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!
SD TapRoom celebrated its tenth anniversary in February. The bar and restaurant was one of the first businesses to champion the charge of craft beer in its home community of Pacific Beach. That area has a big reputation as a party-town fueled by happy hours and discount brews, so trying to adapt mostly young, non-affluent locals and college-age visitors to the glories of a higher-priced but abundantly superior artisan ales was challenging, but fraternal owners Kevin and Kyle Conover stuck with it and gained the respect of the brewing community and the drinkers it caters to in the process. Now, that duo is ready to take things a step further via a new project: TapRoom Beer Company.
Equipped with a seven-barrel brewhouse and 50 taps, this brewpub will be located at 2000 El Cajon Boulevard, on the corner of El Cajon and Florida Street in University Heights. The Conovers have wanted to get into brewing for some time. It took a year to select and secure the spot they have. It was important that they find a location that was right for a brewpub as they were not interested in running a production brewery. The Conovers aim to keep this business true to the spirit of their flagship, citing a focus on community as an attribute that will carry over from PB.
But what about the beer? That will be the charge of local brewing-industry veteran Bill Batten. Batten resigned from his post as head brewer at Miramar’s Mikkeller Brewing San Diego in March. He opened that operation after transitioning over from AleSmith Brewing Company, the interest he worked for from 2002 to 2016. AleSmith owners Peter and Vicky Zien hold a minority ownership stake in Mikkeller SD, so entrusting that business’ brewing operations to Batten was a logical step, making it all the more surprising that he would voluntarily walk away after 15 years of loyalty.
Batten cited creative differences with majority owner Mikkel Borg Bjergsø when announcing his departure, but the likelihood of encountering those at TapRoom Beer seems slim. The Conovers say they are looking forward to Batten unleashing his skill and creativity, and are excited to see the direction he takes their brewpub. According to the team, the venue’s beers will run the gamut from a style standpoint. Classic English-style extra special bitters to San Diego-style hop-bombs and a variety of experimental beers will all be explored, but creating a mix of traditional and innovative ales and lagers is the goal.
Key features of the two-story project include a beer-cellar that will be located on a top-level mezzanine that is visible to customers. Half of the total space’s 5,000 total square feet is outdoors, providing opportunities to enjoy San Diego beer in tandem with its amicable trademark weather. Beers will primarily be available on draft, with occasional releases of bottles and/or cans. TapRoom Brewing is slated for a December 2017 or January 2018 opening.
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…
We’ve reached the halfway mark of 2016. Over the past six months, roughly a dozen new breweries have opened (including one that had been producing beer without a tasting room for a couple of years). This seems a good time to assess this field of newcomers and pick out those that are producing the best beer thus far. It’s but one writer’s opinion, so feel free to disagree and share who you think is best in the comment section. And if you haven’t checked any of these places out just yet, they’re definitely worth a visit.
Burning Beard Brewing, El Cajon: At a time when El Cajon needed a suds-savior like never before, this op touched down like a caped superhero, bringing with it a beer list offering great diversity plus quality across styles. The pilsner, pale, IPAs and coffee-stout are standouts but don’t overlook the ESB or Belgian singel. All are made even better when enjoyed in a rockin’ tasting room by a staff that’s as exuberant as the punk power chords pumping out of the sound-system. And they have foudres!
Resident Brewing Company, Downtown: Does this operation’s coconut IPA taste as good as the award-winning batch its brewmaster created as an amateur. Yes, but there’s so much more to this newbie than that. Abutting its parent-business, the Gaslamp’s long-running watering hole, The Local, the brewhouse is pumping out Americanized takes on English styles that are crisp, balanced and refreshing yet big on hop-driven flavors. It’s good to see them starting to trickle to outside accounts.
Pure Project Brewing, Miramar: This One Percent for the Planet operation (1% of profits to go to non-profit organizations) has endeared itself to beer-lovers behind a beautiful earth-and-elemental tasting room motif, friendly service and beers that go down easy while bringing forth lesser-seen adjuncts and flavor combinations (coconut quad or strawberry-vanilla cream ale, anyone?). The majority of the beers are sessionable, making it easy to taste their rotating rainbow of selections.
Bitter Brothers Brewing Co., Bay Ho: They’re the fastest success story of the upstarts, getting signed by Stone Distribution straight out of the gate and selling enough beer that they’re already adding fermentation space. The interest’s name might lead you to believe they are all about hoppy beers (they have some and they’re quite tasty), but theirs is a varied young tap list offering numerous flavor-oddities, and their subtler wheat ales are very enjoyable…and not the least bit bitter.
Mikkeller Brewing San Diego, Miramar: There’s a lot of pressure for a gypsy brewer opening their first brick-and-mortar, especially half-a-world away from their home, but the brew-crew assisting said nomad, Mikkel Borg-Bjergso, has stepped up admirably. Numerous takes on java-rich Beer Geek Breakfast and a Brett IPA have been fab, but most people are still waiting to be wowed by beers exhibiting the ingenuity and whimsy that Bjergso built his reputation on over the past decade.
Mason Ale Works, Oceanside: So the restaurant- and bar-owners behind Urge Gastropub & Whiskey Bank love beer, but what do they know about brewing it? Not enough, so they went out and got an industry veteran who once headed The Lost Abbey‘s production. That key move allowed the brewpub to put out solid beers from the start. Mason has also secured early distribution and its array of hoppy, dark and Belgian-inspired beers are doing well, though they face stiff competition from impressive guest beers on a daily basis.
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.