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Pub/Bar of the Month February 2010: Olympen

Olympen, Oslo, Norway

I’ve lost count of the number of times that good beer has played a pivotal role in transforming the nature of a pub. It changes the whole dynamic of the business, attracting a more selective, more appreciative clientele that also tends to recognize the efforts the management has made to clean up and refurbish the premises.

OlympenThis ‘good people drink good beer’ philosophy, spouted famously by American gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, was underlined for me again when I paid a visit last summer to Oslo.

I was a guest of the outstanding Haandbryggeriet microbrewery – about which more will follow on this site in due course – and the day after a long, but highly pleasurable evening, during which I sampled Haandbryggeriet’s fascinating range of beers, co-owner Jens Maudal and brewer John Hudson took me into Norway’s capital city for a look at one of its beer success stories.

From the main railway station, we headed east, strolling through a once rundown, now on-the-up residential area known as Grønland (that’s Greenland to outsiders). It seems a high proportion of the city’s non-Norwegian residents live here. There are curry restaurants and other ethic businesses and the area is lively and bustling.

Restaurant and Nightclub

A hundred yards from the Grønland tube station, along a busy main road, stands Olympen, which is, according to its business cards, a restaurant and nightclub (the latter upstairs), but which, to many, is a beer oasis in a country still dominated by its biggest brewers, Ringnes and Hansa.

Olympen – or Lompa (‘Potato Cake’), as it’s known to the locals – opened in 1892 and in its early years hosted both a brewery and a theatre. But its recent history has not been glorious.

Until 2006, it was a grungy, down-at-heel bar, attracting grungy, down-at-heel customers. It was, in John’s words, ‘noted for its crapness’, a bar going nowhere, apart from further downhill, which was rather a pity as the premises offered great potential, as new owners recognized.

They’ve invested heavily in a dramatic make-over, bringing out the best in the building’s high-ceilinged, cavernous main room, by restoring dark wood panelling, fitting sparkling chandeliers and cleaning up the impressive series of giant paintings of the city that line the walls.

Booth seating runs down the middle, with tables at the front gazing out at the world wandering by through outsize plate-glass windows. There’s nothing particularly intimate about Olympen: it’s more a beer hall-cum-extended dining area, but it’s very comfortable and amazingly, considering its recent past, has a touch of class.

However, even the best refurbishments can come unstuck if they are not backed up by a deeper transformation – a change in mindset when it comes to food and drink provision. The food – traditional Norwegian fare – from my limited experience was certainly good, but I was more impressed, as you would expect, by the beer selection.

Draught beers come from Haandbryggeriet and another celebrated Norwegian micro, Nøgne Ø (the name means Naked Island). A full range of bottled beers from these two breweries is also publicized in a beer menu, along with offerings from Aegir and Inderøy, two lesser-known local micros, plus around 60 imported selections listed by country.

Names on the list read like a who’s who of sparky breweries – BrewDog, Mikkeler, Stone, Flying Dog and Great Divide. Belgium features through its Trappist breweries, as well as contributions from Silenrieux and Slaapmutske, there’s more US involvement via Rogue, Left Hand and North Coast, and the UK list is topped off by bottles from St Peter’s and Harviestoun, including the whisky cask-aged Ola Dubh.

Prices, it has to be said, are frightening, but this is more a fault of the exchange rate than anything else. Expect to pay around 63 Norwegian kroner for a third of a litre of draught beer. That’s getting on for £7 or US $11. Half-litre bottles work out at around 80 kroner and up.

But you can waste that much money all too easily on humdrum beer in less salubrious surroundings in Norway. So, if you’re in the capital, head east and make the most of your holiday currency.

Olympen, Grønlandsleiret 15, 0190 Oslo, Norway
Tel. (47) 24 10 19 99
Opening Hours: 11–1 am Mon–Tue; 11–2 am Wed–Thurs; 11–3 am Fri; 12–3 am Sat; 12–1 am Sun

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