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What It's Like to Brew Beer at the Actual End of the Earth

For pilot Robert Johansen, running the world's northernmost brewery is just a side hustle.

by Natalie B. Compton
Feb 12 2019, 5:15pm

Photo by the author.

I am hung over, which means I will not be operating a snowmobile today. Even though it feels like the wild wild west out here in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost city located in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, rules are tight when it comes to driving (snowmobiles) under the influence. I’m told that having even one beer before driving will get you in trouble, and that police actively check drivers around these parts.

I hadn’t expected the town of Longyearbyen to have such a wild nightlife scene. But at 3 AM last night, the bar was still full of locals and tourists having a ball in the closest city to the North Pole, which is just an hour and a half flight away. I climb on the back of my friend’s snowmobile and let him do the driving.

We tear through the snow heading outside of town by snowmobile, and it takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the faux night sky. It’s 10 AM but there’s no light out because we’re so far north that the sun doesn’t shine this time of year. Despite the polar darkness, I see reindeer digging down into the frozen earth for food.

Most of the some 2,000 people who live here in Svalbard travel by snowmobile, bike, or foot. There aren’t many cars out here in the desolate arctic landscape. It’s more of a moonscape, actually. There are no trees here. It’s deeply cold. If you try swiping through Tinder for more than a couple minutes, your hands will start to hurt piercingly.

While there are hardly any signs of life out here, remote Svalbard isn’t as difficult to get to as one might assume. Scandinavian Airlines flies here just about daily, weather permitting. The flight’s only about three hours from Oslo. The airline is responsible for bringing over the island’s food supplies, so there are always fresh fruits and vegetables to be found around town (although they are more expensive than they’d be in mainland Norway).

Locals also manage to find food around the island as well. Last night, a server at Gruvelageret, a new fine-dining arctic restaurant in Longyearbyen, said there were more than 200 mushrooms growing on the island, and that she’d foraged the ones in the evening’s mushroom and cod soup.

After a morning of exploring the frigid tundra, we circle back to Longyearbyen to see what I’m perhaps most interested in on this island: Svalbard Bryggeri. It’s—you guessed it—the world’s northernmost brewery. We sit down inside for a tasting, starting with the citrus-y Spitsbergen Pilsner (the island on which Longyearbyen and the brewery are located is called Spitsbergen). The beer helps me thaw.

Robert Johansen built Svalbard Bryggeri in 2015 after spending years fighting to change a law leftover from the 1920s that forbade alcohol production in the archipelago. Now the slogan of the brewery, found on t-shirts and beer cans, is “we changed the law to make the real polar beer.”

What might be more interesting than the legal battle is that this isn’t even Johansen’s main job. He’s lived on and off Svalbard since he moved here in his 20s to work in the mines. He’s also a pilot who manages a local airline operation. He’s owned a submarine tour company, a gym, and a sea plane company. Running this brewery with a 500,000 liter capacity is just a side hustle.

Ida Larsen, one of the four staff here at the brewery, explains that the beer is made with 16 percent glacier water. It’s super expensive and hard to get, or else they’d use more of it. No problem, it’s mostly for marketing. “The glacier water is a gimmick,” she says, “it’s real though.”

We move onto the Spitsbergen Weissbier, then the pale ale, then the IPA, finishing with the stout. Pours at the tasting are generous, and Larsen makes sure to top people up if they seem to really like a particular beer. I have no concept of what time it is, what day it is. Between the polar darkness and the hair of the dog, I find my perception of life askew. The one thing I can focus on in my state of confusion is this: Svalbard Bryggeri isn’t just the world’s most northern brewery, it’s also one of my favorite; and that Svalbard is magic.

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