The god of small beers

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø started home brewing as a science experiment – then became the original “gypsy brewer” and a craft brewing legend for his Mikkeller ales. Now that he’s opening a big-budget microbrewery, can he keep up the magic?

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, November 2014. Photography by Ulf Svane)

Copenhagen’s cycle lanes are so safe that people can, and often do, cycle after a few drinks – which is just as well, because after an hour or so at the offices of Mikkeller in Copenhagen’s trendy Vesterbro, I’m slightly worse for wear. I’ve tried sweet German cherry wine, beer made with French press coffee and a 66.6 per cent moonshine vodka distilled on the skull of a goat that’s so alcoholic it would be classed as a narcotic in Norway. My notes have, inevitably, gone from clean lines to a slurry scrawl as the conversation has taken an increasingly surreal turn.

This is what happens when you interview Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the original “gypsy brewer” and a prolific Willy Wonka-esque figure in the world’s ever-growing craft beer scene. You end up drunk, and talking about a beer that’s designed for listening to psych-rock to. “The bottle gets warmer as you listen to the music, and the flavours come out,” says Bjergsø of his creation for local band Ring Them Bells. “And you’ve got the recipe on one side of the LP.” My brain cells struggle to connect. “Maybe it’s too much, even for us,” he concedes.

“Mikkel’s ideas never stop,” says his colleague, Nixon Lindberg, a former punk rocker who is perfecting his whiskey sour in the office kitchen/meeting room where we meet, as Bjergsø guides him slightly paternally (“It’s our favourite drink at the moment,” explains the boss).

Spending just an hour at Mikkeller HQ, you sense Bjergsø’s restlessness and perfectionism, even when it comes to getting journalists drunk on quality booze. With his beard, tattoos and deep-set, intense stare, he has the vibe of a hipster cult leader, and it’s telling that some of his staff sport Mikkeller tattoos. Of course, this being Copenhagen, he’s also unfailingly nice.

Mikkeller started in Bjergsø’s kitchen in the mid-noughties, and the brand has since produced over 600 often weird and wonderful beers, exporting to more than 40 countries and opening bars in Bangkok, San Francisco and Stockholm.

Bjergsø’s also opened a cocktail bar by Nørreport station, a brand new restaurant serving smørrebrød with beer pairings, and is planning a 1,000m2 microbrewery (the company’s first) in the Meatpacking District, with America’s 3 Floyds brewing company. Then there are the Mikkeller wines and spirits, from botanical gin to bourbon made with vanilla and toffee, plus a never-ending list of collaborators, from bad-boy fashion designer Henrik Vibskov to LuckyBoySunday, the trendy doll and soft furnishing company that has an office upstairs. As Bjergsø puts it: “I get bored easily, so we do a lot – the challenge is to keep it interesting.”

The Mikkeller story has shades of Breaking Bad, in that Bjergsø was a maths and science teacher who started off experimenting with hops, malt and yeast at home, “almost like a science project”. He had founded a beer club when he and journalist friend Kristian Klarup Keller first tried to clone an IPA made by Denmark’s Brøckhouse brewery, which Bjergsø had fallen in love with one night in the pub. Over time, they moved onto their own recipes, winning home-brewing competitions in Denmark and getting their beers into the beer shop run by Bjergsø’s twin brother Jeppe.

Their breakout, in late 2006, was Beer Geek Breakfast, a 25 per cent oatmeal stout made with French press coffee and chocolate  which, remembers Bjergsø, “sent the beer world crazy”. It was named stout of the year by the influential ratebeer.com, and still has a 100 per cent rating on the site, based on almost 2,000 reviews. For some, it’s the greatest stout of all time, and the fact that it was made by two unknown Danes in their kitchen only adds to the myth.

“At that time, all the breweries were playing things safe,” remembers Bjergsø, who followed up the Beer Geek Breakfast by taking eight more beers to the Copenhagen Beer Festival. “We just made our beers as crazy as possible.”

