Kveik Fest 2019
Far more important and intelligent words have been said about kveik yeasts, like Claire Bullen’s beautiful, thorough piece for Good Beer Hunting, or Kate Bernot’s expertly concise explanation on The Takeout. And of course Larsblog. Then there’s Milk the Funk, and Kveik World Order and (to a ridiculously lesser extent) our very own Kveik Beers episode. It goes on.
For a centuries-old Norwegian farmhouse yeast, kveik is having a real moment. It’s something most brewers have been aware of for a few years now, but it’s just now starting to build a following with consumers. Well, specifically the type of consumers who get excited about terms like “double decoction” and “hand foraged” – which admittedly, sound filthy. Some see “kveik” on the label as a guarantee of quality beer as it’s an extremely tolerant yeast that adapts well to many styles. Others praise the fruity flavors some strains can impart.
But one misunderstanding I had previously that was blown up at Chicago’s first ever Kveik Fest was that kveik was a yeast built for speed. Churning out beers in half the amount of time of typical ale yeasts, kveik gets to work fast and cleans up in a relative blink. It also can survive – if not thrive in – the wildly fluctuating warehouse temperatures of many smaller breweries. But the beers at Kveik Fest went beyond the “same DDH IPA with a different hop combination” variety that brewers would love to have readily available with tremendous speed and efficiency. So many Kveik Fest beers were mature offerings that were not rushed, instead luxuriating in barrels or on ingredients to produce something special. Raw ales, ancient Lithuanian beers, and traditional Norwegian farmhouse ales were aplenty. This was a niche event that was industry-heavy, but it was also one of the best times I’ve had at beer fest in a very long time.
In what might be a painfully contrived metaphor, it’s appropriate that Burnt City Brewing has found new life in kveik. Like the yeast, Burnt City has been resilient: an early name and branding overhaul was certainly costly, but nothing compared to a few major relocations in their more recent history. But they’ve continued to adapt, opening in the District Brew Yards: certainly a first of its kind in Chicago. And if you visit their combined taproom to pour your own beer, you’ll find a majority has been made with kveik: from crisp grisettes to viscous stouts.
So Ben from Burnt City and Lance from Omega Yeast opened up their fantasy Rolodex (which is probably just crawling with little yeasty critters) and called up all of the kveik nerds they could find, creating a brewery list with a significant number of brewers who’ve never had their beers poured in Chicago. Oh, and they got Lars Marius Garshol from Larsblog to attend as well, who was fawned over by more than a few workshirted brewers as he happily strolled the fest in his “got kveik?” t-shirt. He also gave a presentation on kveik in the brewery that was obviously a bit more crowded than they anticipated, but he kept the crowd rapt with attention for nearly an hour.
Overall, the fest itself was one of those cynicism-free celebrations of what makes beer great. It was a collection of brewers who both love tradition and strive for innovation. The attendees were friendly and talkative – I met more strangers at this fest than any other I can remember because there were no big crowds and everyone seemed happy to just geek out over weird beer.
Here are some of the beers from Kveik Fest that really stuck out to me:
Buckwheat Keptinis | Keptinis | 5.7% | Ebb & Flow Fermentations | Cape Girardeau, MO
With my favorite contrast of styles at the fest, Ebb & Flow was pouring a coconut NEIPA and this barely-known classic Lithuanian farmhouse style. Of course, the latter was the talk of a fest like this. This beer, described by Ebb & Flow as something between a brown ale and a dubbel, is based around baked malts, which impart flavors of dark breads crusted with toasted sugar. It’s at first a bit challenging because there’s not really a box that my brain can fit this into, and there are notes of burnt sugar cookie that you’d normally spit out. But continued sips bring forth some light raisin and oily nutskin, and the malt becomes more caramelized than burnt. I will certainly remember my first keptinis.
Proximal | English Barleywine aged in Rye Whiskey barrels | 13% | Around the Bend Beer Co. | Chicago, IL
Another beer showing Kveik’s versatility, this English barleywine was aged in freshly-emptied Route 12 rye whiskey barrels for 9 months. It is stunning. Dan Schedler joked that he’s staking his future on whether or not this beer wins an award, and honestly, he’s not wrong. Bound for 16-ounce cans, this beer deserves all the accolades. It’s a huge beer that somehow fights through the booze to finish smooth. It’s full of caramel and spice, with butterscotch toffee and burnt brown sugar and a whiplash of pepper in the middle. It was easily the best beer we had at the fest.
