More than just a Carlsberg: Denmark’s beer culture microbrew revolution

In this long-read article, we delve into Denmark’s evolving beer culture and how the upstarts and giants are offering more choice than ever, to the benefit of foodies and pubgoers alike.

More than just a Carlsberg: Denmark’s beer culture microbrew revolution
File photo: Katrine Damkjær / Ritzau Scanpix

There’s a microbrewery bar in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro neighborhood, Fermentoren, that I’ve passed many times. It’s a cozy little bar partially hidden from the road by the hedges, which are a little over my height.

I walked down into the basement bar area on a chilly afternoon in April. There was a long line at the bar, and the one bartender working was focusing quietly on keeping up.

Maybe it was the little bit of afternoon sunshine, but it really looked like this cozy place was very popular, and it’s looked that way every time I’ve passed by. I decided it was a bad time to try to get an interview with the bartender.

So, I walked on the Meatpacking District (Kødbyen) and the Warpigs Brewpub. At this bar and barbecue place, in the industrial section of Vesterbro, just about all the seats were taken. I decided to come back at a different time.

Immediately next to Warpigs is the Mikkeller General Store. Not quite knowing what to expect I stepped in. The large glass window was letting in all the sunshine and this really warmed up the shop from the drizzle and wind outside.

You know how when you begin to look for something, you see it everywhere? That’s exactly how I felt on this little walk. Within a few meters I’d passed at least four microbrewery bars and shops.

The Mikkeller shop was a cool mix with an industrial interior and then cartoon-ish art on all the beer and merch. There was even a mug with the little mermaid, drawn as a mix of the Mikkeller cartoon guy, that sideways head with a massive nose, and a little mermaid tail.

Investigating a trend

According to figures from the brewer's association Bryggeriforeningen, while there were only 17 microbreweries in 2004, there were 120 breweries by 2014, which would have made Denmark the country with the highest number of breweries per capita at the time of those figures.

Having already noticed a seeming shift in beer preferences, this piqued my interest into how drastically this trend is developing.

I called Amager Bryghus brewery to ask whether Denmark did in fact have more breweries per capita than any other country.

“It's not actualy correct! The highest number per capita is Switzerland, followed by Iceland and I think Denmark is third. It's a commonly-quoted error,” said Henrik Papsø, communications officer with Amager Bryghus.

An international craft beer revolution?

The title of having the most microbreweries per capita seems to be changing hands. But everyone I spoke to within the industry confirmed the microbrewery boom.

“Denmark now has 197 open breweries and contract breweries. These have all launched new beers. There is now a new record with 30 new breweries and contract breweries in 2017. This is close to a fourfold increase from 2016 when there were only 16,” writes Peter Myrup Olesen, also known as The Beerticker, in an article for The Danish Brewers Association.

Jason, a sales representative at the Mikkeller General Store, was unsurprised when presented with this information.

“It’s the same thing that’s happened across Europe, it’s happened in the UK, like there’s always been a lot of breweries, but in the last five years, it’s exploded,” he said.

Mikkeller bottles in 2014. File photo: Betina Garcia / Ritzau Scanpix

But it hasn’t been easy.

“When we founded the Danish Beer Enthusiast Society in 1998 there were only 13 breweries left in Denmark, and today we have passed 200,” Papsø said.

“So, quite a lot has happened since then. We call it the Danish beer revolution.  It took us a few years after 2000, small homebrewers started going commercial, trying to see if they could make a living from it and then it just exploded. There were a couple of years where there were (up to) five breweries opening every month,” he added.

But can all these new breweries survive?

Veteran brewer Gitte Holmboe, cofounder and owner of Bøgedal Bryghus,says that the real peak was about 15 years ago.

“2004 was the beginning of the beer revolution, and it has gone down since then,” Holmboe told The Local.

“It’s always been a difficult market. I don’t know how all these new microbreweries that are coming up can survive, especially without a unique story. I come from marketing and I think it’s important to have a story that is more than just that the ones opening breweries love beer and love to brew their own beer,” Holmboe said.

Meanwhile, all upstarts still have to contend with the giant that is Carlsberg, which has not ignored consumer interest in specialist beer.

“The competition is not new. It started over two decades ago. During the 1990s wine was increasingly taking over beer in many of the traditional Danish food and drinking occasions. It was obvious that something had to be done in order to change the negative trend of beer,” Frederic Viking, brand manager for Jacobsen, Carlsberg’s specialty beer brand, said in comments provided to The Local.

