The Svalbard archipelago is a true Arctic wilderness. Yet despite the fierce winds, freezing temperatures and the presence of the polar bear, around 2,500 people call the town of Longyearbyen their home.
With coal mining almost over, tourism has become increasingly important to maintain the settlement beyond science and research. In recent years, the world’s northernmost craft beer brewery has become an unintended tourist attraction.
If you visit Longyearbyen, you can’t miss Svalbard Bryggeri. Tourists pass the old port facility on the bus from the airport and its beers are served in every pub, bar and restaurant in the town.
Changing the law to open a brewery
The very fact a sustainable brewery exists in such a place is remarkable enough, but the brewery’s origin story is the truly fascinating tale.
63-year-old Robert Johansen moved to Svalbard for the first time at the age of just 22 with the hopes of becoming a pilot but ended up working as a coal miner. After seven years working back on the mainland as a seaplane pilot, he returned to Svalbard in 2001 to work in aviation.
A keen homebrewer, Johansen wanted to start a microbrewery to create a true Svalbard product. But he soon hit a snag. A Norwegian law from 1928 forbade the production of alcohol on Svalbard to combat alcoholism among mine workers.
After more than five years dealing with the authorities in Oslo, Johansen was finally able to get the law changed in 2014.
Johansen still works as a pilot today, so much of the day-to-day work at the Brewery is taken care of by assistant manager Ida Larsen: “Robert had an idea of what he wanted to create, something for the local community. Everyone in the town knew he was working on the application, and most of the local people were on board from the early days.”
A success story for Svalbard
Over the course of several years, the initial plan for a simple microbrewery has blossomed, with capacity at the old port facility doubling.
Svalbard Bryggeri now employs several full-time staff, supplies every bar and restaurant in Svalbard, exports to Norway and Europe, runs tours and tastings, and opens its tap room for locals and tourists alike.
Larsen says a two-year deal with Norwegian Air to put Svalbard Bryggeri canned beers on all its long-haul flights proved a turning point for international interest: “It got our volumes up but it was also a great commercial for us and for Svalbard. I can’t even count how many people have visited us for a tasting session because they flew with Norwegian a few years ago.”
As for what to drink, Larsen says the Spitsbergen Pilsner is the best-seller, followed by the Pale Ale and IPA. Tastings run three times a week, and the tap room opens Fridays.