Near beer: Longyearbyen’s first-ever brewery days away from debut

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After six sobering years of legal battles and several months of sweat-inducing construction work, at least Andreas Hegermann Riis doesn’t have to ponder how he’ll celebrate when the first cans of his history-making beer come off the assembly line.“I’m going to drink and laugh,” he said.

His business partner, Robert Johansen, began the quest in 2010 when he applied for a change in a law that has banned the manufacture of alcohol in Svalbard since 1929. Riis said they hope begin production at Svalbard Bryggeri this week, although nothing is certain.

“We’ve said ‘next week’ for a few weeks now,” he said.

Riis said the brewery has all the ingredients for the four types of beer it plans to brew – pale ale, lager, stout and wheat – but some equipment still needs to be installed and cleaned. The fermentation process means it will be ten days from the time the brewery fires up until the first product is canned.

“You’re not going to get any beer in July,” he said.

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A worker welds part of a cover for a vat that arrived with a damaged panel at Svalbard Bryggeri. Other shipping-related problems such as delays are forcing the brewery to start operations two months later than originally planned. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The brewery was scheduled to start up in May, but delays in shipping equipment and longer-than-expected assembly work have added to what was already a lengthy effort. Riis and Johansen said they have been working from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. during the past two weeks to get the final pieces in place.

“It’s not that hard,” Riis said. “You just have to have a mindset.”

The recipes for the brews won’t be finalized until the equipment is running and evaluated – and even after the first suds are canned Riis said adjustments will be made in response to taste tests and feedback.

“Beers are always changing,” he said. “You do small changes all the time.”

The initial production target is 2,200 cans of beer an hour, with sales aimed at Svalbard and northern Norway before expanding further down the mainland and beyond. The brewery’s debut will be a “soft” opening, with a ceremonial opening on the first day of Longyearbyen’s Oktoberfest festival Sept. 25.

Beyond prevailing in the challenge to the alcohol production ban – more of a foot-dragging process by the government than an adversarial one – Johansen had to cope with the difficulties of being in a remote area with strict environmental laws.

Among the biggest challenges, Riis said, was determining what to do with the biomass left over from the hops after the brewing process. While waste material will initially be shipped to the mainland at considerable cost, he said he hopes the brewery eventually obtains permission to burn the biomass to generate heat used in the brewing process.

“That’s not something you have to deal with on the mainland,” he said.

The brewery won’t be the first to produce alcohol in Svalbard – a small brewery in Barentsburg opened a couple of years ago that produces up to 500 liters a day of low-alcohol (2.5 percent) beer under a provision in Norwegian law at the time, although that brewery now hopes to obtain permission for stronger brews.

In addition, the owners of Kroa are considering establishing a brewpub, but Riis said he doesn’t consider that competition because the restaurant won’t be selling a retail product. As for other retail brewers, he said he doesn’t envision a mad rush of competitors coming north.

“This is crazy,” he said. “This is lunacy to do this.”

 

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