Strength in Numbers: at the Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen 2018

In the six years since its inception, the Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen (MBCC) has become one of the most important dates on the international beer and brewing calendar. It presents an unmatched opportunity to experience the latest trends in Scandinavian craft beer and, to an even greater extent, it enables European beer lovers to taste US beers rarely seen outside their immediate localities.

Tilting deliberately towards beers made specially for the festival, or those that represent the pinnacle of each brewer’s craft, the MBCC is a fascinating window into the things that excite and inspire the most world’s most innovative brewers today. It is also huge: by my reckoning, over the four main sessions of the festival on May 11th to May 12th there were 781 beers on offer from 96 breweries and blenders.

Put those two things together, and even before we start tasting we can get some interesting flavour notes from the sheer wealth of statistics that the MBCC invites us to mash, sparge, boil and ferment.

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Perhaps most surprising was the sheer dominance of the US presence. More than two-thirds of the breweries at the event were American. Denmark, the UK and Sweden made up the largest share from the rest of the world.

MBCC 2018 - Countries

More than two-thirds of the MBCC brewers came from the US

This no doubt reflects the regional bias of the network that Mikkel Borg Bjergsø has built over the past 13 years, working as a “gypsy” brewer-without-a-brewery and, latterly, as a sophisticated international marketing operation. The range of rare US beers on offer was nothing short of miraculous. Nonetheless, is it churlish to wonder why there were no Italian, French, German or Czech brewers in attendance? Until the Scandinavians got in on the trend, Italy was arguably the most creative craft beer culture in Europe. Similarly, the growing ale cultures in Germany and the Czech Republic seem worthy of attention at such a high-profile event. I, for one, missed them.

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When Mikkeller asks breweries to bring something special to the MBCC, the statistics suggest that this means one or both of two things: high alcoholic strength and wood.

MBCC 2018 - ABV spread

The mean average ABV was 7.7%

The mean average ABV of the 781 beers was 7.7%, with a median of 6.0%. Smoke Signals from North Carolina’s Fonta Flora Brewery clocked in with the lowest, at 2.8% – although as a Kvass rather than a true beer, this was arguably an outlier. The strongest beer available was Fundamental Forces by Bottle Logic Brewing, a Bourbon Barrel-Aged Vanilla Stout weighing in at a ponderous 16.2%.

MBCC 2018 - Barrel Ageing

Wood: as important for craft beer as it is to achieving “hygge”

Fundamental Forces’ Bourbon barrel was among abundant company. Astonishingly, more than a quarter of the 781 beers at the festival had been barrel- or foeder-aged or fermented – not counting the traditional Lambics and Gueuzes. On the evidence of the MBCC, the magic of being surrounded by wood has become as important to beer as it is to achieving the mythical Danish state of “hygge”.

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The predominance of that trend is evident when we consider the incidence of some key words in the style descriptors for the MBCC beers. More than 200 featured the terms “BA”, “Barrel-Aged” or “Foeder-Aged”.

Some further points of interest are revealed as we look at the MBCC’s style-descriptor statistics.

MBCC 2018 - Style Descriptions

Style descriptors can tell us something about the preferences of brewers and consumers

The high incidence of the word “Imperial” (and the single incident of the word “Session”) points again to the bias towards strong beers.

Predictably, Stout and IPA are the basic styles referred to most often – although again, their sheer dominance was surprising. It is interesting to see a traditional Stout adjunct, chocolate, falling behind the new wave of “Pastry Stout” flavourings – maple syrup, coffee and vanilla. Among IPAs, it is notable that the “New England” (NEIPA) descriptor was rarely used: beers recognisably brewed to this modish style were instead called “DDH” or “Hazy” IPA, or simply “IPA”. Does this reveal a desire to collapse the distinction between these newer, lower-IBU beers and their more traditionally bitter cousins?

Behind the Stout and IPA craft-beer stalwarts it is interesting to see “Sour”, “Saison” and “Wild” ahead of other descriptors: this reflects a recent shift in consumer tastes that is probably related to the demand for barrel- and foeder-aged beers. “Wheat/Weisse/Wit” also cropped up a lot, and again, this descriptor tended to denote a tart Berlinerweisse rather than an estery Hefeweisse. It is also worth noting that the Lambic and Gueuze denominations were not exclusively used for Belgian beers. For craft beer drinkers, sour is today what bitter was 20 years ago.

