming to the industry, so why not be on top of it?!
I’ve been interested in rustic farmhouse ales since the day I started homebrewing back in 2008 because farmhouse brewers and felt close to, and connected with, what I was doing in my backyard when I brewed. So when I heard there was a whole farmhouse brewing scene in Norway that included the use of traditional landrace yeast blends and home malting I was very excited and read everything I could find about it, which wasn’t much. I went to Norway in 2008 to meet farmhouse brewers and learn more. What I discovered blew my mind, especially when it came to their special types of yeast.
You know how every small brewery that gets a little hype seems to run out of brewing and fermenting capacity in no time and its beer becomes more and more scarce? Then, a few years down the line the brewery owners raise money and invest hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars building a new facility to double or triple their capacity. Well, imagine if they could instantly double their capacity just by switching the yeast strain they use for their most popular releases. That would revolutionize craft brewing and enable brewery growth unthinkable using the currently popular brewer’s strains such as Vermont and Chico.
That is the promise of…KVEIK…so let’s explore this yeast stating with how to pronounce it!
HOW DO YOU SAY IT?
I was in Norway for the Norsk Konølfestival in 2018, it’s a small festival in Hornindal Norway centered around traditional Norwegian farmhouse ales. While I was there I heard what sounded to my ears like three different ways of saying this word.
The first was K-VIYK, with a subtle vee sound. My understanding is that this is the most correct way to say the word. That said, some Norwegians I spoke with didn’t seem to say the vee sound as much and their pronunciations sounded more like KWIYK, with a “W.” Another way was QUAKE, like “earthquake.” The differences are fairly subtle. Saying KVIYK can be a little difficult for English speakers, but if you say KWIYK or QUAKE to a Norwegian beer nerd they'll understand what you’re getting at. So, KWIYK or QUAKE or KVEIK.
Bonus fun fact number one — the term “kveik” comes from Old Norse and is related to the Old English word “quick,” which meant alive or lively…as in, if you put this stuff in a sweet liquid the whole thing comes alive…and ultimately become beer…or makes bread rise.
Bonus fun fact number two — Kveik is not actually the word that all Norwegians use to refer to their traditional farmhouse yeast blends, even though it has recently come into that use for the rest of us in order to keep things simple. In Norway, people in different regions call their yeast a variety of names including yest, yester, gong, and barm, among other things. But because that’s pretty confusing, it’s been generally accepted that Kveik is an appropriate term.