I’m a huge beer geek. Over the past 4 or 5 years hunting down craft beer has become one of the things I try to fit into every trip to a new place. Luckily in London it’s getting much easier to find the stuff. There are some truly top drawer craft beer bars popping up, serving the finest beers from around the world and it’s an exciting time for anyone looking to explore what beer has to offer beyond Stella, Guinness and their like.
Outside of the US, where the scene is decades older than our own, top of my craft beer places to go list for some time has been Copenhagen, and the Mikkeller bar in Vesterbro specifically. Owner and renowned brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø has been making boundary-pushing beers under the Mikkeller name for about 8 years now, often collaborating with other notable brewers around the world and exporting his creations to more than 40 countries. His bar has become something of a mecca for beer freaks passing through Europe (or indeed making a special pilgrimage) and one look at the outstanding tap list and rare bottle list is enough to see why.
I’d heard he was opening a new, much bigger bar called Mikkeller & Friends down the road from the existing bar, with a whopping 40 taps, and an adjoining bottle shop, but I figured I’d have to just get there when I could at some unknown, possibly non-existent point in the future. It was the nicest of surprises then when on the last day of our holiday in Berlin recently the wife let it slip that we’d be going to the new bar’s opening party the following weekend as a special birthday treat, sans child and with everything paid for already (apart from the bar tab). Cue that Christmas Eve when you’re 6 feeling…
A couple of days before the opening of what promised to be one of the World’s best craft beer bars, the on tap list was announced on the Mikkeller website, and it was the stuff that a beer geek’s dreams are made of, boasting among other things Three Floyds Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels with vanilla beans and Westvleteren XII, two of the world’s most sought after brews, both of which are generally unavailable outside of their respective breweries in Munster, Indiana and Belgium respectively, unless you’re willing to part with serious cash on eBay. Coupled with that came the news that the bar would be offering 1000 litres of its regular house beers for free once the doors were open, and when that was gone they’d be serving the crazy stuff until closing time. With 1500+ people saying they would be attending on Facebook it became abundantly clear that this was going to be some party.
We turned up an hour or so before the scheduled opening time of 3pm to find about 40 or 50 people already queuing outside the basement bar in the bitter cold with a palpable buzz building. I’d experienced this kind of queue at plenty of gigs before, but this was definitely a first. Opening time eventually arrived and the throng poured in. By some miracle we got seats, picking up some free beer from the bar on the way. The place is very open, but cosy with a clean and sophisticated Scandinavian feel, lots of light wooden furniture and shiny turquoise floors.
Free beer is always nice, and the three different brews on offer all slipped down very nicely, warming up the crowd like a support act before the headliner (the insanely brilliant list of amazing beer) came on. The Nørrebro Wit was the best of the bunch, with a classic wheaty citrus flavour and a little bit of bitterness, balancing nicely with honey sweetness.
We got chatting to some Aussie law students studying in Copenhagen and after a couple of free beers the bar started serving all the rare and hard to find stuff and people started to swarm. Battling my way through to the bar, there was a bit of a crush going on, and I realised that the level of beer geekery I was immersed in was higher than I had ever experienced. This was beer mania. I felt like a loser for half a second before hearing a guy next to me order 4 measures of Dark Lord. At 150dk for 20cl (getting on for £20) that was an expensive round even by Danish standards, and he was clearly taking things at least as seriously as me.
And then it was my turn. It felt a bit surreal ordering a Dark Lord, like finding a copy of The Quarrymen acetate and having the money on me to buy it, but I went for it, along with a Zombie Dust American Pale Ale (also from the Three Floyds brewery) and Mikkeller’s Spontandoubleblueberry lambic fruit beer. The Dark Lord was poured first and popping my schnozz in the top of the glass to get a whiff of what was going on in there was a truly memorable experience. The powerful vanilla and bourbon aromas immediately blew me away, and were complimented with a strong hit of espresso. Chatting to the guy next to me as the barman poured the rest of my order, I let him have a noseful as well and it seemed to have the same effect on him.
