Place-based beers and 13-year-old Special Brew

I have a new “magic beer moment” to savour: drinking 13-year-old Carlsberg Special Brew in the cellars of the Jacobsen brewery in Copenhagen.

den Lille Havfrue
If you’re in Copenhagen you do, really, have to go and pay your respects to den Lille Havfrue

Actually, that was just one of a number of great moments during my trip to Denmark earlier this month to talk about “beer and terroir from an international perspective” to a bunch of brewers not just from Denmark, but Norway and Sweden as well, as part of a conference in the town of Korsør organised by the New Nordic Beer movement (Ny Nordisk Øl, pronounced roughly “noo nordisk ohl”). The men leading the campaign are two brewers, Anders Kissmeyer, formerly of the award-winning Copenhagen brewery Nørrebro Bryghus, and Per Kølster of Kølster Malt og Øl in the appropriately named village of Humlebæk – “Hops Creek” – north of Copenhagen, and PR man Christian Andersen. The idea of Ny Nordisk Øl is to forge a distinctly Nordic take on brewing, using Nordic traditions and, most especially, Nordic ingredients – not just flavourings, such as heather, sweet gale and wormwood, but yeast and other micro-organisms sourced specifically from a Nordic environment, in just exactly the same way as the New Nordic Cuisine movement has fused tradition and modernity to create a style of cooking that is rooted in a place and yet free to experiment (the success of which effort can be judged by the fact that the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, short for “Nordisk Mad”, or “Nordic Food”, which is one of the leaders of New Nordic Cuisine, has been voted “best restaurant in the world” by its peers in four out of the past five years). In a world where the craft beer movement seems intent on replacing one kind of ubiquity – bland Big Brewer lager – with another – highly hopped fruit-salad pale ales – it’s a trumpet-call to battle on behalf of individualistic, rooted, idiosyncratic beers, made by brewers intent on arriving at something that could only have been made in one place and at one time, that excites me greatly.

Hærvejs Lyng
Hærvejs Lyng heather beer: the ‘hær’ in Hærvejs is the same as the here in Hereford

Judging by the number of highly enthusiastic Nordic brewers I met in Korsør – I’m guessing, but there must have been 50 or 60 attendees – and the excellent Ny Nordisk Øl-inspired beers I drank there, it’s a movement with a good weight of support behind it, and terrific results to show those wondering if “beer terroir” is just a gimmick. There have been various names given to the sort of products brewers involved in the Ny Nordisk Øl movement are making, but the one I like best comes from the United States – “place-based beers”. Fortunately I was able to tell the Nordic supporters of “place-based beer” that they are far from alone. In the United States, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Italy and France, there are plenty of others pursuing the same goal, of making beers with what one American called “the essence of here” in them. (I’ll be putting up my presentation on this blog, and naming names, later in the week). The bad news is that in what one might call the “Old World”, there is much less interest in the concept of “beer terroir”.

Hø Øl, or 'Hay Ale',
Mark Hø Øl, or ‘Hay Ale’, once brewed in Britain

One of the ironies of trying to find “beer terroir” today is that once, of course, all beers were local, and reflected their local environment, local ingredients (local hop varieties, “land-race” strains of barley, local water, local yeasts) and local traditions. Porter, the world’s first “industrial” beer, the popularity of which powered the growth of what became the world’s largest breweries at the time, was developed in London as a local beer for local people, satisfying the desire of the city’s working classes for a refreshing calorie-filled beer, brewed using brown malt made in Ware, Hertfordshire, 20 miles to the north, hops from Kent, just to the east, and London well-water, full of calcium carbonate, which helps make good dark beers; matured using giant vats, a technique invented by and originally unique to London brewers; and served using methods of blending old and new beer specifically reflecting customers tastes, while being drunk with foods it was regarded as a particularly fine accompaniment to: boiled beef and carrots, for example, a very traditional old London dish. Even pilsner, the most widely reproduced beer style in the world began as a beer very much reflecting its Bohemian locality: made with Moravian malted barley, local Saaz hops and its home town’s particularly soft water. Coming from the other direction, brewing traditions that are still deeply rooted in the local landscape – in particular the Belgian brews such as Lambic – now seem to be as reproducable as pilsen became, and almost as global. Every American brewer seems to want to make a Belgian ale laden with Brettanomyces bruxellensis, and they can buy that yeast right off the shelf, rather than having to move to Payottenland. When you see a brewery in Britain making a Gooseberry Gose, a variation on a style of beer from Saxony that was effectively unknown until a few years ago, you know you’re living in a world where “local” appears to mean very little.

