The Walter White of Beer
Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, a Danish chemistry teacher, ended up founding one of the world's most acclaimed microbreweries, Mikkeller. Now, he's running a budding international beer empire that's much better than meth.
Foto: Jenny Nordquist
For every Walter White, there is a Jesse Pinkman. For the Danish chemistry and science teacher, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, there were two. During a party at the Copenhagen high school where he worked, Bjergsø and two of his students bonded over their mutual loathing of the bog-standard lager that was served (this is Denmark, where students don't need to hide kegs in the woods). Having convinced the school to invest in a home brewing kit, the trio started organizing brewing sessions in the canteen kitchen. Sometimes these sessions would run into the early morning, with the team crashing out on sofas or heading straight to class. If Aristotle thought the fruits of education tasted sweet, Bjergsø added a hoppy twist. "I also brewed during class with my students," he said. "It became part of the curriculum."
These days, Bjergsø's beers are part of the curriculum for any craft beer connoisseur worth their salt. His teaching days are behind him, and his Mikkeller brews are widely considered among the best in the world. What started as home brewing experiments with odd fumes and tin barrels in his Copenhagen apartment has transformed into a global business for the 38-year-old Dane. There are five Mikkeller bars around the world—as far afield as Bangkok and San Francisco—and in 2013, they released a whopping 125 new beers, most of which are not created in Denmark. Bjergsø is what is known as a gypsy or nomad brewer. He draws up the recipes but outsources the actual brewing process to other facilities, particularly the high-tech De Proef Brouwerij near Ghent, Belgium.
Everything about the Mikkeller brand is deeply-rooted in a distinct appreciation of bold designs and tastes. "Beer as a starting point is not something perceived as particularly cool," said Bjergsø. "It's got a history as a proletarian drink, but also something which is a bit for old men." Instead, he made it cool, from the label's character-driven artwork, created by US artist Keith Shore, to their Copenhagen bars, which have a savvy synergy of brewing eclecticism and Scandinavian aesthetics: bright green floors, wood paneling on the bars, white-washed walls, and black tap handles kept in a uniform design. Bjergsø said they wanted to create something which wasn't just a classic beer joint. "They are always dark and full of men and rock music. We are trying to steer away from that. It has to be light, welcoming, and a bit feminine."
Mikkeller won over the beer rating charts and beer geek hearts, but Bjergsø's sights were also set on the world of gastronomy. Over the last ten years, Denmark's food scene has made a remarkable transformation—from being steeped in a meatball gravy quagmire to being hailed as a beacon of locavore inspiration—and Mikkeller was the perfect companion piece. Some called it beer's answer to restaurant noma, the trailblazing Copenhagen establishment once mocked for its allegiance to regional Nordic produce, but now considered one of the most influential spots in the world. It was a ludicrous comparison, said Bjergsø, but one that helped him in his ambition to marry beer and food.
One of his breakthroughs came in 2009, when a Mikkeller beer went up against wine pairings for a taste-off at the Michelin-starred Thai restaurant Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen, and the diners scored it at a draw over two days. Mikkeller has since created beers for restaurants across the globe, including noma, Kiin Kiin, Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, and El Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia, Spain—the current number one restaurant on the world's Top 50 list. "We have a lot of things in common with Mikkeller," said Alfons Bonet Carbó, who is in charge of the beer selection at El Celler. "The innovation, passion, the best ingredients. The beer he made for us goes perfectly with our food."
At Restaurant Schønnemann in Copenhagen, Bjergsø settled for a non-Mikkeller "half & half"—draft pilsner mixed with porter—as he tucked into imperial stout-braised spareribs with pickled beetroots and rye bread. Schønnemann is one of the oldest and finest purveyors of the Danish lunchtime tradition smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches), where buttered slices of rye are topped with fish or meat, ranging from pickled herring with curried eggs to roast beef with horseradish. Bjergsø was wearing a black sweatshirt with a Keith Shore design, a two-faced character that was half skull, half man. While some find Bjergsø's demeanor to be quiet or disinterested, he was all smiles as he eagerly pointed to a shelf stacked with vintage bottles of Danish aquavit known as snaps. Bjergsø is hoping to launch a smørrebrød restaurant of his own, where the lunchtime classics will be matched with a specially curated beer selection and the "best snaps menu in town."
