March 27, 2017 / 1 comment
Talking craft beer and imagination with Mikkel Borg Bjergsø
One of the areas of 21st century life where the imagination thrives is in the craft beer movement. One of the leading, and most imaginative, craft breweries is Mikkeller. Mikkeller was founded in 2006 by Mikkel Borg Bjergsø. He has reimagined what a brewery can be, what beer can be, what bars can be. And some of his beers are extraordinary. We caught up via Skype.
The traditional model of being a brewer is that you open a brewery and you brew beer and then you sell it. You have a very different model. I wonder if you could tell us how you’ve approached beer in a more imaginative way than the traditional way?
For me, the brewing, the actual physical brewing part, is not what the most interesting. What I do is to create new ideas and new flavours and new ways of drinking beer. I decided back in to 2006 not to open my own brewery but to go to existing breweries and use their capacity and use their core strength and abilities. Every brewery has their core strength which I thought would be great to use.
I started brewing in different breweries around the world. Started brewing in Belgium, a lot of Belgian beers and other stuff, brewing in Norway because the water is really suited for the dark black beers. Today it goes under the name of ‘gypsy brewing’, which is kind of a strange name. It’s both correct and it’s not correct. It’s very much something that’s my way of brewing. The first time the term gypsy brewing was used was actually for Mikkeller, and it’s kind of a big thing today in the brew world.
You also do interesting collaborations with food and with artists?
The whole collaboration idea in the beer world is also a fairly new thing. I did the first collaboration with another brewery in 2007. I actually tried to find out how many collaborations were done in the beer world before that and I’ve only found two other ones done around the same time, which had a different purpose. Or at least one of them had a different purpose.
My idea was to brew and learn from other breweries, because again, a Belgian brewery has other ideas and other ways of thinking than somebody who grew up in Denmark like me. So brewing together and helping each other, creating something unique, wasn’t something you had seen before, which we did. I’ve now done a lot of collaborations with breweries around the world and learnt so much.
Eventually I thought it would be interesting to try and incorporate knowledge from other areas of the culinary and non-culinary worlds. So I started collaborating with chefs, which also was a new thing, and working with their ideas and their ways of using ingredients. Because as a brewer you learn that this is how you do it.
If you use ingredients, you have to use malt this way, hops this way, coffee this way, but chefs often have a different way, a different approach to ingredients, which I’ve learnt a lot from. And obviously I’ve learnt, or hopefully I’ve taught them something the other way as well. From there I’ve worked with coffee roasters, and farmers, musicians, and inspiring people from all areas of the world. I’ve learnt a guy who is really good at something different can teach you a lot about his world and you can use that in beer brewing as well.
Compared to traditional brewing, which tended to be quite conservative and the brewery would brew a small number of beers that would be its core output, there’s something about the craft beer movement that has really given people permission to be very imaginative and very playful. What do you think it is about what’s happened in beer over the last 15 years or so that has unleashed that kind of imagination?
It’s a good question. It’s probably people. People who have had that imagination and have had the courage to do different. I mean, if you compare it to the wine world, and I’m not saying wine and beer is the same thing and made the same way, but if you compare to the wine world, it’s so extremely conservative, the wine world. It’s very, very difficult, or it’s very daring, to do something just a little bit different.
It was actually like that in the beer world 25 years ago as well. When I started, if you didn’t follow the norms, then people looked at you and told you you were all wrong. When I started what is now called gypsy brewing, not having a brewery, in the beginning, I always had a lot of discussions with consumers and with other brewers about not having a brewery, and can you call yourself a brewer if you don’t have your own facility? It was something that hadn’t been seen before and therefore people were afraid of it.
But this whole holding on to the way you do things… I think it’s showing courage and it’s showing courage to do something different and try and change the way it has been done for thousands of years. It has changed a lot in the beer world. And then you can ask, “Why the beer world?” I mean, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the certain kind of people that are into beer, if you compare to wine, for example. That’s a good question.
And do you regard yourself as someone who has always been very imaginative, and is there anything that you can particularly point to in your earlier life that might have contributed to that?
I actually don’t. I’ve always been very curious, and I think that’s what shines through. When I see something, if I see a fruit that I’ve never seen before, or a dish, if I see food that I’ve never seen before, I’m very curious about tasting it and it’s always been like that.
It’s the same when I make beer. If I get an idea about a flavour, or about an ingredient, I’m very curious to test that in a beer. I’m a school teacher and I’m actually very science driven and I did not consider myself as a creative person at all. A lot of people would probably call me a very creative person today but I wasn’t. I wasn’t like that when I was younger for sure.
