A look at one of Jutland’s hidden gems in plain sight: beer.
By Daphne Henning
When you hear the term “microbrewing” you might picture a bunch of dudes in plaid shirts, sniffing odd-shaped glasses of frothy liquids through majestic beards. This is the pop culture image of craft beer, an image even big beer companies like the USA’s Budweiser see and ridicule (as seen with their Super Bowl commercial this year). You’re certainly likely to find at least a few brewmasters and bottlers sporting some ‘staches, but when it comes to the microbrewing industry, this perception falls pretty far from reality.
The fundamental question is, what separates a microbrewery from a macrobrewery? Where do businesses draw the line? The answer is not an easy one, but it’s something each of the following brewhouses deal with through their craft.
Walking into the warehouse, you’re greeted with the usual sight of kettles, tanks and tuns, stacks of kegs and bottles in nearly every corner. But immediately, something about the Aarhus Brewhouse is different. A huge painting by a renowned graffiti artist hangs on one wall, purchased at a hip hop concert. Walking through the back, you pass Viking-themed banners and even a badger pelt, before heading into the back beer hall and bar, home to the brewery’s weekly Friday bar and an assortment of Beatles memorabilia.
The brewhouse opened in 2005, and today its five full-time employees have over 100 years’ brewing experience between them. Owner and brewmaster Niels Buchman owes part of his inspiration for the brewery to his time at Cains Brewery in Liverpool and, surprisingly, Texas.
We’ve done it for so long, it’s just hard work.
From a start of brewing one beer per month, they now brew about four per week. While this includes the regular lineup of popular brews like Klosterbryg, a fusion of English strong ale and Danish strong lager, Buchman and his team have a variety of regular and special products that keep coming people back for more. One such brew is the Beatles-inspired Tribute 1965.
“It’s a tribute to the best of Liverpool,” explains Buchman, citing the 50-year anniversary of The Beatles’ LP “Help!” release. The bottle sports a custom semaphore logo in the likeness of the LP’s cover — a riddle you “just have to figure out,” says Buchman with a smile.
“Beer for ordinary people”
Without a “single dime” spent on advertising, the brewhouse has increased its business about 10% per year by word-of-mouth efforts demos and exhibitions, including work at the annual Aarhus Viking moot and the brewhouse’s weekly Fridaybar. They also offer group tours during the week, by appointment over the phone.
What’s next for Aarhus Brewhouse? For their jubilee celebrations in September, they are preparing their first U.S. west coast-style India Pale Ale, with “twice the hops” of any of their former beers. Additionally, they are in the process of finishing an oak-aged imperial stout in rum barrels (“Black Monster Rum Edition”), and aging their own whiskey: Spirit of Aarhus. Once the whiskey is done, the barrels will be re-used to infuse future beers in the brewhouse.
Step off the bus at the town of Thisted’s main station, and the first thing that hits you is the smell of beer. Not the stale, hangover-inducing odor, but the scent of real, fresh beer being produced right down the street. A short trek up the street brings into sight Thisted Brewhouse, situated right on the bay, where it has sat since 1902.
Thisted Bryghus has been running continuously on the same site since 1902, a feat that merges original buildings and historic equipment with time-saving modernisations and a multi-million dollar addition built in 2007. Today, Thisted is a publicly-traded company; around half of the more than 2,000 individuals with stakes in the company convene annually for the “Fourth Festival” meeting to discuss the direction of the brewery, production, and so on.
A pioneer in Danish beer
Perusing a Fakta or Fotex in Aarhus, you will probably find a Thisted beer. The Thy Pilsner and Limfjords Porter are arguably the most recognisable of the bunch, besides the line of organic beers Thisted pioneered in the ‘90s. Thisted started its organics with the introduction of the Organic Thy Pilsner in 1995, filling a gap in the market as the first organic Danish beer. The organic line is more popular in the eastern parts of Denmark, something brewmaster Antoni Aagaard Madsen says was a struggle from the beginning. But, that doesn’t mean they’ve ever lacked for customers.
“I don’t know if you know the free city of Christiania,” Madsen laughs, “but they wanted an organic beer with their own label… From the start in 1996, they were our biggest customer of organic beer.”
This diversification came at a time when many other breweries were struggling to stay afloat, amidst consolidation by entities like the giant, Carlsberg group, which continues to buy out budding breweries today. A concern every microbrewery worries over.
“Ten to 15 years ago we were very, very strong in the area here,” says Madsen. He jokes that the northern Jutland town of Thisted is so remote that, “it wasn’t really interesting for [Carlsberg or Royal Unibrew] to buy us out. I think that’s why we survived.”
Thisted has proven itself to be a real contender in the Danish industry. Despite some pitfalls around the time of the market crisis in the late 2000s, some smart investments have helped the brewery to make up 1% of all Danish beer consumption — a real feat considering that nearly 90 percent of beer consumption in Denmark comes from the big brewing companies like Carlsberg.
The first thing that strikes you when you enter Søgaards Brewhouse is the glass case of meat situated in the front window. Take a few steps into the restaurant and besides the aromatic smells of food wafting from the kitchen, you are greeted with the sight of two old-fashioned looking copper kettles and quotes about beer lining the walls.
