Danish Beer Guide

Denmark has brought the beer drinking world two gifts. The modern pilsner style and the brewing behemoth that is Carlsberg. Unsurprisingly these two things are related. The founder of Carlsberg, J.C. Jacobsen, was an industrialist who looked at brewing techniques in the mid 19th century and decided that things could be done much more efficiently if people started working on an industrial scale. He smuggled a strain of yeast out of Germany and set the Carlsberg Laboratory working on it. They managed to isolate a pure strain of yeast that allowed beers to be produced more consistently and efficiently. Unsurprisingly this approach appealed to brewers the world over and so rapidly the Carlsberg approach became the default lager brewing method, only updated when the continuous fermentation method was developed in the 1950s.

The success of this brewing technique meant that Carlsberg soon dominated the Danish market, and rapidly bought out most of the Scandinavian market as well. It’s main competitor was Tuborg, however Carlsberg bought them out in 1970. The majority of the breweries output is fairly generic. The Carlsberg Export lager sold in the UK is pretty decent for a mass produced beer, even if the brewers seem to be overly proud of being able to cut production times down from weeks to days – not exactly an unquestionable sign of quality. Back in 1950 Winston Churchill paid a visit to Denmark – an event that had serious implications for the homeless population in the UK decades later. For the Carlsberg brewery celebrated Churchill’s visit by creating Special Brew, a 9% abv lager that they shipped two crates to Churchill’s London abode. It appears Churchill approved, then again he always was rather partial to a drink.

Whilst the majority of Carlsberg’s output is lager, they do make other types of beer. Carl’s Porter is a Baltic Porter that clocks in at 7.8% abv with a bitter coffee grounds taste that is balanced but a biscuit malt flavour. It is deceptively smooth and drinkable and taste similar to the Swedish Carnegie Stark Porter that Carlsberg later bought ownership of. They also make a strong Christmas lager called 47, an Ale, a Wheat Beer and an abbey dubbel called Semper Ardens that is meant to be really rather good. Before Carlsberg’s lager took over the Danish beer market, one of the most popular drinks was Hvidtøl which had been brewed since the 15th century. This clocks in around 2% abv and was originally an everyday beer, however it is now drunk mainly at Christmas with rice pudding. The name means “white beer” as the malt was kiln dried and so was lighter and less smoky that other contemporary beer. However, rather confusingly, it can come in light or dark varieties. There are even some claims that it helps to increase milk production in lactating Mothers.

Due to the dominance of Carlsberg the remaining brewers merged together to form Royal Unibrew, leaving Denmark with two huge brewers dominating running pretty much the entire countries beer supply. Imports from other countries were fairly low and any creativity in the Danish market dried up pretty quickly. However around the millennium a few microbreweries started appearing and this soon became a flood. Denmark now has around 100 microbreweries. Given the small size of it’s population this is pretty impressive, it is the equivalent of having over 1000 breweries in the UK. Between them these breweries produced pretty much ever type of beer under the sun.

One of the most creative of the new breed are Mikeller, a “cuckoo brewery” set up by a pair of homebrewers. They started out making beer in their kitchen, and then started getting professional brewers to start making beer to their specifications. By 2010 they were creating around 75 new beers each year. They do this by working with breweries across Europe and America. Without the running costs of a building to worry about they don’t feel the constraints of having to churn out large amounts of the same type of beer to make ends meet. The beers are characteristically strong and very well hopped. Their Beer Geek Breakfast is a mixture of oat stout and coffee that will put a spring in your step. They do a range of IPAs using each using a single strain of hops. Recently they even took the daring step of brewing a beer that was under 5% abv in form of It’s Alright, a sour ale made with wild yeast that people will either find inspired or disgusting depending on your enthusiasm for sour ales.

There are quite a few brewpubs in the Danish capital Copenhagen. Many of these are located close to the Tivoli pleasure gardens in the centre of town. However it is well worth making the trip across the river to the Norrebro brewhouse. This is a smart and fashionable looking building with large glass windows that opened in 2003. They have now brewed around 30 different beers and run a decent restaurant on the premises – the lunchtime sandwiches they do are absolutely superb. The range of beers are designed to complement every type of food that they serve and the Nordic cuisine they serve is made with beer in mind. Their website has a good section on matching beer with food. Their beers change seasonally, but they usually have their red ale Ravnsborg Rod available. Their smoked Schwarzbier and Easter beer are both particularly good, but anything they have on offer will be worth trying.

Another Danish brewing innovation was Free Beer. This was not a charitable brewing initiative for the out of pocket drinker, but an art project that started out at Copenhagen IT university. It was inspired by the open source software movement that was gaining popularity around the millennium. One of the explanations of the way open source software was meant to be shared was that is “free as in speech, not free as in beer”. The Copenhagen based art collective decided to see what would happen if they made a beer to the conventions of the creative commons licences used by open source software, making the beers recipe freely available for other to try, amend and improve. The original recipe was poorly written, mainly because no professional brewers were involved. However over time it has been improved and by version 4 it has got to the point where even professional brewers in other countries such as the UKs St Austell have brewed versions for commercial sale. The standout feature of the beer is the use of Guarana berries to give the beer a caffeine hit. The resulting beer can be surprisingly good for a fairly random concept. You can download the recipe at www.freebeer.org.

Five Danish Beers To Try -

1. Carlsberg Carl's Porter: A typical porter: oil black with a tan head and coffee grounds in the taste. There is a savoury biscuit flavour in the aroma and finish that adds a nice balance. Clean, easy drinking and enjoyable.

2. Norrebro Graupner Schwarz: Dark, German style lager with smoke, malt and chocolate in the taste and aroma. Thick and heavy above it's 4.9% strength but the fizz lightens it up. A good beer for a cold dark night with a smoky finish.

3. Norrebro Paske Bock: Mahogany coloured easter dark lager with a potent mix of malt and raisins on the taste. Stewed rich dark fruit, almost like a Christmas ale, and caramel linger in there too. There is a gentle fizz that complements the flavours.

4. Skands Blu Chimpanzee: Mahogany brown ale with a robust fruity and malty flavour. There is a slight sweetness in the finish akin to a Belgian ale. Quite strong at 6.5% abv. A bitterness steadily emerges.

5. Mikeller It's Alight: Pale straw coloured ale with a sour musty citrus hop flavour that's like a blend of a gueuze & a dry witbier. There is also a hint of camembert but hardly any malt. A sour ale, light as a helles with big yeasty flavours. Some will think it's superb, others will think it's got a bacterial infection. I go with superb. Brewed at De Proef in Belgium for Mikeller.