Mikkeller Talks Gypsy Brewing and His New Beer Festival

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Mikkeller Talks Gypsy Brewing and His New Beer Festival

While there are thousands of breweries in the world, relatively few of them can say they’ve had a significant impact on today’s craft beer industry. One of those few is Mikkeller ApS, co-founded by Mikkel Borg Bjergsø. What began as a hobby to clone beers in a kitchen with friend and co-founder Kristian Klarup Keller over a decade ago quickly turned into one of the most notable breweries today, with hundreds of original beers brewed and more than a dozen Mikkeller bars established around the globe.

Six years after his first appearance in one of Denmark’s largest beer festivals, Mikkel created his own festival, the Copenhagen Beer Festival (CBC), in 2012, taking the novel approach of focusing on the brewers rather than how much beer could be consumed in a day. After five successful runs and creating what has become a bucket-list event for beer nerds, Mikkel is bringing CBC to Boston for the first time this September. I caught up with Mikkel to discuss the festival’s incredible lineup, how Mikkeller has become what it is today, and why he chose to bring CBC to the States.

Paste: What beers or breweries first got you interested in craft beer?

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø: In Denmark in the late ‘90s, we pretty much had only macro beers like Carlsberg. Then suddenly we began to see an influx of beers from Germany and Belgium, which were considered really special at that time in Denmark, which were both interesting and different. However, it was actually when I first tasted some of the American craft beers that it got me. They were just so outrageous at the time and so extreme. It was something we had never tried before in Europe. It was the IPAs, Double IPAs, and Imperial Stouts mainly from the West Coast, breweries like Stone and AleSmith.

Paste: Tell us about the moment you first realized you wanted to take Mikkeller to the commercial level.

MBB: I started homebrewing in 2003 just because I wanted to try it. At the time, I was drinking craft beer and I thought it would be fun to try making it myself. So I began homebrewing for three years, and I started to receive really good reactions on my homebrew. I mean, it’s easy to get a positive reaction when you’re giving your friends your homebrews; they know that if they say they like it they will get more beer. But I thought it would be fun to get feedback from people I didn’t know. So I decided to brew and have the beer distributed a little bit, nothing big. I just wanted to see if what I was brewing in my kitchen was actually good. In 2006 I released the first beer. At the time I was a teacher and I loved teaching, brewing was just a hobby.

Paste: In 2006 you made your first appearance in the Copenhagen Best Festival with Beer Geek Breakfast. What was it like participating in such a large festival?

MBB: It was interesting. We had sold some of our homebrews in a beer store in Copenhagen in 2005. Beer Geek Breakfast had been voted the best stout in the world on RateBeer in 2005, so when we decided to bring that to the festival, it had so much hype. We had importers flying in from the U.S. to taste the beer. It was strange. Being a homebrewer and the first time you release a beer you have all these big American importers…it was a fun experience but it was really scary.

We had only brewed like 2,000 bottles in total. When we spoke with Shelton who we ended up signing with, our first order was a batch size we had never produced before. It was fun, but just a bit scary.

Paste: How did this appearance change your life and approach to your beer?

MBB: To be honest, it didn’t really change a lot because I was a teacher and I still loved teaching. Obviously I got busier because I was teaching full-time and running Mikkeller, which was pretty busy from day one.

I always said for the first three years that if I had to choose, I would quit brewing and keep teaching. Then when we opened our first bar in 2010 in Copenhagen, I began to think that now that I had employees depending on me, I had to continue. It wasn’t the dream to be where I am now, I just wanted to make good beer, and I still just want to make good beer and provide it to as many people as possible.

Paste: When you first implemented your model as a “Gypsy Brewer,” were there any challenges you faced?

MBB: Yes…[laughs]. When we started we were in a small brewery in Denmark. Going from five gallons in the kitchen to nine barrels was a completely different thing and I had no clue, I just copied everything I did in the kitchen. The beers that were brewed in the kitchen turned out really well and people loved them, so I didn’t want to change anything. It’s easy to add hops to a pot in the kitchen, but if you multiply that by 50, it’s a lot of hops, and you have to have a very different approach, but we didn’t.

