With the Carlsberg tower looming over the Copenhagen skyline, and a main ingredient, hops, indigenous to Denmark, it’s safe to say that beer is deeply rooted in Danish culture. But with the rise of the craft beer scene in recent years, ordinary lager has started to lose its monopoly to more than one hundred microbreweries across Denmark, producing strange, quirky and beautiful beer for the people.
Spearheading the Danish craft beer boom was Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, who co-founded the internationally-acclaimed brewery Mikkeller with a batch of his now-renowned stout, called Beer Geek Breakfast, in his kitchen in 2005. A so-called ‘gypsy brewhouse’ – they rent rather than own their own brewing facilities – Mikkeller has a global reach, with bars from Singapore to San Francisco, and has produced beers for airlines, runners and even for Rick Astley.
The brewery has hosted an annual beer festival since 2012, and on May 12 and 13 the sold-out Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen will take over Øksnehallen in Vesterbro, where serious beer buffs will get an education in avant-garde brewing experiments.
For the ordinary consumer, there’s Mikkeller Beer Week between May 7 and 15, with “tap take-overs” at Mikkeller’s bars, collaborations with Hija De Sanchez and Cleaver’s, and live music events taking place all over the city.
As Bjergsø explains, the festival has come a long way since its first incarnation.
You established the Copenhagen Beer Celebration in 2012 with a focus on quality rather than just consumption. How has the event grown and changed since it was first launched?
Well, so much has happened. In the first year, there were 18 breweries and we sold 1000 tickets. This year, we have 100 breweries and almost 12,000 tickets sold. Although it’s certainly changed, we have kept it very down to earth and very personal. You can meet brewers, and we have maintained the ethos we had at the start: brewers aren’t allowed to advertise. We make the signs, and that keeps everyone pretty equal. I would say the biggest change is that the competition is a lot stiffer. Everyone wants to bring their ‘A’ game, and if they don’t, their neighbour can and will do better. It’s not just a case of showing up.
Why is it important to have both the Beer Week and the Celebration?
The Beer Week is a new addition that started in 2016, but we’ve always had events surrounding the festival. There are just so many people in Copenhagen, so many beer drinkers and brewers, and for a lot of people, it’s their main trip of the year: they want to drink a lot of crazy beer. Having a whole week means getting to drink the best beer and run into your favourite brewers, with the culmination being the celebration. It makes it more of a community thing – you can be involved even if you’re not at the celebration. Next year, we want to make this an even greater priority and see if we can work with the city so that Copenhageners get more involved, too.
What are you most looking forward to about this year’s beer celebration and the wider Copenhagen Beer Week?
On Monday, May 8, we are launching a new restaurant, Hyggesund, that will have a particular focus on breakfast food around brunch time, and which will also be available in the evening for private dinners. And on Tuesday and Wednesday, we have Amândio, a chef from northern Portugal, taking up residency. He is undoubtedly the most charismatic person I’ve ever met, and he’ll do a pop-up event. He is the best host – I’ve been to his restaurant several times, and now I even have a portrait of him tattooed on my arm. At his restaurant in Portugal, he has a glass of wine at each table and moves around the restaurant all night, drinking and talking with his guests. To try and measure up, we’ll have bottles and bottles of wine – I’m really looking forward to that.
Also, on Saturday, we are reopening The Barrel Room as a pub and event venue called Mikkeller Baghaven. Saturday is essentially going to be a big party. We’re even working to get a British couple married there in the Mikkeller world with a magician, lots of cool people and plenty of beer – a Mikkeller Las Vegas.
How does home brewing fit into the week?
We have a homebrew event running all week at Mikkeller Bar Viktoriagade, where homebrewers can bring their own creations to be judged by experts and other beer enthusiasts. It’s a great opportunity for homebrewers to share what they are doing. You can brew the best beers in the world in your kitchen because you have so much control with the process on a small scale. It’s great to be able to showcase that, because some of these homebrewers will be at the festival in future. Alefarm was actually a homebrewer when he worked at one of my bars, and now his brewery has been invited to join the celebration this year.
