Beers from where the sun doesn't shine

Mikkeller's Mikkel Borg Bjergso was the guest of honor at a dinner at Birch & Barley and ChurchKey.
Mikkeller's Mikkel Borg Bjergso was the guest of honor at a dinner at Birch & Barley and ChurchKey. (Dakota Fine)
By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My first experience with Scandinavian beer was Tuborg Gold, a pale lager that grandiosely proclaimed itself "the beer of Danish kings." The label's fine print, however, revealed that it was brewed under license in Baltimore, at the same plant that turned out Black Label and National Bohemian. Disappointingly, it fell into the same easy-drinking-golden-lager category as those workaday domestic brews.

Mikkel Borg Bjergso, the 34-year-old founder of the Copenhagen-based Mikkeller Brewery, likewise borrows other breweries' tanks to make his beer. But none of his brews taste like what his hosts turn out. In fact, none of his beers tastes much like any of his others. His repertoire includes the rich, roasty coffee stout Beer Geek Breakfast; Jackie Brown, a brown ale that combines pungent American hops with a Belgian-like tartness; and the Mikkeller Single Hop series of India pale ales that showcases 10 distinct hop varieties. (Try the Nelson Sauvin: This oddball New Zealand hop has a flavor that has been likened to tropical fruit, blackberries and gooseberries).

Bjergso adheres to a business plan that many would call crazy. In the four years since he turned pro, this gypsy rover has brewed 180 beers at about 20 breweries worldwide. He has two full-time employees on his payroll and hires four freelance designers to do the artwork for his labels

By dispensing with a physical plant, Bjergso says, he can save money and indulge his creativity. "It's important for me to do as many brews as possible; it makes me a better brewer," he said at a private tasting at the Danish Embassy here May 16.

Mikkeller's output is small; it will hit maybe 3,000 to 4,000 barrels this year. Because Bjergso exports to 22 countries, shipments are small and quickly exhausted. Not to worry: Another brew is always in the pipeline. (According to Christian Gregory of Shelton Brothers, Mikkeller's U.S. importer, about mid-June we should see five new Mikkeller beers made from the same base recipe but fermented with different yeasts.)

"People don't need to count on the exact same beer every time they go to a bar," said Greg Engert, beer director of Birch & Barley and ChurchKey in Logan Circle, who helped arrange the embassy event and feted Bjergso at a beer dinner May 17. "We take what comes and we rotate it in." As of last week, his bar featured three draft selections and six bottled beers from Mikkeller. Coming soon, promises Engert, are It's Alive!, a funky Belgian pale ale inspired by the Trappist ale Orval, and Big Worse, a rich dessert beer.

The embassy tasting and the dinner featured Mikkeller's most notorious beer: Beer Geek Brunch, known as "Weasel Beer" because it incorporates a rare and costly coffee made from beans that pass through the digestive tract of the Asian palm civet. The enzymes in the civet's gut apparently break down the bittering compounds. At 10.9 percent alcohol by volume, the beer has an almost liqueur-like intensity, and yet it's smoother and more chocolaty than the Beer Geek Breakfast.

(A new batch of Beer Geek Brunch -- not seen locally since last winter -- is en route to America, Gregory promised.)

There are about 60 microbreweries in Denmark, according to Garrett Oliver, brew master at the Brooklyn Brewery and a frequent visitor to that nation. "A lot are really, really small. They don't have beer to ship," he said.

Oliver dropped into town last week to conduct the National Geographic Society's annual beer tasting, a rite of spring now in its 14th year and co-sponsored by the Brickskeller. This year's theme of Scandinavian beers was coincidental to Bjergso's visit. According to Rock Wheeler, editorial manager for National Geographic Live, the topic was chosen in December.

The north of Europe is dominated by the Carlsberg Group, best known here for its Elephant Malt Liquor. (It also owns the Tuborg label.) "It's to Scandinavia what Anheuser-Busch is to the United States, only more so," Oliver said. But "there was never anything really Scandinavian" about the golden lagers Carlsberg specializes in, he said. "They never went with the food, or fit the national character or weather."

Many of the region's microbreweries have been reaching into the distant past to re-create the heartier beers their ancestors would have quaffed. The National Geographic tasting lineup included Lammin Kataja, a commercial example of a traditional Finnish home-brew called sahti that's filtered through juniper leaves and branches. Oliver recalled downing a few mugs in a 150-degree Finnish sauna to guard against dehydration, then finding "you can stand naked in the snow for a good five minutes."

Nogne O, the Norwegian brewery that contributed the runner-up brew (Nogne O Pale Ale) in this year's Beer Madness, was represented by Sunturnbrew (at 11 percent alcohol, the strongest beer on the program). "This is probably what the very earliest barleywines tasted like," Oliver said of the brew's pronounced smoky character.

The name refers to Norway's Sun Turn Day (Dec. 21), the shortest day of the year, when the beer is brewed. The implication is that you need a hearty drink to help you survive the dead of winter when the sun lingers above the horizon for less than five hours a day.

Added Oliver, as he picked at an hors d'oeuvre platter that included smoked salmon and venison sausage, "You do see a certain thread, a certain richness, that runs through all these beers."

Kitsock can be reached at food@washpost.com.


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