Rebels with a cause
Saturday 06 May 2023
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Beer On Trend
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As luck would have it, I found myself in Copenhagen for leisure just a few weeks before speaking to Emil Sylvester Jakobsen, To Øl’s sales manager. It was my first time in Denmark, and I was shocked to discover the price of a pint was even higher than in Edinburgh, and that Carlsberg, Tuborg and Kronenbourg are pretty much ubiquitous in this city known for its beer scene. Silver linings though; it’s this sorry situation that began To Øl’s flirtation with styles, like rice lager, that acquired a bad name when Western macro brands began bulking out grain bills with rice or corn to cut costs, at the expense of taste.
“Okay, first of all, we did have some of our customers ask us for a rice lager,” Emil begins, as if justifying what he was about to say next. “Some people got in touch saying ‘hey, we could use this in our setup, it's a restaurant, we want something light to serve it with food’ etcetera, but also, we kind of like a play on the macro styles. You know, we do a Mexican lager with corn in a clear glass bottle, just to, you know, give some pushback to the macro brands,” he says, gesturing outwards with pointed elbows. “We have our own fair share of them here in Denmark, so what we can do to provoke and to disrupt, we will be happy to do so.”
I can’t help but laugh, and tell Emil the anarcho-socialist in me just did a little jump for joy. “You have to consider that To Øl began in an alternative, ultra-democratic, left wing high school where students get to vote on how the school is run,” Emil replies with a grin, amused that this is news to me. “It's right around the corner from where BRUS is located now. It's called the Det Frie Gymnasium, and the students [between high-school and university age] there voted to produce their own beers for the Friday bar, so they started home brewing there as a school project. That’s how To Øl began.
“I don't know if we’re still like this, but at least back when we first started out, the whole foundation was the most left wing you could ever imagine, with no hierarchy whatsoever. Obviously we need to have some structure now, but the whole philosophy or mentality here is still that everybody's input is valued, no one calls the shots and we are all linked together.”
That newfound need for structure originates in the scale of To Øl’s operations, the epicentre of which is today To Øl City, in Svinninge, about an hour outside of Copenhagen. The ‘city’ comprises the 20 buildings that used to make up an old food factory, each constructed between 1950 and the late 1990s, complete with the infrastructure that allowed the brewery to slide seamlessly into its new home in late 2019.
“We installed the brewery in the building that was the food plant’s old research and quality control lab (when it wasn’t making marmalade), and then next door we have the distillery, which we built out of old scrap metal. We ran hot piping from the brewery straight to the distillery, so we can push a whole production of wort from the brew house and into the distilling room. It’s fully functional and now we just need final approval so we can actually produce on it.
“In another building we have a barrel store, in another we make our wild beers so there's no cross contamination. We make our Micropolis ready to drink cocktails out here also, and then the warehouse has taken up quite some space as well, we have a lot of cold rooms and freezers out here with it being an old food factory. So, yeah, those are our primary buildings. We’ve also rented out three buildings to other businesses, one makes kombucha, another makes wild, organic Danish cider, and the last is making some kind of plant-based meat alternative with pea protein I believe”. And what city would be complete without a reliable supply of pea-based meat alternatives?
Considering To Øl began in a school, and graduated to a cuckoo brewing brand before finally arriving at its current position, its journey should be admired and aspired to, but Emil is keenly aware that To Øl is now just bigger than the small guys, but smaller than the big guys, a position that comes with both advantages and challenges. “Being smart about our production is kind of our key this year,” says Emil.
“We’re trying, in some aspects, to reduce complexity within our setup so we are more agile, but also, with the energy crisis, we’ve had to work even smarter. What we now do is actually shut down production for a week and then almost operate over capacity the following week, so we switch going back and forth instead of having low production all the time, as we’re finding that helps with reducing costs while maintaining the same output.”
Interestingly, this agility also plays a part in the war To Øl wages against the macro brands this whole conversation began with. Emil tells me that in Denmark, people are coming around to the idea of beer having a value outside of what retailers charge for it. “Denmark is one of the places where you see the highest difference in price on the same product. You can go to a corner store and a beer will cost you less than a euro, but if you go to a bar, or a music venue, you pay much more for the exact same product.
Being smart about our production is kind of our key this year
“With people coming around to the idea that price is just location-bound, they’re also starting to consider the value of beer, and how that might be different between two pints, both costing €7 or €6. If you go to a concert, why would you have a great audio experience, but a shitty beer experience? If you buy a pint, and your options are between a mainstream beer and something that tastes better for a similar price, what would you choose?
“The whole challenge of this approach centres around how venues can survive with lower revenue. But luckily, with our current approach and setup we are able to be flexible, and brew designated beers, just for that venue, or just for that specific event, really efficiently and actually offer them really good pricing. It’s a much more dynamic approach to a partnership, and people are really welcoming it,” Emil concludes. But convincing a consumer to choose the better tasting of two options, isn’t quite the same as communicating how an investment in ingredients and process give both value and flavour to To Øl’s beer, and craft beer more generally.
“For this, we’re using the milk comparison to help convey to people that ‘Hey, we’re not pasteurising our products. We're using fresh ingredients, it should be stored as a fresh product and consumed fresh, the same as dairy or milk; it's something that is not meant to be stored for a long time in a garage somewhere, and then chilled just before drinking’,” Emil continues. “Building on this, it's then interesting to pull in styles that drinkers might have been used to drinking as a valueless product, like the rice logo or a generic lager style, and show them how great a product these styles can be, if brewed properly.
“The basis for doing those macro styles is that we’re taking something that is a bit more simple in its setup, and just refine it, and have the respect for that original style of beer as well. So we have our 45 days program for all of our lager, and were like ok, ‘what will happen if we actually put a true to style rice lager into our 45 days, horizontal lagering tanks and really strive to make a proper, super crisp and easy drinking Japanese rice lager style?’. What comes out is really, really drinkable while being nothing like a quick, fermented macro product”.
It would seem that the satirical power of macro styles only seasons To Øl’s playful recalibration of drinkers’ ideas about the value of beer. What started as a quest for better beers than what was widely offered, evolved into a teaching tool for those unfamiliar with the original style, a hand of welcome for newcomers to craft, and an invitation for businesses, venues, and events, to collaborate with craft producers.
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