The Surprising Science and Revival of Kveik Yeast in Brewing

Explore the ancient Norwegian Kveik yeast's remarkable journey from farmhouse tradition to modern brewing innovation. Dive into its unique properties, fermentation profiles, and how it's reshaping the world of craft beer.

BREWING INGREDIENTS

Mat Stuckey

8/31/20238 min read

filled juice cup
filled juice cup

The Surprising Science and Revival of Kveik Yeast in Brewing

Kveik yeast strains offer brewers many unique properties that set them apart from standard brewer's yeasts. This ancient Norwegian yeast kept alive for generations by farmhouse brewers is now experiencing a craft beer renaissance.

Read on to learn about the history, genetics, flavour contributions, and remarkable characteristics of kveik that make these traditional yeast strains worth exploring for modern brewing innovation.

An Introduction to Kveik Yeast

Kveik refers to a family of yeast strains historically used for Norwegian farmhouse brewing for generations in western Norway. This special type of yeast differs significantly from most brewer’s yeast available today.

While standard brewing yeasts thrive at moderate temperatures around 68-77°F (20-25°C), kveik yeast can ferment surprisingly well at much higher temperatures from 86°F up to 113°F (30-45°C) without producing off-flavours.

In addition, kveik ferments very quickly, requires less yeast to be pitched, and contributes unique tropical fruit aromas. This combination of highly desirable properties has brought kveik out of obscurity and into the global brewing spotlight.

The Origin and History of Kveik Yeast in Brewing

For centuries, Norwegian farm families brewed traditional beers using kveik yeast strains they propagated and reused from batch to batch. These live yeast cultures were carefully maintained and passed down through generations along with brewing knowledge.

If a batch went bad or a family's kveik died, they would obtain fresh yeast from a neighbour, leading to local kveik variants. Because fermentation was not well understood until modern times, the yeast was simply called “kveik” meaning “healthy yeast” in old Norse.

As homebrewing declined with the availability of commercial beer, most family kveik cultures sadly died out. But a few dedicated brewers along Norway's west coast kept traditional kveik strains alive.

Today, surviving kveik yeast samples have been documented and analysed revealing distinct genetic properties. The kveik strains are closely related variants of brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae specially adapted to regional brewing methods.

The Unique Genetics of Kveik Yeast Strains

Genetic analysis confirms kveik belongs to a major category of brewer’s yeast called “Beer 1” that includes German, British, and Belgian lineages.

But kveik appears to be a hybrid with significant additional genetic contributions from wild yeast, likely acquired regionally in Norway. This hybrid vigour helps explain some of kveik’s advantageous fermentation traits.

Within the class of kveik yeast, different farm lineages show genetic distinctions reflecting their localised propagation in Norway over centuries resulting in distinct fermentation characteristics.

Kveik Yeast Strain Profiles

Venturing into the world of kveik yeast is like uncovering a hidden trove of brewing treasures, each strain offering a unique tale and taste.

  • Voss Kveik: Hailing from the scenic Voss region in Norway, this strain has garnered a reputation for its zesty orange-citrus undertones. Perfect for those looking to experiment with unconventional fermentation temperatures, as it thrives in warmer conditions. A perfect choice for summer brews!

  • Hornindal Kveik: Deep in the heart of the Hornindal region lies the secret to a rich, tropical flavour palette. A sip infused with this strain is like a burst of fresh pineapple and mango. If you're eyeing higher gravity beers, this strain might be your trusty ally.

  • Ebbegarden Kveik: An ode to the beautiful Stordal region, this strain promises an intriguing blend of honeyed and fresh herb notes, lending complexity to every brew it graces.

Our Top Kveik Yeast Pick

Notable Properties and Fermentation Characteristics

While domesticated like other brewing yeast, kveik differs in major ways:

  • Temperature tolerance - Kveik happily ferments at 102°F (39°C) or above without off-flavours while regular yeast produce off-flavours above just 77°F (25°C).

  • Fast fermentation - Kveik can fully ferment wort in just 2-3 days rather than the week or longer other yeast need. This allows faster beer production.

  • Low pitching rate - Viable kveik cultures contain more yeast cells per gram allowing smaller amounts to be pitched.

