The king of beer

In the space of five years, former science teacher Mikkel Borg Bjergso has opened bars from San Francisco to the Faroes and spawned a growing lifestyle brand

First published in the Financial Times, October 2018.

If you go to the opening party of the Mikkeller bar in Shoreditch tonight, the chances are you might notice one of its partners: Rick Astley, who still just about has the quiff, voice and northern charm he had in 1987, when “Never Gonna Give You Up” made him a pop sensation. But you might just miss the other, possibly more important, guy: Mikkel Borg Bjergso, a soft-spoken, slim and tattooed Dane. He is the world’s most prolific craft brewer, and has become a celebrity in his own right, a leading figure in a sector that has gone from a niche trend to something so mainstream that “IPA fatigue” is now a thing.

While craft brewers tend to emphasise their locality, Mikkeller has gone global, and in a hurry. In just five years, Bjergso has expanded from his base in Copenhagen to create a brewing and hospitality empire in 41 locations as diverse as his beery concoctions — from San Diego to Taipei, Tokyo, Bucharest, Warsaw and even Torshavn, capital of the Faroe Islands. For some, this rollout is a sign of the regrettable homogenisation of global taste — even if the Instagrammable bars each have local beers and design touches, they all come with an over-riding sense of airy, carefully arranged Danish cool — but Bjergso is not slowing down.

There are plans to push into mainland China and to further expand an already thriving lifestyle arm: fans can buy Mikkeller hoodies, T-shirts and hats, go to its beer festivals, where tattoo artists are hired specifically to ink Mikkeller tattoos (Bjergso estimates there are “over a thousand” such tattoos today, even if he doesn’t have one), or go running with the Mikkeller Running Club, which has more than 200 chapters across the world, from Almaty to Volgograd and Westchester, New York. Branded hotels and tours are under consideration. “We want to make it so that people can live in this Mikkeller universe,” Bjergso tells me.

We want to make it so that people can live in this Mikkeller universe.

If it sounds like a brazen quest for new revenue sources, Bjergso says he’s still driven by the same instincts he always has been. “If I’m interested in an idea, whether it’s brewing a beer with Rick Astley, opening a ramen restaurant in Copenhagen or opening a little bar in the Faroe Islands, we make it happen, even if it’s not a cash cow. I’m easily bored, so I’m always challenging myself to keep it interesting.”

A big part of Mikkeller’s appeal is bound up with its creation story. In the mid-2000s, Bjergso was a science teacher in Copenhagen who, fed up of lagers that all tasted the same, started dabbling with brewing in his kitchen at home. Before long, his brews, created with a journalist friend, Kristian Keller, started winning national home-brewing competitions, and the pair decided to put their names together and start a business.

Success came fast, in late 2006, with a beer called Beer Geek Breakfast, an oatmeal stout made with coffee and chocolate that gave notes of burnt toast. “At a time when most brewers were playing things safe, it sent the beer world crazy,” says Bjergso. It was named stout of the year by the influential Ratebeer.com website, and still has a 100 per cent rating on the site. “Early on, we were very driven by breaking all the rules,” says Bjergso.

The biggest rule they broke is the one that says brewers should have a brewery. Because they couldn’t afford their own, they hired existing breweries to make their recipes, which were coming thick and fast. “It meant we could concentrate on designing recipes and labels, which we love doing, and leave the rest to the experts,” says Bjergso. The concept of “gypsy” brewing — also known as “cuckoo” or “phantom” brewing — was born, something that is now standard practice for thousands of brewers across the world.

Keller quit the company in 2007 to concentrate on journalism but Bjergso was just getting started. While a typical craft brewer might come up with 20 new recipes a year, Mikkeller will produce closer to 200, from Belgian Lambics to sour beers and ales brewed in bourbon barrels. Today, there are more than 1,680 Mikkeller creations listed on Ratebeer.com, many with esoteric ingredients like Vietnamese Kopi Luwak coffee or chipotle chilli. The 8m litres sold globally each year are produced at breweries in Belgium, Norway, Denmark, the US and UK, then exported to its outlets worldwide.