“Carlsberg fully supported the establishment of the consumer critical association Danish Beer Enthusiasts in 1998. They basically started the beer revolution in Denmark,” Viking wrote.

“Jacobsen Brewhouse, today, and Carlsberg Group, in general, are working closely together with the Carlsberg Research Laboratory to improve our beers, make them better, and more environmental-friendly. It’s in our DNA,” he added.

Carlsberg presenting quarterly results in 2017. File photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen / Ritzau Scanpix

Back at the Mikkeller store, I waited in line behind a group of tourists. I noticed that they’d come to the shop during their visit to Copenhagen just to buy merch from Mikkeller.

Craft beer merch, from an up-and-coming craft brewery had become a type of souvenir or perhaps a lifestyle statement, comparable, perhaps, to the increasing demand for organic food in Denmark.

I asked Lars Bjerregaard, a food and drink columnist with newspaper Politiken, about this apparent phenomenon.

“It’s a sentiment, of course. The thing about the organic movement is that they have just been very fortunate that people think that the organic mark, you know the red logo in dk for the organic products is a benchmark for quality, but it is not,” Bjerregaard said.

“And it’s the same movement you see (with microbreweries). I think that people will be quite surprised if they knew how big a corporation Mikkeller is and it’s just getting bigger and bigger. They would be quite surprised if they knew how big the corporations behind their craft beers are. But it’s still the same trend like behind the organic and still the reason why we buy it over Carlsberg and Tuborg,” he said.

Fake craft beer?

A microbrewery is generally considered to be a brewery that produces beer in lower quantities, typically much smaller than large-scale corporate breweries, and is independently owned, although this definition hardly sets down any black-and-white framework for what does or doesn’t qualify.

So, what of accusations that specialty beer produced by brands like Carlsberg’s Jacobsen is ‘fake’ craft beer?

“It’s not fake. It’s good beer. You and I probably couldn’t tell the difference too much. But it is definitely seen as fake and I totally get it, because the big corporations have totally monopolized the beer market completely throughout the last 30-40 years and now, they are losing, and they can’t seem to reverse it,” Bjerregaard said.

“I was at one of Mikkeller’s first beer celebrations or beer festivals in Copenhagen, quite some time ago, 6-8 years ago and I was up in the office up above the hall where it was held and I looked across the floor and it was just packed. And it was not just packed with beer geeks, men my age with the belly and the beer and the rock n’ roll t-shirts. It was all ages and it was women as well and I said to myself, this is Carlsberg’s worst nightmare they cannot reverse this, and they can’t.

Copenhagen Beer Festival in 2013. File photo: Keld Navntoft / Ritzau Scanpix

“So, they are trying to tap into it, and they sell, craft-y looking beers, which are good beers but it’s just not microbrewery beers,” he explained.

“Then also there is a discussion of what is craft beer exactly? Does it need to be made in someone’s kitchen sink out in the countryside or can it be made in small batches at Carlsberg?”, he added.

Microbreweries continue to set new records: Over 10,000 new Danish beers in 10 years, and 1825 new beers in 2018

In 2018, there were a total of 1825 new Danish beers on the market, making it a record-breaking year, with an average of 5 new beers per day, the Beerticker writes.

“Once people start to drink craft beer, they want to have something different each time. So there is an increasing trend of people not drinking the same beer twice,” says Jason from behind the counter at Mikkeller’s general store.

But perhaps there doesn’t have to be a constant demand for new beers.

“Some breweries make new types of beer just for the sake of making something that’s new, maybe it is the new trend or they try to be trendsetters. I prefer to stick to good taste over just making something new for the sake of making something new” said Holmboe of Bøgedal Brew, which was founded in 1849.

Another long-term impact could be on Denmark’s binge-drinking culture: perhaps, as interest in microbrews grows, quality (and its associated cost) will win out over quality amongst the broader population.

“People are turning to drinking less but it being of higher quality. So, I think financially, it doesn’t affect the customer that much. It’s not just about getting drunk, it’s more about actually enjoying what you have,” Bjerregaard said.

READ ALSO: Denmark 'gives back to the people' with beer made using recycled urine

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Why does Denmark produce so much cheese?

From Danbo to Danablu and the Danish feta that can't be called feta - Denmark produces over four hundred thousand tonnes of cheese each year and exports it across the world. So why is Danish cheese so popular, and what are the country's best-loved cheeses?

Why does Denmark produce so much cheese?

Cheese-making is a serious business in Denmark. In 2021, the country produced a total of 454,500 tonnes of cheese and Danish cheese has won awards at the World Championship Cheese Contest.