Brewing better beer
When Bavarian native Klaus Søgaard got involved with brewing beer, he already had several years’ worth of restaurant experience under his belt, including being trained as a chef and a butcher. This ‘renaissance man’ sort of practice has translated over into his work with the brewhouse, which he opened in 2004 as one of Denmark’s first combination restaurant, brewery and pub.
With the so-called craft beer revolution hitting Denmark over the last ten years, the way people think of beer is changing. Brewmasters and patrons are stepping away from the traditional beers like pilsners and lagers and shaking things up. But the emphasis remains on quality. Restaurant manager Karina Gudiksen puts it bluntly: “It still has to be a beer.”
Most of the work at Søgaards goes into ensuring the character of the ingredients that go into the beers and the food. Besides collaborating with local brewers, the brewhouse’s restaurant also pairs with businesses like Penny Lane, a local cafe and one Søgaards calls its “daughter store.”
We sense a change in the way people think of beer.
Gudiksen explains that because Søgaards has a large capacity for a microbrewery, producing about 250,000 litres of beer per year, it also functions as something called a “phantom brewery” for five to six other breweries. Putting aside notions of ghosts, what this means is that other brewers are able to collaborate with Søgaards, whether it be for labour, equipment, artistic additions, or a combination of the three, in order to create a product. Competition is not an issue. “The world is big enough for us to feed people beer,” says Gudiksen. “If one succeeds, we all succeed.”
“Randers is not really a sexy kind of brand,” admits brewmaster Jesper Petersen. But sexy or not, the innovative beers coming out of this small microbrewery are likely to keep its foothold on the Danish beer industry.
Randers Brewhouse began production in 2007, and since then has seen one foreclosure and at least three different owners. Many aspects of production are still done entirely by hand, including how the beer is monitored while it is in different stages of the brewing process. A recent partnership with the local Håndværkerskole (a technical school focusing on engineering and mechanics) gave Randers the gift of an industrial robot, to be used in the bottling process.
We work a lot of hours, so you have to be really committed to being in this business, because otherwise you’re going to burn out… You need to have a passion for it, or it gets sour.
Randers brews between 300,000 and 500,000 litres per year. While much of this production is focused on the regular varieties like their Randers Øl, an English pale ale, they also have their own “special situation.” The brewhouse is actually two breweries in one: Randers Brewhouse, and Raasted Brewhouse. The two merged in 2012, but have maintained their separate identities. Additionally, the conglomerate has a line called Årgangsbryg, an assortment comprised of high-volume, full-bodied brews like Coffee in the Dark — an oak and wheat stout brewed with coffee to give the beer a twist. “It’s beer that you could store for many years, and it would benefit from the storing.”
Revolution is brewing
“There’s been a real revolution in Denmark with craft beer,” says Petersen. “People are looking to more special ingredients. There’s been a chili wave, and licorice is very big right now… We’re starting to see that bleeding into the ‘proper beer’ business. This is the next step.”
The brewhouse is currently working on two special beers in particular. One is an India Pale Ale (IPA) with orange peel and tangerine, and the other is a chili-licorice brew made with a ghost pepper mash so spicy, it takes only two spoonfuls for every 1,000 litres of beer.
Petersen’s source of inspiration is simple. “We taste a lot of beers, and we brew what we like.”
Hancock Brewery is one of those microbreweries that toes the line between being micro and macro. With an output of up to 13 beers per week with 7,000 litres per beer, and a family history stretching back five generations, Hancock is an established, household name in much of Denmark. Why are they a craft brewery?
Jorgen Jensen has been the bookkeeper at Hancock for 27 years, and gives a great deal of insight into what makes the brewery tick. Contrary to the widespread movement of experimental beers inspired by their USA counterparts, Hancock believes in quality, old-fashioned beer. Jensen discusses how a lot of macrobreweries are actually in the process of adding more water to their beers during production — something he says “isn’t the real way to brew beer.”
I don’t understand why [breweries] needed to add banana or cherries or something like that, it doesn’t belong in beer. So if you’ll have that, a beer with bananas, you’ll have to buy your own banana and eat it.
There are eight beers available year-round, and two seasonals. The Easter seasonal, Påskebryg, is particularly notorious as the strongest Easter beer in Denmark, aged for two years and coming in at a whopping 10.5%.
The focus of the brewery is, like so many others, quality; but they take it one step further. Despite being under fifth-generation management, the hierarchy at Hancock is very flat. There are 34 regular employees with the company, and they “talk a lot every day” according to Jensen. There are not plans to expand the brewery. “We make money at the same speed that we use it, and that’s good enough for us.
Most of what Hancock produces is sold around Jutland, though there are a few individual markets in Denmark that the brewery exports to, such as a grocer in Copenhagen. Hancock’s management tries to avoid the big supermarket chains, fearful of the limits placed on production costs potentially harming the goodness of the brews. While Hancock does supply many of the local bars and pubs, they are proud of the fact that they are a standalone corporation. They even go so far as to have their own freight trucks they use for distribution.
Wrapping up the interview and heading into the depths of the brewery, Jensen had only one thing more to add.
Why are you talking so much about beer? You just have to drink it!
Daphne is the Photography and Copy editor for Jutland Station, and is a photojournalist from the USA. She spends most of her free time exploring mountains and tattoo parlours, and seeking out good beer.
Look out at the start of May, when Daphne takes us to more of the microbreweries in and around Jutland.