Inside the World's Northernmost Brewery

February 12, 2019

By Natalie B. Compton, February 12, 2019

The sun isn’t out because it won’t be coming out today. This is not the apocalypse—this is Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago located between the North Pole and Norway’s mainland. We’re so far north that at this time of year we’re out of the sun’s warm reach.

No matter. There’s beer to keep us warm out here in the polar darkness. Namely Svalbard Bryggeri beer.

Robert Johansen was just 22 years old when he first came to Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s largest settlement and the world’s northernmost town. Although his dream was always to become a pilot, he worked the mines in those early years. It would be decades later, after leaving and returning to Svalbard, that he would make that career aspiration come true. Later still, he realized another dream of opening a brewery at the top of the world.

In 2007, Johansen bought a 20-liter homebrew kit that stoked his passion for making beer. (Perhaps it was in his blood: Norway’s beer tradition dates back some thousand years, and today the country has about 190 craft breweries.) For two years Johansen worked on his craft before the idea came to scale up. He wanted to make a product Svalbard could call its own, but the law stood in his way: An archaic rule left over from 1928 deemed alcohol production on Svalbard illegal.

Johansen applied to the government on the mainland to change the law in 2009, thinking the process would be quick. Years went by with no progress, despite his dedication to calling the government agency on the phone once a month religiously.

“Yes, I did indeed have doubts that the law was going to change,” says Johansen. “In the beginning I was pretty sure that they would change the law, but as the years kept going my doubts got bigger. The last few years I thought there was around 70- to 80-percent chance for the law to change. But finally it did!”

It took five and a half years before the Norwegian government overturned the law. On July 1, 2014, Johansen and his wife Anne Grete received the news that they could move forward. By August 2015, Svalbard Bryggeri was open for business.

Finding a bryggerimester, or brewmaster, was tricky. Johansen tapped a Norwegian craft beer Facebook group to try and find an able candidate to move north. While it took serious coaxing to convince Andreas Hegermann Riis to take the job, the Norwegian brewmaster has stayed on since he accepted the position in 2015. He now lives on Svalbard full-time with his wife.

Even with the right personnel in place, it’s still not easy to brew out here in the Arctic. “The city is now changing from coal-mining culture to tourism,” says Johansen, “and then the laws and rules also [have] to change with time to please the tourism culture that is getting bigger and bigger here in town. I can find it challenging with every ‘old’ law in town that [was] made for the mineworkers in town.”

The brewery has nevertheless prevailed. In just three and a half years, the operation has already doubled to a capacity of 500,000 liters. Around these parts, the beer can be found in every hotel, restaurant, and bar, with 70 percent of the brewery’s capacity sold in Svalbard. The beer is also exported to the mainland, and Svalbard Bryggeri beers can be found in more than 100 bars around Norway. Svalbard Bryggeri puts out a pilsner (which accounts for half of its stock) made with Viking Malt from Finland and Czech hops, as well as a weissbier, pale ale, IPA, and stout (Johansen’s favorite).

With business booming, the brewery’s latest mission is to tackle waste issues. It costs nearly $6,000 a month to get rid of the malt mash waste. Eight months ago, Svalbard Brewery partnered with Innovation Norway to develop some sort of solution for its expensive problem. The result of their collaboration was to create a method of burning dry mash to create energy for Longyearbyen. The brewery’s waste now translates to more hot water on the island, leading to the new marketing slogan “drink more beer to give me longer showers.”  

“My hope for Svalbard Brewery is to have a stable business environment and to run a place where people would like to work, and also enjoy working here,”  Johansen says. “In the future, I hope to create more jobs where people thrives. We are off with a good start with the staff and business we have today. And I am very grateful for this.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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