With a new location in Tokyo and several more global venues on the way, the brewer-without-a-brewery is more accessible than ever.
Fans of craft beer in Tokyo have just received a major gift: Danish "gypsy brewing" outfit Mikkeller has opened its sixth global Mikkeller Bar in Japan's capital, which the proprietor calls “the coolest city in the world.” Seizing upon a populace that increasingly hopes to explore options besides Asahi Super “Dry,” the Danes have set up shop in the Tomigaya area of Shibuya.
Mikkeller—a portmanteau of the names of its founders Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Kristian Klarup Keller—entered the beer world in 2006. Zealous home brewers, the Danish pair began to win international critical acclaim on the tasting circuit for its Beer Geek Breakfast, a recipe for oatmeal stout brewed with French-pressed coffee. After the brew was voted RateBeer.com’s No. 1 in the stout category, the duo was signed by U.S. craft beer distribution giant Shelton Brothers. The so-called gypsy brewers—globe-trotting artisans who used friends’ brewing facilities—scaled up production to satisfy growing demand. Then, a year into the venture, Keller parted ways with Mikkel to assume an editorial position at Danish music magazine Soundvenue. Eight years later, over 700 unique beer recipes have been released under the Mikkeller brand, with distribution in more than 40 countries worldwide.
For a brewer that doesn’t own a brewery, this output is almost comically prolific—but Mikkel is not entirely averse to bricks and mortar. As of this writing, he’s been a party to the construction of 12 establishments in just the past few years. With Mikkeller Bar locations in Bangkok (which also includes a tasting room), Copenhagen, San Francisco, Seoul and Stockholm, the eponymous bars are “about showing what we do and not clashing with the [local] culture — it’s not a franchise,” said Mikkel. “We try to incorporate the culture and show respect to it.”
The next few locations are already queued up: Barcelona, Los Angeles, Taipei, and Århus, Denmark. Then there’s the existing Mikkeller & Friends in Copenhagen and Reykjavík (bars opened with Mikkel’s brewing proteges, To Øl; the Copenhagen site also features a shop that sells 200 various bottles of Mikkeller beer). An additional location in Copenhagen, Mikropolis, is a cocktail bar that often infuses Mikkeller and To Øl beers into mixed drinks. Elsewhere in Denmark's capital is Øl & Brød, a restaurant specializing in Smørrebrød, traditional Danish rye bread sandwiches, and Warpigs, a Texas-style barbeque and craft beer joint opened with U.S. brewing titan, Three Floyds.
When entering any Mikkeller Bar, one will quickly notice how uncharacteristically well-designed the venues are for beer-centric spots. Instead of featuring the standard dizzying number of flatscreen TVs blasting sports, you'll find clean, monochromatic tiles, thoughtfully chosen woodgrains, and flowers. The original Copenhagen location’s sleek Scandinavian aesthetic comes courtesy of Danish design firm Femmes Regionales.
“If there is something a bit solemn to a place, people won’t bang their fists on the tables and empty their glasses in one sip but behave in a different manner,” explained one of Femmes Regionales' founders, Caroline Hansen, on Mikkeller’s website. “We like to demand something from our audience. Beauty generates beauty.” In the case of the Tokyo location, the Scandinavian element blends with a Japanese aesthetic that's contemporary and comfortable. Think wood paneling and bamboo tap handles.
A visit to a Mikkeller Bar is never just about looks. The beers (mostly Mikkeller’s own, with rotating selections from friends he’s made over the years) are impeccably curated and often unavailable elsewhere. Mikkeller’s Spontantripleblueberry—a rare tap-only oddity brewed with 1,500 grams of blueberries per liter of lambic-style ale—is currently being poured at Tokyo’s bar. “It’s different from bar to bar; some are smaller than others,” said Mikkel. Quality reigns over quantity, with choices at all locations to impress the most jaded expert while welcoming the curious novice.
Though he has become something of a global beer magnate, Mikkel still gets his hands dirty, brewing as he did nine years ago. He recently introduced a group of exceedingly small-batch experimental beers he calls the Small Brew Series! These are not available outside his locations in Denmark. “It’s a new challenge,” Mikkel said of the series, which he produces at a facility rented in Copenhagen’s Meatpacking District. “A good way of being even more creative and having more fun.”
Hand-waxed and adorned with some of Mikkeller house graphic designer Keith Shore’s most beautiful work, the varieties include such experiments as a version of his 19.2 percent alcohol by volume “黑” stout (often called the strongest beer to come out of Scandinavia), aged in calvados barrels. These playful brews serve as a reminder that, for Mikkel, it’s first and foremost about the beer.