Shadows are cast down onto the old butcher building standing amidst the maze of bars, restaurants, and half-hazard parking. Through big, dark windows and the white stucco exterior, sits the spacious, informal hipster pub, Warpigs. Mikkeller’s familiar logo lights up the room in neon, while a malty smell of beer mingles in the air with that of Texas inspired BBQ. The green painted picnic tables and the half-watered cactuses set the tone for the lack of concern for décor, leaving no doubt: This is the heart of the meat packing district.
“Good morning,” a man says as he dances through the front door.
“Good morning? It’s fucking noon,” the manager responds sarcastically, while the kitchen slowly opens up. Our photographer pulls Mikkel around, while the protagonist tells us about the place. He owns it with one of the most outspoken, acclaimed beer brands: The American Three Floyds. And that’s no coincidence. The Americans are far ahead of everyone else when it comes to microbrewing, and let’s not forget that it isn’t the only thing they’re famous for.
“They can make everything a bit more extreme. Of course they also have a larger customer base and can, therefore, afford to experiment, but they’ve surely cleared the way,” he gestures enthusiastically and throws himself into the beginning of his story. Mikkel literally ran his youth away. He was a sprinter who won not only a few Danish championships but also a scholarship to the States after finishing high school. Here, he wasn’t the fastest, though. He was good compared to the Danish standards, but he couldn’t be the best, so why continue?
“I looked at the Kenyans and knew that I would never be as good. I’m a very competitive person, and if I can’t be the best at something, then there’s no reason to go on,” Mikkel says directly, drinks a sip of his beer, and continues:
“I want to be the best at what I do, and that’s also what I’m trying now – to make the world’s best beer. That doesn’t mean that I actually do it, but there’s a possibility, and I might as well do it as anybody else.” Mikkel couldn’t outrun the Kenyans, and for that there are probably many who are happy today, because he discovered something over
there, something good: he got a taste for beer.
“I tried microbrew for the first time, and it was different in a good way.”
WHO SAID HEISENBERG?
When Mikkel stopped running, he became a teacher, and got a job at Det Frie Gymnasium. Here, he taught physics and chemistry while diligently cooking beer in his spare time with his playmate Kristian Keller in a somewhat Breaking Bad style. You do remember that Heisenberg AKA Walter White was a chemistry teacher too, right? But has it given Mikkel an advantage in the same way as with Walter?
“It’s not something that I’ve thought about. It’s not in the process that you make good beer. It’s in the idea phase. There are probably many brewers who would disagree on this, but I’ve always said that anyone can brew beer. It’s just a process. Of course some are better than others, but it’s all about coming up with new things, tasting compositions, and trying to get people to drink something great,” he says and spells out the mission behind Mikkeller. To him, what was going on in the world of microbrewing was interesting, and he wanted to see if he could make just as good beer himself.
“I could – I could make it even better,” he states, while a school class walks by. We’re sitting outside and observing them in silence, so their childish noises won’t go into the recorder.
“Our future customers,” he adds with a grin.
Mikkel’s ambition was never to make a career out of brewing. It was just a little hobby project based upon a sincere interest in beer, but it rapidly developed. At the end, it took so much of his time that he couldn’t be a teacher anymore. And now, there isn’t even time to brew.
“It’s the same with René Redzepi from Noma. He spends some time on a recipe, and then his staff cooks the dish,” he explains quietly and digs into the uniqueness of Mikkeller’s many colorful beers with equally colorful names. They need to deliver a flavor bomb of a message and lure people in with its graphics, because you never end up buying the one beer with the ugliest label.
“If you spend lots of energy on making a recipe, it makes no sense to give it an anonymous label and call it a lager.”
It would be a mistake to say that the look is the only thing that separates the challenger from the crowd. Mikkeller is a phantom brewery that has had, until recently, all its beers produced by others – elsewhere. In other words, Mikkel and his team haven’t been troubled with the process of brewing.
