“In Denmark you can’t be in people’s company unless you’re drinking beer.” With those words, Jonathan Schlichtkrull, my guide, summed up the importance of beer in the Danish capital.
I am on an exploratory trail across Copenhagen, trying to understand their love for the Danish pilsner and how it might have trickled down through generations in history.
It is believed that beer has been a part of the Danish society since 2800 BC. Hvidtøl or ‘white beer’ was dominantly consumed until 1838. Somewhere around the 1830s the quality of beer had deteriorated so much that king held a speech where he declared the beer to be like dirt. Thereafter he commissioned J. C. Jacobsen, who introduced the pale lager from Bavaria, to brew high quality beer. He made the golden pilsner a favourite in the country.
Our first stop is the Studenterhuset (The Student House) on Købmagergade, near Round Tower. The Student House is where members (or students) get discounts on food and beer by presenting their student card.
I study the tap sincerely to see five varieties of pilsner. Tuborg may be their bestseller, but I decide on the Torvehal pale ale, which is brewed in Bornholm. It is refreshing and just perfect as a first beer of the day, on a hot morning like today. But I secretly wish it had more texture.
For texture we continue walking towards Mikkeller Bar, but not before peeping into Jernbanecafeen (or The Railway Cafe) on Reventlowsgade. The vibrant green of the pub complemented the kitsch interiors. Every corner of this typical Danish bar is busy with small decorations, giving it a cosy feel. Turning towards the bar, I see seven beers on the tap and numerous bottled in the fridge. Most of their beers come from Thisted Bryghus, which is in north of Denmark.
Even though Jernbanecafeen has only started its day, I notice that smoking is allowed indoors. ‘Can this be called a traditional bodega?’ I ask Schlichtkrull as we step out. He nods in affirmation.
Bodegas are authentic beer pubs in Copenhagen which serve local brews, may have live music, keep only smørrebrød (Danish open sandwiches) and have an old world charm. Usually frequented by older customers, bodegas are also becoming increasingly popular with the younger generation.
A few metres ahead I read ‘Øl & Brød’—which as I have just learnt literally means ‘beer and bread’—on Victoriagade. I am standing in front of Mikkeller Øl & Brød but we walk into the Mikkeller Bar, a few steps ahead.
Mikkeller dates back to 2006 when Mikkel Borg Bjergsø decided to introduce the world to the brews from his kitchen in Copenhagen. Today Mikkeller exports beers to 40 countries across the world.
A colourfully written blackboard hangs above sleek draught taps. It has twenty names on it. Mikkeller Vesterbro catches my eye with its 5.6% alcohol by volume. Like all Danish pilsners, this one has hoppy aftertaste but has a lingering sweetness.
As the noon sun rises, we decide to rent a cycle and pedal towards Vesterbro. In this neighbourhood, a place called Absalon serves the pilsner differently, than the other regular bars.
Absalon, a community space on Sønder Boulevard, is painted in bright blue, pink, green and red. They position themselves as a space where everyone is welcomed for food, drinks, games and various activities like table tennis and movies. The idea is to socialise and connect with all kinds of people.
Schlichtkrull and I walk towards the food and beverages counter which is tucked away on the left of the vibrant community hall. By now I am feeling confident of my understanding of Danish beers. I get myself a glass of Thisted Bryghus’s Thy Pilsner and Schlichtkrull gets a Ørbæk Bryggeri’s Fynsk Forår for himself. Cheerfully, we clink our glasses and exclaim ‘skål’ in chorus. I immediately notice how my beer was just a cloudier version of his, while he quickly reminds me of a beer tradition I had learnt a few minutes ago.
The first sip remains sacred for the Danes. After the mandatory ‘skål’ (Danish equivalent to the universal toast ‘cheers’), they believe that the first sip should be a proper, wholesome one—which brings down the level of beer in the glass beyond the label. While I pursued it unsuccessfully, Schlichtkrull sipped it like a true Dane.
After a true community beer-drinking experience, we head out to the home of the renowned Danish beer—Carlsberg.
J. C. Jacobsen started the Gamle (Old) Carlsberg brewery in 1847. However, in 1901 the Ny (New) Carlsberg Brewhouse was completed and was owned by his son, Carl Jacobsen. Since father and son had a clash of ideologies, the latter decided to start his own brewery. However, after the death of his father, Carl Jacobsen decided to merge and work as an employee in the Carlsberg Group.
Carlsberg, which begun on the outskirts of Copenhagen, is an international favourite today.
We walk through an exhibition of the largest collection of unopened beer bottles in the world (22619 as of June 22, 2018), into the 35-minute beer tasting session. Irvin leads the tasting and introduces me to their locally brewed (and exclusively available) Jacobsen beers. Overlooking the Jacobsen Saaz Blonde and the Jacobsen Extra Pilsner, I form an immediate infatuation for the Jacobsen Original Dark Lager. My fellow beer-tasters, a local Danish couple, however, prefer the extra pilsner, stating that they are ‘more suited’ to this one.
It occurs to me that in Copenhagen (and perhaps Denmark) drinking beer is not about the taste, or even about the beer in itself. It is the familiarity that comes with it. A warm summer afternoon with friends by the canal. A cosy evening with a loved one at home. An occasional community dinner with strangers in a rooftop organic farm. Beer manifests into the many memories that then become a part of our lives.
Accompany your pilsner with these local Danish food:
-A classic herring smørrebrød (Denmark’s open-faced sandwich) at Told & Snaps on Toldbodgade, or at Øl & Brød on Viktoriagade.
-A traditional and organic hot dog from the Den Økologiske Pølsemand hot dog stand at Round Tower.
-The innovative tastes of New Nordic food at the Michelin-starred, 108 on Strandgade. Their menu changes seasonally and has specials like Brown Beech mushrooms with smoked egg yolk sauce.
-The grill-and-meats food kiosks at Reffen street food market at Refshaleøen.
Apart from Carlsberg, have you tried a Danish pils?
An edited version of this story was published in Eat Stay Love magazine.
Note: I was invited by Wonderful Copenhagen on this trip.