21 November 2012

Of craft and macro

Oh no. You won't catch me wading into that whole debate on this blog. It's much better suited to the hit-and-run format of Twitter, I find. Or go have a look at Jeff giving the nail a sturdy whack on the head. I merely offer here some observations from my recent visit to Copenhagen.

I was there to attend a two-day meeting of the European Beer Consumers Union and the first session was held in the opulent surrounds of Carlsberg's event centre, just up from the famous Elephant Gate. A tour guide gave us a walk around the complex, taking in the silent kettles in the cathedral-like New Carlsberg (right) and the much more sober brick buildings of Old Carlsberg, founded by JC Jacobsen, the father -- and later bitter rival -- of New Carlsberg's eponymous Carl.

The vast site is on the verge of redevelopment, following an end to industrial scale brewing here some years ago. But they're still keeping their hand in, and in one of the Old Carlsberg buildings you'll find the shiny modern Jacobsen brewery, turning out a piddling two million litres of beer each year. It's an interesting relationship that Jacobsen has with the mother ship. Though independent to a degree, the head brewer is still directly answerable to head office and there's a lot of input from the suits over there. Recipes move effortlessly between the various Carlsberg macro and faux-craft brands.

We had lunch in the airy café-bar situated directly above Jacobsen's brewing and bottling plant, a smørrebrød of mixed Danish delicacies matched against some of the Jacobsen beers. The brewery's current pride and joy is Single Malt 2012, a dark beer which starts out with bourbon-biscuit malt flavours but swings suddenly left into a big field of apricot and peach notes, the result of generous amounts of Citra hops. We're told there's some smoked malt in here too but it was wasted on my palate. It matched fantastically well with the mature cheddar provided to accompany it.

Dinner later was just outside the Carlsberg complex and involved yet more Jacobsen beer (at our own expense, this time). Maybe something is lost in translation but I was left confused by the sober Jacobsen branding being attached to a beer called Golden Naked Christmas. It's not golden at all, but a deep chestnut red. It's 7.5% ABV and produced using both ale and wine yeast: an experiment of the craft-beery sort. There has been some light spicing resulting in a pleasant pepperiness, but also lots of orange peel for an almost juicy effect. There were also tasters of Jacobsen Velvet, their beer for people who don't drink beer: not such a craft beer phenomenon. This is a light golden beer along the lines of Kasteel Cru by Molson Coors, made using champagne yeast for a dry appley effect, perhaps shading a little towards cider tartness. Some grainy crispness is lurking in here as well. I quite liked it as a change from the heavier beers, but I wouldn't make a habit of drinking it.

Sticking with the Carlsberg off-shoots, I gave Årgangsøl 2012 a go when I saw it in a pub the following evening. This is produced each year and the main focus is on the arty label. Behind it there's a 10.6% ABV pale lager which is a little sticky but not at all as hot or unpleasant as I was expecting. This was after that evening's dinner across the street in BrewPub, an establishment whose beers I've almost always enjoyed over the years. We had been joined by the officers of Danske Ølentusiaster so there was a big crowd of us by now. For convenience the beer arrived in jugs, three per table: a pale ale, weissbier and the inevitable Christmas beer.

Fearing the BrewPub Pale Ale would vanish first (damn hopheads!) that's what I went for immediately. Bleuh! Phenols! There are some fresh hops buried somewhere in the murky orange depths, but a blast of sticking plaster almost covers them completely. BrewPub Weiss was a little better: a good bubblegum nose though not much to the flavour except that damn disinfectant thing again. And the BrewPub Xmas Red had the same moves: rather plain with a modest measure of toffee but once again a sign that things are not as they should be in the hygiene department.

It's a real shame: BrewPub does make some cracking beer and I'd recommend it to any visitor to Copenhagen. Hopefully they'll get their act cleaned up promptly. For now, I'll just hold them up as an example of how "craft beer" definitely does not mean "beer I like".

I couldn't have asked for a better palate cleanser than the Thisted Limfjords Porter I had immediately after. The bottle label declares this to be a "Double Brown Stout", and 7.9% ABV indicates they do mean double. Nicely weighty, there's plenty of caramel for the fan of strong sweet stouts but it's balanced beautifully with a whack of uncompromising bitterness, then some light herbal overtones to finish. This is one of those resolutely old-fashioned beers that manages to make unexotic flavour combinations do some wonderfully complex tricks.

Thisted also brews the house beer for Jernbanecafeen, a raucous early house right next to central station (thanks for the recommendation, Anne-Mette: it was an experience). We dropped in early on the Sunday afternoon on the way to the airport and the place was as crammed, loud and smoky as it apparently always is. 7 Expressen is the beer, a dark gold pils with a solid bitterness at its heart, just breaking out some lighter grassiness on top. Not at all far from the likes of good old Jever.

Lastly for this round-up, a superb beer we chanced upon completely by accident in genteel Nyhavn where we stopped for Sunday brunch. Cap Horn is brewed by Ørbæk for the restaurant of the same name and is a 5% ABV dark amber beer. It moves in quite subtle ways, with a little bit of toffee at the base, layered with a sherbet complexity and just a dusting of citrus on top. The aroma combines almost stouty dry roast with a dash of grapefruit. Much like the Limfjords, it hits that sweet spot of complexity and drinkability.

Craft beer isn't all foghorn hops and puckering sourness, any more than macro is bland and samey.


  1. Is there a dictionary of similes for beer afficianados? :)

    1. I certainly hope not.

      Though there are flavour wheels if you're into that sort of thing.