“I can just concentrate on developing, while insanely talented brewers make my thoughts into reality. At first, it was a huge advantage, because I wasn’t tied up financially or had to compromise on things like other Danish breweries,” Mikkel points out and brews a bit further:
“I didn’t have a bank loan to pay back, so I had the opportunity to experiment.” But that’s not the only reason for Mikkeller’s success. Right from the start, he’s been good at creating strong relationships with his customers by not overwhelming them with marketing promotions. The strategy is not to have a strategy. It’s been like that from the beginning. No money was to be spent on marketing, because Mikkel didn’t want to tell people that they should buy his beer. They had to figure that out for themselves, as you’ll never get a relationship with people by just slapping giant advertisements on a building.
“I think we’ll create some strong brand-customer relationships in that way, and we’ve got some very loyal customers now,” Mikkel stresses and highlights that he’s no marketing man. He doesn’t walk around in circles pondering about a marketing strategy nor would he spend money on one. No, with Mikkeller there are no tricks. It’s raw – and it surely seems refreshing in a world, where one is constantly bombarded. Of course it’s harder to hold on to, the bigger the company grows, but everything is still done in an impulsive way.
“Everything on Instagram is something that I just post, whereas other companies similar to us have a marketing department that takes care of it, and we don’t have shit. I think that’s something people like,” he declares, leaving no doubt. Mikkeller has in no time achieved a cult status that only grows for every beer unbuttoned. Mikkel can’t even grasp it.
“It’s unreal, because I don’t do what I do to get a lot of fans. I just go to work and do my best. It’s not the other part that drives me, but it’s fun to visit my bar in Bangkok and see what it means for the Thais and tourists to drink my beer.”
BORING TO MAKE THE BEST BEER
The last few years, the beer company has harvested one great ranking after the other, but what can Mikkel do to steal the number one position? Nothing. Because that’s not where they’re at right now:
“The rankings are based on a very small customer base – the beer geeks – and when we first started brewing in the kitchen, we were ranked at ratebeer.com, and if it had been my focus, then I might have reached the top, but that’s not our motivation. We would like to reach out into the world and get as many as possible to drink some decent beer, and when that’s your goal, you can’t also focus on rankings,” he explains and continues immediately:
It’s the same with Noma. If they wanted as many as possible to taste their food, I don’t think they would be ranked particularly high anymore. It’s difficult to reconcile the two.” If you want to be on top, you’ll have to have a little place far, far away, where people travel to. It must be more or less impossible to get hold of the products. The exclusive is often valued the most. So, the more you reach out, the harder it’ll be to keep a top position, because then you can no longer control the customers. “There’s a place somewhere in Vermont. They don’t even have a phone connection, so when people come up there they mean it,” he states frankly and interjects:
“I would rather have 100.000 more to drink my beer in a year than to be number one on a list.” That doesn’t mean that Mikkel isn’t trying to make the best possible beer, though, and challenge the concept of ‘the good beer.’ No, it’s necessary, because anything else would be “fucking” boring.
“It’s my driving force. You can’t make the world’s best beer – and thank god for that. Otherwise, there’s no reason to carry on. When Carlsberg says ‘probably the best beer in the world,’ they’ve got a problem. First of all, I don’t think that they even believe it, but if they did, there’s no reason to improve anything,” he explains and underlines the importance of doing things 100 % and never ever compromise. “If you’re not going to do it properly, then drop it. This doesn’t mean that it has to be perfect, but do it as good as you can – and then even better next time. One can always improve. When Usain Bolt sets the new world record in 100 meters, I’m sure he immediately thinks, ‘How can I beat this?’ and not ‘Well, I’ve broken this record, now it’s time for me to stop.’ You shouldn’t settle for being the best in the world,” Mikkel gets up and rounds off nicely. He’s late for a board meeting, where they’re going to ponder over records set and chase new territory.
THREE FOR THE CHRISTMAS DINNER
1. Our Santa’s Little Helper is great for the
2. I make a beer called Ris a la M’ale. It’s
made of the same ingredients as ris a la
mande. I would rather drink that one.
3. There’s a lot of fat in Christmas food, so it’s
nice to break it up with a sour beer like
our Drink’in Berliner.