Just like Heisenberg cooking up a pristine batch of Blue Sky, Bjergsø takes huge pride in his products. A pride and concern he finds lacking when some restaurants treat their beer list with scant regard. "It's completely stupid when you work so hard with your food and your wine, that you then serve crap. It's unambitious to have a really nice wine cellar and then have Tuborg on draft," he said. He has challenged chefs to flip conventional thinking and create dishes which compliment the beers, not the other way around. Bjergsø said one of those who "got it" was Copenhagen chef, Jakob Mielcke. Together, they have launched a beer series called MAD ("mad" is the Danish word for food), where each type aims to compliment one of the five taste sensations: sweet, salt, bitter, sour, and umami.
Mielcke's restaurant in the leafy gardens of Copenhagen's Frederiksberg Park has equal parts grandeur (chandeliers hanging from the ceilings), botany (illustrations of plants on the walls), and kitsch decorations (one bathroom is illuminated by the neon lights from a kebab shop sign). For the launch of the MAD series, Mielcke created dishes that played on the tastes in each of the beers. "This is not beer made for you to watch a football game and drink," Mielcke told the guests. The sour beer, a spontaneous fermented ale packed with yuzu and with a hazy orange color, was accompanied by king crab, a pink grape jelly, and a sheep's cream infused with jasmine. While the sharp citrus intensity initially had the smack-in-your-face effect of smelling salts, it opened up to a much more well-rounded taste once it blended with the flowery jasmine and sweet crab meat. "The difficulty with this," said Mielcke, "was to brew a beer that had all the freshness, acidity, and minerality of yuzu, but also some of the flavor notes of the zest."
For the "umami" pilsner, they flew in 90 pounds of an Icelandic seaweed called søl to the brewery in Belgium. Mielcke said they were looking to mine some of the fresh and salty tones of the sea rather than the flavor of a "swampy, smelly beach." While umami is still an unquantifiable g-spot of the tongue to some, Mielcke and Mikkeller's pilsner tickled the palate with a lazy mineral sensation that lingered perfectly alongside succulent slivers of wagyu beef with daikon and dashi. For one of the next MAD projects, Mielcke was hoping to brew beer with grapes from some of the world's cult winemakers. "It would never pay off using a bad product for this kind of project," said Mielcke. "So to use some of the most exclusive grape material, and then make beer out of it, is both a way of achieving great beer, but it's also a fun way of pissing some people off because in a way it's a subtle middle finger to the wine world."
It might be the desert meth motor home equivalent of craft beer brewing, but the X Imperial Stout still ranks in the top 50 on the influential Rate Beer website, and it has never been made on any other brewing system.
Bjergsø's quest to produce great beer is informed by an inherent ambition to be the best at what he does. Part of that ambition, he said, stems from being a twin. "We have this competitive gene, probably already from the time when we were lying in the belly fighting for food." Mikkel's identicaltwin brother, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, is also a highly acclaimed brewer and co-founded the bar, Tørst, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. His brewery name, "Evil Twin" hints at a much-publicized rivalry between the pair, but Mikkel downplayed the animosity. "I'd rather he does a good job than all sorts of other people," said Mikkel. "I see it more as a competition with myself. I'm not too worried about what others do. It's more that I want to be better myself."
Those who followed the track and field season at Kansas State University in 1994 got to see Mikkel Borg Bjergsø's determination up close. That year, the Dane won the "Outstanding Wildcat Freshman Award" for his talents in middle distance running. As a teenager in Denmark, Bjergsø had trained relentlessly; beer never crossed his mind. He won national championships and a scholarship to Kansas State, but at the age of 22 quit competitive running, realizing that he would never be the best because no one can be as good as the Kenyans. When he realized that he hadn't really lived the life of a young man that his friends had, he discovered beer. The home brewing experiments began in 2003, the same year he joined the faculty at Det Friehigh school. Three years later, he formed Mikkeller with his friend Kristian Keller, inspiring the eponymous name. Within a year, Keller had left to pursue his writing career, but Bjergsø kept the name, and Mikkeller kept its steady rise on the craft beer scene.
