Sometimes the Twitterverse throws you opportunities too good to pass up.
In October 2013, ICIP and the – at the time, very new – Little Brother Brewery started following each other. We said hi, felt a pang of disappointment when we realised they were based over the North Sea in Norway, and made some wistful comment about coming to visit if we were ever feeling flush.
Eight months later, we had booked a Scandinavian jaunt which was going to include a stay in Oslo, Little Brother’s hometown. A few emails later, and we were on for a visit.
Founded in mid-2013 by brothers Andrew and Cameron Manson, the brewery has just been granted its production license and is now officially the smallest commercial brewery in Oslo. “I was brewing in uni in Brisbane in the laundry with my brother and some flatmates,” Cameron reminisces. “When I moved to Europe, I got back into brewing. When I first moved to Oslo, my neighbour gave me a bottle of homebrew which really impressed me. So I decided to pick up the hobby again.”
The ball is just starting to get rolling for Little Brother. “We got our first order the other day, actually,” Cameron tells us, proudly. “We have three orders now! It’s Oslo beer week next month and we’ll be selling some kegs to the organisers, Grünerløkka Brygghus.” They will also be releasing a bottled beer which will be sold in local pub, Cafe Sara. “We’ll be hand bottling, and we’re using 750ml bottles because you pay a tax per bottle in Norway. You have to pay a recycling company because they are then responsible for cleaning away all the rubbish. So you choose big bottles to get the most out of each one. If you have a container over 4 litres then you don’t pay, so the key kegs are going to be important.” It sounds like a lot of red tape for a small company starting out. “It’s costly and it takes time, but getting the kegs will help a lot. That’ll save time, then we can just do bottles for restaurants.”
The brewery still isn’t the day job for Cameron, who manages a bar at an upmarket Oslo hotel. “I plan the roster so that I can work in the brewery. It’s hard work, but now we’re getting a few orders in, and we’ve got our license in place, it’s working out.” With interest in the brewery picking up, he is hopeful that he may be able to focus more on Little Brother as time goes on: “maybe in a year’s time I can even think about this being a full time thing.”
Despite coming from London, home of very expensive craft beer, we’re still reeling from the prices of beer in Norway. “Ah, sure, it’s pricey, but then wages are pretty high here as well. If people weren’t profitable they couldn’t make a good business – everything’s costly, but then again, I think minimum wage is about 140NOK (c. £14).” We’re stunned by this – we’re pretty sure the minimum wage is about half that in the UK. No wonder we’re finding everything more expensive in Scandinavia. The other issue is where the beer can be sold. You can only buy beer up to 4.7% in shops (and at limited times). Any alcoholic drinks over this percentage are sold exclusively at the government-owned Vinmonopolet. “I’m going to brew this wheat beer to about 4.6% so I can try to get it into the supermarket,” says Cameron. “I’d go higher if I could, but then it would never make it into the shops. The IPA will never make it into a supermarket!”
Despite the costs and the bureaucracy, craft beer seems to be booming here, maybe even more so than back home. “Apparently there’s a new brewery opening every month in Norway,” Cameron agrees. “Even the homebrew shops have expanded massively since I started out. The one I go to has gone from two to thirty employees in two years.” On our trip, we saw a huge range of styles available – everything from European pilsners through to a Cassis Tripel that nearly finished us off (thanks, Nøgne ø). Is there a particular style that sets Norwegian hearts racing? “Definitely IPA. The first beer that we’re going to release is an IPA; we’re playing it safe there. I think the core range will be the IPA and a wheat beer.”
But Little Brother clearly won’t be content to stick with the basics. “I’m trying the wheat beer four ways; the same grain bill, brewed with local honey and then with a different yeast for each one. I’ll dry hop with a couple of different varieties of hops. In one I’m going to try adding the dried skins of coffee beans. It doesn’t really taste like coffee, it’s more of a tea flavour. So I’m gonna add that with the dry hops and leave it for seven days.” And Cameron has other plans up his sleeve. “I’m also going to do an imperial coffee stout – I’ll coarse grind the Mexican coffee I’m using, then bag it and then just stick it in like dry hops. This will be mashed at a high temperature and there will be lots of residual sugar, then I’ll referment it with champagne yeast in the bottle so it’ll have a sweetness and a malt backbone that’ll handle the acidity. The coffee has dark berry flavours, so it’ll go well with the chocolate and coffee flavours from the beer.”
So where does Cameron get his inspiration for such creative brewing? “I do surf the net a lot. If I like a beer I’ll look for some sort of clone recipe to try and find out what hop or yeast is used. I try a lot of different beers too; lately I’ve been trying single hop ales because you really get the profile of the hops without having to brew with each one, and really understand flavours.” Cameron’s passion for brewing is obvious. “I always remember the first time I tried beer was in the pub with my dad, and I hated it. I thought: ‘I’ll never like beer’. Now I realise that it was just shit beer, and I still don’t like it now!” It seems unlikely that a young adult growing up in Norway would have the same problem. We’re staggered by the choice here.
Despite the brewery still being very much in its infancy, Little Brother has big plans for the future. “Right now we’re looking at getting some funding to get some large equipment – we want two conical fermenters, a palette of kegs and a palette of bottles so we can really start operating. What we’d love to aim at a beer cafe, similar to what Mikkeller has done. We’re going to do a beer club here at the brewery as well, hopefully. We’ll get fridges, and we already have a hop-back so we can serve beers through the fresh hops.” And what of worldwide domination? “Well, my brother is back home. He’s an architect and photographer and he does all of our design and the website. In the distant future we’d like to open up down there. Craft beer is becoming bigger there now too.”
It’s been exciting to witness the birth of a new brewery which is already doing some really innovative and exciting things with their beer after just a few months, and with such great plans for the future. We can’t wait to see what Little Brother come up with now they have their production license – we can only hope they’re prepared to ship overseas!