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Joe Sixpack | Norwegian brewer loves the darkness

HONNINGSVAG, Norway - In a place where the sun is at its lowest ebb, Hans Magne Olsen will re-enact a tradition tomorrow that is as old as man himself.

HONNINGSVAG, Norway - In a place where the sun is at its lowest ebb, Hans Magne Olsen will re-enact a tradition tomorrow that is as old as man himself.

In darkness, he will raise a glass of festive beer he made himself and toast the winter solstice.

Olsen is the brewer at Nordkapp Bryggerie, the world's northernmost brewpub. Located in this Arctic fishing village 1,311 miles from the North Pole, it is literally the last place on earth to drink a fresh, hand-crafted beer.

Twenty-four hours of darkness, of course, is a way of life. The locals joke that sunset is four o'clock on Nov. 22, and sunrise is sometime in late January.

"I love the darkness," Olsen said earlier this week, sipping his juløl, Norway's traditional Christmas beer. "I feel more secure."

It is the first beer the 33-year-old has brewed on his own. The six-year-old pub's original brewer moved two hours away, and now Olsen is struggling to learn the recipes and equipment. Before this, he was a fisherman.

"It's not that difficult to brew beer," he said. "It's just hard to get it to taste right."

I'm not sure if this is a wry bit of Norwegian humor or, perhaps, something that got lost in the translation. No matter. This far north, beer means much more than just flavor.

Juløl (Jul = winter feast, øl = beer) is the world's original Christmas beer. It has been brewed in Norway since well before the birth of Christ, when tribal sects celebrated the solstice with feasts in honor of Odin and Thor.

To these early dwellers, the longest night of the year marked the rebirth of the sun and the earth. It was a sign that the days would begin to lengthen and that the earth would once again be fertile with life.

With the autumn crops harvested, the animals slaughtered and the beer fully fermented, villages came together for days of feasting. "It was a time to fill your batteries for the harsh winter ahead," said Tobjørn Skovold, spokesman for the Aass brewery in Drammen, just south of Oslo.

The event and its beer became so institutionalized that by 800 A.D., Norwegian farmers were required by law to brew juløl. "You had to make a beer with as much grain as the combined weight of the farm's husband and wife," Skovold said. "And it had to be strong beer. If it wasn't, it was considered dishonorable and your farm would have a spell cast on it."

Worse, if the farmer failed to make juløl in three consecutive years, Skovold said, his property could be seized, and he would be expelled from the country.

Juløl survived Norway's conversion to Christianity, as the solstice festival became a Christmas celebration. To this day, families and some traditional farms home-brew juløl with sugar, baking yeast and spruce.

Every commercial brewery in the country makes one as well, typically an amber bock. Today there are more than 50 brands of juløl, with some - like the superb Rignes Jule Bokk - up to 9.9 percent alcohol.

At Nordkapp Bryggerie, Olsen hasn't yet experimented with any strong ales. "Here, the Christmas beer tradition is not as strong as in the rest of Norway," he said. "Up here, most of us were moonshiners who distilled alcohol."

Olsen's Ole Anton Advent, named after his 86-year-old uncle, who founded the brewpub, is flavored with dried orange peel. A long, warming sip cuts right through the darkness.

The sun begins its return tomorrow. *

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit Send e-mail to