Master Blender & Brewer, Mikkeller Baghaven
West Coaster covers the San Diego brewing scene, which may lead one to wonder why we’re featuring an interview with an employee of globe-spanning, Denmark-based Mikkeller. It’s because Ehren Schmidt recently resigned from Vista’s Toolbox Brewing Company, requiring him not only to relocate to a country where he doesn’t even speak the language, but also bid adieu to a brewery to which he brought a great deal of prestige and, oh yeah, perhaps the finest brewing region on the planet. It’s an opportunity that came up fast, but a decision he put a lot of thought into. We sat down with him shortly before he boarded a plane for Copenhagen to find out how this came about and what awaits him across the Atlantic.
How did the prospect of employment with Mikkeller arise?
[Mikkeller owner] Mikkel [Borg Bjergsø] stopped by the brewery early one morning and I was in the middle of examining a new wild-yeast isolate under the microscope. He got to check it out and asked me a bunch of questions. We sampled through beers in barrels and sort of hit it off from there.
What does your new position entail?
I will be responsible for all of the beer production in a new oak-aging facility in Copenhagen at Mikkeller Baghaven. Baghaven is Danish for “backyard”. Nothing has previously been released from this project. It is still very new.
What at the tops of your priority list coming in?
I’m going to continue to focus on oak-aged wild ales and farmhouse-style beers with an emphasis on local microflora. I’m most excited about the Koelschip trailer—a mobile koelship/beer-transfer tank—and the chance to work and collaborate with some top European Brewers. Also, I plan on collecting wild yeast in Denmark just like I did in California. When I travel, I always try to find a way to collect local organisms (when applicable). I plan on incorporating as much local microflora into the beers as possible.
What are some of your greatest Toolbox accomplishments and what will you miss most about San Diego?
Toolbox was a time of incredible growth in my career. What we accomplished in the two years I was there is amazing. We have made some great beers and I’ve met some wonderful people. I’m grateful for the exposure I’ve gotten locally and nationally during my tenure as head brewer there. As for what I’ll miss, the Mexican food, the amazing weather and hills. There aren’t many hills in Denmark.
What are your feelings on the big move?
Moving is always difficult, especially to a new country, and with dogs and a girlfriend. I am incredibly excited and stressed out. Denmark isn’t the easiest country to get a work visa in, but luckily I got one. I’m grateful for everyone who has supported Toolbox and myself through thick and thin. We’ve been through a lot in a short amount of time and without the loyalists I don’t think I would be where I am today. It truly is an amazing feeling. I want thank each and every supporter from the bottom of my heart. There will be more beers!
Last year, 10-year Denmark-based gypsy brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø hammered down stakes in Miramar, transforming AleSmith Brewing Co.’s original brewery into Mikkeller Brewing San Diego. His brewing team spent most of 2016 getting the feel of the facility. Now that group feels ready to be more aggressive in its fermentation activities. Bjergsø has vowed his brick-and-mortar will debut one new small-batch beer on a weekly basis beginning January 12 at its tasting room with a trio of new offerings: bourbon barrel-aged Beer Geek Brunch imperial oatmeal coffee stout, Fruit Face raspberry-coffee Berliner weisse and Uklar IPA. Future “San Diego Beer Release Series” debuts will take place every Saturday starting January 21. Keeping up with such a rapid rate of innovation and execution is no easy task. Curious about this and what it’s been like for this world-famous brewer to find his feet in San Diego, we sat down with him to pick his brain.
WC: What are some surprises you’ve encountered in San Diego?
Mikkel Borg Bjergsø: It’s been surprising how different the beer scene is in the U.S. compared to Europe. There are so many great players—especially in San Diego—and so many great beers. You really have to make an effort to stand out. I think with the new special-release series we will.
WC: What drove the decision to release a new beer every week?
MBB: Brewing a lot of different beers and beer-styles is in our DNA, and it was only a matter of time before we set out to launch a similar release schedule in San Diego. At this point we have an amazing crew in place, the brewing equipment is all dialed in, and our management setup is so in tune with our vision that we are confident now is the time. Most people will associate us with a hectic output of beers in all styles, shapes and formats, which is exactly what they should expect. That, and the totally unexpected, of course. Having your own brewery opens up a world of possibilities that are not usually doable when working in someone else’s brewery, whether it’s contract brewing or on a collaboration basis.
