Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Warm Welcome

Work continues unabated in the brewery. The news that I'm taking over as head brewer has spread quickly, and the Danish brewing community has been quite welcoming so far. Several of Denmark's brewers here have contacted me, including Søren Wagner of Nørrebro Bryghus and Croocked Moon, and I'll be meeting many of them at the Copenhagen Beer Festival in late May.

Over Easter weekend, I traveled down to the island of Fanø to meet Ryan Witter-Merithew, head brewer of Fanø Bryghus and the person responsible for putting me in touch with Søgaards Bryghus. Ryan is, like me, originally from the US, and worked for Duck-Rabbit Brewery in North Carolina before coming to Denmark. He's been living here and brewing at Fanø Bryghus for over two years now. Fanø is a small island in southwest Denmark that's a popular vacation spot for Germans and Danes alike. According to Ryan, Fanø is often crowded and busy in the summertime, but over Easter weekend it was fairly quiet. The weather, however, was perfect, making it a very pleasant weekend.

Downtown Fanø. Notice the thatched roof on the right.
Ryan and I have known each other online for a while, but hadn't met in person before and wanted to get in touch. When I arrived in Denmark, he invited me to come down and visit whenever I had the time, and Easter weekend just happened to work for both of us. I took an express bus down to Esbjerg after finishing Saturday's brewday, and from there took the ferry to Fanø. I arrived just in time for dinner with Ryan and his wife Mahalia, along with the brewery intern Andres and Ryan's neighbors. We spent most of the night chatting at the table and having a few beers, including some from Amager and some from Fanø Bryghus itself.

You can keep your colored eggs: Ryan's excellent Scotch eggs.
We greeted Easter morning with something better than colored eggs: Scotch eggs, which Ryan made from scratch! After that, Ryan had a bit of work to get done at the brewery, which is literally right next to his house. Nice commute. I helped Ryan and Andres get a little bit of bottling done. Fanø's brewhouse is the exact same system as that of Søgaards, but their bottling line is smaller and less automated. After that, Ryan checked on a barrel that seemed to be a bit overyeasted, and needed to have some pressure taken out of it. Unfortunately, in the process, the bung popped off and showered us with beer, yeast and cocoa nibs, spewing a hundred liters of beer on the floor and requiring lots of cleanup! It was still a good time, though, especially since Fanø had their smoked beer, saison, and coconut porter (Ilan's creation from when he worked with Fanø) on tap.

Ryan: "This is how not to empty a bourbon barrel."
Afterwards, we took the ferry to Esbjerg to meet another US friend of Ryan's: Jean Broillet IV, brewer at Iron Hill Brewery and creator of startup Tired Hands Brewing Company. He traveled to Fanø to brew a batch of beer with Ryan, a dark saison called "Do Saison Dream of Electric Yeast?". Apparently Stillwater Artisinal Ales has already taken "A Saison Darkly," meaning that the Philip K. Dick references are rapidly being chewed up in the brewing world. I guess I should jump on that as soon as I can! We did some grilling - including some excellent sausages and pork chops - and some more drinking before crashing for the night.

A glass of Fanø's tasty saison.
I had to leave early on Monday to get back to the brewery, but it was still a great weekend. Ryan is a fun, down-to-earth guy and a generous host. He and I are already scheming on a collaborative brew, once we both get some time and I get more familiar with the system at Søgaards. I look forward to hanging out and brewing with him again sometime.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Down to Brass Tacks

During my first two weeks in Denmark, I had the opportunity to explore Ålborg and spend a good amount of time with the new friends I've met here. Over the last week, however, life at the brewery has become quite busy and hectic, requiring not only many working hours but an even greater acceleration of the learning curve.

Adding hops and orange peel to a batch of White Cat.

I'm taking the challenge head-on, though. I've now brewed several batches of beer solo on the 10 hectoliter Kaspar-Schulz system, with which I'm getting more and more comfortable. I've also spent a great deal of time on the bottling line, including labeling some bottles whose original labels were delayed. Doing this requires a fair amount of manual labor and process acrobatics. Instead of baby-walking me through all the steps, head brewer Kasper Malmberg mainly supervises my work right now, and leaves me to my own devices quite frequently. Thursday I brewed a batch of Klosterbryg - the Søgaards bock lager - along with filling 36 kegs of Beer Here's Skråplan (their double IPA), cleaning a few tanks and scrubbing the floors. I knocked an unsecured CO2 tank onto my foot while cleaning, but my foot managed to break the regulator instead of the other way around. Today, I'm in the brewhouse alone, finishing up a batch of the Jomfruhumle pilsner so that we'll have nothing but full tanks again.

Although Kasper leaves me some big shoes to fill (both figuratively and literally!) once he resigns, I'm confident that I can adequately fill them, and will work to improve things at the brewery. First order of business is to switch from the current practice of using dried yeast, to using liquid cultures - including a propagation and testing setup at some point - for fermentation. My boss has been wanting to do this for a while now, and it's something I would have done anyway. Liquid yeast simply produces better beer, not to mention that it ferments faster (making management of our cellar considerably easier), gives us a greater selection of cultures, and will ultimately be cheaper. It's a win-win situation, really. Along with that, I'm seriously clamping down on organizational and logistical matters, since some aspects of brewery and warehouse operation need improvement. My boss has also given me permission to change some of the recipes if necessary, and while the majority of the beer here is good, some recipes could use some tinkering.

