Book Review: Mikkeller’s Book of Beer by Mikkel Borg Bjergso and Pernille Pang

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I have a favourite beer t-shirt (no wait, come back), one I bought from Etsy (no seriously, don’t go). It has a vaguely familiar Californian brewery branding aesthetic and the name of the fictional brewery is ‘OBSCURE – Microbrewery You’ve Never Heard Of’. Anyway, I’m not just bragging about my great t-shirt – looking at it the other day made me realise that there is a new level to the joke. Mikkeller, every part the poster-brewery for experimental and uncompromising brewing oddities, pure beer genius and everything inbetween in modern craft beer, is an obscure brewery that everyone has heard of. Production, even when including the many projects all over the world, is relatively low in total, yet the reach is wide, the legacy large and the shadow long. This is the modern brewery, so what, then, is the modern brewery book?

Just as every beer and brewery has a story to tell, so too do the brewers. That compulsion to write their own history, and that of beer too, has motivated a number of American brewers to pen their own bestselling beer books, and we’re now seeing the trend continue here in Europe. Highly anticipated in the craft beer community, Mikkeller’s Book of Beer is co-written by brewery co-founder Mikkel Borg Bjergso and professional journalist Pernille Pang, who is also Bjergso’s wife.

The first chapters of the book feel personal, and the desire to tell his own story in the book’s clipped translated English (familiar to readers of English versions of Scandinavian fiction) makes for a quick and absorbing read. As with anything of this nature, the reader is wary of the authors editing history to suit their narrative, and there is a perhaps controversial recurring habit of measuring Mikkeller’s success by Ratebeer scores alone. Still, it gives a fascinating insight into the mind of a determined and resourceful man across the book’s clean and crisply-laid-out pages.

Of course, much of his story is well-known, and the book proper begins with a potted version of beer history that concentrates on the fun stuff (and, notably, CAMRA), and a breezy trip through major beer styles. The first major problems arise here: for the experienced beer buff, the reliance on heavily debunked myths of style origins may come as shocking, and the IPA section alone might be enough for some people to give up on the book entirely. Meanwhile, the newcomer may find the short, breathless descriptions to lack depth or imagery to capture the imagination, but then, that’s what all the beautiful photography is for. There are also some clumsy paragraphs and phrases that feel like they’ve been wrung through Google Translate, but generally the book maintains an easy-reading pace throughout.

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The book’s real appeal to existing beer nerds lies in the selection of 25 recipes for Mikkeller beers and 5 recipes for other brewers’ beers. Whilst laying bare the recipes for I Beat yoU, Beer Geek Bacon and Texas Ranger shows an impressive amount of transparency on Bjergso’s part, I suspect most will be even more impressed by the inclusion of recipes for Firestone Walker Wookey Jack, To Ol Goliat and Kernel Imperial Brown Stout.

The guide to starting homebrewing itself is packed with handy tips, but also comes a cropper from the occasional confusing sentence or questionable translation, which, when on the topic of oxygen in the brewing process for example, is pretty worrying. The whole thing feels useful in conjunction with other more trusted books on the subject (How to Brew by John Palmer, for example) but not a true foolproof brewing bible on its own.

Where the language and tone of the first half of the book is aimed at the beginner, the food section fells far more advanced in some ways. However, it does overcomplicate some of beer and food matching’s basic principles, recommending only sweet beers for cheese for example, yet a variety of beers for different kinds of shellfish, which is perhaps more of an indication of its Scandinavian origin than knowledge gaps.

The food recipes included, meanwhile, are almost exclusively high-end, Masterchef-esque constructions of the most expensive ingredients using the most obscure methods. It’s hard to see anyone who is actually capable of these culinary feats relying on such a text as their guide, but it certainly all looks very nice, and that might be both the book’s biggest strength and its main weakness. The gorgeous design and pleasingly simple artwork from Mikkeller label designer Keith Shore makes for an easy read, but not necessarily an engaging one.

Whilst it is pretty to look at, and will provide a valuable source for homebrewers (as just that, a source, not a bible), this is by no means the ‘Ultimate Guide for Beer Lovers’. With its artistically impressive layout, repeated reliance on debunked myths but tempting recipes and insight into the rock-star brewer’s rise to fame, this is perhaps then the beer book that the craft beer generation deserves, but not the one it needs. Mikkeller’s book is a beautiful one, but requires the context of more grounded works. Mosher, Palmer et al have little to fear.

BrewDog #PunkAGM2014 (Four Nations of Beer – Part 3)

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This isn’t exactly the blog post I thought I was going to write. I have been very firm in my conviction that BrewDog is entering Phase 2, and shrugging off so much that has stopped them from being respected by so many people. Instead, last weekend I saw a conflicting image of the brewery that has left such an indelible mark on the British brewing landscape.

The AGM 2012 was a messy but fun sort of riot. Massively underestimating demand was as much a part of BrewDog as any notions of ‘punk’ back then, so it was expected that their first go at an event that size would be hit and miss. The hits outweighed the misses though, and it was still a great weekend. In 2013, there were noticeable improvements in every area, a sign that they were listening as much as they were shouting. It was a far slicker, better organised event that got just about everything right. Seeing the new Ellon brewery, and the profound sense of gratitude from the people who work for BrewDog, said a lot. The company was ready not just to grow, but also to grow up.