Because they couldn’t afford their own brewery, Bjergsø and Keller paid to use existing breweries, making the Beer Geek Breakfast at Copenhagen microbrewery Gourmet Bryggeriet. The concept of “gypsy” or “phantom” brewing was born.

“A lot of people didn’t understand it at first,” says Bjergsø, “but it has always made perfect sense to us. We can concentrate on what we like doing, rather than fixing machines and managing workers. It’s like being a fashion designer – they don’t own their own factories. We design the recipes and the labels; the rest we leave to the experts.” Before Mikkeller, there were no gypsy brewers – now there are around 40 in Denmark alone.

By the time Keller left in 2007 to return to journalism, Bjergsø was just getting started. He’s since brewed in Denmark, the UK, the US and Norway – “The water’s the best in the world” – but has made many of his most famous beers at Belgium’s De Proef Brouwerij run by Dirk Naudts, a man Bjergsø considers the best brewer in the world.

All the while, Mikkeller has grown and kept growing – even if Bjergsø insists that “we never forced anything. I brewed batches and used that money to brew the next. I’ve never had investors and I’ve never been to a bank to ask for money.”

Yet today, it’s fair to say, things are going well. Up to eight people work at Mikkeller’s offices, five of them full-time, and in 2011 they had revenues of €3.3 million (NOK26.9m), a figure that has surely risen sharply. In 2013 alone, Mikkeller introduced 124 different beers, an almost unheard-of level of production.

Of his beer bars across the world, including two in Copenhagen, he says, “Opening a bar now is not hard – we know it will be an instant success. It sounds cocky, but it’s the way it is.” The original Mikkeller bar in Vesterbro was national news when it opened in 2010, and is now to beer lovers what Noma is to foodies, with 20 different rotating beers on tap at any time. Bjergsø doesn’t see craft beer as a trend: “Beer has forever been at the centre of drinking, so this is not some fad – craft beer to me is making the best possible drink with the best available ingredients, and that idea is not going to go out of fashion.”

But Bjergsø talks often about “challenging” himself (“challenging” and “crazy” seem to be his favourite words) – and the biggest challenge of late is combining food with beer. This summer saw the opening of Øl & Brød, an elegantly quirky little restaurant a few doors down from the original Mikkeller bar in Vesterbro. The concept is gloriously simple – 11 smørrebrød (traditional Danish open sandwiches), each with its own specific beer pairing. There are also more than 150 kinds of aquavit, the biggest selection in Denmark.

It came about in typical style. Two 21-year-old chefs, Patrick Bach Andersen and Emil Skovsgaard Bjerg, had been working at the Michelin-starred Søllerød Kro in Holte, north of Copenhagen, and had just won silver at the Danish smørrebrød championships. “We’d been thinking about a smørrebrød restaurant when they called us out of the blue,” says Bjergsø. “They called on Friday, came in on Monday to make smørrebrød, and that was that.” It may or may not have helped that the two chefs, like restaurant manager Johan Julius Blasberg, look and act the part – polite, despite the beards and tattoos.

If Øl & Brød is classic Mikkeller – small-scale, high quality, on the hip side of whimsical – the next project is really going to mix things up. Their first brewery, due to open this winter, will be a 1,000m2 monster brewery/restaurant in a national heritage building in the Meatpacking District, costing €2 million (NOK16.2m).

“It’s a risk,” admits Bjergsø of the collaboration with America’s 3 Floyds brewery, whose tagline is “Not Normal”. With the brewery being specially made in Germany to take 200-litre batches, Bjergsø points out they could have opened five new bars for the price and time that’s gone into the project. He also says that most of the beer brewed onsite will be drunk there, and that Mikkeller isn’t abandoning gypsy brewing.

The aim, as ever, is to push the company in more creative directions. “If we open a restaurant to make money, it won’t work; we don’t want to grow for the sake of growing. As long as it’s because we enjoy it, it interests us and we’re making it the best of the best, then we go with it.”

It sounds almost cavalier, but then it’s always been the way Mikkeller has worked – I may be drunk, but by the end of the hour, I’m a believer.

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