Xperimentet No 2, beiitered with sea wormwood ('strandmalurt' in Danish
Xperimentet No 2, bittered with sea wormwood (‘strandmalurt’ in Danish)

Which is what the supporters of Ny Nordisk Øl are fighting against – and although they don’t have many fellow travellers in the rest of Europe, it’s to be hoped that when other brewers start tasting the beers that Ny Nordisk Øl has inspired, it will spur them to produce ales that reflect their own places. Here are my notes on some of the “place-based beers” I tried in Denmark: An unlabelled (IIRC – although I may just have failed to record the name) ale brewed with sea wormwood (less bitter than the wormwood used in absinthe), camomile and sea buckthorn, three popular flavourings with Nordic brewers seeking to make a hopless ale. This had a lovely, deep, tongue-coating, very up-front bitterness, a pale, slightly cloudy appearance, a mouthfilling rotundity, and finally a sweetness under a full, vegetally/weedy flavour. Ny Nordisk Hærvejs Lyng from the Vyborg Bryghus: a hop-free heather beer with a massive nose of honey, and liquid honey in the mouth but with a sharp tart lemony undertone, lightly petillant with no head. It’s alcoholic lemon and honey cough sweets. (The ale is named for the Hærvejen, or “Army Way”, a road that runs down the Jutland peninsula from Viborg to, eventually, Hamburg.) Mark Hø Øl (“Hay Ale”) from the Herslev bryghus. Made with hay from the field at the back of the brewery: hay goes in after the wort is boiled, and fermentation using yeasts and other micro-organisms in the hay is allowed to take place for two days. The ale is then boiled again, and a “combinational yeast” added – and more hay. The result is a sharp, pale, flat beer with a taste of what I can only call “fruity feet” – but in a good way. Hay is mentioned by Thomas Tryon as one of the flavourings used by English brewers in the 1690s, so hey! Any brewers in the UK with a big field out back of the brewhouse, here’s an idea … Thisted Bryghus Xperimentet 2, another hop-free beer with the bitterness provided by ingredients gatherer in the Thy National Park in North West Jutland, including rowan and sea wormwood (“rønnebær og strandmalurt” in Danish) and honey from bees who have been gathering nectar from “klokkeblomst” – literally “bellflowers, which I think means harebells in this case. (Trivia: “Klokkeblomst” is the name in Danish of Tinkerbell in Peter Pan.) Dark, strong (7.2% abv) and complex, it’s a drink with a deep and vegetal bitterness that rolls down the sides of the tongue and sits around the base of your mouth.

Blueberry Berliner Weisse
Blueberry Berliner Weisse from Dugges Ale och Porterbryggeri in Sweden

Bärliner from the Dugges Ale & Porter Brewery in Gothenburg, Sweden, three Berliner weisse-style brews, made without hops, but including lactobacillus from the malt to give acidity, and flavoured with, respectively, lingonberries, raspberries and blueberries. The name is a pun in Swedish: “Bärlin” means “Berlin” and “bär” means “berry”. The blueberry version, strangely pink, and hugely tart and sour, with the fruit hidden below layers of pucker, is never going to find a wide market: I see that one Swedish Instagrammer called it “Möjligtvis den äckligaste ölen jag har smakat i hela mitt liv”. The lingonberry version, a rather more orange-pink, is flatter and much less tart, with the fruit in the aftertaste. Fanø Bryghus Lynghvede (heather wheat ale) – brewed with orange peel, heather, chamomile . Heathery and honied with just a touch of Christmas oranges stored in an attic. Ebeltoft Mols Bjerge Brygget unhopped and slightly sour ale flavoured with heather and sea wormwood from another Danish national park, the “Mols Hills” in central Jutland, brewed by the Ebeltoft farm brewery with the help of Anders Kissmeyer. Slightly sour, not over-bitter, with a light perfume from the heather. Unfortunately I can’t tell you anything about any of the other presentations at the conference because they were all in Danish (the organisers were kind enough to say that mine was “”i særklasse fine oplæg”), but I was able to have some revealing talks afterwards with the delegates: I asked them if the Danish craft brewing scene resented the international attention given to Mikkel “Mikkeller” Borg Bjergsø, knowing what the answer would be, and I believe you know the answer as well. Mikkeller front doorStill, the next day, I felt I couldn’t be in Copenhagen without (1) going to photograph the Little Mermaid and (2) taking a walk through the city to the original Mikkeller bar in Viktoriagade. It’s tiny and cramped, but as you can see from the picture of the interior, the line-up of beers is impressive: yes, that’s Three Floyds Dark Lord on the blackboard, which I never noticed until after I looked at the photograph on my phone back in England: I was too distracted by the collaboration beers on sale from a couple of my favourite British brewers, Siren and Wild Beer. Nice place to sit quietly and muse on the fact that the 11 per cent ABV Imperial stout you’re drinking cost DKr45 for a 20cl glass, which works out at more than £13 a pint: and on the other hand, it’s going down no faster than a pint of something a third of the strength would, while providing at least as much pleasure, or more. Good place to peoplewatch, too: the five Danish guys in their mid-40s on a table opposite where I was sitting looked the sort of solid private-business professionals I wouldn’t expect to see in a craft beer bar in Britain.

