How did you get into your brewing career?
It started when I was only 16 or 17, in our equivalent of high school. I was very interested in chemistry, and I’d already decided that I wanted to do something professionally that had to do with chemistry.
I didn’t want to be university scientist, and I didn’t want to teach high school, so I was very much in doubt how I would find some kind of practical career. At some point I found out that if I was very lucky, I could become a master brewer, which required a master’s degree in chemical engineering.
I knew the chances were slim that I’d be able to follow that career path to the end, but I thought, if I don’t become a master brewer, chemical engineering sounds pretty interesting, and it has a lot of practical applications.
Obviously, I love beer. I managed to squeeze myself into Carlsberg’s research center. I did my final thesis in chemical engineering on something pretty wild, the botanical composition of rye, because the Carlsberg research center does a lot of basic research that is not related to beer. My thesis had absolutely nothing to do with beer.
It must have been intriguing, studying at Carlsberg, that being such a prominent name in the history of brewing research.
Yes, I asked about the master brewing education while I was there, and found the teachers were pretty closely connected to the brewing school. They offered to ease my way in, because that was—and still is—a private education sponsored by the Scandinavian Brewers’ Association. They only let in as many applicants as they know the industry will need.
That’s why I knew from the start that the chances were pretty slim that I’d make it, but again, with my connections at Carlsberg, I kind of squeezed my way in and got the master brewers education.
Eventually, I ended up where I had dreamed to be when I was 16 or 17 years old.
Did you go straight to Nørrebro?
No, no, I had a minor spot of 16 years working for Carlsberg after that. That’s why you could say that my background in craft brewing is very unusual, because very few craft brewers have this sort of very formal education.
I know that’s true here in the United States. Is it also the case in Denmark?
Yes, it is. There are a few of us, but less than a handful.
So the Danish craft beer movement has grown up separate from professional brewing?
Yes. You can even say that there is—not hostility, but people feel that brewers working for big breweries are in a totally different universe from craft brewers, and in a lot of senses that is true.
How did you make the transition?
My basic curiosity, I think. Even though I was working for Carlsberg, I had my eyes and ears and taste buds open to all kinds of other interesting stuff, besides those nice but standard lagers that I was taking care of. I did a lot of traveling during those years with Carlsberg.
In particular, in the mid-90s I was appointed to be the technical liaison between the head office in Copenhagen and Carlsberg-Tetley in the U.K. So I had to travel there about a week each month, and my very good friends at Carlsberg-Tetley made a big point of introducing me to traditional English beer styles.
I had this typically snobbish Danish attitude towards real ale, that it was something warm and flat and often not very nice. But these guys knew where to find the really good stuff and it was an eye-opener. Wow, I thought, these beer styles are so different to what I’m used to brewing, and they can be very, very good.
Was there a craft brewing movement in Denmark at that time?
No, not whatsoever. Only a few years later, I had my introduction to American craft brewing, particularly on the West Coast. I saw what was going on there—I didn’t know anything about it, but I realized when you go into a supermarket in Oregon or Washington or California, there was a huge variety of different beers with strange-looking labels and odd names and weird ingredients. Being curious, I sampled all I could, and I was totally fascinated by all the variety.
This was in the nineties?
The early nineties, yes. I had no idea I would ever change my own career path, so I started proposing all kinds of product development inside Carlsberg because I thought all these beer styles were so interesting and needed to be explored. I didn’t have much success in that respect.
But Carlsberg has the Jacobsen pilot brewery, don’t they?
Yes, they jumped on the wagon as well, but that happened quite a few years later. Carlsberg only took the decision when they had seen that craft brewing was really catching on with the Danish market.
When did you found Nørrebro?
At the very end of the nineties, I was beginning to ask myself if I wanted to finish my career being a Carlsberg brewer. I was extremely lucky in that I had a good friend who had made a lot of money, and he offered to sponsor a project that would allow me to work full time on getting a craft brewery up and running. That caused me to jump at the occasion, because all of a sudden, I had a chance to do something where my expertise was.
What was your first venture in the new company?
We brewed a handful of beers to begin with, most of them were quite inspired by American craft beer. We did one that is still one of our best sellers, called New York Lager, which is a pre-Prohibition-style American lager, very, very heavily inspired by Brooklyn Lager. I had met Garrett Oliver: he’s helped me quite a lot, and been a big inspiration.