When we brewed Beer Geek Breakfast in the kitchen we used a French press and put that into the beer, but when you multiply that, it’s a lot of French pressing, and I did that all night. There were a lot of things that were difficult, but it was also a good learning experience. I didn’t want to change anything. Brewers told me just add the coffee at the end of the boil, but then I was like, “it won’t taste the same.”

Paste: As more breweries open up every day, do you see this model of Gypsy Brewing becoming more of the norm?

MBB: Even though the term “Gypsy Brewing” is strange to me, I think it is a norm and it’s becoming very popular right now, and it will continue. It’s a way for people to start brewing and not have to invest a lot of money; you don’t have to risk everything. Not everyone can go to the bank, take out a loan and build a brewery. I think it’s a good way for people starting out.

In my opinion some of the most interesting beers come from Gypsy Brewing because you don’t have to care about anything else other than just brewing good beer. You don’t have to care as much about sales because you don’t have a brewery to pay off. I think it’s an interesting way of producing beer. It’s not very different from other types of business such as clothing designers. They design their clothing and have a factory somewhere else that actually produces the clothing; it’s the same approach.

Paste: Over the years you have released a lot of new beers. What drives you to constantly create new recipes?

MBB: Interest and curiosity. There are so many flavors and ingredients you can use in a beer. If I get an idea I figure “let’s turn it into a beer and see what happens.” I have never understood, especially in Europe the traditional breweries that make four beers, and that’s it. Honestly the second time you brew a beer you know what it will taste like, there is never any surprise or excitement. Every time I taste one of my new beers, I’m very excited about it, I’m very curious to see how it turns out. I would miss that for sure.

Paste: While you develop the recipes for your beers, how do you find the ease to let others brew the beers you have created?

MBB: That’s why I think the term Gypsy Brewing is wrong. I have brewed in many places around the world. Right now I am brewing at four different breweries. I have worked with these brewers very closely over the years. They know what I want, and what I mean when I tell them something. I have my own brewery now in San Diego, and I work with that brewery the exact same way I work with the brewery in Belgium. I communicate with the brewers, I send them recipes, and we talk about the ingredients. To me, it doesn’t matter if I own the building and equipment, or I don’t. I would never have someone brew my beer if I didn’t trust that they could do something I asked them to do. Of course collaborations with another brewery is different. There is a purpose to learn from other brewers, and hope they learn from you as well.

Paste: Was there ever any fear when you first let someone else brew your creation?

MBB: When I first started, I did brew my own beer, but now that I have worked with the same people for a long time, it’s very different. Even if I had my own brewery in Denmark, I would hire brewers. I have a brewpub called War Pigs in Copenhagen, and I have brewers there. I think the whole conception that brewers have to be the ones in the brewery is outdated. There are a lot of well-known brewers in the world that are not actually brewing their own beer such as Sam from Dogfish Head and Garrett from Brooklyn Brewery. They create recipes, and do things around the brewery. It’s never been my thing being in a brewery and making beer. I enjoy creating new ideas and flavors, and testing them. That’s what I think is interesting.

Paste: You’ve mentioned that you prefer to keep to yourself, however many people feel a connection to you through your beer and might even say they have gotten to know you through them. Is this something you have done on purpose?

MBB: No…[laughs]. I’m just not that kind of person. The whole focus on me as person instead of my products is not something I enjoy. I know some brewers like Sam and Garrett that enjoy being in the spotlight, and I very much respect that. They enjoy having tastings and traveling around, but that’s not what I enjoy. I like to focus on only the product. I would prefer that people like and think my beer is interesting, not me, which I think is true.

Paste: In 2012 you started your own Copenhagen Beer Festival. How is this festival different from the previous festival you entered in 2006?

MBB: The reason why we started our own Copenhagen Beer Festival was because while we participated in the previous festival, I thought the focus was less on quality and more on a lot of different beers, and pretty much people getting drunk. I thought there was actually very little quality, and I felt the organizers really didn’t care about it. So I wanted to do our own festival, more as an invitational where we could invite who we think are some of the best brewers and they would bring their best beers.

Paste: This is the first year the Copenhagen Beer Festival will be in the U.S., why did you decide to bring the festival here?

MBB: We have done the festival for five years now in Copenhagen, and people travel from all over the world. It seems that the brewers really love coming over here and doing the festival, so we have wanted to take that elsewhere and do something similar. We thought that since we have a good market and name in the U.S. and there is such a great craft beer scene, that it would be fun to do it in the States.

