Beer made from immature “green” barley – who knew such a thing was possible? Or “red lager” made from actual red-coloured barley? And what does a beer taste like made with barley so controversial it caused a protest led by a marching band through the streets of Munich back in June?
If you’re one of the people who believes no beer writer should ever accept hospitality from a brewer, for fear of being corrupted, then you’ll need to stop reading this post now, because everything that follows was gathered on a trip to Copenhagen last week paid for by Carlsberg. I wasn’t on my own, of course: there were also a dozen or so beer writers and trade journos, and, more importantly from Carlsberg’s viewpoint, 250 or so assorted others including customers from key markets, staff from Carlsberg operations around the globe (I met some very nice men and women from Tuborg Turkey who insisted on having their pictures taken with me, having seen me in the film I was paid to appear in about last year’s Carlsberg ReBrew project, recreating an 1883 lager), people from PR and design companies who have Carlsberg as a client and mates of the Carlsberg Foundation (Carlsberg’s owner), all there to help celebrate 170 years since JC Jacobsen opened the Carlsberg brewery in the Copenhagen suburb of Valby.
For unknown reasons, this trip has encouraged a mountain of scorn and mockery from the rigidly puritan, obsessively put on public record every free pint anybody ever bought you end of the beer-writing world, with the top of that mountain of scorn claimed as the moral high ground. There are a host of reasons for believing this is a stupid and nonsensical position to take, but here are just three before we return to the important stuff. If you believe you have responsibilities to your readers as a writer about beer, you ought to take every opportunity to uncover information they will find interesting. If that includes accepting a free trip from a brewer, and you prefer to insist that your integrity will suffer unless you stay at home, you’re badly letting your readers down by refusing to go and learn stuff on their behalf. Next, if you accept payment in magazines or newspapers for your writings on beer, what do you think the ultimate source of that payment is? The advertising budgets of those brewers you refuse to accept direct hospitality from, of course.
Finally, does anyone think Michael Jackson paid for all his trips round the world to investigate breweries in dozens of different countries? Of course he didn’t: they were paid for by brewers, maltsters, distillers and the like, and those paid-for trips helped him become the massively influential beer (and whisky) writer he was. I have a book written by Michael, and translated into Polish and published by the Tyskie brewery in Poland, a subsidiary (at the time) of SAB Miller. If you had suggested to the Beer Hunter that by his accepting a commission from a multinational brewer to write a book his other work was irrecoverably compromised, he would have looked at you over his glasses with an expression that told you exactly what he thought you were. I’m not Michael Jackson, but I’ve learnt something useful on every trip any brewer has paid for me to go on, and that all feeds back into what I write.
Back to Copenhagen. The highlight of the trip was supposed to be a TEDx event on the subject “Trust Uncertainty”, held for the 250-plus attendees in a hall at the deeply impressive Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the art museum founded by JC Jacobsen’s son Carl, and paid for, of course, by the sale of many millions of pints of lager. (It has copies of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and Degas’s Little Dancer of 14 years, and would be worth visiting just to stand in front of either one of those. You can see another copy of the Burghers outdoors in Victoria Tower Gardens, by the Thames in London, but for me the darkened, indoors setting of the Glyptotek greatly heightens the emotional impact of Rodin’s six stoic, heroic, literally monumental figures, depicted in the moments when they still believed they were about to be executed by the English, having chosen to sacrifice themselves to save their fellow citizens from being massacred.)
The TED talks were, I’m afraid, TEDious: what you need at these kind of events is at least one speaker with a little charisma. The finale was a speech by JC Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg, who died 130 years ago, but appeared in front of the audience apparently resurrected and talking live (using what was described in the publicity as “holographic technology”, but which was actually the 155-year-old theatrical technique of Pepper’s Ghost). The talk by JC Jacobsen (ror rather, the actor playing Jacobsen) was, again, on “embracing uncertainty”. This was, as someone else (Pete Brown?) remarked, deeply ironic, since the real Jacobsen’s entire career, and also that of his great protégé Emil Christian Hansen, who pioneered pure yeast cell cultivation, was devoted to removing as much uncertainty as possible from beer brewing. But it was very much an internal PR event for Carlsberg, as these shows generally are: it was being streamed live so more than 4,000 company employees around the world could tune in.
The “break-out session” at the end, however, was much greater fun, since our group was taken off to the Carlsberg research laboratories for a presentation by Erik Lund, head brewer at the labs, and Zoran Gojkovic, the director of brewing science and technology, on three pioneering beers. The tall, thin, ascetic and slightly starchy Dane and the rounder, jollier, goatee-bearded Serbian make a great double act, powered by the huge enthusiasm they both obviously have for their jobs.