Copenhagen. The first taste of something cosmopolitan and sophisticated for us Norwegians or, at least it used to be. Sure, we had been to the Steen + Strøm department store in Oslo to ride the escalators, but this was way beyond that. Palaces and castles, parks with peacocks. Zoo and the Tivoli gardens.
When we grew older we went interrailing, and Copenhagen was the bottleneck between the Scandinavian and Continental train systems. Some hours to spend before the Hamburg train, an Elephant beer and, wide eyed: The city of sin. Just behind Hovedbanegården, the Central Station, starts Istedgade, where the porn shops, blue cinemas and the hookers (sorry Galway) ladies of the night. In broad daylight.
Fast forward a few (three, actually) decades. I walk along Istedgade again, and, as expected, the same thing has happened here as in most inner cities of Europe. The low life is replaced by the chattering classes, and there far more toddlers in prams than prostitutes. Sure there are a few pitiful cellar bars where they offer topless waitresses, but not more than you will find in any provincial Danish town. Compared to what’s on offer in Holland or Belgium this looks rather Calvinist.
But I am not here to assess the developments in the porn industry. There is a festival in town. Ten years ago, a few, well, enthusiasts founded the Danish Beer Enthusiasts. Their membership has grown ever since, and we are now talking about an organization with salaried staff, a monthly glossy magazine and a wide range of activities. Their flagship event is the yearly beer festival, which has attracted foreign visitors since the beginning, but this year they have profiled it as a European Beer Festival. It is bigger than before, and, it takes place on a historical site. Carlsberg is winding down their Copenhagen brewery and moving it out of town, which meant there was ample space available. Sure, there would probably be very few among the members who would name a Carlsberg beer as their favourite, but there is still a part of the Danish and indeed European beer history that is connected to Carlsberg – and their yeast.
I had expected the festival to be dominated by the scores of Danish micro breweries that have popped up during the last decade, about a hundred in all, and some of them certainly took the centre stage. But there were importers and trade associations making sure there was a wide range of imported beers, too. Lots of big Belgians, a fair amount of Bavarian brews. The association of Finnish small breweries. Half a dozen Swedish beers on tap - and they were certainly not your usual Pripps lager, but hand crafted beers that can compete with the best. Lots of US imports and a large British stand with beers from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – even the Isle of Man!
As if this was not enough, there were lots of limited release beers form avant-garde breweries like Mikkeller and Amager. Both English and Scottish beer aged in whisky casks. Three new beers from Nøgne ø, the pride of Norway. I was lucky to find – well, it was actually the Beer Nut who found it – a hotel close to the festival at a decent price. I had studied the programme beforehand and picked some of the highlights, but with 1200 beers on offer, you have to be choosy.
Some overall remarks first. This was a seriously professional event. There were lots of volunteers around manning the entrance, selling tokens, emptying the trash, refilling water dispensers and all these little odd jobs that need to be done. This worked without any serious glitches that I was able to observe. The stands were manned by the breweries or their agents themselves. Now, I enjoy having a nice pint drawn by a CAMRA volunteer, but the setup in Copenhagen meant that the brewers themselves could have total quality control – and I actually had only one beer of an odd hundred that was off. This also meant that you could chat to all those small and medium size brewers when they were not too busy pouring. I have not been to the mega festivals in Denver or London, but I doubt that that they can do much better.
An interesting observation is that the beer bloggers are now seen as an important ally for organisations like the Danish Beer Enthusiasts. I was e-mailed a press accreditation well in advance. Sure, I could have bought my one hundred kroner ticket myself, but I was able to jump the queue on both the days I attended. (There were almost 22000 visitors, up from half of that last year, so there was a bit of a queue) On the Saturday I was also given a press badge, and it was interesting that a few of the breweries took notice and made sure I was given good service.
Two of the Danish stands had lots of turnover. One of them was a collaboration between two of the most avant garde breweries, Mikkeller and Amager, who, to paraphrase one of the favourite breweries of Alan and Peter Brown, dare to go where no beer has ventured before. They make lots of extreme pale ales, barley wines and porters, each one outgunning the last.
Mikkeller is a flying brewery, collaborating with the best and brightest stars around the world. They did an amazing marketing stout with a large number of limited beers released at specific times, they even had a six pack of bottles exclusively sold at their outlet Ølbutikken on the Saturday morning before the festival opened. Mikkeller and Amager even had a town crier yelling out when new beers were on offer, making sure that the area around their stand was packed. Add to this a number of rare Belgian and US beers on the other two sides ot the stand, and you capture a significant part of the turnover – and an even bigger part of the buzz among the participants.
The other major Danish actor was Nørrebro Bryghus, which started out as a brewpub, but now has a number of bottled beers for sale in lots of supermarkets across Denmark and even in major export market. They even have a bar in the arrival hall of Copenhagen airport. I think their Little Korkny barley wine aged from 2004 was the highlight of the festival for me. One of their staff recommended it when he saw my press badge, clever man.
Other notable Danish breweries which were new to me were Djævlebryg (Try to pronounce that, ladies and gentlemen!). They had some very sophisticated stouts and posters, and rumour flew about these guys. Another was Hornbryg, for three reasons. First, a good range of fine beers. Secondly, some lovely painted beer labels, the originals of which decorated the stand. And thirdly, we are getting quite tabloid. The brewer looked very similar to the Danish Prime Minister. No wonder, it’s his brother. There was excellent food available, too, some of it cooked with beer from the excellent kitchen of Nørrebro Bryghus and the plan b café as well as others.
My attitude to beer festivals has changed quite a lot over the last few years. I used to think of them as a place to taste a good number of beers, but I’d always prefer to sample a good number of beers in a cosy pub. Now I have a network of fellow beer geeks which I have met through the blogsphere and ratebeer. These are adults who enjoy their hobby, and it interesting to see how this network has grown proportionally with the growth of the access to craft beer across Europe. And this is a culture of sharing, where everyone brings along a few obscure beers in their suitcase when they travel, making it a win-win situation when they go pub crawling with the locals.
So, in Copenhagen there were lots of friends and acquaintances from all over. After there were tables established for the ratebeer crowd and the Norwegian delegation, it was easier to keep track of people. Still, there were some people there I would have liked to have a chat with, but the sheer size of it all made it impossible.
What’s for next year? Minor details, really, I was very impressed with it all. A bit more running water, for cleaning glasses and for pissoirs, but the setup they had worked remarkably well. Some more ventilation, it got a bit stuffy at times. Maybe spreading it over a lager area to make broader passageways between the stands, it was a bit too crowded in places. This could possibly also open for a bit of seating in the main halls.
As for exhibitors, the smashing success will hopefully be a main argument for more brewers from outside Denmark. There are already discussions about a larger Norwegian stand next year. I’d like to see a Dutch stand and an Italian one. There is certainly room for more Belgians as well. The brewpubs of Vienna would be very welcome.
But none of this is needed. If they had the same list as this year, I’d gladly book my hotel right away!