Posted March 2017
The ultimate guide to a career in craft beer – Mikkeller
Hard-core craft | Go north, young man, if you want to start a beer business. Go to über-cool Copenhagen, the hyggiest and happiest city on earth which rose to fame for its madcap cyclists, culinary revolution and, yes indeed, Mikkeller. Once you’ve got a tattoo and a van Dyck beard, hob-nob with arty types, become a Rate-Beerian, and woo the local beer buffs with your homebrew. That should set you up for greater things to come.
Whoever said that “everybody can be a brand” probably got some derisive snorts, but the concept comes in handy if you want to become a craft brewer. You’ve got a face and doubtlessly a gripping story to tell: your story. How you pursued your dream against all odds. Truth is, you cannot sell your beer to a market, only to a person. Jim Koch of Boston Beer pointed out the obvious: “Markets don’t buy beer. People buy beer.” Getting consumers emotionally involved and on your side you need to share your story with them. This makes craft brewers modern-day Scheherazades in mufti and Mr Koch was among the first to recognise this. A veritable MoM (Master of Media), he has long pitched to every Tom, Dick and Jerry, who would listen, his story: how he took his great–great–grandfather’s German beer recipe and created Samuel Adams Lager. Drawing yawns, he might switch to how he, a Harvard guy, risked everything – job, marriage, money – to follow his passion. Or why he named his beer after the historical figure of Samuel Adams.
1. Write your story
However, of all craft brewers’ stories, the “creation myth”, the “this-is-how-it-all-began”, tends to excite people most. I’d bet that everyone who’s had a Brooklyn Lager knows that Steve Hindy, the founder of Brooklyn Brewery, used to be a war correspondent in the Middle East before he turned homebrewer in New York and started a brewery with his neighbour Tom Potter, a banker. The same holds true for drinkers of Fat Tire Ale from New Belgium Brewery, whose co-founder Jim Lebesch only saw the light when he took a seminal bike tour around Belgium in 1989. The cleverest MoMs must be Scotsmen Martin Dickie and James Watt of BrewDog, whose Punk IPA has the briefest craft beer storyline yet. It boils down to just one word: Punk. Although born too late to be original punks, they still like to present themselves as anti-establishment types, sans Mohicans and piercings, mind you, who were so bored with the industrially brewed lagers and stuffy ales that in 2007, at the age of only 24, they leased a building, got some scary bank loans, spent all their money on stainless steel and started making some hard-core craft beers, which they sold at local markets and out of the back of their beat up old van.
Nonetheless, the Mikkeller story has proved far more memorable because it’s the classic story of two siblings – identical twins Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø no less – who fall out with each other and launch two different beer brands (Mikkeller/Evil Twin), before one of them becomes this mystic phantom or gypsy brewer, who visits the world’s famous craft breweries to brew whacky beers.
I would not have thought that Mikkeller’s fans are well-versed in the Bible or history majors to get the allusions to Cain and Abel and Romulus and Remus, let alone old enough to have heard of the decades’ long family feud in the business world between the German brothers Adi and Rudi Dassler who founded sports companies Adidas and Puma respectively – but Mikkeller’s ingenious mix of the holy grail story with elements of nail-biting tragedy has proven a best-seller. There are scores and scores of references to it on the internet, especially after the New York Times Magazine gave it a long write-up (March 2014). All this must have persuaded Mikkel to tell his own version of it, albeit cursorily, in his “Mikkeller’s Book of Beer” (2014). Today no one wants to question, least of all Mikkel and Jeppe, whether in Mikkeller’s and Evil Twin’s “creation myth” the fictive elements override the facts. After all, their story is just too good not to run with it.
Fortunately, Mikkel was in the right place at the right time – Copenhagen in 2006 – when Denmark was in the throes of a food revolution. After decades of Danes munching on Smørrebrød (a sandwich basically) and other dubitable delights of industrial food manufacturing, the Michelin-starred restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, which had opened in 2003, sought to change this. It kicked off the gastronomic New Nordic Cuisine which revolved around simplicity, pure ingredients and local produce. Adhering to a ten-point manifesto, chefs began to throw out foreign foods, including the humble olive oil, and brought in local ingredients like mushrooms, wild berries, and bits from the forests. Dishes were served as if they were high art on a platter or in fancy new ways. Ice cream with fresh oak shavings in a vacuum bag anyone? You get the idea.
Buoyed by Danes’ newfound interest in food, craft beer took off in a big way too. At the turn of the Millennium, Denmark’s brewing industry resembled “a little pond, inhabited by one great white shark and the odd sardine”, writes Ron Pattinson in his blog europeanbeerguide.com. Carlsberg and Royal Unibrew enjoyed a fully-fledged beer duopoly, where the few remaining independents were slowly whittled away. But when faced with practically no choice on the beer shelves, dissatisfied consumers took to arms and in 1998 founded a beer NGO, Danske Ølentusiaster (Danish Beer Enthusiasts) which managed to recruit 11,000 members in almost no time. In terms of their mission, the Danish Ølentusiaster resemble the UK’s CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale): they are focal, vocal – but far from local in outlook, to which another club will attest: RateBeer.com.
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