This year, that slickness became over-confidence, and organisational problems that many assumed BrewDog had outgrown once more reared their heads with a vengeance. 2012’s cries of QueueDog once more became the bon mot exchanged in the line for the bar, of which there were only two. It wasn’t all bad though. After 6pm, a lot of people left of their own accord, either because they were bored to death, or because Idlewild finished playing and that’s all they were there for (or mostly what they were there for). Still, that’s not exactly what I would call ‘everything going to plan’. I understand that BrewDog are limited by the AECC in the number of bars they can have and where they can be, but this might be the year they realise the AECC just isn’t the venue they need anymore.

If it’s becoming difficult to have enough bars and taps to keep 4000+ people from being thirsty, BrewDog want to consider a different approach – such as taking the AGM on the road, a BrewDog Tour if you will. There are now BrewDog bars across the length and breadth of the land, just as well-spread as the shareholders themselves. Doing four, smaller events in say, Aberdeen, Manchester, Birmingham and London, would ease the pressure on the bars, allow more brewers and bands local to each event to be involved and help out, and make it a real spectacle. Having said that, they could easily end up with 4000+ people coming to the London one alone. Still, the way BrewDog is going, they will have to either massively expand the AGM or take it on tour eventually.

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So what did go right? Well, all the beers were in great condition, a wide range of stuff hit the taps from other brewers such as Mikkeller, Stone, Magic Rock, Cromarty and Gypsy Inc, and it was as fairly priced as it has been in the past (£8 for 5 tokens, average pint cost 2 tokens, depending on strength). The problem was, when a new beer came on (invariably a highly-sought-after, one-off rare beer), everyone queuing at the bar ordered four of them, and seven staff themselves would then have to queue for access to just a single tap. When there’s upwards of a hundred people at the bar waiting, you can imagine how long it took to get served – too long, way too long. More often than not, the beer you were queuing to get would be finished, replaced by another beer, which then ran out by the time you managed to be served. It was frustrating.

That isn’t to say that some of those beers weren’t worth waiting for – far from it. Among a stellar cast of Stone, Magic Rock, Mikkeller and so on, it was actually many of BrewDog’s beers that really blew me away. Jackhammer was on predictably excellent form, and Dog C was a more refined beast than its previous incarnations, a smoother body that blended its heavy, thick and spicy flavours with real panache. This year’s #Mashtag, and imperial red ale, was balanced to the point of being dangerous at 9% abv, its fruity, malty depths balanced by subtle spiciness and a long hop finish. Black Eyed King Imp, a test brew of Cocoa Psycho with chocolate and coffee, barrel aged for 2 years, was a marvel, somehow both juicy with stewed fruit and darkly bitter, with the barrel casting a long shadow over the palate. It was Everyday Anarchy that impressed me the most, a very on-trend French white wine barrel-aged imperial saison that positively danced on the palate, rich and vinous with stone fruit yet bright and sharp and clean in purpose. These were all hugely accomplished beers, the kind that keep BrewDog right at the top of the scene.

While the organisation of the AGM itself was still lacking in several important areas, the updates and plans of the company itself were far more impressive. For one thing, BrewDog is now in a position to fully expand the Ellon brewery site to its full potential, meaning they will effectively more that double capacity over the course of the next 12 months. Furthermore, full-time tasting panels and a comprehensive lab setup will ensure quality remains a constant during this period of further expansion, and new automated packaging lines will help ensure that they can get things into the supply chain faster. The new onsite bar, DogTap, is close to completion, and more BrewDog bars have been announced for Birmingham, Leeds, Brighton, Clapham. BottleDogs will also be coming to Birmingham and Leeds (in the case of Leeds, being converted into one from the current tiny bar).

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By far the most significant announcement was the BrewDog Investment Fund, which will see BrewDog provide funding to new breweries to support their growth. James Watt announced at the AGM that Brew By Numbers is the first beneficiary of this fund, with £100,000 being invested in their brewery (this was tweeted and then deleted by the BrewDog twitter account, suggesting the announcement may have been slightly ahead of schedule) [UPDATE 30/6: see here for full details of the BrewDog Investment Fund]. As I said in my last post, BBNo are hitting all the right notes lately. They could easily be the new Kernel, and it’s impressive and heartening that BrewDog is interested in contribution to the beer scene in this way. It’s been something I’ve discussed with people more and more lately – that the time has come for certain breweries to take a position of leadership and help sustain this thing we’re all enjoying so much. BrewDog, among others, are capable of doing so much good, and I was really pleased to see this Fund being set up.

So, what to make of all this? There’s no way to judge Scotland’s brewing scene on the BrewDog AGM alone, but BrewDog always seem to be at the front of things in the UK overall. BrewDog are more than just a Scottish brewery, they’re an international bar business, importer and now fundraiser for craft brewing. There are still disconcerting signs of them taking their eye off the ball occasionally. Being kindly asked by James and Martin to enjoy the AGM responsibly, then having to join an hour-long queue for food, seemed ridiculous. But there are too many good things to ignore here, and I maintain that there was more than enough evidence of BrewDog growing up as a brewer and a company. Their recent blog post acknowledge the long queues, and they have also emailed attendees with a feedback form about the AGM. Ultimately, they are still the best brewery in the UK at inspiring a younger generation of craft beer drinkers and bottling that enthusiasm, no one else even comes close. I think BrewDog are finally coming to terms not just with how big or fast or important they are, but also the responsibility that this places on their shoulders. Their ability to capture people’s imaginations is at the heart of that, and there is no questioning their impact on British brewing. I’ll end with a quote from Greg Koch of Stone, who crystallised that neatly in the AGM’s opening speech:

“Without everybody’s enthusiasm, we couldn’t have got to where we are today – and the change is amazing, is it not?”