It’s interesting to see how things have changed as time goes by. When we first did our festival in 2012, you really didn’t see many festivals like that in either Europe or the U.S. Today though, you see many similar festivals where breweries invite friends and the people they respect and ask them to bring their best beers. When it comes to our festival, we have always spent a lot of energy on taking care of the brewers. When I started the festival, I thought that if I could focus my energy on making the brewers happy, then they will continue to come, and bring their best beers, and this will make the customers happy. I feel that we have succeeded in doing this, and you now see that in other festivals where the focus is on the brewers.

When we decided to bring the festival to the U.S. this year, we wanted to make it a little different. I think if we kept it exactly the same, it wouldn’t really bring anything new, there are already festivals very similar to what we have in the U.S. We thought it would be interesting to combine great beer with music, which is something we don’t do in Copenhagen.

Paste: Why Boston?

MBB: Good question [laughs]. Simply we had a great opportunity. It wasn’t like we decided we have to do it in Boston, there are a lot of places we could have done it. I am very happy though that we are getting the chance to do it in Boston. It’s a great place; I love that area of the East Coast. We have the brewery out in San Diego, so we will probably do something in California down the line, but for right now this just made sense. Also Boston is closer to Copenhagen than California [laughs].

Paste: Do you expect to continue this annually? If so, will it remain in Boston or travel?

MBB: I hope so. We are doing it fairly small this year. We hope that in the future we can have more music and bigger bands. We want to create a new type of festival. You can call it a music festival, but there is a focus on the beer. I hope we can develop it, and make it even better next year, we will see how it goes. I’m actually very excited about it, but I am also a little afraid because it’s new turf. It’s always a little difficult not being that big of a company in Europe and doing something like this in the States. I really hope that people like it.

Paste: I noticed your brother will be participating in Boston. I remember reading that New York Times article a few years back about your relationship. How did you both decide he should participate in this festival?

MBB: That article in The New York Times was a little too much. It was good for publicity. When I did that article, I didn’t know that would be the focus. I mean my brother and Evil Twin make great beer. We have invited them to Boston as well as Copenhagen before. For me it’s no different from any other brewery. Evil Twin makes excellent beer, so we invited them and they are participating, which is really good. For some reason it’s always interesting for people to read something about brothers not getting along. But show me a couple of twins getting along 100% of the time; I would like to see that [laughs].

Paste: If you could change anything about craft beer as it is today, what would it be?

MBB: I like to think that I have been involved in changing what craft beer has become today, and there is really so much more to explore. I really like what is going on in craft beer worldwide. There are always bad things happening as well, but being in this industry in general is extremely interesting. There is so much going on.

There is this tendency to want to become very big instead of make great beer, and I don’t particularly like that idea, but I guess that is the name of the game. I would never talk bad about craft brewers selling out. It’s what happens when there is a lot of money involved. I think it’s unfortunate if it influences the quality, but I also understand the logic. I am good-friends with some of the people that have sold to the bigger breweries, and I respect that decision. I know it’s popular right now to call them out and talk about how bad it is to sell out, but that is the name of the game and I understand it. If you have built a business and someone wants to pay money, it’s only human to take the money. Not that it’s the plan for me. There is too much in the beer world left for me to explore.

Paste: As a man who is constantly pushing the boundaries with your beers, what can we expect from Mikkeller in the next few years?

MBB: There is always a lot going on. It’s always hard to say because I could get excited about something and things will change. Right now, my focus is spreading craft beer to places that don’t know about it yet. There are places where there is little known about craft beer, and I think that is very interesting. For example, we are focusing on Asia right now because there are so many things both from a business standpoint as well as ingredients that are unique to Asia and have not been used yet in the beer world. That’s something I like to focus on at the moment.

Also in the last few years I have focused a lot on low alcoholic beers, under 0.5% abv. It’s something that has not been really been developed in the craft beer world, and it’s something I enjoy working on. To me it’s something very exciting. If you can create something that tastes exactly like a beer and has no alcohol, to me that’s the perfect beer. If you asked me about this in another month, I’m sure my answer will change.

Jason Stein is a New York-based beer nerd. You can find more of his writing on NYC Beer Society.

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