In terms of volume, Mikkeller’s output is modest compared to a brewery like Sierra Nevada, which produces 147m litres a year. But while Sierra Nevada pretty much just does beer, Mikkeller has become a very different beast. Its first bar in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro district was an instant success in 2010 (the first year that Noma was voted the world’s best restaurant, when Brand Denmark was the height of cool). Three years later, the company opened its first foreign bar, in San Francisco, in partnership with Bay Area bar owner Chuck Stilphen. In early 2014, Mikkeller opened its first Bangkok bar (there are now four) with Jakob Morkenborg Rasmussen, a Dane who had started a craft beer import business. As a model, it was almost as neat as gypsy brewing — Mikkeller supplies the beer while local partners run the bars.

With revenues of €26.8m in 2017, it can no longer really claim to be a plucky outsider brand, and in 2016 it sold an undisclosed stake to US private equity company Orkila Capital. Like any indie band that has gone on to play stadium tours, Mikkeller’s growth has drawn detractors, most prominently Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, Mikkel’s twin. While the brothers had a symbiotic relationship in the early days — Jeppe ran a craft beer shop and would stock and export Mikkel’s beers — the relationship soured over an apartment deal, and the fact that the first Mikkeller bar was uncomfortably close to Jeppe’s shop. Jeppe went on to set up a rival brewing company called Evil Twin, decamping to New York.

“I’m not against a business growing and being successful,” says Jeppe, who runs a Brooklyn bar called Torst, and is soon to open a brewery in Queens, barely six miles from a Mikkeller microbrewery at the Citi Field baseball stadium. “But, to me, Mikkeller has become about business rather than beer. That’s not got anything to do with Mikkel and me personally, and I’d say the same thing about [Scottish brewer] BrewDog. You can’t run bars all over the world and expect the same level of quality. I’ll be at my brewery all the time; Mikkel is lucky if he visits New York once a year.”

Mikkel Bjergso refuses to discuss his brother in public, but is used to the argument. “As soon as you become bigger, people will say you’ve sold out and the quality’s not as good,” he says. “The beer we make is just as good as it was in the beginning. And we work so hard on the experience at every bar, where the designs and the beers are tailored to the place.”

As soon as you become bigger, people will say you’ve sold out and the quality’s not as good.

Bjergso insists that he and his Copenhagen team are “deeply involved with each bar, on a daily basis”. While they use local partners, he says that Mikkeller takes a majority stake wherever possible. “But, even if we have an equal or almost-equal partner, we have the decision-making power,” he says. “Of course I’m not as involved as I was with the first bar in Copenhagen, but I still care passionately about the smallest details. I’ll stop if that’s ever not the case, or if we lose control.”

The new London bar, Mikkeller’s 41st, is in what was the George and Dragon pub on Hackney Road, which dates back to 1898 but was most recently a raucous gay club (the owners left in 2015, after the rent tripled). Like all of the Mikkeller bars abroad, the layout was designed in Copenhagen, with bespoke posters of beefeaters and Sherlock Holmes designed by US-based art director Keith Shore, who also designed the neon sign outside. Bjergso always creates at least one site-specific beer, in this case Astley’s London Lager. Astley’s songs will play on loop in the toilets, though not in the main bar.

Of course, Mikkeller’s London outpost is atypical in that most of the brand’s partners haven’t sold 40m records. Bjergso and Rick Astley became friends in 2015, when a rumour circulated that Astley was living in Copenhagen (he wasn’t, but his daughter Emilie lives there, and his film producer wife Lene Bausager is Danish).

Bjergso, who had Rick Astley posters on his walls as a child, picked up the phone, and offered to create a brew with his childhood idol. Despite the pop star not knowing much about beer, the pair co-created Astley’s Northern Hop, with a touch of ginger nodding to Astley’s hair.

Now, they’ve gone further than that. Astley, who was due to sing at the opening party but says he won’t be pulling any pints, believes that Mikkeller bars remain special. “They have a vibe, and a soul,” he says. “I’ve been to lots of their bars around the world, and they all have a different feel.” Or, as Bjergso insists: “We’re not Starbucks, just repeating the same thing everywhere we go.”

Either way, there will be those who simply see an independent local gay bar replaced by what is essentially a foreign chain. The question, really, is how big Mikkeller can get while holding on to the edge that made it famous in the first place. It’s one to ponder, perhaps while sipping a Mikkeller Jackie Brown ale in the new London bar, or listening to “Never Gonna Give You Up” in the loo.

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