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The craft beer revolution

 
As beer drinkers become increasingly sophisticated, they are no longer satisfied with bland pilsner. Danish microbreweries are now rising to the challenge

In 2006, Morten Valentin Lundsbak and Jacob Storm, old friends from technical college, convinced a bank to give them a loan. With that loan they had the humble aim of brewing beer for the people of Amager, Copenhagen’s island district. Seven years later, the five-man Amager Bryghus team expects to produce 300,000 litres of beer a year, quenching the thirst of beer drinkers in over 20 countries.

Theirs is an increasingly common story in the world of brewing. As the conveyor-belt industries of the past start to decline, the enthusiasm and innovation – and often the money – is moving toward smaller, niche operations. The internet and social media, as well as improved access to capital and technology, have made it easier for small groups to make a big impact in global markets.

It’s a craft beer revolution. It’s happening in your supermarket, in your kiosk and in your local bar, and it’s challenging global corporations. It’s a hobby, a business and a way of life. And it’s being brewed in your neighbourhood.

Craft beer is a loose term that refers to specialist beer styles or small-batch breweries whose main unifying characteristic is often the price tag. Anders Evald is a founding member of Danish Beer Enthusiasts (Danske Ølentusiaster), an organisation that grew from small groups that met to share and taste beer in each others’ apartments. It’s now a nationwide organisation with over 9,000 members that organises festivals and tastings, represents Danish beer drinkers at the European Beer Consumers Union, and established Danish Beer Day (Øllets Dag) on the first Saturday of September.

Evald says the popularity of craft beers can be attributed not only to a renewed interest in local, more sustainable and specialist foodstuffs, but also to dissatisfaction with the world’s brewing giants.

Half of the world’s beer is made by the four biggest brewers: Anheuser-Busch InBev, SABMiller, Heineken, and Carlsberg. Anheuser-Busch InBev – every bit the Frankenstein’s monster of a corporation that its name suggests – commands 25 percent of the global beer market, with over 200 brands. These include the Budweiser, Stella Artois and Löwenbräu you find in discount supermarkets, the Hoegaarden you buy when you want something different, and the Brahma you drink on holiday.

The increasingly refined taste of consumers has spurred a second beer revolution –one seen before in other industries. Henry Ford famously offered cars in “any colour, as long as it’s black”. The strategy was a success until he no longer held the monopoly on the technology to efficiently and consistently produce high-quality cars. And nowadays, “any beer, as long as it’s bland” isn’t enough for a lot of consumers as technological advances allow smaller breweries to set up shop with little capital and really take on the beer giants.

Amager Bryghus (Photo: Alastair Philip Wiper)

Amager Bryghus (Photo: Alastair Philip Wiper)

Growth of specialty market
Evald writes about and reviews beer, hosting tastings in his spare time. He argues that Denmark’s first beer revolution was started in 1850 by Carlsberg – now Denmark’s most ubiquitous brewer. It too started as a family business, and pioneered innovations in hygiene, yeast management and consistent production methods. Drinkers were able to enjoy beer that they could trust would be unspoilt and of recognisable quality.

Today people are drinking less beer overall, but the share of those switching to craft beers is growing. Sporting names that sound like chemical production companies, with the business models to match, the dominance of the larger breweries seems guaranteed by their logistics alone. Nevertheless, they are not ignoring the threat posed by people brewing beer in their own neighbourhoods – beer finely suited to their own tastes and those of the small but discerning customer base they serve.

The current craft market is an assortment of old and new start-ups that are consolidating and diversifying in an attempt to increase their market share in an industry where reputation is vital and a loyal following can launch a brewery to international stardom. A number of regional breweries in Denmark with strong local bases predate the current revolution, notably Hancock, Vestfyen and Thisted. Though they must be enjoying the renewed interest in local and specialist beers, their brands’ relegation to supermarkets and the back fridges of bodegas pales in comparison to the international acclaim heaped on Mikkeller, Amager Bryghus and To Øl.

Amager Bryghus started off with humble ambitions, taking the name of their local area. It is likely to be mispronounced outside of Denmark and as Henrik Papsø, head of communications at the brewery, tells me, the island is not so hip in Copenhagen: it is still called “shit island” due to its history as a landfill site. Their first range of beers continues the local theme with names like Amager Fælled, Bryggens Blond, Christianshavn Pale Ale, Dragør Brown and Hr. Frederiksen.

It was Hr. Frederiksen that would set in motion the momentum the brewery still enjoys today. Papsø recounts how this American Imperial Stout – one of the only Danish interpretations of this style at the time – received high praise from Danish users of Ratebeer.com. The stout’s acclaim on the international beer-rating site rocketed it into the site’s top 50 beers. The brewery, already unable to keep up with local demand, became an exporter in its second year.

The power of Ratebeer and the self proclaimed “beer geeks” certainly holds power in deciding which breweries will gain cult status, rising from the suburbs of Denmark to global demand. Anders thinks the disproportionate number of Danes reviewing beers online has played a big part in cementing the reputation of Danish beer. Mikkeller, perhaps Denmark’s most acclaimed modern brewery, plays to this community like no other, making it very dependent on Ratebeer and other sites, according to Evald.

Their beers, mostly contract-brewed in Belgium or elsewhere (so-called ‘Gypsy brewing’), have pushed the boundaries of what beer can be, adapting styles and processes from around the world to create beers that are suited to Mikkeller’s core customers: the beer geeks, who are often academic in nature. In a Mikkeller bar, beer is served in a 20cl glass to moderate your intake of beer that is sometimes more interesting than enjoyable. With bars in Denmark as well as the US, Thailand, and Sweden, and exports to 40 countries, their success is undeniable.

Amager Bryghus (Photo: Alastair Philip Wiper)

Amager Bryghus (Photo: Alastair Philip Wiper)

International ambitions
Amager, as Papsø tells me, is a brewery with two heads, its personality somewhere between “hipster” and “traditional.” “We’re not hipsters, just look at us: we are fat, middle-aged guys … but our beers are more connected to that scene.” He illustrates his point by telling me that Amager was the only Danish brewery besides Mikkeller to have a presence at both major beer festivals in Copenhagen: the Danish Beer Enthusiast-organised Ølfestival and the Mikkeller-organised Copenhagen Beer Celebration.

Acknowledging its international status, Amager has begun printing some labels in English, as they now brew beers intended for foreign markets. But we cannot discuss the boom Denmark is experiencing in brewing without turning to the expected bust.

“If we look to the US – they are usually 10 to 15 years ahead of us – they had a craft beer revolution in the ’80s and ’90s, and a lot of those breweries ended up closing. What happens is that the customer gets more educated and sticks to the good breweries and better brands … I think that closed a lot of them. In the US now there’s another revolution, with even tinier producers called nano breweries,” Papsø explains.

Looking to the future, he predicts a few changes in the Danish beer market.

“There will be a lot of very small Danish breweries with very local markets, a handful or two of bigger craft brewers, and then of course there will always be the gypsy scene.”

With Carlsberg attempting to steal craft beer market share with its Jacobsen range (a conservative attempt at specialist styles), and Mikkeller diversifying away from beer (with restaurants, cocktail bars, wines, spirits and even a herbal salve for styling hair and beards), the market may be reaching saturation point. Nevertheless, Amager Bryghus has expanded its brewery again, having been unable to meet demand year on year as it continues to export around the world hundreds of thousands of litres of beer proudly made on Amager. M

Culture

By Liam Duffy

Liam Duffy is a writer from Galway, Ireland, focusing on poetry, culture and urbanism.

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