As we already noted, the US provided most of the beer for the event. When we look for countries used as style descriptors, however, it is clear where most of the inspiration comes from, and that is Belgium. Twenty-three beers were explicitly “Belgian-style”, but the 200-or-so beers that describe themselves as “Sour”, “Saison”, “Wild”, “Fruit”, “Farmhouse”, “Kriek”, “Quad”, “Gueuze”, “Spontaneous” and “Meerts” all make the same connection implicitly.

By contrast, only seven beers claimed to be “English” or “Scotch” in style (despite the UK being the second-largest contingent at the festival). Merely six styled themselves “German”, and one “Czech”. Berlinerweisse is enjoying a renaissance thanks to the demand for sour styles, but the much-discussed return to respectability for German and Bohemian bottom-fermented beers was not much in evidence at the MBCC. The word “Lager” was used 14 times and “Pilsner” 20 times, there were two Helles on offer and one Kellerbier – but there was no sign of, for example, a Dunkel or a Schwarzbier.

What was missing at the MBCC tells us almost as much about the current consumer taste in craft beer as what was available.

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Enough of numbers. What about flavours?

First up during the four-hour Friday evening session I attended was a modern classic: Heady Topper by The Alchemist, the beer that some say laid the foundations for the NEIPA style. This was my first taste, and I was surprised at how boozy and bitter it was. While certainly more aromatic than an old-style US IPA, it now seems much closer to those old classics than to its juicy, opaque descendants – which is testament to how far and how fast the beer world has embraced the extremes of dry-hopping. A very well-made beer, then, but perhaps a victim of its own success in that it no longer seems to stand out as distinctive.

MBCC 2018 - Alchemist, 2nd Shift, Bokkereyder

Heady Topper, Katy, and Bokkereyder Gueuze

My second was Katy, a foeder-aged, Brettanomyces-spiked beer from 2nd Shift Brewing. This was light and refreshing and ideal for the garden on a hot summer day, with a hint of barnyard but no sign of tannins or lactic sourness. I also got a sip of the apricot version, which was strikingly different: a much firmer body, with tannins from the apricot skins and stones giving it a pleasantly dry finish after a luscious fruity-sweet presence on the palate.

Up next was one of the most intriguing beers available at the MBCC: a Gueuze from Bokkereyder, the newest Lambic blender in Belgium, and the producer of hugely sought-after, tiny batches of beer. This Gueuze announced itself with an overpowering aroma of cheesy Pediococcus, after which the beer was surprisingly easy to drink: good sourness but not too dry, with medium tannins and flavours of mandarin orange and red grapefruit. It lies towards the full-bodied, fruitier end of the Gueuze spectrum, not unlike Girardin. My admittedly tiny sample hasn’t quite persuaded me that the hype is justified.

MBCC 2018 - Founders, BRUS, To Ol

Green Zebra, BRUS Brothers, and One Ton of Raspberries

My fourth beer was Green Zebra, a Watermelon Gose from Founders Brewing Co. I picked this one because I have never tasted this style before. It was not as bad as I had feared it might be, but it was sweet to the point of being cloying and had the “synthetic” flavour one associates with fruit-flavoured candy. Nonetheless, an ice-cold 25ml was a welcome relief as the temperature in the venue began to climb in the warm sunshine of the Danish spring.

Next came my first Danish brew of the day: The BRUS Brothers from BRUS, the brewpub owned by To Øl. This was one of only two beers at the festival that referred to themselves an NEIPA, and it was an archetypal example of the current style: a good hoppy aroma but, for my taste, too chalky, milky and claggy with hop polyphenols on the palate (which is normal for the style).

I moved next door to get One Ton of Raspberries, a sour Framboise by To Øl itself (a brewery managed by some ex-students of our host, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø). This was not a particularly complex beer but it looked appetising and tasted exceptionally fruity and tart, with just enough barnyard aroma to keep it interesting. It was very well-crafted, hiding its 8.5% ABV with deceptive aplomb.