Our most popular beer is another of the handful I mentioned earlier. That has a Danish name, because on the street in Copenhagen where our restaurant and brewery is, there used to be a previous brewery called the Ravnsborg. So we named the beer after that, Ravnsborg Red. It’s kind of inspired by New Belgium’s Fat Tire, but it’s got a bit more character to it. We were extremely lucky with that beer. It appeals to people who are used to drinking standard Danish lagers, because it’s not that wild or big or strong or bitter, and it still has the complexity so more experienced craft beer drinkers find it a good beer.
Which of your beers have you most enjoyed developing?
To this point, it would be the Old Odense that we brewed with Sam Calagione, because it’s just so different, not just in terms of aroma and taste, but in the way it is produced. It’s unique. Because first we boil the brewing liquor on fir branches, there’s virtually no hops in it, and we use all these strange herbs and maple syrup, then there’s the souring of the beer during fermentation, which makes it sort of a hybrid between a traditional ale and a lambic-style beer.
You began exporting to the US?
About two years ago. It doesn’t knock us out with volume, but that is something we were well aware of from the outset because of the price structure. Our beers are quite expensive, so we knew not to expect big volume, but it’s steady, and spread out nicely, so I’m quite happy with it.
What similarities and differences do you find between the Danish and American craft markets?
To take the similarities first, which I think dominate, over here it’s kind of a grassroots culture that grew out of consumers and brewers wanting more variety. Even though Americans usually say that Danish lager beer is nice and has more character to it than there is to North American standard lager, it was still so dominant here—until five or six years ago, it was 90-some percent of beer consumption here—in people’s minds, it was synonymous. Beer was Carlsberg or Tuborg lager. And there were consumers and brewers who thought, uh-uh, there’s so much more to beer why not give it a shot?
That brings us to differences: we have a stronger beer culture than Americans do. If you measure per capita consumption, it’s much higher in Denmark. People think of beer as the original, traditional Danish beverage, so it’s very rooted in everybody’s culture and self-perception. So when the craft beer movement started, you felt as if the market was insatiable. Everybody was craving more. We’ve been giving a lot of tours at our brewpub since we opened, and I could feel that people were not just interested in what we were doing on an intellectual basis, or because they liked the beer. I could feel we were giving them a kind of pride in our original beverage. I know it sounds a bit pompous, but I believe it to be true.
It sounds like the interest was much broader than what we’d call the beer geek crowd.
Oh, yes. Again if you look at figures, if you look at sales, we have gone from zero to around four percent of the market, a number it’s taken the American craft beer revolution a quarter of a century to achieve. It’s been totally crazy.
Will it continue to grow?
We’ve seen what you saw in the States in the mid-nineties: it’ still growing, but at what I’d call a “normal” rate of 10 to 15 percent per year, compared to 2003-5, when it was growing at 150 to 200 percent per year. Wow, gold rush.
We opened in 2000, and we’re now one of the veteran companies in the Danish beer revolution. There was a small handful of others that preceded us, but the really big explosion came afterwards. No one knows exactly how many there are, but it’s somewhere around 130. There are still a lot of new ones popping up.
These include both microbreweries and brewpubs?
Not so many that are brewpubs. It’s mostly small traditional microbreweries. And again, a similarity that we talked about earlier: most are being started up by former homebrewers who believe that the market’s there, we have something to offer, let’s give it a shot.
Among American craft brewers, you seem to have most in common with Dan Carey, who also has extensive formal training. Have you met him?
Only very briefly, but he’s high on my list of guest brewers I’d really like to persuade to come across. Yes, he’s unusual in the States. I’ve met a few who after getting started in craft brewing then go on for training. Dan Gordon studied in Munich.
You have a collaboration brew with Will Meyers at Cambridge Brew House planned this spring. What will you brew when you come over here?
The idea is to brew something that has some Scandinavian inspiration, so the plan is to brew a dark, strong lager with a bit of rye and a bit of smoked malt.
What do you do when you’re not brewing?
Watch TV and sleep! The brewing days are pretty long, and it is very much a combination of a hobby and work right now—and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.