Espen Uhlen Jørstad: “I Think There is a Beer for Everyone”

Winner of our 2017 Spirit of Poker Rising Star Award, Espen Uhlen Jørstad is a man of many talents beyond poker.

Among the many skills of his we learned about in a previous interview, though, there was one in particular that sparked our interest.

Not only does Jørstad have a Bachelors degree in Food Science, he took it all the way to the next level and graduated with a Master’s degree in Brewing Science.

So he knows how to make – and recommend – great beers. That’s something we needed to learn more about.

PokerListings: Can you tell us again how you became interested in beer, especially as a profession?

Espen Uhlen Jørstad: I was studying food science and technology at university in Norway. We studied things like meat, dairy products and beer, and the different ways you can work with them.

I did my internship in a Norwegian brewery where I met a lot of beer geeks, obviously. (smile) They’re not interested in drinking beer to get drunk – they won’t drink a 6-pack of Heineken just for the sake of it.

Instead they’ll just drink one or two better beers, enjoy the experience and discuss the flavors, etc. It was a bit of a revelation for me because until then I had never considered beer that way. I found it very interesting.

Espen Uhlen Jorstad beer brewer

IPA brewing at Norwegian Craft brewery Waldemars Brygghus.

PL: Then you were a process technician in a Norwegian brewery. What exactly is that job?

EUJ: First, I finished my Master’s degree and wrote my thesis for that brewery. Basically, my thesis was about creating a new beer for the brewery, trying out all the different flavors, recipes and so on.

First you have to pick what beer style you want to create, then you do research about what the characteristics of that style are. For example, we picked a blonde ale so we studied the appropriate characteristics — the foam, the aroma, the bitterness, the color, the alcohol content it should have, etc.

And then from there you work backwards to figure out how you can fulfil these criteria. For bitterness and aromas you work mostly with the hops; for alcohol you need sugars, which you get from the malts.

In some beers it’s appropriate to use added sugar like for the Trappist monasteries ones. But most beers you find in the supermarket that have added sugar are cheaper, lower quality ones.

In addition to deciding the ingredients and which malt you want in which amount, you also need to figure out how long you mash the malt with water, how long you should boil it, the temperatures …

You then also decide how much residual sugars you want for more sweetness or more alcohol.

And then yes, I became a process technician. I was pretty much the brewmaster’s assistant.

I was working on a lot of projects in the brewery and in the lab with microbiological, chemical and sensory analysis. It’s actually very scientific in a lab with a white coat and all! (laughs)

PL: You preferred to work on your own after that and started a craft beer business. So why in Budapest?

EUJ: When I started my Master’s degree with a few friends of mine the plan was always to create our own craft beer business.

But the microbrewery market in Norway was totally saturated; there was at least one new microbrewery opening every week, it was crazy. We actually see the effect today with a lot of them going bankrupt. So we decided to avoid the Norwegian market.

Baltazar beer

“Hungary was a good starting point for us.”

We looked at other markets and it so happened that my partner knew someone in Budapest who already had a microbrewery. This was a good starting point for us to work on our recipes and brew them from there at first.

I also had a Hungarian girlfriend at the time, who was living with me in Norway, and obviously she was very excited about moving back to Hungary. Craft beer was still really new in Hungary at the time so it was a really fresh market for us.

PL: How did it go? You told us previously you put the project on hold because of poker. Where is it now?

EUJ: Right now we have a dormant webpage, we have some recipes ready and we have a logo, but that’s about it.

We did produce one beer, a stout with vanilla and coffee. It was a special Christmas beer with 9% alcohol content; very dark, called Baltazar. I think it’s still in production because it was co-produced with my partner’s uncle’s brewery.

PL: What is the secret of a good brewer?

EUJ: That’s a good question. I think it’s just about not being scared to try and fail a lot. I can’t say it’s all about creativity because that’s just not true.

Obviously it helps if you drink beer, because you know the flavors and you know the market. You know what’s trendy at any given time.

Most of the brewers I admire, the ones that are recognized for their knowledge, it’s all because they’ve been on the market for 20 years and they have tried and tried and tried again.

They know exactly what will happen if they increase the temperature of the mash by two degrees, let the brew boil for 20 minutes more or if they add or subtract a certain hop or malt.

PL: What is the most important thing you learned about beer (and which people maybe don’t know about)?

EUJ: I would say that people should try a lot of different beers. Craft beer is still minor in a lot of European markets, maybe 1 or 2% of the market, so I would advise people to try craft beers.

Mass-produced beers are lagers basically all tasting the same with only minor variations. So go out and try some different beers, find the craft bars in your town and sample various styles.

Ask the bartender; he will guide you in the right direction and then you’re hooked. (laughs)

PL: Can you tell us more what you call the “microbreweries and craft beer culture?”

home made beer

Where it all began. Bathroom floor homebrewing during college.

EUJ: The culture is all about the experience and the flavors, finding new flavors, aromas, exploring different sensations, discussing and, of course, the people.

Most beer geeks write notes, rate beers on apps, go to festivals to discover new beers … it’s a really interesting community.

PL: What is your favorite type of beer? Your favorite beer? And the best beer you ever drank?