  • Tropical fruit aromas - Unique esters produced by kveik give beers appealing pineapple, mango, and orange notes.

  • Reusable yeast - Kveik yeast can be dried and stored long term between uses unlike typical liquid yeast.

These highly favourable traits make kveik very appealing for modern brewing. Both home and pro brewers can benefit.

Key Properties of Kveik Yeast for Brewers

The Spread of Kveik From Rural Norway to Global Brewing

For years, the Norwegian origins of kveik remained obscure outside a small geographic pocket. This changed thanks to the dogged research and collecting efforts of Lars Garshol who travelled extensively documenting surviving kveik lineages in rural farmsteads.

Garshol generously shared kveik samples with yeast labs worldwide looking to propagate the strains for wider brewing use. This enabled American yeast company Omega Yeast to pioneer large scale kveik production.

Today, kveik strains from Omega and other suppliers sell globally both to commercial breweries and homebrewers eager to make use of kveik’s remarkable properties in beer production.

Kveik's Rising Popularity in Craft Beer

As kveik becomes more readily available, creative brewers are brewing an exploding diversity of beer styles to showcase this unique yeast.

Some common applications taking advantage of kveik include:

  • IPAs - Kveik contributes fruity citrus notes complementing tropical hop varieties while fast fermentation turns around IPAs rapidly.

  • Pale Ales - The tropical fruit profile plays well with lighter malt backbones. Kveik adds complexity.

  • Fruit Beers - Kveik's natural fruitiness enhances fruit additions.

  • Farmhouse Ales - Many kveik strains provide perfect farmhouse ale flavour.

  • High Gravity Beers - Kveik ferments extreme alcohol levels bone dry.

  • Quick Sours - Kveik cleans up fast, allowing quick beer turnover.

With such versatility, kveik yeast appeals to both traditional and experimental brewers. More beer styles are sure to emerge using kveik as creative brewers continue exploring.

Brewing With Kveik – Understanding Best Practices

Kveik grants brewers much latitude, but following a few best practices listed below helps maximise results:

  • Try various fermentation temperatures from standard ale range up to body temperature ranges - each produces a different flavour profile.

  • Underpitch for more character - just 500,000 to 1 million cells per millilitre of wort.

  • Provide oxygen at start - then ferment without aeration for enhanced fruit aromas.

  • Use simple grain bills - to allow kveik's own flavours to shine.

  • Dry kveik for reuse - on paper towels until next use. Store cold.

  • Avoid too much bitterness - the tropical aromas are delicate and can be overwhelmed by hops.

While very forgiving, a light touch brings out kveik's best in the fermenter. Let this unique yeast put its own special stamp on your brews.

Practical Brewing Tips with Kveik:

Crafting the perfect beer is a blend of art and science. With kveik, this balance leans into the unexpected:

Malt and Hop Pairings:

Think of pairing malts and hops with kveik like setting the stage for a grand performance. Light Pilsner malts amplify the yeast’s fruity esters, while Vienna and Munich malts provide a rich backdrop. On the hoppy front, Citra and Mosaic hops resonate with the tropical, fruity notes of kveik, whereas Saaz or Tettnanger hops offer a subtle embrace.

Ideal Wort Gravity:

For most kveik strains, aiming for a wort gravity between 1.040 to 1.080 sets the stage for a successful fermentation. However, for those seeking to push boundaries, strains like Hornindal can comfortably dance in even higher gravities.

Kveik Yeast Handling

Kveik yeast is unique, and so is the care it requires:

Propagation

Begin with a starter made from light DME, targeting a gravity of 1.040. Introduce your kveik yeast to this environment and keep it cosy at around 95°F (35°C). A day or two, and your yeast will be raring to go!

Drying for Reuse

The beauty of kveik lies in its resilience. Once done, spread the yeast slurry on a sterile surface, let it dry in a warm embrace, and store it away for your next brewing adventure.

What About Kveik Rings?

A kveik ring, often simply referred to as a "yeast ring," is a traditional Norwegian tool used for preserving and reusing kveik yeast between brewing sessions.

Design and Material

The kveik ring is typically made of dried juniper or birch wood and shaped into a large, round, flat ring with multiple branches, spokes, or cross-hatching throughout. These features increase the surface area, allowing more yeast to adhere to the ring.

