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These Danish Gypsy Brewers Are Making Beer with Oats and Sea Buckthorn

Diana Hubbell

After more than a decade of producing funky flavors like “Fuck Art Let’s Dance on Plums” and “Liquid Confidential,” the gypsy brewing duo behind To Øl are opening their very own brewpub in Copenhagen.

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Tore Gynther and Tobias Emil Jensen. Photo courtesy of To Øl.

At an age when you were probably cutting class and pissing off your parents, Tobias Emil Jensen and Tore Gynther were on their way to founding what would become a multinational gypsy brewing empire. The two Danish teens started homebrewing for fun, and then began marketing a wide range of beers with a little help from their friend and teacher Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, one of the founders of Mikkeller. Officially launched in 2010, To Øl now sells its wares in more than 40 countries worldwide.

In May 2016, after more than a decade of producing funky flavors like "Fuck Art Let's Dance on Plums" (a Belgian-style tripel aged in Bordeaux barrels with plums) and "Liquid Confidential" (an imperial stout brewed with ancho, guajillo and chipotle chilies, then barrel-aged in rum casks) in small batches, the duo are opening BRUS, their very own brewpub, restaurant, and bar in Copenhagen's buzzy Nørrebro neighborhood. The 8,000-square-foot space will center around 70 oak aging barrels. While the 13 fermentation tanks in the back will still produce beer, they'll also churn out everything from artisanal mead to kombucha.

On a recent visit to the city, I caught up with Tobias at the former locomotive factory and iron foundry where construction is underway for a conversation about the local craft beer scene, tinkering with New Nordic ingredients, and what it's like for gypsy brewers to finally put down roots.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Tobias. Can you tell me a bit about how To Øl got started? Tobias Emil Jensen: WhenTore and I were around 19 years old, we started homebrewing at school and that developed into a little club. In 2010, we thought that it was time to get serious about it.

So what's step number one when you want to get serious? In this gypsy brewing business, it's all about being friends with people. I wouldn't call it networking, but it's a very friendly community. You need to hook up with breweries that have an understanding of what you want to do and are willing to let you use their equipment on and off. It's also really important to meet the right importers. Most importers don't care about beer; to them it's just something you can sell. But the right importers are just as enthusiastic about good beer as we are.

Why does that make such a difference? We don't have that much direct contact to the customer, so it's important that whoever will sell it wants to carry on that message that we have about the beer. You can only write three lines of text on the label—that's nothing. We were good friends with Mikkel from Mikkeller, who already had a quite big name in the States, and he helped us find contacts.

Even with the right connections, I'm guessing it took guts to take the plunge and start selling. It went bit by bit. We spent our childhood savings to make the company and to brew the first batch. For the first couple of batches, we would spend all the money we earned from the previous batch to buy a bigger batch. So instead of 600 liters of beer we could brew 1,000 liters, then 2,000.

Did you ever worry about going completely broke? Well, we saved a lot of money, because instead of paying to go to beer festivals, we got in for free. [Laughs.] I was 23 when we officially started the company, so I thought that was quite a luxury.

How has the craft beer scene in Copenhagen changed since then? I think we are finally seeing change for the better. Most Danes used to cling to the idea of "beer is a pilsner and I like pilsner." But now, people are realizing that there's a whole new world of beer waiting to be discovered.

What triggered that? I think it came together with the food movement. Noma really made a thing for Danish cuisine or Nordic cuisine or Scandinavian cuisine—whatever you want to call it. When they opened, before they were the "world's best restaurant," people were laughing at them. They were like, "You want to charge hundreds of dollars for food? And it's all small dishes—you want people to leave hungry? I don't want to eat ants." Then they got the nomination and the media realized they might actually be onto something. It might not be a budget-friendly restaurant, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Would you say you guys are connected with the New Nordic movement at all? Our beers are, to some extent, inspired by Scandinavia. A hallmark ingredient of our beers is oats, which I think gives them a better mouthfeel. It has a little sexy haziness in it. We've been playing around with a few Nordic ingredients, like sea buckthorn and myrica gale, an old plant that was used for brewing in Denmark before we adapted to hops. It's a very bitter herb. We don't brand ourselves as being "Nordic," though. We also brew beer with passion fruit, mango, chili, and kaffir lime leaves. We're not focusing on Scandinavia, but we do have a Scandinavian heritage.

How does that connect to craft beer elsewhere in the world? Europe is always five to ten years behind the States. I mean, we started drinking IPAs in the 00s and you started drinking them in the 80s and 90s. What's interesting is that Americans are now brewing all these classical European beers, while in Europe we're brewing IPAs, double IPAs, triple IPAs, and imperial stouts. We're trying to copy American beer and most American breweries right now are trying to copy old, European-style beers. They want some history.

Some of your varieties sell out quite quickly. Do you only brew one batch or are there certain beers you keep making over and over again? Most of our beers are one-brew only. Once and in a while, we decide to brew an old batch, but only because we think we can improve it. You can always improve a beer. You never reach a recipe where you think, This is the one, because taste buds change over time. If I go to a new country and I taste something marvelous, I want to adapt that to our beer. You always get new ideas—it's a bit like music. Everyone improves or changes over time. We've also changed as a brewery in terms of what we want to do.

Speaking of changes, this is a pretty exciting time for you, with the BRUS opening just around the corner. Can you tell me a bit about the project? We always wanted to open a bar, and now we finally have the time and money to do that. BRUS means "sparkling" or "bubbles," because everything we do has bubbles in it. We're going to brew organic sodas—it's completely different than mixing two kinds of powder into a tank. We use real ingredients like fresh juices, herbs, and spices. Some of the sodas will be fermented. They won't be alcoholic, but we'll use bacteria to add flavor. We also want to produce sparkling cocktails in a nonclassic way—no Cosmopolitans or strawberry daiquiris. We invent our own recipes. We've also experimented a lot with doing hop tonics. Basically, instead of using quinine, we use hops. So you can mix that with your gin and make a really nice, hoppy G&T.

You said earlier that you're off to London tomorrow. What're you up to? We do lot of collabs with different breweries. Tomorrow we're going to attend a festival at the Beavertown brewery, where we're releasing two beers, called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The base beer, which is basically a Belgian IPA, is Dr. Jekyll, and Mr. Hyde is that base blended with a very unbalanced stout. When drunk together with the base beer, it rebalances and tastes quite nice. We always sell them in boxes of two.

Very cool. So you're on the road quite a bit? I really like traveling. You don't ever improve as a brewer if you just sit in your own brewhouse. If the only thing you ever taste is your own beer, you're giving yourself a false perception that your beer's really good. It's like if you only sing to yourself, you think you're a good singer. I always prefer drinking someone else's beer to my own, because then I might learn something or get inspired.

Thanks so much for speaking with me.