If you've been reading HBG for a while, then the following brewer needs no introduction. From our 2008 Beer of the Year, to our Craft Beer Breakfast and our Mikkeller Marathon roundtable review, we've never hidden the fact that we're huge fans of the work of Mikkel Bjergsø. It's with great pleasure we present this 6 pack interview.
1) The first thing we normally ask in these interviews is your name, age, location, and the name of the brewery you work for.
Mikkel Bjergsø, 33, Copenhagen - Denmark, Mikkeller
2) Your story is interesting in that you and your friend Kristian Klarup Keller started as bottling homebrewers, gained a reputation for doing great beer, and then the distributors started calling. Was it that simple? And how did you convince a professional brewery to let them let you use their equipment?
Yep, it's actually that simple. Having homebrewed for three years we started selling small batches of beer from my brother's shop in Copenhagen, Denmark. Suddenly these beers showed up in different parts of the world and got some great reviews on beer sites like Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate. Our small batches started selling out in a matter of hours and we thought it would be fun to get a wider distribution. Instead of following the trend in Denmark and opening our own brewery we contacted a few breweries in Denmark asking them for the possibility of renting their equipment and brewing our beer. We wanted to keep our jobs and did not want to take huge loans, as it often affects the quality of the beer you produce. If you have a 2 million dollar debt it's hard not to compromise to sell more beer. The breweries we contacted thought we were crazy, but we convinced some of them to let us use their equipment.
3) You went from homebrewer to Danish Brewery of the Year pretty much instantly, and were ranked as the 6th best brewery in the world by Ratebeer.com in the course of a year. Where does that come from? To read that--and I'm not looking to embarrass or flatter you--but you'd have to think, "Well this guy must be some sort of genius." At what point did you realize, "Maybe I really have a gift for this?"
To me it's not that hard! I started brewing beer at home as I thought something was missing in Denmark. Ten years ago we started getting a lot of new breweries here, but due to the mentioned big loans, they pretty much all brewed the same boring pale ale, pilsner, weissbier, etc., in order to sell a lot of beer. The Danish public weren't ready for out-of-this-world beer styles. I looked over to the U.S. and found breweries like Three Floyds, Stone, Alesmith, Dogfish Head, Founders, etc., and thought - beers like this are what I want to drink, and if you can't buy it, brew it yourself. I don't think I'm a genius or have a special gift for brewing--maybe I just have good taste in beer :-)
4) Did you start with the the complete joy of homebrewing like everyone else does? What's your brewing background? And when you're coming up with something now, do you still start the recipes as a homebrew?
When I stared homebrewing, I had a couple homebrew books, but I didn't use them for too long. I quickly got more interested in doing things my own way. I am a chemistry teacher at a school in Copenhagen (I still am half-time, since I love teaching and cannot let go if it) so that might have helped with the theoretical part a bit. Besides this I have no background. For the first year or so with Mikkeller, I did homebrew batches to test new recipes, but since I am getting more and more busy, I don't have time for that anymore. When creating new recipes I think about beers within a style that I like and try to take the best part from different beers. I sample a lot of different beers from all over the world to get inspired. I think this is a very important thing if you want to brew good beer. You have to know the best that is out there and try to make it even better :-)
5) In the United States, craft breweries often like to make an "us versus them" argument when talking about large breweries (like Anheuser-Busch and Miller/Coors) and themselves, basically saying that the large breweries are making bad beer, and that the smaller breweries are the "little guy" fighting a major battle. Do you see your brewery in the same sort of position? Are you fighting a "battle for better beer" against the likes of Carlsberg in Denmark?
Not fighting Carlsberg, fighting boring and uninteresting beer. Carslberg is and will always be the number one choice for 95+% people of the Danish population. I think it is sad that so many people don't know what possibilities beer has. I want to show them what hops, malts, and yeast taste like. Not to take customers away form Carlsberg, but to enlighten people in the wonderful work of craft brewing. If people enjoy one IPA for every 100 Carlsbergs, I am happy.
6) A life of traveling the world and brewing beer with the world's greatest brewers seems like a romantic dream for many of us. Is it all good times, or are there headaches (not just from the beer) that come along with that sort of lifestyle?
Traveling and meeting great people and brewers is what makes it all fun. I am in a very fortunate position that I am able to do this. Meeting my brewing idols all over the world, sharing thoughts and ideas with them, is really great. But it is also great being back home teaching and having colleagues and students that you know well and share your everyday life with. Traveling can be very lonely even though you meet a lot of people. I just got a wonderful little daughter which of course has changed things, but I will always be traveling and hopefully brew with the best brewers in the world.