History in the walls
The Ølhallen pub in Tromsø opened in1928 in the cellar of Macks Bryggeri, the most northerly brewery in the world. Here, in a world of what appears to be eternal candle-lit night, perched on wooden stools, every Tom, Dick and Harry in Tromsø takes his beer. Ølhallen opens at 10am and closes at 6pm, pretty much the same opening hours it has always had. So this is no cool, trendy bar – Ølhallen is an original, in a class of its own.
Many varieties of beer
You go to Ølhallen to drink beer, Mack beer. Mack’s entire selection is available, on draught, in bottles, or both. Regular Gullmack Pilsner, the heavier Håkon beer, the dark, malty Bayer beer and all the new kinds of beer are offered, but Ølhallen’s regulars swear by Blanding: two parts dark Bayer and one part light Pilsner.
A sanctuary for the male sex
Ølhallen was no place for women in the old days. There were no ladies’ toilets and, if a woman wanted to get hold of her husband, she had to stand outside and get a passerby to go in and give him a message. Here men were completely shielded from wifely nagging, and any untimely demands for housekeeping money had to remain where they belonged ‒ out on the pavement.
One of Ølhallen’s most famous habitués was Henry Rudi, the “Polar Bear King”, who killed more than 700 polar bears during his career as a huntsman. This is the sort of thing that makes a good story round the bar, preferably of the kind that only gets better with the re-telling and the passing of years. For hunters and trappers, Ølhallen was the first stop after wintering on Svalbard or after months up in the Arctic Ocean. When trapping and hunting declined in the 1960s and ‘70s, it lived on in the memories of Ølhallen’s clientele.
Let the ladies in
At the end of the 1960s some female students from the teacher training college and nurses from the nearby nurses’ home dared to breach Ølhallen’s hallowed halls, and the horrified regulars and staff realised that all-male drinking establishments were a thing of the past. If one drinks beer one needs relief of a certain kind, and in 1970 there arose a small pressure group (ahem…) among the ladies agitating for ladies’ toilets to be introduced. Brand new, modern toilets were built – and immediately given over to the gents, while the ladies had to make do with the old ones!
Everyone comes to Ølhallen
Ølhallen changed as Tromsø changed. Up until the 1970s, the clientele consisted largely of people from the fishing, trapping and hunting community, who were predominantly working class. The middle classes didn’t care to be seen there. Then, in 1972, the University of Tromsø opened, and the students and professors streamed into Ølhallen. Many a master’s dissertation went up in smoke and drowned in Bayer.
Tromsø in the 1970s was young, politically radical and highly voluble. Suddenly everyone had found their way to Ølhallen, and on Friday afternoons you had to plough your way through the crowd of long-haired radicals discussing world revolution, ladies in fur hats, and youngish fishermen with lots of cash. The atmosphere was electric ‒ but, while the night was still young, true to tradition, Ølhallen closed. People wandered out to continue the evening imbibing at one of the new drinking and entertainment establishments that had suddenly popped up all over town. Tromsø’s famous pub crawl route had come into being, and Ølhallen was the obligatory starting point. While countless pubs and bars have opened and shut in Tromsø over the decades, Ølhallen has stood its ground and is as popular as ever.
Mack – a brewery with attitude
The Mack brewery is even older than Ølhallen. The baker Ludwig Mack was a religious man who was appalled at the drunkenness of the 19th-century Tromsø working class. At this time people drank mostly spirits, and some were so constantly intoxicated that they drank themselves out of house and home. Beer has much less alcohol by volume than spirits, and beer-drinkers have to take frequent breaks to relieve themselves. For this reason, Ludwig Mack was convinced that beer could be a good replacement and would bring down the concentration of alcohol that people drank. So in 1877 he began brewing beer, ably assisted by his father from Braunschweig in Germany. The brewery is still owned by the Mack family, and has resisted all attempts to buy it by the giant international breweries south of the Arctic circle.
Ølhallen is at the southern end of Tromsø’s main street, Storgata, and is easy to find. You can go on a guided tour of the brewery or just enjoy a beer with the regulars. Expect a lot of gossip and laughter. The busiest time is Friday afternoon, when half of Tromsø end their working week with a pilsner at Ølhallen. You can never know whether it’ll be just the one glass before getting back to the regular Friday night housecleaning routine and putting your feet up in front of the TV, or whether you’ll end up partying and having to take the night bus home. See www.olhallen.no for more information.
- Ølhallen, the beer hall, has its own website with updated information.
- Visit Tromsø, Tromsø's visitors' and convention bureau, informs about everything else.