|

Denmark’s Mikkeller hits Tokyo, leaves strange brews

by

Special To The Japan Times

Mikkel Borg Bjergso, co-founder of the Danish microbrewery Mikkeller, is a man who likes a challenge. At the opening of the new Mikkeller bar in Shibuya, Bjergso tells me that his next goal is to finish the Berlin Marathon next September in two hours and 45 minutes.

“Let’s bet on it,” he says, sticking out his hand for me to shake.

I’m not the gambling type, but Bjergso is persuasive and tenacious. I know he went to university in the United States on a track and field scholarship, he has also launched a worldwide program called the Mikkeller Running Club and makes a pilsner by the same name. Despite this, my mind began assessing the odds.

I asked Bjergso how fast he could run a mile in-between sips of his coffee-laced Beer Geek Brunch Weasel imperial stout, but his reply was equivocal.

It’s unclear how we arrived at this situation — our conversation had taken a sharp turn from the original question of why he’d decided to open a new bar in Tokyo. Then again, the few interactions I’ve had with Bjergso have all been a little unusual.

I met him for the first time by chance on the Faroe Islands in 2014, inside the wine cellar of the Koks restaurant, where we were inexplicably joined by a Faroese pop star for a private dinner. A week later, I interviewed Bjergso in Copenhagen. To our mutual chagrin, I was acutely hung over, but he eased my pain with a pint of Beer Geek Breakfast Stout — a relative of the Brunch Weasel, made with oatmeal. When he told me about his plans to open in Tokyo, I was skeptical.

Mikkeller had already begun to establish a small global empire with multiple bars in Copenhagen and locations in San Francisco, Bangkok and Stockholm, followed recently by Reykjavik and Seoul. Japan, however, can be a difficult nut to crack for non-Japanese independent entrepreneurs. But Bjergso, who creates some of the world’s most inventive brews, has built his career on bucking convention.

He started out as a high school science and math teacher, brewing beer in his kitchen after work. In 2006, after Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Breakfast Stout topped the charts on the online beer forum RateBeer, interest in the company skyrocketed. Now Mikkeller exports to 40 countries, and its drops inspire cult-like devotion. Bjergso has developed brews for Michelin-starred restaurants such as Noma in Denmark and El Celler de Can Roca in Spain. Known for his exotic flavor combinations, he has spiked smoked pilsners with Sichuan peppercorns, fermented sour ales with kombucha cultures (colonies of benign yeast and bacteria used to make a popular health drink), and added crushed pretzels to his bittersweet Oktoberfestbier.

The irony is that, technically, Bjergso doesn’t make most of his own beer. Apart from the house beers on tap at Mikkeller’s Copenhagen brewpub Warpigs — a joint venture with American microbrewery Three Floyds — the company relies on facilities in Europe and the United States to execute Bjergso’s recipes. Through collaborations with microbreweries such as BrewDog, Nogne O and AleSmith, Mikkeller has managed to release more than 800 varieties since the company’s inception. Some styles are made regularly, but most of the beers are made in small limited-edition batches, and keeping up with demand remains a challenge.

Mikkeller Tokyo features two house beers (the easy-drinking Udagawa Wit and the tangy Udagawa Spontanale) and 18 others on rotating taps.

“We’ll change the tap when the keg runs out,” Bjergso tells me, before adding that the menu always includes a couple of the brewery’s famous Spontan Series lambic beers, produced by spontaneous fermentation and aged in barrels. At the party, I sampled the Spontanchokeberry, a ruby-hued sour ale flavored with chokeberries and reminiscent of a semi-sparkling natural rose wine. I also tasted the Black Barrel Aged Grand Marnier ale, an intensely flavored beer with hints of toasted grain in the finish. It packed a punch at 21 percent alcohol content but was remarkably balanced.

Like all of the brewery’s outposts, the Shibuya bar showcases Mikkeller beers alongside guest taps from local craft makers. I spotted selections from Japanese breweries such as Minoh Beer, Shiga Kogen and Anglo Japanese Brewing Company. In the future, Bjergso says, Mikkeller will collaborate with local producers to create new brews for the bar.

“Opening in Tokyo is like a dream come true for me,” Bjergso says. “If we can contribute to the beer scene here by showing people something new, I’ll be happy.”

His timing is impeccable. Tokyo’s thirst for craft beer shows no sign of slowing: The launch of Mikkeller Tokyo attracted throngs of beer lovers who waited up to an hour for a pour.

Later, I sent a message to Bjergso to congratulate him on the opening and to wish him luck in the Berlin Marathon. I honestly hope he finishes in time. Luckily, we never shook on our bet — by successfully launching in Tokyo, he’s already managed to prove me wrong once.