Gizmo Windjammer | West Estonian-style raw farmhouse ale w/ juniper branches, myrica gale, and Stranda kveik yeast | 8.2%| Ørkenoy | Chicago, IL
The newest brewery at the fest, Ørkenoy is set to open in the Kimball Arts Center in Humboldt Park in the somewhat near future. But in the meantime, Ørkenoy is making “Scandinavian-inspired” beers and using a whole lot of kveik yeast in the Pilot Project space. And this fest was the perfect showcase for how weird they want to get. On this beer, the tremendous smoke on the aroma and flavor are courtesy of a Nordic-style malt from Sugar Creek, but the juniper and gale really make you feel like you’re drinking a tea that could kill small insects. I mean that lovingly. This beer is a challenge to drink at first, but its intensity settles down into a peaty herbal cocktail with a little honey lemon Ricola. It’s not even the weirdest thing I drank all day, but it has a flavor that’ll stick with you.
Green Walnut Gruit | Gruit w/ spelt and triticale and…stuff | 6.1% | VonSeitz TheoreticAles | Smithville, TN
I know there’s spelt and triticale in this beer. There’s probably green walnuts as well. There’s really no other information about this beer online as far as I can tell. But I do know that I have a desire to try more gruits, and this brewery had a few. This one is upfront oily and nutty and tannic with an odd array of indistinguishable fruits and a surprising dry finish. I have never had a beer like this, and I enjoy that.
Wien Krans | Vienna Lager fermented w/ Kveik | 5.5% | Dovetail Brewery | Chicago, IL
Tastes like screams.
There Is No Other Way | Gin barrel-aged mixed culture saison w/ lime zest, pink peppercorns, and lemongrass | 6.5% | Hacienda Beer Co. | Baileys Harbor, WI
I have to give credit to our friend Sarah Rehmer for her praise of this one, because it is a stunning example of how well kveik can play alongside Brett and bacteria. This is a gin and tonic squeezed from a cloud. It has zesty citrus and a stinging bite before yellow Gatorade extinguishes the palate with a tartness that gets a little sticky before going bone dry.
Nordic Thunder: Brett Blend | Blended Wheat IPA and Brett beer w/ pineapple and apricot puree | Penrose Brewing Co. | Geneva, IL
“Nordic Thunder” by Penrose is listed on Untappd as a “Sour Hazy IPA with pineapple, passion fruit, lactose, and vanilla” which I guess makes it a Sour Milkshake IPA. (Lord.) This version of Nordic Thunder by Penrose pouring at the fest was a Voss kveik wheat IPA with pineapple and apricot puree that was blended with a Brett beer. The resulting beer is sweet pineapple juice upfront with a splash of apricot that moves across the silky body before ending with a succession of tartness and herbal bitterness.
Fieldhand | Nordic farmhouse ale w/ buckwheat, oats, and lavender | 4.1% | Windmill Brewing | Dyer, IN
It’s great to me when you discover a complete zag from a brewery you’ve had very little experience with and pigeonholed to a particular style. Though they do make a nice milkshake IPA, Windmill’s Fieldhand is a floral and earthy farmhouse that evokes the keptinis (now that I’m an expert) with its notes of burnt sugar and rye bread. But there’s a bit of a honey in the flavor that helps this one finish with a subtle sweetness against the bitter buckwheat.
Starprise Entership | Saison fermented in oak w/ Hornindal kveik and 12 strains of Brett | 5.1% | Geneseo Brewing Co. | Geneseo, IL
By far the most fun beer name to say, this one is a light saison that shines golden and nearly clear like a lager. There’s a subtle complexity to it, as you might expect from a beer with…12 strains of Brett. (At this very moment, I can name 4 strains of Brett, tops.) Notes of pineapple and lemon zest brush against a light oak tannin, and the finish is white pepper dry crackers.
Standing on the Verge | Bitter Country Ale | 5.5% | Branch & Bone Artisan Ales in collaboration with Ebb & Flow Fermentations
This gorgeous beer is inspired by De Ranke’s XX Bitter, a beer that was shared with us by Michael Thorpe, head brewer of Afterthought Brewing – the most popular brewery not in attendance. I wore my Afterthought shirt to the fest and was stopped by no fewer than 10 people and asked about where to procure some tasty bottles of saison before they left the city. But anyways, back to this beer. Generous additions of noble hops give this a very grassy, herbal, and earthy bite that dominates the middle and end of this beer. The beginning of each sip is an oasis from the last as the beer starts a little soft and citrusy tart before turning up the bitterness.
Raw Ale Collab W/ Lars With Juniper Branches | …ditto | 5% | Burnt City Brewing | Chicago, IL
Though obviously named under duress, this beer was lovingly made to give Kveik Fest attendees a little liquid Lars. Unsavory alliteration aside, this beer had the most divisive response among our group. It’s kind of like beer broth. There’s undeniable boiled green beans and mashed carrot all over this and at times it’s like chewing waxy parsley stems. Some members of our group hated it. On the other hand, I – a supergenius – fought through the stew to find this beer’s raw farmhouse earthiness and a light citrus tartness. It deserves mention here for being the weirdest-tasting beer in a fest chock full of extremely weird beers. And I honestly really want to drink it again. (This is also the first beer stateside, as far as we know, to use the Framgarden kveik strain, so cheers to Burnt City for doing that.)