The Faintest Hint of Sheep — A Brief Look at Beer on the Faroe Islands
The rock in Søren Antoft's hand is pitted with tiny holes like a black sponge. Once, it was the bubbling volcanic lava that solidified halfway between Shetland and Iceland to form the Faroe Islands. Now, it's going to be reheated to 800 degrees centigrade before being plunged into the mash for a spicy, mineral-edged ale called Rinkusteinur.
It's not the only local ingredient that makes Okkara Brewery's beers distinctive, as Søren, a Danish chemist who has brewed here for four years, is eager to point out. "The water we use comes straight off the rocks. It's as pure as you can get. Apart from the sheep shit, of course."
He smiles that dry Faroese smile that seems to tell you the people here are really ship-wrecked city-dwellers. The rugged archipelago on which they live may be a remote, but it's a peculiarly modern wilderness.
Okkara (Faroese for “ours”) was launched in competition with the local family-owned traditional brewer, Foroya Bjor (Beer of the Faroes), in 2010, and towards the end of 2018 Mikkeller opened a bar in the capital, Tórshavn, occupying a corner of one of the picturesque old town’s turf-roofed buildings.
But when it comes to craft beer you get the feeling the Faroe Islands are still playing catch-up. That’s perhaps not surprising when you realise this self-governing part of Denmark emerged from an 85-year prohibition on production of alcoholic drinks stronger than 2.7% ABV as recently as 1992.
Full strength products had to be imported—Carlsberg took advantage of the strong links with Denmark to dominate the beer market—and were rationed among tax-payers. Non-drinkers sold their rations to heavy drinkers, so the alcohol problem that prohibition sought to solve was barely disturbed.
Meanwhile, Foroya Bjor, founded by sheep farmer Simon Frederik Hansen in 1888, survived all that time by making soft drinks (its Jolly brand continues to outperform Coke and Pepsi locally) and Pilsnar, a 2.7% pilsner-style lager that’s still one of the best-selling beers among the Faroes’ 50,000-strong population. You see it in most cafes and shops while stronger drinks can be sold through state-owned outlets.
The brewery, imprinted with the sheep logo so familiar on these islands, stands by an industrial harbour in Klaksvík, the islands’ second “city” (pop. 5,100) and northern capital, against a spectacular backdrop dominated by the towering coned headland of Kunoy, still streaked with snow in June.
It has the feel of a middling-sized British family brewer in the 1970s: reticent, cautious and proud.
Einar Waag, the grandson of the founder, runs the show with his daughter, Annika, who needlessly apologises for the state of the floor as she hurries through a brewery tour that ends, like all brewery tours, in the shop—which, unlike most shops, houses a gleaming copper micro-distillery. Prohibition thoroughly shaken-off, Foroya Bjor is diversifying into spirits.
In the tasting room a large table bristles with bottles. It’s a surprising extensive range that leans heavily towards lagers and the sweeter brews traditionally preferred by most Faroese. There’s a nod to modern tastes, though, in North Atlantic IPA, a 5.8% dark amber hybrid of the English and American takes on the style and gives you plenty to pleasantly chew on.
It’s only the second brew and the recipe is still in development. “Next time perhaps we’ll add more hops,” muses Einar. “People are opening up to different tastes.”
Don’t expect Foroya Bjor to rush into anything, though. It claims 60% of the beer market in the Faroes and people are fiercely loyal to their local hero, especially in the north.
As you worm south through the tunnels hewn roughly out of the bare rock that thread together the islands, palates are a little more adventurous. Yet Okkara, on the coast a few kilometres outside Tórshavn, still hasn’t found it easy. Founded by a group of entrepreneurs the business almost failed before it realised that out here it’s craft ambitions would have to be based on selling a range of traditional styles.
Søren Antoft, the man with the rock, was hired in 2015 to develop new styles and is inspired in his mission by virtuoso brewer Christian Skovdal Andersen, founder of the Danish brewery Beer Here. Since then production has nearly doubled as Okkara has patiently nibbled away 10% of the domestic beer market and exported a little around Scandinavia.
Søren has squeezed a diverse selection of Okkara’s brews on to the corner of a bench and with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy talks about his favourites.
“This is my ‘mountain beer,’” he says, picking out Trondur. He means it’s the beer he puts in his rucksack when he goes hiking, partly because it’s in a can and partly because it’s a restoratively strong 7.5% ABV. Described as an imperial pilsner it’s slightly sweet and alcoholic.
More interesting are a series of numbered limited-edition brews that are hard to pin down. Søren says he’s experimenting with different yeasts. He crosses the brewery and pulls a sample from a rum barrel in which a beer made with muscovado sugar has been ageing. It’s 12% ABV and tastes rich and delicious.
Okkara has also collaborated with Mikkeller on an IPA called Gullhornið, on draught in the Tórshavn Mikkeller bar. Of all Faroese beers it’s closest to the hop-forward pale ales that seem to dominate the majority of craft beer markets.
Travelling around the Faroes, you also notice many houses have a child; a small version of themselves with matching grass roof. This is where they hang sheep to ferment for winter eating, only possible because there are no flies. You catch a peculiar whiff under your nostrils before it’s carried away on the breeze.
They have freezers now, of course, but the Faroese have come to prefer their meat fermented. They even make gourmet burgers with it.
If these islands, where malt and hops have to be imported, are going to make their mark in the wider beer world, it’ll be with something only the Faroese could come up with. Laced, perhaps, with the faintest hint of sheep.
Illustration by Grace Helmer