Denmark may be a land of lager, but paradoxically it’s also the land from which the word “ale” made its way into the English language. The route was explained by Niels Buchwald, the head brewer for Ceres, a brewery located in Denmark’s second largest city, Århus.
The Danes became avid and technologically adept brewers, leaders in all advancements in the brewing sciences.
The Danes (along with their cousins, the Norwegians) were the globe-trotting conquerors from the 700s through the first century of the second millennium. The Viking word for bitter was “aul(t).” As the Vikings successfully, and repeatedly, conquered coastal towns in the British Isles, the letter “t” was eventually dropped from this Viking word and “ale” came into being. On a similar linguistic note, the modern-day Danish word for beer is “øl.”
All this, of course, is nothing more than a diversion from the opening statement: Denmark may be a land of lager. And lager drinkers command the overwhelming majority of Danish beer drinkers. Soon after the lager revolution that began in the 1840s way down south in Munich, Vienna and Pilsen, the Danes, like beer drinkers over most of Europe, turned away in droves from their traditional beers—dark ales and weak table beers—and readily embraced the clear, golden lagers developed abroad.
The 1850s and 1860s saw a burst in brewery openings in Denmark, all concentrating on lager production. The most famous story of them all, a story that goes down in the annals of Great Brewing History, involves Denmark’s most internationally famous brewery, Carlsberg.
Jacob Christian Jacobsen, born in 1811, followed his father into the brewing business in Copenhagen. JC, as he became known later in life, also shared his father’s interest in scientific brewing matters. When JC heard of the new lager beer experiments being undertaken by German, Austrian and Czech brewers, he set off in the pursuit of higher brewing knowledge. He became a student of Gabriel Sedlmayr II, the famed owner and master brewer of Munich’s Spaten Brewery.
Sedlmayer, along with his friend and rival, Anton Dreher of Vienna, were the pioneers in developing lagers in the 1840s. From The Book of Carlsberg, it’s written that JC “managed to secure two pots of yeast from Brewer Sedlmayr.” Two pots of the new lager yeast were indeed a fine thing for JC to obtain.
But he was in Munich at the time and he wanted to brew with this yeast in Copenhagen, a not-so-mere 600 miles north. JC was in a tough spot. How could he transport a perishable, living food product such as yeast, a product that needed to be kept constantly cool, all the way home? It was 1845. Refrigeration was still some years off in the future. The story told by Carlsberg is that JC placed the pots of yeast under his stovepipe hat during that several-weeks-long stagecoach ride home, cooling the pots with water from streams at every coach stop.
Once home, JC brewed his first batch of lager using his mother’s washtub as a fermenter and lagering vessel. JC’s lager was a success. He next brewed a larger, professional batch that became the first commercial bottom-fermented Danish lager.
JC was given a royal license to lager his beer in the cellars under the Copenhagen city ramparts. He soon established a new brewery just outside the old city gates in an area called Valby. There was good water in Valby and also a new railway line for bringing in supplies and shipping out beer. Just as important to a lager brewer, Valby contained the one and only hill of any size in the otherwise flat, greater Copenhagen area. JC knew that he could dig cellars into this hill (called a “berg” in Danish), in which he could age his beers. JC named the new brewery after his son, Carl, who was five years old at the time. Thus in 1847 the new brewery was named Carlsberg—Carl’s hill.
Carlsberg, along with its totally owned subsidiaries, Tuborg and Wiibroe, today remains the largest brewer and seller of beer in Denmark, with a 70 percent market share. Carlsberg is also the seventh largest brewing group in the world. But as large as Carlsberg is in its home territory, it does have a few competitors.