Brewhouse in repose.

Not that I've spent every second of my time here working, of course. I'm still a regular at the Wharf, and have spent some time exploring Ålborg and meeting people. One of my barmates, Alan, has offered me an apartment he's renting out, so as of next week I'll finally have a residence of my own. It's another garden/basement apartment, but it's in decent shape and Alan is renovating it before I move in. It's within a few kilometers of the brewery, so biking to work won't be as Herculean a task as it sometimes is now. Plus, while my boss and his family have been gracious, generous hosts, it will be far nicer to have a place of my own.

Good Friday, Good Beer: A glass of Crouch Vale Amarillo at the Wharf.
Now that spring seems to have finally arrived (Denmark apparently had a winter almost as long and gruesome as Chicago's), I've been riding my bicycle quite a bit. The 14-kilometer ride into Ålborg runs through some very nice countryside next to the fjord dividing Ålborg from the northernmost part of Denmark. I biked home late Thursday night, which was a breathtaking experience: After living in Chicago for most of a decade, the utter darkness and silence of rural Denmark at night were almost shocking in their intensity, and I could see more stars in the sky than I have in a long time. It was an eerie, beautiful trip.

Danish farmland a few kilometers outside of Ålborg.
Today I'm heading down to Fanø to visit my friend Ryan Witter-Merithew, brewer at Fanø Bryghus and the man who put me in touch with Søgaards in the first place. I'll definitely post about the trip when I return. Until next time - vi ses!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Promising Beginnings

Life in Denmark continues to be a whirlwind, both at work and at play. Training at Søgaards Bryghus has only accelerated since my arrival, taking me through the brewhouse to the bottling line and everywhere between. I learn something new each day, while reinforcing the knowledge I already have. It comes with its difficulties, to be sure - it's hard physical work, the amount of learning is staggering, and it's by far the most demanding and dangerous (do the words "hot caustic" and "pressurized steam" mean anything to you?) job I've ever had. I've even "baptized" myself as a brewer by unhooking a keg filler improperly and soaking myself with beer. It's challenging, but it's well worth the effort, and ultimately it's a very satisfying endeavor.

I need to learn fast, however, because at the beginning of May I take the reins as head brewer of Søgaards. Current brewmaster Kasper Malmberg plans to step down so that he can spend more time with his family and pursue a different line of work. It's a very exciting development, but it also puts me in the driver's seat sooner than I anticipated, and requires me to learn and act quickly. I intend to continue the brewery's level of quality, while adding some of my own personality to its beers, so I want to be as prepared as possible when the time comes for me to take over. The Danish brewing community has already gotten word of this, and it's spreading quickly - an article has already been written here at Beerticker.dk, one of the biggest beer enthusiast websites in Denmark.

Kasper hanging out at the brewhouse.

I'm not without help, though: Over the last week, Ilan Klages-Mundt has been staying in Aalborg with our mutual friend Thure, and helping out in the brewhouse. Ilan is on a long expedition of touring breweries throughout the world, helping them make beer and learning about the culture and process around beer wherever he goes. He writes about his project at Bikeforbeer.org, and plans on cycling through central Europe to work at several breweries in the region. Ilan has already spent time in Japan and the UK, where he's worked with some of my favorite breweries like Fuller's, Baird and Kiuchi (home of the Hitachino Nest label). Moreover, just prior to coming to Aalborg he worked at Fanø Bryghus in southern Denmark, brewing with Ryan Witter-Merithew - the man who helped get me here to Denmark in the first place. Ilan's already been a great deal of help in the brewhouse, and spending time with him and Thure has been incredibly fun. Ilan is currently staying in Copenhagen, but will return at the beginning of May to assist me in the brewhouse and ensure that I get the hang of things. He's already spent some time on the same system that Søgaards uses - a ten-hectolitre Kasper-Schulz brewhouse that's largely automated, and has already been a joy to work with. While he's working with me in May, we plan on brewing a special beer that will be aged in one of the South African Pinot Noir casks my boss recently purchased. Ilan is intelligent and skilled, and will be a great asset to the brewery while he's here - not to mention a good drinking partner.

Me, Ilan and Thure sampling some of the beers at Søgaards.
While Ilan was here, we spent a great deal of time at my new watering hole here in Denmark: The Wharf, an English-style pub that specializes in real ale. In fact, The Wharf and its sister pub (Charlie's in Copenhagen) are currently the only two bars outside the UK awarded the Cask Marque for serving real ale properly and in excellent condition. The Wharf always has several casks of beer on tap, primarily from Crouch Vale in Essex and St. Austell in Cornwall, along with numerous draft beers from various regions in Europe. Unlike the loud dance clubs on Jomfu Ane Gade - Aalborg's biggest stretch of bars, and its most famous street - The Wharf is a classic cozy pub, full of friendly bartenders and lively conversation among its patrons.