The evening was maturing, and the dark beers beckoning. My first was the formidably-named (and formidably strong) Beastmaster from Modern Times Beer. This one would be a sure-fire winner at craft-beer bingo – an “Imperial Dessert Stout with Bourbon Barrel-Aged Maple Syrup, Modern Times Coffee and Blueberries” – but it was also a highlight of the day. Threatening sugary sweetness but making it more grown-up with robust coffee bitterness and cigar smoke, together with a hint of umami, this beer is big, bold but balanced. At the same time, I got a sip of Wake and Cake, an Imperial Stout from Transient Artisan Ales that would make a lovely thimbleful of pudding beer – delivering unctuous sweetness and a massive aromatic hit of almonds.

MBCC 2018 - Modern Times, Amager, Lervig

Beastmaster, High Road to Hell, Lervig Barleywine 2017

Next up was High Road to Hell, a Peated Imperial Stout by Copenhagen’s own Amager Bryghus, a challenging beer that tasted like Laphroaig stirred up with marmite and maple syrup. The peat-smoke did eventually take a back seat, but I was never able to shake the suspicion that this is a slightly ham-fisted brew.

Better balance came from Moura Encantada Comb, an Imperial Porter by Bottle Logic, at 14.3% ABV, delivering a woody, boozy mix of dark-malt umami, coffee and vanilla.

The evening ended with another highlight, however: the 2017 vintage, Bourbon Barrel-Aged Barley Wine by Norway’s Lervig Aktiebryggeri. This showed a striking ruby colour in the glass, and mixed sweet, syrupy Bourbon with solid oak tannins and a healthy dose of fusels. My impression was that this would oxidise handsomely in a bottle: on Friday it delivered a pleasant, warm hit of alcohol to send me off into the cooling, lengthening shadows of Copenhagen’s early evening.

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My Copenhagen beer weekend began and ended with Mikkeller, but was not constrained to it.

Within the Tivoli gardens, the Færgekroen Bryghus serves a hearty bistro menu paired with its own Blond and Amber lagers. The latter is a light-bodied Vienna lager whose caramel sweetness and subtle spice was the perfect complement to my ribeye steak and chips. This beer doesn’t have the touch of magic that Tivoli does, but it is carefully made and well designed to accompany the restaurant’s food.

Faergekroen Bryghus Tivoli

The magic of Tivoli and the Vienna lager of Færgekroen Bryghus

On Sunday, we headed out west beyond Tivoli and the central station to a rough-and-ready industrial area. Mikkeller has teamed up with Indiana’s 3 Floyds Brewing Co here to launch War Pigs, a brewpub and Texas BBQ joint. The food is excellent. The beers on offer include brews from Mikkeller and various collaborations, as well as those from the War Pigs brewery tucked behind the restaurant.

War Pigs Cafe and BBQ

Our Sabbath was anything but Black at War Pigs

With our brisket and shoulder of pork (and music from the likes of Rush, Lynard Skynard and Led Zeppelin) we enjoyed War Pigs’ Cherry Ripe, a bright and fruity Stout; and Berries and Cream, a tart but still somewhat sickly lactose fruit beer. Our second round featured Purricane, a refreshing, fruit-and-pine NEIPA brewed in collaboration with 3 Floyds; and Quadraphonic, an unpleasantly lactic Strong Dark Abbey Ale that tasted as though St. Bernardus Abt 12 had been left to go off in a bacillus-riddled barrel – a misstep, in my opinion, by Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co and 18th Street Brewery.

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As Denmark’s archipelago fell away from us and our aeroplane swung out towards the North Sea, I began to reflect upon on how quickly this country, and indeed Scandinavia in general, had assumed such an important place in Europe’s craft beer culture.

Was this despite, or because of, the presence Carlsberg, historically one of the world’s most important breweries and still an industry giant today? Why does this culture feel different than those of the UK, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and Italy, and more attuned with the Americana that accents many other aspects of Nordic life, often somewhat incongruously? What does the Mikkeller business model tell us about the “Viking capitalist” ethos, but also the social economics of international craft beer?

These are questions for another article – but I suspect that some of the statistics gleaned from the MBCC begin to offer answers, or at least avenues of enquiry.

One thought on “Strength in Numbers: at the Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen 2018

  1. Pingback: World Famous in Denmark | Pursuit of Abbeyness

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