Your book, Mikkeller’s Book of Beer invites people to become brewers themselves and it aims to educate them about different beer styles and different flavours. How important is that element do you think in the craft beer movement? That aspect of making people more informed and imaginative consumers?
It’s very important, and it’s been very, very important for me as well. Maybe it’s my school teaching background. But again, not that I want to compare to wine all the time, but if you go back, when I started brewing, you would always start a beer tasting by saying beer is made of malt, hops, yeast, and water. And you pretty much went from there.
You had to start at point zero, because people knew absolutely nothing about beer. They knew absolutely nothing about the beverage they were drinking every day. While it’s a pretty long time ago that you had to tell person, okay, wine is made of grapes. Everybody knows that and most people have a basic idea, maybe I like white wine, or champagne, but most people also know some grape names, and they know “I like Pinoir, I like Chardonnay” or whatever. Which wasn’t a thing in the beer world.
Already as a home brewer I wanted to change that. I wanted to educate myself when I started home brewing. I thought instead of just taking a recipe, and adding the ingredients and then brewing a beer and tasting it and saying, “Okay this is good, let’s move on to the next one… I just brewed a good brown ale, the next one will be a Hefeweizen”, for example, I wanted to learn about the ingredients and I wanted to learn about what do the different hop varieties taste like and what does different malts and stuff like that taste like.
When I did it commercially I called it an educational series. Single hop beers, for example, is also something that I pretty much invented. Nobody had done that before. Maybe a few brewers had done like one beer with, “We only use Cascade in this beer”. But this whole series I actually released, many years ago now, a series of 20 different single hop beers, all brewed the same way, all 20 different hops. The purpose of that was to teach the consumer, and actually teach them about hops and teach them that hops is not a flavour, hops is an ingredient with a lot of different flavours and a lot of different nuances.
I’ve also done a yeast series where I did the same base recipe, the same hop beer, malt beer, and then fermented with different yeast. Consumers, or at least back then, had no idea that different yeasts gave different flavours. At least not very different flavours, and that actually a lot of beer science is actually defined by what yeast you use and not what malts and hops you use. It’s defined by the yeast.
It was important to me to make people smarter beer drinkers because I wanted, and still today want, to lift beer to a different level. I wanted to lift it to a level where you can talk about it, you can have opinions about it, you can have knowledge about it, instead of just a beverage – and I know we have gone a long way – but instead of just a beverage that people drink because they are thirsty or because they like it. I like beer, it’s a pretty stupid comment because beer is so many different things. Or I don’t like beer. I’ve heard that many times. No, no, I don’t like beer. And I’m like, okay, what flavours do you like? Let’s start from there and I can always find a beer that everybody would like. So it’s very important to me to educate and to teach about ingredients.
You mentioned wine. I mean wine always prides itself on being this incredible diversity of different flavours and wines, and traditionally beer was seen as not like that. Do you think the beer world is now on a par with wine in terms of complexity and diversity?
We are millions of years ahead of wine now. Because the thing with beer is that there are no limits at all, and that’s pretty much it, while in the wine world, it’s pretty much 100% limits. You have to limit yourself in so many ways in wine. You can use one ingredient in wine, and you can use two ways of fermenting, with wood or steel, or you can also use clay or cement or whatever. But in the beer world, we don’t even have a definition for beer, which is kind of interesting.
What defines a beer? It’s something with malt maybe, but you can also get beer that is made with 100% unmalted ingredients. So it’s something that has been fermented. But you can use pretty much every ingredient. You can go and take anything and put it into a beer and flavour it with that and it’s still a beer. You have 200 different yeast range, you have 200 different hop varieties, malts. You can ferment it in open fermenters, closed fermenters, wood from barrels from whiskeys, wines, everything. Even from fish sauce barrels, or maple syrup barrels.
There’s so many things you can do in beer. So in complexity and varieties we are beyond wine tremendously. That’s not to talk shit about wine, I love wine as well! But in my world it’s not even comparable. They’re two different things.
Who are your heroes in the craft beer world? Who are the people you think are just applying their imagination to this whole field in a way that is really exciting?
I have a lot of heroes in the field. There are a lot of amazing people and amazing brewers. We kind of refer a lot to Belgian beers, which is kind of funny because we’re not known as a brewery that are Belgian style driven, but the Lambic brewers for example are to me very inspiring.