Could you tell us more about the festival’s official beer, SpontanYuzu?
The MBCC beer this year is a spontaneously fermented beer with Japanese yuzu – a very unique product. And if you find one of the 10 cans marked ‘Lucky Bastard’ you can win tickets to the festival – a golden ticket. Our bar manager in Reykjavik found one, but he’s now raffling it off – he thought it could find a better home.
Any beers you are particularly excited to try?
I almost get stressed out because there’s so much stuff I want to taste! But I’m excited to see what the Lambic blender Bokkereyder is producing, because every time he brings new stuff it’s so exciting.
We also have a new brewery we invited very late, Voodoo, from Erie, Pennsylvania. They sent me some beers that were just amazing. And I want to explore the whole New England-style IPA craze, which we are a big part of too.
To be honest, I’m looking forward to just being able to compare such an enormous range of beer. Because I’ve tasted a lot of them, but never at the same time, and it’s interesting to experience a new brewer’s take on a new style that isn’t defined yet. There are going to be 600 or 700 different beers, and I want to try them all. With all the tap takeovers at our bars and the celebration at the end of the week, there’s going to be a lot of beer to drink!
How you think beer fits into a healthy lifestyle? The Mikkeller Running Club is expanding rapidly and more and more people are pointing out the benefits of natural yeast, from kombucha to sourdough.
Beer is an addition to living a healthy life. It’s proven that beer isn’t bad for you – in fact beer drinkers are often shown to live longer. Obviously you shouldn’t get stupid drunk every day, but everything in it is good. In the same way that you shouldn’t drink lots of beer, if you become too focussed on exercise that’s not good either, but the running club combines the best of both worlds. We now have more than 160 branches of the running club. I’ve even had a meeting with the athletic federation in Denmark, discussing the way the Mikkeller Running Club is changing the world of running.
What do you think about Denmark being a ‘beer-drinking nation’, and how does this affect the culture here?
Denmark is beer country. I can see the big Carlsberg tower from where I’m sitting right now, and the new Mikkeller offices are even located on the old Carlsberg site. Obviously that brewery is such a large part of Danish culture, and it’s the reason that Danes get into beer drinking. But beer in Denmark isn’t just about Carlsberg, it’s deeper than that. When I was five, I remember we’d drink a sweet, low-alcohol beer for Christmas. It’s part of our culture – people drink beer for every occasion. We still have Christmas beer and Easter beer, and ten or fifteen years ago you’d be drinking beer at work. We can’t grow wine here – we’re a beer country.
What are you most looking forward to in the next year with Mikkeller?
I’m looking at some sour beers, and also I’m looking a lot at non-alcoholic beer. Being able to drink beer 24/7 purely for the taste, and not get drunk – which is never really my aim – is part of the future.
We are also about to open in the Faroe Islands. We have bars all around the world, in Tokyo and beyond, but there’s something about the Faroe Islands that I can’t get out of my head. There are only 50,000 people, and it’s the most breathtaking place in the world.
We are opening in a very old house that is going to be such a unique bar – the most unique in the world. And the people of the Faroe Islands are so wonderful and so supportive. When we started the running club up there, 100 people showed up, and now it’s the biggest chapter in the world, even with such a small population. With that kind of enthusiasm, the launch is going to be a fantastic event.
But with Mikkeller, I always look forward to the next thing we are doing. Right now it’s having all my friends in the industry here in Copenhagen, for all the tasting and talking.
Now that the seasons are shifting, what’s your favourite beer to drink in the summer?
We do a lot of Berliner Weisse, which has a low alcohol content, and so I drink it a lot with ice cubes in the summer. That may be an utter no-go, but I don’t care. It has tartness and sweetness – it’s just perfect in the summer. M