Bjergsø is quick to demystify the process of beer-making. He finds that some brewers suffer from an affliction where they get caught up in the technical aspects of their craft. "We do this because it has to be fun," said Bjergsø. "You don't have to overcomplicate it. Put a lot of hops into the beer and it will taste great. To walk around thinking that it is a science to make a beer, I don't feel like that. You just have to try and see what happens." Sometimes, even accidents turn out to be serendipitous blessings. When Bjergsø made a typo in a recipe, a brewery plant in Norway ended up adding 100 times more vanilla sugar to a batch of imperial stout than was intended. Bjergsø initially feared that 10,000 bottles had been ruined. Then he decided to give the beer a go under the name 'Beer Geek Vanilla Shake.' "People went crazy for it. It became our most popular beer last year. Now we just keep it like it is."
While Mikkeller's production is outsourced to places like Norway and Belgium, Bjergsø still keeps the small 100-liter brewing system on which he produced some of his first recipes at home. It's currently housed in a small white-tiled room in Copenhagen's meatpacking district and still delivers batches of Mikkeller's X Imperial Stout, made without temperature controls or PH adjustment of the water. It might be the desert meth motor home equivalent of craft beer brewing, but the X Imperial Stout still ranks in the top 50 on the influential Rate Beer website, and it has never been made on any other brewing system. "It's completely basic," said Bjergsø. "There is no water treatment and it's fermenting in plastic buckets. If you ask a professional brewer, they would say that's not possible at all." He added: "But that's how I've always brewed and I get bloody good results from it."
Next door to the small brewing lab in the meatpacking district works another of Bjergsø's culinary collaborators. John Jensen is a hot dog stall maverick who has added new spice to the age-old Copenhagen street food institution by serving up organic sausages with his own homemade condiments. He has made mustard with X Imperial Stout, pickled onions in beer, draped hot dogs with gold leaf, and once boiled down 90 pounds of chili with Mikkeller Black—a wild beast of a stout with a 17.5 alcohol percentage—to create a fiery sauce. Jensen's experiments may be blasphemous to those of a conservative disposition, but the collaboration with Mikkeller has brought him a legion of devoted customers. Jensen is not a man to mince his words (he has made it clear to Bjergsø that the sour beer they make is only really useful for descaling the coffee machine), and he appreciates the risk-taking of his partner. "I have taken pretty big chances myself," said Jensen. "Mikkel brews the beer he likes to drink. Great. Don't worry too much about everybody else. Worry about what you like."
Bjergsø doesn't seem to worry too much about what other people say. He would actually prefer if they didn't say too much about him and simply just drank his beer. "I'm not particularly social," said Bjersgø. "I don't think it's great to get attention, not even when it's positive. I get a bit embarrassed." Mikkeller's head office is located in Copenhagen's Vesterbro district, a few minutes' walk from where the first of their bars was launched in 2010. For an office brimming with some of the most potent beers known to mankind, the atmosphere was strangely subdued. "You wouldn't believe how quiet it is," said Bjergsø. "That's because we have a culture where we work, and people have learned that." What kind of dedication does it take to work for him? "Well... I guess... you have to be like me. That's the problem." Next to his desk stood a purple chaise lounge made by Verner Panton, the Danish enfant terrible of 60s furniture design. Panton, whose futuristic lamps and furniture are prominent fixtures in Mikkeller's office, has been a fascination for Bjergsø for more than ten years. "Panton was a rebel who did what nobody expected and who wasn't accepted for it in Denmark. He did what he thought was cool and didn't consider the consequences."
Two other fixtures in the office are Tore Gynther and Tobias Emil Jensen, Bjergsø's two students from Det Frie high school who graduated from late-night canteen projects to launching their own "gypsy" brewery, To Øl (Danish for "two beers"). Bjergsø now has stake in To Øl while Gynther and Jensen are partners in Mikkeller's second Copenhagen bar, Mikkeller & Friends, but are the former apprentices now the teacher's competitors? "Yeah, but I'm also a third of their business," laughed Bjergsø. "It's a pretty unique situation. As long as they make good beer, then it's a good competitor to have. Your worst competitors are the ones who make shit beer, because they are the ones who will put people off drinking it. As long as there are good breweries who can keep people drinking microbrews, or convince more people, then that's a good thing."