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This Man Is Building the World’s Most Northern Brewery

After campaigning for six years to lift the ban on alcohol production in the Svalbard archipelago, Robert Johansen is setting up his own brewery in the Arctic city of Longyearbyen.

That he found me at all was remarkable. We hadn't arranged to meet, yet Robert Johansen simply walked into the bar and asked if I was around. The barman pointed me out, and he walked towards my table. Dressed in a fleece, with the sort of choppy beard that's popular in Longyearbyen, I hailed him over. This would never have happened in London.

"I was just on my way home, so it was no hassle to swing past," Johansen says. "No problem."

Johansen is in the throes of setting up a brewery in the Arctic city of Longyearbyen, capital of the Svalbard archipelago and the setting of our impromptu bar chat. When it opens, Svalbard Bryggeri will be the most northern craft beer brewery in the world.

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Longyearbyen, capital of the Svalbard archipelago. Photo by the author.

Johansen didn't start out as a brewer, but as a beer drinker. He originally came to Longyearbyen for the wilderness and wildlife in the 1980s and when he needed an excuse to stay put, he became a miner.

"I'd always been a beer drinker, especially during this period. The ceiling of the mine shafts were about 60 centimetres tall so we spent the whole day lying down. It was tough work," Johansen remembers. "You started off in the mine with 12 of you. After a year, it was just one person. The north is all about friendship. You come to rely on your friends for survival. That friendship is what I wanted to bring out in my beer."

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After 12 years working in and around the mines, he left Svalbard to run his own sea-plane business on the Lofoten Islands, but was drawn back eight years later. Flying is still a part of Johansen's day-to-day life. As well as establishing a brewery, he flies miners to and from the Svea mine, scientists up to remote research town of Ny Alesund, and occasionally helps out with coastguard duties when the weather's bad.

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The scenery surrounding Longyearbyen. Photo by the author.

Can you imagine a brewer who is also a pilot opening a microbrewery in London? He'd probably have been invited to host Top Gear by now. But here Johansen is, sitting in Mary Ann's Polarrigg bar, answering questions about beer and flying.

His pursuit of Arctic craft beer hasn't been easy. Since 1928, the amount of alcohol permitted to consume on Svalbard was kept low to protect miners from drunkenness and alcoholism, which could be fatal in the mines. Alcohol is still rationed on the islands, and before June last year, making your own was also forbidden—something Johansen has campaigned for the last five years to overturn.

"So you're allowed 24 cans of beer per month, but now you're allowed to homebrew. The amount you can homebrew is unlimited, at any strength," he explains. "It makes no sense. Wine isn't rationed here because in 1928, wine was drunk by the mine owners rather than the workers."

Presumably, they were less at risk of alcoholism, or killing themselves drunk. Johansen agrees that the law no longer makes sense.

"Which is why I'm trying to change it," he adds. Johansen put in an application six years ago to get the law overturned.

"I called the department once a month for five years so they couldn't forget me," he says.

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Robert Johansen's Svalbard Bryggeri brewery. Photo courtesy Svalbard Bryggeri.

The persistence seems to have paid off, as Johansen is busy setting up the Arctic Circle's first craft brewery by Longyearbyen's port.

"We brew ale, beer, pale ale, stout, and premium lager. The water we use for brewing is just the regular water from the taps, but it has glacial properties," he explains. "The glaciers here are 2000 years old."

Johansen is modest about his beer's special properties. This is clearly a man who loves beer as something to drink, rather than as a marketable, gimmicky "glacier" product. But who'll buy the beer?

"Locals, of course. Tourists coming abroad on cruise ships too," he says. "It's very marketable. And while we have such strong alcohol restrictions in place here, we'll export it to northern Norway."

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Svalbard has a population of 2000 people but when the cruise ships dock, the town can swell to more than 5000 people. German cruise ships are popular here, and Germans are great beer drinkers, which bodes well for Johansen's future sales.

The problem for Johansen is that Svalbard's anachronistic alcohol law could still affect his business. Near to Christmas, residents are permitted to buy 24 bottles of "Christmas beer," or beer with more than 7 percent alcohol in it. This includes some of Johansen's stock so until restrictions on this are lifted, he must trade with the mainland too.

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A selection of beers brewed by Svalbard Bryggeri. Photo courtesy Svalbard Bryggeri.
svalbard-beer-alcohol Photo courtesy Svalbard Bryggeri.

"We're preparing to sell most of the beer up here," he says. "But while this law is enforced, we'll have to look towards the mainland to buy our stronger beer."

Johansen has clearly thought about the needs of the local population. In a place where people rely on husky sleds and skidoos to get from A to B, and roads are non-existent or impassable in winter, he understands the importance of selling cans as well as bottles.

"If you go on an ice sledding trip or out on a boat you don't want 20 beer bottles clinking away," Johansen explains. "Cans are much more useful up here."

Locals are definitely excited about the prospect of a craft brewery opening here.

"Every day when I fly, the miners and scientists around they ask me when the beer will be ready," he says. "With piloting and brewing, life is busy. Thankfully living in a cabin is great as it gives me a chance to reload my batteries."

Johansen's cabin is 13 kilometres outside of Longyearbyen which, in an archipelago with polar bears, no roads when winter strikes, and an average temperature of -4 degrees Celsius, sounds like quite a frontier thing to do.

But when Svalbard's motto is "unique, secure, creative," it's not surprising that Johansen is taking on alcohol laws and environmental challenges for the sake of a decent drink.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2015.