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!
Picture it: You sit down at a bar, enjoy two or three IPAs rich with the fruity, piney aromas and flavors of hops, then get right up and immediately drive home. This is ill-advised, irresponsible and downright illegal behavior. But the information I didn’t supply you with before introducing this scenario is that those hypothetical beers are non-alcoholic. And though it sounds like a riddle based on fiction—c’mon, there’s no such thing as a vibrantly hoppy non-alcoholic IPA—this is a real-world situation that can be played out at the U.S. Grant Hotel’s bar, lounge and restaurant, Grant Grill, where level two Cicerone Jeff Josenhans has taken to removing alcohol from cask ales, before recarbonating, bottling and adding them to the menu. It’s the latest step in the venue’s non-alcoholic craft beverage program, which also includes spirits and cocktails. We sat down with Josenhans to find out more about his methods and what could be perceived by some purists as madness.
West Coaster: What inspired you to explore non-alcoholic beers in this manner?
Jeff Josenhans: It literally just dawned on me how there are no craft non-alcoholic beers on the market, and I thought to myself “how can this be possible?” The non-alcoholic quality beverage segment as a whole—wine, cocktails, etc.—is growing as well, so I just put two and two together. There’s really no reason you can’t drink craft beer at work in a non-alcoholic form.
WC: Walk us through the process of removing alcohol from traditional beers.
JJ: Basically, we maintain the temperature of the beer at 180 degrees Fahrenheit using an immersion circulator, which also keeps the beer in motion. We keep that process going for about 30 minutes or until we can’t detect any alcohol fumes for at least five minutes. Like other commercial non-alcoholic beers or kombucha, there is still a minute amount of alcohol expected to remain in the beer, albeit less than one percent. There really is no such thing as 100% guaranteed no-alcohol beer. O’Doul’s states 0.5% alcohol-by-volume (ABV), Becks Non-Alcoholic states 0.3% ABV and, similarly, when reducing wine into a sauce, you cannot completely guarantee there is no alcohol and that it is at a level which is considered safe to consume and drive, for example. What we do is measure the volume of the liquid and equate it with the loss in volume per the original ABV. For example, if we have 10 liters of 6% ABV pale ale, after the 30-minute process we should have 9.4 liters left.
WC: What styles do you offer and what led you to select them?
JJ: Our current bottled beers are Office IPA, Strawberry Blonde, PC Pilsner, Safe and Sour, and Button-Down Beer. The selection process is directly correlated to the casks we run at Grant Grill. If we don’t have enough left over from a cask at the end of a night, we do not produce any non-alcoholic beer. If there is at least one-third of the cask left, we make a decision to bottle and start the process. We are creating craft-beverage offerings and avoiding waste at the same time.
WC: You’re using local cask ales. Where are you procuring them?
JJ: We always have cask ale on Fridays and Saturdays, and currently partner with New English Brewing, 32 North Brewing, Mike Hess Brewing, Acoustic Ales Brewing Experiment, Fall Brewing and Modern Times Beer.
WC: What would you say to those who don’t see a need for non-alcoholic craft beer?
JJ: There’s no shame in offering people who can’t drink for whatever reason—designated driver, pregnant, religion, whatever—a craft-beer alternative. To be honest, I really don’t understand how the craft market hasn’t got to this yet. It think it’s about time!
Earlier this week, news broke about popular local brewer Cosimo Sorrentino resigning from his dual-head brewer post at Monkey Paw Pub and Brewery and South Park Brewing Co. A fixture in the community who made a point to communicate and collaborate with nearly every brewery within the county, it was surprising to here he was stepping down, but even more confounding to discover he would absolutely be leaving San Diego come the New Year. More information was in order, so we went to the source to appease readers’ logical queries and concern.
West Coaster: What led you to depart your position heading Monkey Paw and South Park Brewing?
Cosimo Sorrentino: A combination of factors, the biggest of which is a necessity for personal growth. I was lucky to learn my craft in the community I grew up in and under an owner that has so much passion, but I feel that I have reached a point where to progress I need a little less comfort and a new environment.
WC: Though your next step has yet to be determined, you are certain you will leave San Diego. Why is that?
CS: I feel San Diego has crossed over to a new era in brewing. The community spirit is being fractured; too many breweries fighting over the same styles, following trends for profit, not enough quality staff to provide front-of-house service…and let’s not get into the distributor issues. This was inevitable and will not necessarily be a bad thing for those making or drinking beer. San Diego beer will get better and those that succeed will benefit from the competition! For myself, I hope that finding a location where the scene is a bit younger will allow me to help foster the same type of conscious collaborative growth that has led to San Diego’s emergence as the beer capitol of the world. It might be selfish, but I have really enjoyed the journey so far and want to keep making new beers with and for new people.
WC: After being such a peacemaker and heavy collaborator within the San Diego industry, is it difficult for you to move on?
CS: Not to be cliché, but this is truly the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. It means stepping away from, not only the coolest brewing job I’ve seen, but leaving family, friends and, potentially even my dog. I am bummed that I will not have the chance to collaborate with some guys and gals in town—especially some of the new breweries—and that I will not be part of Monkey Paw’s next step as a business, whatever that may be.
WC: What will you miss the most about the San Diego brewing and beer scenes?
CS: One word: HOPS! No, but seriously, I will miss the universal nature of the love for beer and brewers in this city. It will be weird to walk into three-or-four bars in an evening and not run into a fellow brewer or maybe even an educated beer-drinker. I’ve never felt the camaraderie and respect that I have experienced in San Diego with brewers and consumers alike.
WC: What are some of your finest memories of your time brewing professionally in San Diego?
CS: Wow. Hardest question…I’ll never forget the first week I got the job at Paw. I had every brewer that I had looked up to either drop in or hit me up on the phone to help me get dialed in. It was a whirlwind, and I did not fully appreciate it at the time, but this foundation paid off and I will be forever grateful. Those memories were revisited last year when I got to sit in on a collab at Karl Strauss on Columbia Street. Not only did we have (KS brewmaster) Paul Segura, (Gordon Biersch head brewer) Doug Hasker and (Monkey Paw/South Park Brewing owner) Scot Blair brewing that day, (Ballast Point Brewing VP) Colby Chandler dropped in to open some bottles as a farewell to (former Green Flash Brewing Co. brewmaster and current Silva Brewing owner/brewmaster) Chuck Silva on his last day in San Diego. This was only made better by the fact that I had invited (North Park Beer Co. assistant brewer) Joaquin Basauri to drop in. This was early on in Joaquin and I’s friendship and the look on his face as we drank barleywine and talked shop with these godfathers brought me back to that feeling of awe.
WC: What were your goals for the semi-controversial public-forum you held to discuss the changing landscape of San Diego beer?
CS: While the forum never became a series, I hope that the discussion was opened and people are more likely to speak honestly and in an informed manner about the evolution of our city and the industry. I am glad there is a reduced amount of animosity because that energy can be redirected towards progression instead of hate and fear.
WC: Any parting words for our readers?
CS: Thank you for absolutely everything. I hope I’ve returned 10% of the happiness and joy you have given me.