WC: What is your day-to-day involvement like regarding brewing at Mikkeller SD?
MBB: We’ve had to adjust to both the physical distance and time difference, but I am fortunate in the sense that I have to rely on the very capable hands of our head brewer Bill Batten and his team of skilled assistant brewers. It’s still my recipes and vision, which we will discuss through our daily email chains and our weekly conference-call.
WC: What other interesting or exciting developments are on the horizon for Mikkeller SD?
MBB: There are a lot of super-exciting things under development, but the sour and barrel-aged beer programs are two projects we are putting a lot of effort into. We have such a creative team over there, and it seems that no matter how crazy the idea and/or recipe I throw at them, they enthusiastically turn those into great beer. We are also working on new collaborations with other breweries, and non-brewers as well.
WC: You’ve spent more time than ever in San Diego. What are some of your favorite local breweries?
MBB: I hate to name favorite breweries as it pushes the rest to the side. In the San Diego area there are obviously a ton of amazing brewers, from the old guys like Stone Brewing, Green Flash Brewing Co. and Ballast Point Brewing, to the young guns like Abnormal Beer Co., Toolbox Brewing Co., Modern Times Beer Co. and many others. I still have a big heart for our friends at AleSmith, so if I have to name one…
This weekend, long-awaited international collaborative project Mikkeller Brewing San Diego opened its doors. The place was mobbed, both by everyday customers stopping in for a taste of the numerous beers in the tasting room, and next-level beer geeks assembling in the lot behind the brewery for a beer-festival that included various local interests as well as hard-to-get beers from cult-favorite brewing companies outside San Diego. When the dust cleared, I was left with a sated palate, a bunch of notes and some photos to share with West Coaster readers. Before we get started, skeptics, haters and trolls will be glad to know that I’m leaving my opinions on beer aroma, flavor and quality out of this. It’s only right. While I do not work for Mikkeller Brewing San Diego, I do work for AleSmith Brewing Company, the founder and CEO of which also has a substantial ownership stake in MBSD. So, I’ll share the basics so you know what to expect going in. But I’ll also share a bit of insight from behind this operation, because there are some fun little items that I’m sure San Diego beer enthusiasts will be interested in.
For those who somehow haven’t heard the story of how Mikkeller SD (as we affectionately refer to it) came to be, here’s the basics. After 19 years of brewing in a small, off-the-beaten-path set of business suites on Cabot Drive in Miramar, AleSmith owner Peter Zien signed on the dotted-line for a 105,500-square-foot facility two blocks away on Empire Street (which the City of San Diego later renamed AleSmith Court). That left Zien to decide what to do with AleSmith’s original facility. A number of companies (even those many craft-beer fans would politely refer to as “unsavory”) came knocking, but instead of entertaining the highest-bidder, Zien pursued an idea based on a nearly decade-old friendship with Danish gypsy-brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergso.
Prior to starting the business he would dub Mikkeller, Bjergso reached out to Zien as a homebrewer to a pro and asked for tips on integrating coffee into an oatmeal stout that, after this question was answered, would go on to be Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast. That beer made a name for Mikkeller, which has since gone on to become an international force worldwide…despite the fact Bjergso has never had a brewery to call his own. Looking to hand over his spot, turnkey-style, he reached out to Bjergso to see if he had any interest in a brick-and-mortar. The answer is yes and the rest is 15 months of history that consists solely of the duo and the recently assembled Mikkeller SD staff working hard to bring this project to life.
Though installed in the same spot as AleSmith’s former tasting room, Mikkeller’s recognizably quirky artistic stamp is all over the place. The floors have been painted turquoise, a mural featuring two very basic (and very flexible), iconic illustrated characters takes up the west wall of the sampling space with additional print art adorning the walls. AleSmith’s curved orange wall has been replaced with contemporary wooden slats that, when matched with modern light-fixtures, are a bit reminiscent of some of MIkkeller’s bars and bottle-shops, of which there are more than a dozen sprinkled across the globe. Best of all, the smallish space has been added to, care of the conversion of some of AleSmith’s former office-space into an overflow seating area just off the main entrance.
