Seeking out the best bars in a foreign city is a hit-and-miss affair—unless you are fortunate enough to have fallen in with a couple of members of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Which is exactly what happened to me on a recent trip to Copenhagen, where Carlsberg was unveiling its new worldwide marketing campaign. After a lavish dinner in Carlsberg’s vast art gallery, the journalists suggested heading off for something a little less mass-market.
In days gone by this might have worried me. British beer-lovers once had a well-earned reputation for eschewing anything remotely modern, preferring beards, beer guts and a mandatory interest in folk-dancing. A glance at our party confirmed that things have changed. I was the only one with both beard and belly, and no one mentioned Morris men.
The venue they chose—Mikkeller bar—is almost in the shadow of Carlsberg’s towering head office. Small and simple, it’s filled with young men wearing architect’s glasses and feels quite unlike a run-of-the-mill beer dive. No wonder: it belongs to a new and radically different sort of beer-maker.
The long row of taps behind the bar dispenses ales brewed, in tiny quantities, by the owner, Mikkel Borg Bjergso, and they have a taste far removed from the globalised, gassy stuff so ruthlessly marketed by Carlsberg. Bjergso is one of a small but growing band of “gypsy” brewers, an itinerant group who don’t trouble themselves with the cost (and other headaches) of owning breweries of their own. Instead they just rent or borrow time in existing small breweries—a couple of days for the brewing, and maybe a few weeks for the beer to mature.
As Bjergso, who started his venture in 2006, points out, this gives gypsy brewers an advantage over even the most innovative microbrewery, which might need to sell plenty of pints to repay big loans. Instead, he can afford to experiment: the small stakes mean he and his kind can take bigger gambles with niche flavours, or ales of a strength that even the braver microbrewers might think a little too potent.
The end results are small batches of adventurous brews with complex characters and powerful flavours: anything from the wonderful, traditional pilsener “Czechet”, to “Beer Geek Bacon”, flavoured with smoked malt and coffee (though at 7.5% alcohol you might not want to have it for breakfast).
This exclusivity brings premium prices: Bjergso’s wares are sold at a couple of London bars, but they are more than double the price of a typical West End pint. If you can stomach the prices, it’s well worth trying to track down a gypsy brew or two—and it’s getting easier, as other beer-makers are following in Bjergso’s wake. On the west coast of America, two enthusiastic San Franciscans have founded the Local Brewing Company, knocking out porters, stouts and IPAs, while Almanac Beer, also in San Francisco, makes small runs of beers using local, seasonal flavourings. Dann Paquette, an affable American who, with his English wife, runs the gypsy brewer Pretty Things in Sommerville, Massachusetts, reckons that he spent $9,000 on his first batch of beer. If he had never made another drop, he could have quit in profit. Happily, he is still in business. Jack D’Or, his flagship brew, is a light, floral treat inspired by traditional Belgian farmhouse saison beers.
Down in Maryland, Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales is a friendly, enthusiastic brewer with an unexpected back story: he spent five years touring Europe as a DJ pumping out dance music to ecstatic crowds, which left him with a taste for European beers and for life on the road. He began home-brewing and, like Bjergso, discovered he was rather good at it. As a gypsy brewer, he says wistfully, he can keep up something of the wandering lifestyle he loved as a DJ.
Strumke produces just 2,000 barrels a year (American “craft” brewers are allowed to make up to 6m barrels a year), but dedicated beer-lovers can track down his superb brews in a few bars along the east coast and in Europe. It is worth the hunt: in a recent survey of the world’s best new breweries, ratebeer.com ranked Stillwater in second place. A mouthful of its “Stateside Saison” reveals a light ale with a complex aroma of fresh summer fruits and a crisp hoppy taste. The artistry doesn’t end there—the labels feature some elaborate artwork and look, to my untrained eye, like upmarket tattoos.
According to Pete Brown, a British beer writer, it’s the “passion for experimentation” of small brewers, alongside a more open-minded attitude in drinkers, that has allowed gypsy brewers to thrive. Their globe-trotting means they cross-fertilise national brewing traditions; and their cutting-edge products are influencing brewers the next step up the ladder.
Last year Bjergso collaborated on a beer with Brewdog, a relatively new Scottish craft brewer that has already got its wares on the shelves of British supermarket chains, including Morrisons and Tesco. By making what it describes as “uncompromising, bold and irreverent” brews, Brewdog acknowledges the debt it owes to Bjergso and his like. And the world’s leading brewers are starting to take note. While beer drinking as a whole is either flat or declining in the West, niche beer is expanding. Rather than making these beers themselves, big brewers are covering the territory by buying small brewers instead: in 2011, AB InBev, the world’s biggest with 20% of the global market, bought Goose Island, a Chicago craft brewer with an inventive roster of ales.
Some of these beers go beyond inventive, into wacky. Among Bjergso’s 76 launches last year were beers flavoured with rhubarb, chocolate and chillies. I have recoiled from a first sip of some of them: but only in shock, tasting something so different from the dull lagers most of us are used to. So, gypsy brews aren’t for everyone. But that’s rather the point.