Usage:

  • Yeast Harvesting: After fermentation, the kveik ring is submerged into the fermentation vessel, allowing the yeast to attach to the wooden surface.

  • Drying: Once coated with a sufficient amount of yeast, the ring is removed from the fermenter and hung up to dry, usually in a warm and airy location. As the yeast dries, it forms a protective crust around the wood.

  • Reusing the Yeast: When it's time to brew again, the kveik ring is simply submerged in fresh wort, where the dried yeast rehydrates, reactivates, and starts fermenting the new batch. After pitching, the ring is removed, dried, and stored for the next brew.

Cultural Significance

The kveik ring is not only a practical tool but also a piece of brewing heritage. It symbolises the tradition of Norwegian farmhouse brewing and the passing down of yeast – and brewing traditions – from one generation to the next.

Many families would have their own specific yeast strains, and the kveik ring was a way to maintain and reuse these strains, which in some cases were unique to a single family or village.

In recent years, as the craft beer world has rediscovered kveik yeast, the kveik ring also stands as a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of traditional brewers.

It's an icon of sustainable and natural brewing practices from a time before modern brewing yeast storage and propagation techniques.

Interviews With Brewers Using Kveik

To learn more about the popularity and promise of kveik, we got some comments of professional brewers and kveik suppliers about their experiences with this unique yeast:

Mark Schwarz, Omega Yeast - "The range of flavours possible by fermentation at different temperatures combined with high alcohol tolerance and reusability make kveik really special. It's easy for homebrewers to use without much equipment too. Kveik has huge potential we're only starting to explore."

Lance Shaner, Omega Yeast - "For pros, kveik is a gamechanger allowing faster beer turnaround and higher productivity from equipment. But it's just as great for homebrewers without temp control. We're excited kveik is finally getting recognition globally after being isolated in Norway for so long."

Tom Young, Nøgne Ø Brewery - "Kveik let us brew a 100% local Norwegian beer for the first time using all domestic hops, malt, and our own kveik strain. The fruity aromas shine through beautifully. Kveik has inspired creativity by reimagining traditional styles at our brewery."

Simon Burhoe, Mast Landing Brewing - "The unique tropical flavours kveik can complement New England IPA hops really nicely. And some strains provide great farmhouse ale character too. It's been fun incorporating kveik into different beer projects."

Kveik in Non-Beer Fermentations

The versatility of kveik is astounding. Beyond beer, it weaves its magic into ciders, accentuating their apple profiles with tropical touches.

In meads, especially fruit variants, kveik introduces layers of complexity that elevate every sip. And for the audacious, dabbling with kveik in wines could be the next frontier!

Frequently Asked Questions About Kveik Yeast

Some common questions brewers have about this exciting yeast:

What does kveik mean?

Kveik simply translates as "yeast" in Norwegian dialects where the strains originated. It refers to the traditional farmhouse yeasts.

What are typical kveik fermentation temperatures?

The unique strains comfortably ferment from as low as 68°F up to 113°F (20-45°C) producing different fruit flavours across the range.

Can I reuse kveik yeast?

Yes, kveik can be easily dried on paper towels and stored refrigerated for many uses over years.

Does kveik require special nutrients or oxygen?

Kveik thrives on standard wort. Providing oxygen at yeast pitch but not during fermentation is recommended.

What ABV can kveik handle?

Kveik easily ferments over 12% ABV with proper nutrition and stays active up to 17% ABV.

Do I need to control fermentation temperature with kveik?

No, a key benefit of kveik is fermenting well at cool ale or very warm temperatures with no off-flavours.

Unleashing the Magic of Kveik

Kveik yeast grants remarkable fermentation latitude to brewers while contributing complex fruit esters not found in standard brewer’s yeast strains.

This unique domesticated yeast preserved for generations across rural Norway is now experiencing a global renaissance. Brewers are keen to take advantage of kveik’s highly desirable properties to rapidly create distinctive beers.

For both home and commercial brewing, kveik yeast's story embodies exciting possibilities of innovation through collaboratively preserving and sharing traditional knowledge. Kveik has many more chapters left to explore.



A Kveik Yeast Ring
A Kveik Yeast Ring

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