Now it becomes a little bit funny, because I think they are because they actually have a wine approach to making beer. Which I just talked to you about obviously. But I think their tradition and their way of doing things is very inspiring. Also because even though I’m very happy about, as I said before, the variety and all the different ingredients you can use, I also like the fact that beer has tradition, and that people have used many years to improve and to refine the nuances and stuff.
I’m also extremely inspired by some of the American brewers like Three Floyds Brewing Co that have inspired me a lot over the years. Just their approach to, not only the product of beer, but also their way of communicating it and their way of marketing it, which is not a traditional way of marketing. I think it’s is very inspiring as well.
You have already taken the idea of what a brewery can be and reimagined it, and you’ve now launched a bar in Copenhagen called WarPigs. How are you reimagining the idea of what a bar can be?
WarPigs is just one of the locations that we have. Although this is actually a little bit different from most of our other places. We have 25 bars and restaurants now around the world. When I did my first bar in 2010 in Copenhagen I wanted to change the way people drank beer and the way people imagined drinking beer.
Back then in 2010 pretty much every so-called beer bar, like a beer-driven bar, looked the same, felt the same. You could travel to England or you could travel to Belgium and you would find pretty similar places, which were very kind of beery, which sounds wrong, but it’s dark, with a lot of beer stuff, like commercials and very manly. Very uninviting to women in my opinion.
I wanted to change that. I wanted to make it like a place where you could feel comfortable knowing a lot about beer, knowing nothing about beer, being a big man with a beer belly, or being a 19 year old girl with your friend. So we made the first bar very light in colours, a little bit feminine and I thought a lot about what music we played, what glasses we used.
It was important to first of all create a full package of what in my world is the perfect environment to drink beer and enjoy beer. There are so many things that you consider when enjoying a beer. It’s not only the flavour. It’s also aroma and mouth feel and look of the beer. And being in a dark British pub, you don’t get a lot of these. And if it has smoke as well …it’s pretty much you drink it because you are thirsty and then you can taste if you like it.
That was kind of the idea about that, and I think that has changed a lot today. There’s not a lot of bullshit around the fact that you’re in there to experience something and learn about something and enjoy something. I think it’s great.
WarPigs is actually a little step away from that in some ways. We’ve gone a long way with beer in Europe, with craft beer, but I thought we missed something, the opportunity to go into a place and drink beer extremely fresh. If you package the beer in bottles or kegs, it’s already changed in flavours and aromas and looks from what the brewer initially wanted. I wanted to create a place where we could show people, okay, “this IPA, this is exactly how we wanted it. It’s 3 days old, the hop aromas”. If you do a hoppy beer, and you add a lot of hops, dry hopping, you do it for a purpose, and as soon as you package it and you ship it out, those aromas have changed, so you don’t the 100% full experience.
Now in WarPigs we serve beers that are a maximum of a week old. They have never been exposed to anything but a closed environment. They go directly from the fermenting tanks to the serving tanks, and out of the tap is the first time it comes out of the closed environment. And it just changes a lot in those beers. In my opinion, for me, drinking my own beers at WarPigs, I drink something that tastes and looks exactly how I imagined it when I created the recipe.
Once a month I read an article online that says craft beer is over now and it’s peaked and so on and so on. Once the imagination we talked about earlier on is out of the box, how far can this go do you think? Where do you see this going?
We’re not even started yet. I think it’s going to change, which I think is fine. Saying that craft beer has reached its peak is in my world completely stupid because craft beer is still very, very young. Take the first American breweries, they’re not even 50 years old, and it’s a world that can be explored a lot more in my opinion. It will change, which it already is.
Craft beer today is not like what it was 5 years ago and obviously it will not be the same in 5 years, but that’s a good thing. It makes us, brewers and the consumers, change, and it’s actually pretty hard to keep up with what’s going on at the moment because there’s so many good people in the craft brew world today. There are so many things going on that it’s changing pretty much monthly at the moment, and I think it’s going to do that for a long time.
Plus the fact that the world is big and there are many, many areas of the world where craft beers aren’t developed at all. Take Asia for example where we spent a lot of energy on Asia. There are very few craft breweries, but it’s starting now. As soon as they get up to speed, they have a lot of different ingredients, a lot of different approaches to food and to drinks and I think it’s just going to be inspiring to see what will happen there and in Africa as well.
We don’t see a lot of craft beers from Africa but it will come some day and then people will get extremely inspired about it. So I think we have a long ways to go. I think it will continue to develop over the next many years, for sure.