Inside Mikkeller
Mikkeller has an exclusive deal with Three Floyds, hence the presence of Dark Lord on the menu …

Later that evening I hooked up with Peter Myrup Olesen, one of Denmark’s top beer bloggers. Peter is the man to turn to for top Scandinavian beer gossip: how Garrett Oliver is planning a second production plant in Europe for Brooklyn Brewery alongside the one opened in Stockholm with Carlsberg earlier this year, for example. He very kindly took me on an informative tour round a trio of Copenhagen’s other top craft beer bars, Brewpub in Vestergade, Taphouse in Lavendelstræde, which claims its 61 taps is the largest number in Europe, and the newer, and larger, Mikkeller bar, Mikkeller & Friends on Stefansgade in Outer Norrebrø. This is not an easy venue to get to without a guide, but it’s a very interesting contrast with the Viktoriagade outlet: the customers are around 20 years younger, mostly, and rather more hipstery and studenty (it’s that sort of area), which meant I was probably twice the age of most of those drinking there, and three times older than some.

Michael Rahbeck in the Jacobsen cellars
Michael Rahbeck in the Jacobsen cellars, running a taster off one of the fermenting vessels …
Michael Rahbeck pouring out aged Carlsberg Special Brew
Michael Rahbeck pouring out aged Carlsberg Special Brew

I was flying home the next afternoon, but a very nice man from Carlsberg, Bjarke Bundgaard, had invited me out to the Jacobsen Brewery, which is part of the Visit Carlsberg centre. Sadly, I didn’t get to see the records centre, but I did get to go down into the cellars of what was part of the original brewery, founded by JC Jacobsen in 1847, with one of the brewers who makes the specialist beers that Jacobsen provides for Carlsberg, Michael Rahbek, and, with Bjarke, drink beer straight from the fermenting vessels, and try some rarities stacked away behind doors normally locked – including Carlsberg Special from 2001. It was perfectly drinkable, since you’re asking, and actually tasted as if it would be very happy with another five years’ ageing. The brewery kit, up in the open part of the visitors’ centre, is spectacularly beautiful, all shiny-penny copper, though I noticed it took a couple of guys with polish and rags to keep it that way. Bjarke and Michael treated me to a Danish lunch on Carlsberg, and I talked about beer, beer history and beer styles far too much. They did not seem to mind, however, since when I finally had to hurtle off to catch my plane, they loaded me with more than enough bottles of rare beers, including one of those 13-year-old Special Brews – more than enough to blow my baggage allowance, that is. Ach well … I had a wonderful time in Denmark, and I’m very grateful to all those who showed me such tremendous hospitality: Anders Kissmeyer and Christian Andersen, for inviting me over to talk to the Ny Nordisk Øl conference, Peter Myrup Olesen for the bar tour, and Bjarke Bundgaard and Michael Rahbek for their kindness in taking me down to parts of the Jacobsen set-up other visitors rarely see. Thank you all.

A genuinely copper copper at the Jacobsen brewery
A genuinely copper copper at the Jacobsen brewery
Copper brewing kit, Jacobsen brewery
Some of the most beautiful brewing kit I have ever seen …
Polishing the coppers, Jacobsen brewery
… but it takes a lot of polishing

(Please go here for the full report on my presentation on beer and terroir.)

14 thoughts on “Place-based beers and 13-year-old Special Brew

  1. Hay or straw, Martyn? I have come across straw in the ash wheat beers in 1803 on the American frontier to break up the primarily wheat malt mash. Also, if hay how fresh? I think I’d fear a silage beer, fermented hay.

  2. The “essence of here” is the perfect thing for a local brewer to capture. This trend in brewing, food and even specialty retail is the perfect antidote for the digitally and media enabled homogenization of the planet. Bravo! Thanks for the wonderfully well written post. Wish I had been able to participate in the research!

  3. Looking forward to your presentation. I’m glad to hear some of the hipper Scandinavian brewers are interested in terroir. Do you read Larsblog? The author has been doing some very interesting research on Norwegian (and other) farmstead brewing practices, including getting the yeasts analyzed in a lab.

  4. I’m not certain I follow your thought processes here. You seem to revel in the idea that people are using local products but all they appear to be doing is making bog standard pale ales and flavouring them with weeds they find in the countryside. Truly local “terroir”, as you state yourself, would be brewers using ONLY local barley, malting it themselves, and then using standard unmodified local water profiles and hops grown in their country from heirloom varieties (not growing cascade in Denmark and presenting it as local). Using local “weird” ingredients to flavour bog standard globalized micro-brew is, in itself, nothing to be overly proud of.

    Its like putting local fungi, berries and herbs on a pizza and congratulating yourself for making a local dish. It’s ingratiating.

    1. “Its like putting local fungi, berries and herbs on a pizza and congratulating yourself for making a local dish.” You say that as if it’s a bad thing …

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