Beer & Beowulf

Tore Jørgensen started a brewery in a backwater town with nothing going for it and created one of Denmark's most exciting microbreweries in the process

When I was a paperboy in the 1990s, my rounds used to take me to Herlev. I lived in nearby Kattinge and Herslev felt like our down-and-out-sibling. While our village pond was clean and thriving, theirs was smelly and overgrown with algae in the summer. Herslev actually felt more like an intersection than a village – just a few streets, neglected homes and the sound of mopeds competing with the church bells on Sunday mornings. Most of the time we felt superior – at least when Herslev didn’t beat us in the annual village games.

Herslev is in the national park Skjoldungernes Land, named after Denmark’s first royal dynasty. According to legend, the king’s men were big drinkers and their loud antics in the longhouses disturbed the marsh-dwelling creature Grendel, who snuck in and killed the men once they had passed out drunk. The hero Beowulf tracked down and killed Grendel and its mother, which made it safe for the king’s men to drink again .

So perhaps it’s fitting that one of Denmark’s most exciting breweries has found a home in the town. Herslev Bryghus, established in 2004, has been a raging hit and its beer is now sold in the supermarket chain Irma, as well as in trendy watering holes in Copenhagen and beyond.

Its founder Tore Jørgensen moved to the village in 1998 – around the time I was doing my paper rounds. He can’t help but take a stab: “You don’t even have a church in Kattinge do you?” It stings.

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Organic focus
The courtyard of Herslev Bryghus is located on a farm, by a car repair shop at the edge of town. Trucks arrive, carrying fresh supplies of processed malt, grown on the surrounding fields.

Before starting the brewery, Jørgensen was a farmer, but he changed trades after arriving in Herslev. He immediately went all in, hiring staff on his second day on the job.

“There was no advertising to begin with, we tried to tone it down because we wanted to make sure we had made a quality beer. So we would sell the beer from the old stables and people started to pick it up as fast as we put it up for sale.”

Popularity quickly increased and after starting out with a modest 400 litres per week they now produce 20,000 litres. Jørgensen says he is humbled by the success, but the main focus is on maintaining their high quality.

“At first it was just about making beer that tasted acceptable. Then we made it taste good and then once we had the basics in place it was natural to start using organic produce to get the best quality ingredients. Now we bring in the farming aspect more broadly, using all kinds of produce from our own fields. It has been a long process and I want us to continue to grow organically, building on what we have. The fundamental part is that we brew beer that we like ourselves.”

The brewery uses many local ingredients, such as hay and even seaweed.

The brewery uses many local ingredients, such as hay and even seaweed.

Jørgensen’s focus on locally-sourced ingredients led him to experiment with brewing with hay, which brought him into conflict with the Danish Food Regulation agency (Fødevarestyrelsen). Regulations did not deem hay safe for consumption, but following a short investigation it was signed off and now the beer has become  a popular member of the more acidic brews featured in their series MARK (Field).

“I think our philosophy of organic and sustainable farming practises appeals to people. For instance, for a beer company we have a relatively high proportion of female customers and our beer attracts academics and workmen alike. The unifying factor probably is that our customers all take a big interest in what they eat and drink.” 

Jørgensen sees Herslev Bryghus as an integral part of Herslev and once a month people from the local community come to the brewery to eat together. The philosophy of social integration extends to his work with the farm Østagergaard, which doubles as a social institution for marginalised people. There the residents of the farm care for the cows that graze Jørgensen’s fields.

For now it seems that Herslev Bryghus’ biggest enemy is summer thirst.

“Last year, we almost couldn’t keep up with demand when temperatures shot up. This year I hope we are ready!”

Beers are poured at the tenth anniversary celebration.

Beers are poured at the tenth anniversary celebration.

No longer a backwater
Herslev was once another forgettable town with a past but no future. But now the town’s population is slowly growing (up from 207 in 2010 to 222 in 2016), perhaps thanks to the social cohesion fostered by the brewery. The rivalry with Kattinge is fading too and we even drank Herslev beer at our annual village party. I guess that is the biggest compliment that Kattinge could really ever pay to Herslev.

Behind the brewery, Jørgensen has prepared the land for a new barn. Tove Larsen makes her way across the dusty courtyard, six beers in hand. The sun is out and it feels like the first days of summer – perfect for a cold beer. Larsen is from a neighbouring town, the closest in the immediate vicinity with a grocery store.

“I was looking for a present for a man who likes beer and I came here,” she said, quietly admitting she would be able to make do with a six-pack of Tuborg.

As she leaves the Angus cows from Østagergaard gaze at us. Despite the growth of the town and brewery, the village is still quiet.

Lets hope they keep it that way – it’s in nobody’s interest that they provoke the ire of Grendel’s spawn. M

Features, Culture

By Stubbe Wissing

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