A pint of St. Austell's Proper Job - their cask IPA, and the best real ale I've ever had.
Søgaards Bryghus itself creates excellent beers, and does a great deal of contract brewing in addition to its own lineup. Most prominent among them are the brews of Beer Here, the creation of Christian Skovdal Andersen, which emphasize experimentation and intense flavors. Already I've been impressed by some of his recipes, including that of Infantøl, a 2.8% ABV brown ale that packs plenty of flavor and body. As somebody who's also experimented with table beers, that kind of feat is impressive to me. Beer Here is also infamous for its humorous and sometimes controversial beer names and label designs: Kama Citra (a high-gravity brown ale packed with Citra hops) lines the back label with depictions of sex with both partners holding beer bottles, while Tia Loca (a beer combining German and Belgian wheat beer styles) puts a Hitler moustache on revered Belgian comic character Tin Tin. Try to get those labels approved in the US!

The Søgaards restaurant itself is upscale and relatively pricey, but has no problem justifying the expense. The beer is, of course, very good, and the food is also excellent. I've already developed an addiction to their dark bread baked with roasted barley, and every meal I've had from them - from their rich "beerpot" stew to their traditional "stegt flæsk" with potatoes, pickled beets (some of the best pickled vegetables I've ever had, by the way!) and parsley sauce - has been top-notch. Of course, the spice of hunger from a long day of brewery work doesn't hurt either.

I've had some opportunity to tour the city, especially with the gracious help of my boss and my friend Thure. Aalborg is the fourth largest city in Denmark, with somewhere between 150,000 and 170,000 citizens, and is about an hour away from Aarhus, the second-biggest city in the country. It has a fair amount of history to it, as indicated by an old monastery across the square from the brewery dated from the 1400s, and each house along the city's oldest street boasts a plaque on its front door stating which families have lived there. The city and the country surrounding it are beautiful, and while I'm still getting used to Denmark the city has been a wonderful place to stay.

More challenges and adventures lie ahead, and I'm excited about taking them on.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Trial By Fire

After an easy but restless flight, I arrived safe and sound in Copenhagen, and amazingly my luggage did the same. My boss had a flat tire on the way to the airport, which caused a minor delay, but soon enough I finally met the man who hired me from across the ocean.

Claus Søgaard talks fast, works hard and shoots straight. He's very friendly but doesn't abide by any bullshit, and is constantly taking care of business - whether it be by phone or in person. After picking me up, he had deliveries to take care of within Copenhagen, so within 30 minutes of my arrival in Denmark I was already hoisting kegs and cases around! We began at Amager Bryghus, making our way through bottle shops like Barley Wine (which has excellent selection of Danish, German, Belgian and even US beers) and restaurants like Plan B: A cafe with unusual sandwiches, a good selection of both draft and bottle beer, and hilariously odd paintings on the wall. Definitely going to make a stop there the next time I'm in Copenhagen. We then drove four hours back to Ålborg in Claus's beat-up but reliable old Volkswagon truck, and he pointed out various landmarks while we chatted about Denmark and the US, beer and everything else in life.

We arrived at Søgaards Bryghus around nine in the evening, and Claus introduced me to the staff and gave me a brief tour of the brewery. Then he ordered me some food - the "beer pot" - and poured me a glass of my first beer in Denmark, the brewery's own Jomfruhumle Pilsner.

It's a solid pilsner, with a grainy malt flavor and some floral hop bitterness, and it evened out the gigantic richness of the "beer pot" - a stew full of beef, mushrooms and sausage - nicely.

I began training at the brewery bright and early the next morning, with a bit of a surprise thrown in as well: Claus needed to deliver a prize car to a contest winner within the city, and asked me to follow him in his truck. Which is manual gear. I mentioned to him that I'd never driven stick before, and he laughed heartily and said, "It's easy! One, two, three, four!" mimicking the gearshift motion. So, for a harrowing kilometer, I taught myself to drive stick, and his truck tolerated my amateurish shifting well enough. I mean, I managed to stall the thing, but only once, and thankfully not in the middle of an intersection.

We then went to the brewery, where I met the two current brewers: Kasper, the head brewer, and Niels, his part-time assistant. I got put right into the thick of things, and over the last week I've helped brew beer, clean and fill tanks, and clean kegs. I've also been assigned a number of other minor tasks, including transcribing the current Excel-based brewsheet into neater, easier-to-manage files in Beersmith. I'm currently staying with Claus at his family's farm outside of town, which allows him to draft me into helping out in the small warehouse he has on premises. Basically, I haven't slowed down since I started moving out of my apartment a week ago, and between the long, hard work and jet lag, I don't think I've ever been more tired in my life. But it's been well worth it, and an amazing experience so far. I'll have to get used to it, though, because the ride is just beginning.

More to come later, including finding my new watering hole and learning Danish.