EUJ: It depends a lot on where I am and what the time of the year is. If I’m in Malta and it’s 35° outside, I will not be drinking a barrel-aged imperial stout with 12% alcohol because it’s too heavy. I’d rather have a Heineken to be honest. (laughs)

More seriously, in summer I like Belgian sour beers or lighter IPAs, refreshing beers. In winter in Norway, in front of a fire place watching a movie, I’d prefer a darker beer like a stout, a porter or maybe a barley wine.

If I really have to pick one beer that got me interested in beer at first, which I found different, I’d pick the beer #500 by a Norwegian brewery called Nøgne Ø. It’s an imperial IPA with 10% alcohol and five different types of both hops and malts.

It’s very complex and it has lots of interesting flavors, it’s really delicious. But other than that I can’t pick a “favorite.” I’ve had so many “perfect” beers it’s hard to find one that really stands out. Still, here are a few of my favorites that you can find in Europe:

#1:  Oude Kriek – Sour beer with cherries from legendary Belgian Brewery Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen.
#2:  Spresso – Imperial Espresso Stout from London-based brewery Beavertown.
#3:  Yang – Double IPA from New York-based Danish brewer Evil Twin.

beercation vlog NYC

Sampling some great US beers.

PL: Do Norwegians drink lot of beer?

EUJ: Yes, but still much less than the big beer-drinking countries like Czech Republic, Denmark or Germany.

If you look at statistics we are far behind our neighbors in Denmark for example. (laughs)

Also alcohol in Norway is so heavily taxed that buying a Norwegian beer in Sweden would be half the price compared to buying it in Norway.

In Norway craft beer became really popular only about 5 years ago while in Denmark it’s been happening for at least 9 years. And then even more in the US.

I think in the US craft beers represent 20% of the market, then about 7% in Denmark and almost 5% in Norway. But in Europe everything is still pretty new and overall I’d say that most of Europe is way behind.

In the US home brewing became very popular in the 80s when it got legalized and this lead to microbreweries, then competitions, etc.

They have some of the best beers in the world. For example San Diego, California, and Portland, Oregon, are two of the best beer cities in the world. Even some of the best “Belgian-style beers” are from the US.

PL: Any Norwegian (or Scandinavian) beer you would recommend?

EUJ: I can give you my three favorite Norwegian beers:

500 beer by Nogne Ø 2

“#500 is the beer that got me interested in beer. Complex, delicious and perfect.”

#1:  #500 – Pretty much flawless Double IPA from Norway’s biggest craft brewery, Nøgne Ø.
#2:  La Shaman Aztec Stout – Delicious dry stout brewed with smoked chipotle chilli peppers, habanero chilli peppers and raw cacao beans, from new school superstar brewery Austmann.
#3:  Tasty Juice – Super fruity and fresh New England-style IPA from Stavanger brewery Lervig.

PL: Do you feel the view on beer has changed? And that it is seen more and more as a gourmet thing like wine?

EUJ: Wine always had the image of the fancy drink and beer a more “rowdy” drink. But I think it’s changing a bit now because beer is just as complex and interesting as wine and the flavor spectrum is very wide.

I think there is a beer for everyone. When people tell me they don’t like beer I always tell them they just haven’t found the beer they like.

Beer is everything from fruity beers like lambic or Belgian krieks to 60% alcohol ice-distilled beers that you drink in cognac glasses.

PL: Can these still be considered as beers?

EUJ: It is still technically a beer if it is brewed with barley and yeast and water and hops. Same goes for the ice-distilled beers even if you can discuss if it’s maybe more a liquor.

Basically they freeze it in a machine, scrape away the ice, freeze it again, over and over… The brewery that got famous from brewing this first was BrewDog from Scotland with their dark beer called Tactical Nuclear Penguin which is 32% ABV.

They also have a 41% ABV quadruple IPA, super hoppy. It tastes like a pure hop cocktail basically. Those are very interesting beers.

PL: Which is the best beer to drink while playing poker?

beer shop in Amsterdam

“There’s a beer for everyone. Try!”

EUJ: Alcohol-free! (laughs). But if you really want to drink alcohol I’d suggest one that is light in alcohol, like a berliner weisse or a pale ale.

No more than 3-4%! At least if you want to win. If you just want to have fun then it doesn’t matter. (laughs)

PL: Did you know there’s a beer from Colombia called poker? It’s a lager produced by Bavaria, one of the leaders in Bogota.

EUJ: I’ve never heard of that one but I’ve had a few beers with poker-related names like “Ace on the River” etc. It’s all marketing but I have to admit it works.

I always try them when I see them. And usually they are not good. (laughs)

PL: Any anecdote you have about beer or something you want to add? Any advice maybe?

EUJ: I do have some advice and it’s really simple: if you want to buy beer, just download RateBeer or Untappd and you can see how high beers are rated.

With beer there’s no way to know the quality of a beer unless you actually know the brewery, so this is really useful.

Otherwise, I’ll just say that people should just try many different beers. For poker people who travel a lot, don’t rely on what you know — be adventurous. Ask bartenders or beer geeks and try!