The tradition goes back to the Viking era and today, the country’s climate and pastoral land make it ideal for producing cheese (ost). About three quarters of the country’s milk production is turned into cheese, butter and milk powder.

Not only is cheese popular in Denmark, where it’s eaten with pretty much any meal and snack (can you even have a bolle [bread roll] without ost?), it is also eaten around the world in countries including South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, Nigeria and even France.

In 2021, Denmark exported a total of 401,845 tonnes of cheese, making it one of the top cheese exporters in the world. The biggest importer of Danish cheese was Germany (94,419 tonnes), followed by Sweden (52.924 tonnes) and the UK (42,905 tonnes). 18,097 tonnes of cheese was exported to Japan and 5,657 to the United States.

What types of cheese does Denmark make?

The different types of cheese in Denmark can be hard to distinguish and there are a lot of them. You can quite easily end up with a fridge full of strong smells that you weren’t expecting. 

Danbo, often called ‘Denmark’s national cheese’, is the most produced and consumed cheese in Denmark. It has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, meaning it can only be made in Denmark to specific Danish standards.

Danbo is sold under various trade and brand names, including LillebrorGamle Ole, and Riberhus. Lillebror (meaning Little brother) is very mild and often sold in childrens’ packs, whereas Gamle Ole (meaning Old Ole) is matured for a long time, which means it’s strong and smelly. Caraway seeds are sometimes added to this cheese.

Esrom also has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status and is made from pasteurised cow’s milk. It is semi-soft with small holes and is pretty pungent.

Havarti is one of the most famous Danish cheeses. It’s a bit like a cheddar in that the taste can be mild, but the longer the cheese is stored, the stronger it gets. 

Danablu is a Danish Blue soft blue cheese, similar to Roquefort. It has a strong aroma and a sharp and a little salty taste. Danablu is often used in America to make blue cheese dressing for salads and blue cheese dip for chicken wings. 

A dairy farm in Klemensker, Bornholm has twice been named world champion in cheese making. Photo: Morten Juhl/Ritzau Scanpix

Mycella is a veined blue cheese made from pasteurised cow’s milk on the island of Bornholm and is similar to Gorgonzola. It goes well in a salad or cheese platter or even crumbled on top of an open sandwich.

Blå kornblomst, meaning ‘blue cornflower’, is a creamy blue cheese with a mild, slightly salty taste. The cheese is white to yellowish with blue tinges and is made from pasteurised cow’s milk on North Jutland.

Danish rygeost, meaning ‘smoked cheese’ is mild, light and smokey. It originates from 19th century Funen, with some believing it dates back to the Viking Age. 

A dish of potato, monkfish and smoked cheese.

A dish of potato, monkfish and smoked cheese. Photo: Thomas Lekfeldt/Ritzau Scanpix

Vesterhavsost, meaning ‘North Sea Cheese’, is a semi-hard cheese with a slightly salty taste as it is ripened in the sea air of North Jutland. It’s referred to as the Danish version of Gouda. 

Fyrmester or Fyrtårnsost, meaning ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ or ‘Lighthouse Cheese’, is an extra-mature version of the vesterhavsost, aged for at least 52 weeks.

Samsø cheese is similar to Emmentale and made on the island of Samsø in Kattegat.

Hvid ost, meaning ‘white cheese’, is Denmark’s equivalent to feta cheese but uses cow’s milk rather than the goat or sheep’s milk used in Greek feta cheese. It’s milder and doesn’t crumble like Greek feta cheese because it’s made differently, using something called ultrafiltration.

There have been debates as to whether this actually makes it feta cheese. Earlier this year, Denmark lost a case at the European Court of Justice over its farmers exporting cheese outside the EU labelled feta, something only Greece can do. The cheese is sometimes labelled in supermarkets as ‘salad cubes’ (salat-tern).

There is, perhaps, one thing that unites almost all Danish cheeses: they are sliced using the characteristic ostehøvl (cheese slicer), the quintessential Danish kitchen utensil.

There are two types of ostehøvl: a wire-based type and a version that looks a bit like a trowel, with a raised edge and a gap in the middle for the sliced cheese to pass through.

Cheese vocab:

Blød ost: Soft cheese

Halvfast ost: Semi-soft cheese 

Fast ost: Semi-hard cheese 

Hård ost: Hard cheese

Ekstra hård ost: Extra hard cheese

Frisk ost: Fresh cheese

Ostehøvl: cheese slicer