31 Jul 2017 Collaborations On Display
A brewer from Iceland has a beer that features notes of sheep manure. Really.
By James Patrick, Portland Press Herald
Photos courtesy Portland Press Herald
Read this article on the Press Herald website
Iceland’s Sturlaugur Jon Bjornsson came to Maine with two ingredients for a brew day: sea salt and heather. Those aren’t typical ingredients, but what else would you expect from a brewer who uses sheep manure to smoke malt for a couple of his beers?
Bjornsson will be featuring one of his beers infused with sheep poop-smoked malts – there’s a phrase you dream of writing – at Saturday’s Summer Session beer festival at Thompson’s Point in Portland. The event comes a month after Maine brewers shipped dozens of kegs to Iceland for a June beer festival. In return, a dozen Icelandic breweries sent kegs of beer that will be served from the Maine Beer Box (a refrigerated shipping container) at the festival.
It was at that Icelandic festival that brewers from Liquid Riot toured Borg Brugghus, where Bjornsson is the head brewer. The second time they met was in one of Iceland’s famous, geothermic public baths. Unprepared for local customs, the brewers from Liquid Riot had to rent European-style Speedos.
“The tradition is you have to take a fully naked shower, soap up, before you go in (the hot spring). There’s a guy in the shower making sure you do all this. It’s ridiculous,” Liquid Riot brewer Greg Abbot said. “So we did that and we went to rent a suit and all they had were these European Speedos.”
It wasn’t a planned meeting of the brewers. Bjornsson, wearing a Speedo of his own, was already hanging out in the “hot pots” – Icelandic slang for the public baths.
“I guess it’s divine intervention,” Bjornsson said of the ensuing international relationship.
The result is, ahem, a heavenly combination of quirky brewers.
Liquid Riot is known, in part, for its prolific collaborations. Abbot says he has worked on at least 20 collaboration brews. And Bjornsson is more than comfortable brewing in the U.S. A French horn player, Bjornsson went to school at Boston University, where he studied music performance.
“I was more focused on beer,” Bjornsson said.
After he graduated in 2006, Bjornsson moved to California, earned a master’s degree from the national Brewers Guild and worked at Russian River Brewing, which is considered to be one of the best breweries in the world.
He returned to Iceland and helped start Borg Brugghus in 2010. Bjornsson still keeps his French horn handy (though he doesn’t play when he’s drinking) and fills in when needed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
After meeting Abbot in the hot pots, the pair started work on a collaboration brew over email. Abbot tossed out the idea of doing a milkshake IPA – brewed with lactose sugar and copious amounts of hops – but they decided against it as none of the brewers has ever made that type of beer.
They settled on making a saison aged in brettanomyces, a type of yeast, which should add tart and funky notes to the beer. And then there’s that Icelandic heather, which Bjornsson proudly pulled out of his luggage to display in Liquid Riot’s brewery.
“Try to explain that to Customs,” he said.
The heather looked like grass clippings inside a clear, plastic bag. Abbot rolled it around in his hands. “It smells very tea-like. Like green tea,” Abbot said as Bjornsson nodded in agreement.
The heather, sea salt and brett will hang out in Liquid Riot’s tanks while the beer ages. It could be ready in six weeks, Abbot said, and it could be six months. The beer should be around 4 percent alcohol. When it’s ready, the beer will be on tap at Liquid Riot and at Novare Res, a nearby Portland beer bar.
This collaboration is exactly what Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, hoped would happen when he set up the beer exchange with Iceland. And it wasn’t the only collaboration. Eli Cayer of Urban Farm Fermentory collaborated with Icelandic brewers during his visit in June and his work will be on tap at Summer Session. The collaboration is about exchanging ideas and expertise as well as making a name for Maine beer around the world, Sullivan said.
“Maine brewers are committed to making the best beer in the world, and the exchange of knowledge, and a hands-on brew day with Borg and Liquid Riot is exactly the type of thing we hoped would come out of this brewers’ trade effort,” Sullivan said.
While festival-goers won’t be able to try Bjornsson’s collaboration with Liquid Riot, they can have Surtur No. 30. That’s the beer made with malts smoked by sheep poop. It’s a 9 percent alcohol imperial stout. What should drinkers look for if they want to taste Surtur No. 30?
“It’s a complex matrix of dried-out (manure) and hay that is compacted by the animals themselves over the winter,” Bjornsson said. “Then the farmers shovel it out, compress it and dry it out even more. Then they use that to smoke fish and meat, traditionally. It’s like how they smoke malt in Scotland with heat, except, you know, we use excrement. We don’t have any trees in Iceland, so you have to use what you have.
“It’s farmy, for sure. I wouldn’t say it tastes like (manure). It definitely has its own smoke flavor profile. And it’s something that is very normal, everyday thing in Iceland to consume sheep-(manure)-smoked meat or fish.”
Bjornsson shrugged as he said that last part. The combination is normal – like going to a hot pot in a Speedo. If that’s too exotic for festival-goers, he’ll also be serving a triple IPA that doesn’t involve sheep.
Liquid Riot will serve four beers, including a 2-year-old sour brown ale. It might not be the most popular beer at the festival, but Abbot doesn’t care about that. While they’ll both try to satiate the taste for IPAs, Liquid Riot found a good match in Bjornsson.
“These guys seem to be on a similar level to us, trying funky beer, just trying new things,” Abbot said.