WORDS: Fraser Doherty PHOTOGRAPHS: Kiva Brynaa & Zsolt Stefkovic
Thursday 25 May 2017
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A year ago, we produced the inaugural issue of Ferment all about Denmark. It was also our first encounter with the world’s most well-known ‘gypsy brewer’: Mikkel Borg Bjergso. In the year that has followed, this icon of Danish craft brewing has opened bars in cities across the globe and even set down roots by taking over Alesmith’s old brewery in San Diego.
With 11 locations in Copenhagen alone and outposts in some of the most glamorous cities around the world, the company’s list of addresses could rival that of a luxury fashion house: LA, Tokyo, Barcelona, Seoul, Berlin, Stockholm, San Francisco, Bangkok, Taipei and Singapore. Not to mention of course Torshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands and Reykjavik in Iceland. Operated from an immaculate office adorned with stylish Danish furniture and a reception that offers five draught lines of its latest creations, this is a beer company unlike any other.
Through its bathroom window lies a stark reminder of Danish beer’s mediocre past: Carlsberg’s shimmering tower. The fact that the new and old of Danish beer are based in the same neighbourhood is merely a quirk of history - Mikkel brewed his first batch of beer 200m from where we’re sitting. Ultimately needing to scale up production, he started contract brewing at other people’s premises and his image as a ‘gypsy brewer’ was born.
Free to grow organically and able to focus on creating small-batch beers at the high end of the market, his creativity wasn’t bogged down by the pressures that owning a brewery would usually bring. Unlike many upstart brewers, he never had the need to find volume sales from the likes of supermarkets, for example. Working with a variety of different breweries also gave Mikkel a near unlimited pallet upon which to base his recipes.
Each brewery has its own specialities; different techniques and equipment, strains of yeast and varieties of hops. This range of possibilities has led to the creation of an incredible 1,000 different Mikkeller beers. As a values-driven company, based on the principles that Mikkel created back in his kitchen, the business has attracted not only a worldwide following, but a diverse team of around 350 people. According to the company’s operations director, a former Danish Army Major: “The rules about what are right and wrong for the business are so clear, that operating within them is made so much easier.” One of the company’s main rules is that it does no advertising, opting to invest in its products instead.
A lot of the innovations in terms of how they run the company have sprung from not spending time and money in the usual way; things like the Mikkeller Running Club, for example, have been hugely successful. What comes across from everyone I talk to here is that Mikkel’s vision for what he wants Mikkeller to stand for is crystal clear in his mind and his attention to detail is immaculate. This can come across as pedantic to those who don’t share his passion for the project. ”It can be frustrating when not everyone sees things the way I do,” Mikkel admits. Jacob jokes that he will visit a bar before it opens because he knows exactly what things Mikkel won’t like when he walks through the door. “I once spotted these goofy V-neck pullovers one of the bars was selling on their opening night,” he laughs. “I told them to get rid of them immediately, before Mikkel saw them.” Although they’ve had to burn some dodgy merchandise along the way, this attention to detail has served the company well from the beginning.
To be standing in the middle of Boston with 7,000 people - all thanks to our friends and partners - was humbling
Uncharacteristically for a small Danish company, Mikkeller received one of its first real orders from the US very early on in its development. As a result, it focused diligently on creating beers for a market of consumers whose palates were 15 years ahead of those in Europe. This attitude has led to a huge following for the brand in the States, which reached a climax last year when Mikkeller hosted Copenhagen Beer Celebration in Boston. “As a small Danish company, to be standing in the middle of Boston with 7,000 people - all thanks to our friends and partners - was humbling,” says Mikkel. But this was to be just one step in Mikkeller’s conquest of America. Back when he was experimenting with his original Beer Geek Breakfast recipe in his kitchen, Mikkel contacted Peter Zien, the founder of Alesmith Brewing in San Diego, California. They kept in touch over the years and, after deciding to move to bigger premises, Peter offered a chance for the world-famous brewer-without-a-home to finally own some bricks and mortar.
The story came full circle and the former homebrewer bought his mentor’s brewery. Talking about the decision, Mikkel explains that “it’s hard to compete by importing beers from Europe,” undoubtedly made all the harder by the fact there are 200 breweries in San Diego alone. When Mikkeller arrived, it initially bowed to what it expected would be popular among the drinkers there. But Mikkel ultimately wanted to try something new - it’s what he is known for, after all. “I didn’t come to San Diego to brew another IPA”, he says. Sticking to its core values has served the brewery well and beers like its Berliner weisse with coffee and raspberry got a great reaction, ultimately making it into their core range.
To top it, Mikkeller’s juicy, murky New England IPAs such as ‘Hazed and Amused’ and ‘Uklar’ have been trending among the Top IPAs on RateBeer. With a desire to create the same ‘hand to hand’ feeling that Mikkeller had when it first started in Copenhagen, Mikkel set out to launch a new beer every week. With people queuing up at the brewery to try the latest releases, the concept has been a huge success. A pallet of these short-run Mikkeller San Diego beers even makes its way by air to Copenhagen every other week, so that Mikkel can taste them and provide instant feedback to the brewers in California. It also makes a number of the cans available to buy in the online shop. “Obviously, it doesn’t make much economic sense, but people in Europe really want to try what we’re making out there,” he explains. A few months ago, Mikkel created the first beer brewed specifically for inflight drinking, for SAS. “I’ve flown with them my whole life - they are an icon of aviation - so getting to work with them was an honour for a Scandinavian.” For him, the exciting part was getting to take a whole bunch of his beers onto a flight to see how they tasted under cabin pressure. “Some flavours, such as bitterness, are more pronounced, so we dialled that back in the recipe. It also makes sense to go easier on the carbonation than usual.” This attention to detail might be lost on some people, Mikkel admits: “A lot of people might not notice these changes, but all put together they add up to a better beer in the sky. Amazingly, a lot of thought has gone into making food taste better on flights and this was the first time anyone had thought about beer.”
Every year, Mikkeller has also chosen a social project to support. Last year, it was the refugee crisis; the brewery created a special beer called HELP, with all proceeds going to the Danish Refugee Council. “Really, there was a lot of stuff being said in the media and we just wanted to make our stance clear and do what we could to help,” he explains.
More recently, he has taught a group of people with autism how to brew and they’ve set up a brewery called People Like Us. “It’s not a totally new idea - La Trappe in Belgium actually have autistic people working there too,” he tells me. Currently crowdfunding to build its own brewery, the People Like Us project doesn’t have any financial ties to Mikkeller. “I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea,” he explains. So how can one man get involved in so many ideas? “I don’t think too much about it,” he says. “I just get a feeling that something is missing in the world and jump in and try to make it. Our team is able to do a lot of varied things very well.” With great beers available on flights and in his concept restaurants, where else should we expect Mikkel to push the boundaries? “There are some craft brewers in North Korea,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “They’re making beer, for sure. But they don’t get much access to information about the brewing scene from outside.” I ask whether he sees any potential issues with doing a collaboration brew in the Hermit Kingdom. “Obviously, there’s a lot of political shit, but it would be great to connect with the people there on this level.” I guess beer does have a way of breaking down barriers and, having seen everything this guy has done in the past year, I wouldn’t put it past Mikkel to make it happen.
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