Makin' It: Denmark's Quirky Brewmaster

Posted by Skyler Swezy and Brady Welch

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø is the owner and impresario of Mikkeller, one of the most exciting companies making beer in the world today. His brews run the gamut—pilsners, IPAs, bocks, and lambics—and often incorporate a baffling array of techniques—aged in Calvados cognac barrels, infused with jalapenos, and or concocted from playfully mismatched yeasts, malts, and hops. Unabashedly weird, for sure, but also delicious.

Did you start brewing first and venture into eccentric recipes later?

I started drinking specialty beers in the late '90s, and after four or five years I started getting bored. I thought it might be possible to brew more interesting stuff myself. 
 
Is there a method to your madness, an organizing ideology, or is it just come what may? 
 
I never feel obligated to brew a beer. The day I do I might as well quit and do something else. Everything I do is driven by the desire to explore new things. When I travel, meet brewers, go to restaurants, and drink beer, I get inspired. From this inspiration comes multiple ideas which turn into beer. I am always behind my ideas and always have at least 10 to 20 new beer recipes in the making. Last year I did 94 new beers, on top of all the repeats. I wasn't even thinking about having to create the next one. They just drop down from somewhere. 
 
Described that way, Mikkeller almost sounds like an artistic pursuit. 
 
I wouldn't go as far as calling Mikkeller an art project. In most other aspects of life I am not the most creative. I guess I just found my thing and went from there. I have always been extremely passionate about what I do, from sports—I used to be a middle-distance runner with many Danish championships and a few Danish records—to collecting furniture—I once owned the largest Verner Panton collection in Denmark. Now I do beer.
 
Tell me how Mikkeller brews. You use the contract-brewing model, basically out-sourcing production, and I'm curious in what ways that frees you up to do certain things. 
 
Not having a brewery gives a great freedom when making beer. All I have to do is create a good recipe, go in and make the beer, and not think about paying off big loans, repairing broken equipment, cleaning, and all the rest. Because of this minimal overhead, I never have to think about selling the beer, which gives me great freedom to brew exactly what I want. I never have to compromise in order to market to customers. I also see it this way—if I owned my own brew plant, I would probably hire a brewer to do the manual work anyway and concentrate on the recipes. 
 
How does your wife feel about your job? Does the family ever travel with you? 
 
My wife Pernille is of course happy and proud that things are going so well. She is not always happy that I am busy and away so much, but she has learned to live with it. I try not to take them on "business trips" as I am mostly too busy, and I don't want to have them waiting around for me. Instead, we go on vacation regularly where I concentrate more on them and try to work as little as possible. At some point, I'd of course like to have more time with them, and I am sure it will happen eventually. I'm happy to say that I've been hiring more and more people as a result of the growing business.
 
Speaking of growing business, what is the reception to your beer in Denmark? The Danes have a fairly specific idea of what beer is, and I've heard that you export over 90 percent of all your brews. Is that normal for a company of your size and type?
 
Yeah, we do export 90 percent, which is not normal. From the beginning, we made beers with an "international" focus, meaning we did not make beer aimed at a Danish audience at all. We make beer for more experienced beer drinkers, I guess, and there are not that many of those in Denmark. We do have an ok name in Denmark, but we do not concentrate on the Danish market. Whatever happens here is good, but we honestly don't care too much. A lot of people think what we do is too extreme, to which we say that they are welcome to drink their Carlsberg instead. 
 
Makin' It is the work of journalist Brady Welch and illustrator Skyler Swezy, the team behind YrDoingAGreatJob.com.