Back at our table I was more than ready for a taste of this much revered drop of thick black stuff, and if I’ve built this up too much it’s because the sampling of this beer was a real event for me. With the wife and the Aussies all having had a quick sniff I took a big sip, and my word what a beer it is. It’s like a dessert and a coffee rolled into one (and a beer obviously), really rich and viscous, with the vanilla even stronger than I expected, and the 14% alcohol not noticeable at all, making it dangerously drinkable for such a strong beer. It has all the classic imperial stout flavours: coffee, chocolate, roasted malts, and dark fruits, but with a nice sweet vanilla and burnt sugar note, a bit of bourbon, and a slight sour note in the finish (possibly from the barrel aging). I’m a big believer that the best things in life are meant to be shared and I must have let 4 or 5 people have a sip. It was a good conversation starter: “here, have a taste of one of the best beers in the world”. Well you’d talk to someone who said that too, right?
Whilst Dark Lord was the best beer we had there, the selection on offer was impeccable. The Spontandoubleblueberry was refreshing and bursting with blueberry flavour and that tartness you get with lambics. We also sampled a lychee version which was absolutely delicious, along with Daybreak, an Imperial Stout brewed by Mikkeller in collaboration with US brewery Hill Farmstead. Unfortunately Westvleteren XII, the number one rated beer in the world, never came on – which must have been a disappointment for some. It wasn’t pulling through the tap for some reason. Luckily a friend shared a bottle with me last year (thanks James) and they were selling it in bottles in the adjoining bottle shop for anyone desperate to try it.
Eventually of course when you’re drinking high strength beers you have to stop – too much of a good thing and all that. I had to have a quick look at the bottle shop before we left and I could have filled both of our suitcases with amazing beers that would prove very difficult to find in the UK. The beers in the bar and bottle shop aren’t cheap, but I came away with bottles of Three Floyds Alpha King and Zombie Dust for about £6.50 each, which is fairly reasonable given the distance they’d travelled and their rarity in Europe. We drank them in the apartment we rented for the weekend the following day and both were outstanding. As we left one of the staff handed us each a small glass of barley wine brewed by To Øl (another Danish brewery, with whom the bar is apparently a joint venture). He’d poured it from a giant Nebuchadnezzar bottle which I’d have struggled to lift I think. One for the road? Don’t mind if I do…
Back into the cold, where there were still plenty of revellers spilling onto the street, we stopped by the hot dog van parked outside only to discover they were serving hot dogs with condiments made with Mikkeller beers. I can’t say I could taste beer as I ate it, but the sausage was good and spicy and I’d gladly have polished off another. Nice touch.
By rights, the next morning should have been horrific, but a good night’s sleep and plenty of water before bed kept our hangovers to a minimum. We spent the day exploring and ate at Mother, which is something of a Copenhagen institution, serving great sourdough pizza and an Italian buffet brunch I’d recommend to anyone paying the city a visit. After a look around the Museum of Copenhagen and a nice walk by an icy canal, we ended up back in Mikkeller & Friends, and the vibe was entirely different to the previous evening, with just a few people there and the staff able to stop and chat. The guy I spoke to was friendly, knew his stuff about beer, and even remembered serving me the Dark Lord, asking what I’d thought of it and letting me know that they’d sold all they had of it within 40 minutes. Not surprising really, given its reputation and deliciousness. I tried a Kernel London Sour (only 2.3% – good hangover beer) with a dried gourmet sausage and cornichons, recommended by the barman and it all slipped down rather nicely, just as everything had the night before.
Mikkeller and To Øl have raised the bar with Mikkeller & Friends. I honestly can’t fault it. It’s a great place to go and enjoy the best that craft beer has to offer, and probably the best bar for beer I’ve ever been to. If only it were in London. Interestingly, there are rumours that Mikkeller will soon be joining forces with Brewdog (who already have several bars in the UK) to open a game-changing bar in Clerkenwell. With the fantastic Craft beer Co already offering a top notch craft beer experience in the same area, it could make Clerkenwell the best place to go for a beer in London. Exciting times indeed.