Grugg & Makk is a company founded by two Icelandic designers in 2022 that produces Icelandic wild ales. The wild ale from Grugg & Makk derives its flavour characteristics from the microbial flora of Iceland. The ale is brewed with a special method based on the craftsmanship of the past and modern science. The result is a range of drinks that highlight biodiversity and the role of microbes in the environment. Every single valley in the country, beach, field and mountain peak contains a unique microbial flora that constantly changes, depending on the time of day, the season - even the weather. When making the wild ale, Grugg & Makk has developed a method to capture a unique moment and put it in a bottle.
The following article was first published in Iceland review, issue 03 - 2022.
Words by Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir and photography by Golli.
Iceland’s environment doesn’t only offer materials for artmaking: its microorganisms can also make food. While modern science has deepened our understanding of microorganisms such as yeast, you don’t need to know what’s working or how to make some magic happen. People have been doing it for millennia; baking bread, fermenting vegetables for storage and easier consumption – and making beer.
When Sveinn Steinar Benediktsson and Kjartan Óli Guðmundsson met, they were both studying design at the Iceland University of the Arts. They shared a massive interest in microorganisms, and over a beer or two, Grugg&Makk was born. Using old traditions peppered with modern science, they set out to figure out what Iceland tasted like.
To make beer, you only need four ingredients: water, grain, hops, and yeast. The yeast is where things get complicated. These days, you can go to the grocery store and buy commercially produced yeast that comes to life in your bread or beer, but you don’t actually have to go that far; there’s yeast in the soil and air all around us. The Grugg&Makk boys simply leave out a liquid containing the optimal conditions for the kinds of microbes they want to attract, and the milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. Only in this case, the milkshake is an unfermented beer base, and the yard is a brewery.
“Grugg&Makk is all about collecting bacteria in certain places in Iceland,” Sveinn tells me. “We’re connecting the microbial ecosystems of specific locations with a flavour experience. So, you can taste a place.” A glass of wild ale brewed with yeast collected in a lava field is a cloudy golden colour and tastes fresh, with a hint of currants, lactic acid, and warm spices. “Seeing through a microscope doesn’t tell you much about what’s going on, but tasting a beer made with yeast from Svörtuloft versus one made with yeast from Djúpalón – the vast difference between them gives you a deeper sense of the scale. Everyone assumes we add different flavours to the beers, but it’s just what happens. It’s amazing how much difference different microbes can make. And taste is one form of perception.”
Their methods are based on culinary traditions present in most cultures throughout history, even Iceland. Kjartan explains: “To make skyr, people would use some skyr from the previous batch as a starter, keeping their culture alive. But if every last scrap of skyr got eaten, you had to get some new microbes. Waiting until summer, you would put out a few bowls of skyr base in various places around the farm and then pick the best-tasting one as the base for your future skyr.”
“And people would have favourite skyr based on which farm it came from!” Sveinn chimes in. “Although the beers from farmland regions were some of the most challenging ones we made – flavourwise. Except for maybe the Ingjaldstún one?” he looks questioningly at Kjartan. “Well, that one was also close to some swampland. I liked it; it tasted a little bit Belgian.”
The difference between these guys and rural Icelanders in centuries gone by is that modern science has cast a light on what’s happening behind the scenes. As they get lost in talk about the differences between saccharomyces and brettanomyces and what makes beer taste “farmy” – the mad scientist vibe borders on uncanny.
They agree that the most accessible beer they made happens to come from lava fields by the sea. Their experiments included visiting the locations in different seasons (more mushroom spores in the air in the fall), and they wondered if the temperature in the sun-soaked black lava affected the outcome. While collecting wild microbes is a game of chance, they also exert a considerable level of control. “Back in the day, beer was sourer, like this one, because lactic bacteria would also be present. It keeps bad bacteria at bay. Most bacteria ideal for human consumption can’t survive in low-acid conditions. It helps to make the product safe for consumption. So, we use old traditions with modern knowledge of microorganisms. We create optimal conditions for the yeasts and microbes we want to collect in our collecting liquid. The base is unfermented beer, with a little alcohol to keep mould at bay. I add a little yeast nutrient to it and a tiny amount of hops, so I don’t get too much lactic acid.”
Letting nature do its thing through a controlled process based on old traditions and modern science – along with a whole lot of trial and error.
That’s how you make magic.
For the full article please visit the Iceland Review webpage.
© 2022 | Grugg & Makk | Reykjavík | Iceland
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