Svalbard Brewery: Brewing Beer at the Top of the World

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A brewery might not be what you expect to find at the world's northernmost town. Here is the remarkable story of Svalbard Brewery in Longyearbyen.

Far to the north of mainland Norway, the Svalbard archipelago is a true Arctic wilderness. Yet despite the fierce winds, freezing temperatures and the ever-present polar bear, more than 2,000 people call the town of Longyearbyen their home.

Tasting beers at Svalbard Brewery taproom in Longyearbyen.
Tasting beers at Svalbard Brewery taproom in Longyearbyen.

With coal mining all but 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, it's hard to miss Svalbard Bryggeri. Its beers are served in every pub, bar and restaurant in the town.

Brewery and taproom in Longyearbyen

As a big craft beer fan and keen homebrewer, I took the opportunity to visit the brewery and taproom on my last trip to Svalbard.

Even in the winter darkness the large industrial building, housing both the brewery and taproom, was hard to miss. It's located on the road from the airport to Longyearbyen in the old port area.

Svalbard Brewery in Longyearbyen.
Svalbard Brewery in Longyearbyen.

I was met by assistant manager Ida Larsen who showed me around the facility and talked me through the brewery's story. And yes, there may also have been a little beer tasting involved!

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 he ended up working as a coal miner. It would be the first of many twists and turns that would eventually lead to the brewery.

Following seven years working back on the mainland as a seaplane pilot, he returned to Svalbard in 2001 to work in aviation.

Inside Svalbard Brewery facility.
Inside the Svalbard Brewery facility.

Anyone who has visited Svalbard in the past will know that the vast majority of food, goods and materials has to be imported. Johansen was a keen homebrewer, and had the idea of starting a brewery, so he could create a true Svalbard product.

But the idea hit an immediate snag. A Norwegian law from 1928 forbade the production of alcohol on Svalbard. The reason was to combat alcoholism among mine workers, something that is no longer relevant on the islands.

Popular idea with locals

After more than five years dealing with the authorities in Oslo, Johansen was finally able to get the law changed in 2014. Svalbard Bryggeri was born.

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:

Svalbard Brewery beers at Stationen in Longyearbyen.
Svalbard Brewery beers are available in Stationen restaurant and most other pubs and restaurants.

“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,” she says.

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:

Two glasses of beer at the Svalbard Brewery taproom in Longyearbyen.
Two glasses of beer at the Svalbard Brewery taproom in Longyearbyen.

“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.

Have you ever tasted a beer from Svalbard Bryggeri? Let us know what you think in the comments below. If you pay them a visit yourself, do say hello from us!

About David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

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