Beer in Norway has a long history, stretching back more than a millennium. Until some 200 years ago, most farms where it was possible to grow grain south of the Arctic Circle, brewed their own beer. From the early 20th century brewing was industrialized and home brewing was restricted. Significant consolidation in the brewing sector reduced the number of major breweries to just a handful. With the exception of the farmhouse ales, most beer styles brewed in Norway trace their ancestry to central Europe.
The Norwegian beer market is dominated by two large brewers: The major Carlsberg-Ringnes based in Oslo and Copenhagen, Denmark, and the smaller Hansa Borg Bryggerier, based in Bergen and Sarpsborg. Each produce beer branded in a variety of traditional Norwegian beer brands, as well as foreign brands bottled on licence. This system is a result of the large-scale consolidation of Norwegian breweries that has taken place over the last 50 years.
Brewing has a long history in Norway, harking back to the pre-Christian era, when beer was a central element in all religious and social gatherings of any importance. The farmers brewed from their own grain, and most larger farms had a separate building used for drying both grain and malts. Home brewing in Norway is common, and divided in two separate traditions. On the one hand the, mostly city-based, modern home brewing of styles familiar from the rest of the world. On the other, in remote rural regions, farmhouse brewers brewing the same styles their parents and grand-parents brewed. These are styles that don't exist elsewhere.
As with most countries in Europe and America, the most popular style of beer in Norway is pilsner-style pale lager. According to the Norwegian brewers' association, most beer brewed in Norway is pale lager. Until recently, this was the only style of beer to be had, except at Christmas time, when Christmas beers become available. These are dark malt beers traditionally brewed for the holiday season. Today, the craft beer market has continued to develop in Norway offering a number of different styles; including the popularization of kveik yeast for both traditional and modern beers.
Due to government restrictions, beers above 4.75% ABV are only available from licensed premises or from the state-run Vinmonopolet ("wine monopoly") liquor stores. This has resulted in some foreign breweries lowering the alcohol percentages in their beer in order to make them legal for supermarket retail.
Norway has a "pay to play" market meaning the breweries must pay to get their beers on tap in most pubs, restaurants and nightclubs. The brewery must provide the bar with all the systems required for pulling beer, including tanks, taps, and glasses. In place of the tap selection, bars often carry a number of bottled beers. However, these usually carry a much higher price tag. The only exception is when the bar themselves own their own draft system and equipment. This has created a slow growth of small local breweries and limited the consumers options to which beers they can access at their local bars and restaurants.
Styles of beer that are typical of Norwegian commercial brewing are:
Pilsner - the pale lager style which originated in the Czech city of Plzeň. This is the dominant beer type with almost 92% of the market share. The weaker (below 4.75% abv.) types are the most common, but most breweries also brew stronger varieties (similar to the Bavarian Spezial beer style) for sale through the Vinmonopol.
Bayer - a dark lager with roots in Bavaria (Bayern). The Norwegian version is often slightly sweeter than German dark lagers. Once rivaling pilsner in popularity, its market share has dropped from 20% in 1950 to 0.2% in 2004. It was the most popular industrial-brewed beer before the Second World War, but it lost its popularity due to the German occupation.
Juleøl - a dark, malted beer exclusively available at Christmas time. Traditionally this was a strong ale which was brewed at home. In modern times each brewery produces their own variety of Christmas beer, mostly a lager. Most breweries brew both weaker varieties (for sale in supermarkets) and more traditional, stronger varieties.
Bokkøl - a strong, dark style of lager, typically 6-7% ABV, with a sweet, complex flavor. It originates from Germany, where it is known as Bock bier.
In addition, Norway has a strong tradition of farmhouse brewing, which has given rise to several styles, known under the common name of "maltøl" (and more recently sometimes "gårdsøl"). Only a few commercial examples of these exist.
Heimabrygg - From the Hardanger, Voss, Sogn region. Usually dark and very strong (8-12%), mostly brewed from barley malts, with juniper and often kveik yeast. The wort is boiled, often for several hours.
Kornøl - From the Nordfjord and Sunnmøre regions. Usually pale, hazy, and 6-8%. Mostly brewed from barley malts, with juniper and kveik yeast. Traditionally the wort was not boiled, but more in recent decades some brewers have begun boiling.
Stjørdalsøl - From the Stjørdal region. Usually deep dark red and slightly hazy. Brewed from home-made heavily alder smoked barley malts. Usually fermented with bread yeast. Traditionally it was brewed with both hops and juniper, but the use of both, particularly juniper, has declined over the last few decades.
In Norway, beer is classified into four categories by ABV (alcohol by volume), labeled from A to D. The class both determine the tax level, age restrictions, where, and when it can be sold.
Norway started late with microbreweries. There are over a hundred microbreweries in Norway, especially in the major cities. Brew pubs sell beers from their own microbreweries.
There are an increasing number of microbreweries producing variations of craft beer. Some craft beers have an alcohol content more than 4.7%, and must be sold in Norway only through Vinmonopolet.
Norwegian craft beers are for the most part based on foreign styles, but in recent years beers based on the local farmhouse brewing tradition have come onto the market. Although the volume of craft beer is significantly lower than beer from the larger other parts of the brewery industry, about 25% of the employees of the Norwegian brewery industry works with craft beer brewing.
An example of the revival of old brewing is that many current Norwegian brewers brew traditional and modern beer types using the Norwegian yeast kveik.