The opening-weekend tap-list consisted of 18 beers. It was important to the team at Mikkeller SD to offer a wide array of beers and styles, but I can say from witnessing what into it that it wasn’t easy. Delayed licensing and permitting alone made for a tough row to hoe, but we’re talking 18 beers here. That’s more than many breweries have to offer after having been open for months. And then one must consider the process of getting these beers dialed in to where Bjergso, who spent the majority of his time 10,000 kilometers away in Denmark but came up with base ideas and recipes for the Mikkeller SD beers, was comfortable with them. Beers would be brewed, fermented, then shipped to Denmark. Three of those initial beers—an American pale ale, India pale ale and porter—went through several iterations and were on at AleSmith’s current tap-room over a span of several months. They took a great deal of time and consideration, leaving a mere 15 beers to be brewed before last weekend’s opening—about six weeks down the road.
This is where the story gets pretty cool and the “creative-partnership” between AleSmith and Mikkeller that this new business is labeled became just that. Zien, who has been instrumental in early recipe-refinement (nobody knows the brewery like the man who built it and worked it up from the day’s when it was comprised solely of dairy equipment), pulled out some homebrew recipes and methodologies. Members of AleSmith’s brewing team collaboratively assisted, most notably on Mikkeller SD’s first bottled beer, an English-style old ale dubbed Ny Verden. Other beers that made it in time for the opening were a Belgian-style blonde ale, saison, trippel and dark strong ale, several more IPAs (including a Brettanomyces-spiked offering that I really enjoyed FWIW), a Berliner weisse, a pilsner (and a version of that beer with blood orange), an imperial stout and numerous members of the Beer Geek family of coffee beers.
Overseeing all of this work and brewing all of these beers (with the help of his crew, of course) was head brewer Bill Batten. After well over a decade with AleSmith, he knows the Cabot Drive system like the back of his hand, so when Mikkeller SD was set to become a reality, both he and Zien knew it made sense for this industrious and adventurous brewer to transfer himself, and with him a ton of history and knowhow, to the new business. While I can’t get too opinionated here, I can share that we at AleSmith are extremely proud of Batten, who went as far as roasting some of the coffee for the Beer Geek beers at his own residence. He is the glue that held together a rapidly developing project with the eyes of beer-obsessed people all over the planet.
And the fact he got by with a little help from his friends just makes the story all that much more San Diego in nature. Such camaraderie and willingness to do whatever it takes to make great beer is what this culture is all about, and it’s a big reason why Bjergso was excited to plunk down his first full-time brewery in America’s Finest City. Kudos to a good decision, cheers to a local beer landmark staying that way via a new identity, and props to the beer-lovers who have made and continue to make San Diego the very special place that it is.
In mid-December 2014, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller visited San Diego to brew a collaboration beer with Peter Zien AleSmith Brewing Co. The result? Beer Geek Speedway. Described by the brewers as equal parts Speedway Stout and Beer Geek Brunch, the ~11% Imperial Oatmeal Stout will feature Kopi Luwak coffee beans and will go on sale online this coming Monday, January 19th. Celebrating its 20th year, this will be AleSmith’s first 2015 specialty release. Click here for more info.
The relationship between Mikkeler and AleSmith is long-standing. “Beer Geek Brunch is definitely inspired by Speedway Stout,” says Bjergsø. “I used to e-mail Peter asking him how to brew with coffee back when I was a homebrewer.”
On the beer scene in Denmark, “Copenhagen has changed a lot in terms of beer culture. We’re seeing much more diversity.” He continues, “All of our beer bars were dark, walls littered with beer signs and the seats filled by big men with big bellies. We’re now seeing more women involved.”
The biggest enemy of craft beer in Denmark? “Bad beer. If a potential craft beer drinker tastes a bad beer, it might ruin the entire thing for him.” In addition, “Beer is much more niche, and we have to fight against bigger breweries that are essentially a part of Danish culture.”
While in San Diego, Bjergsø toured several spots including Stone Brewing Co. Liberty Station, Alpine Beer Co. and Societe.