Carlsberg Brewery, a simple surprise

Carlsberg, a beer known for its unobtrusive presence at many English pubs. Its name is vaguely German-sounding, yet this flagship brew is definitely not a typical malty Bavarian lager. Instead it’s clean and refreshing, yet nothing fancy. Which is fitting, because the Danes are not quite German and have a rather clean, refreshing, and well-designed city, despite lacking the flashy skyscrapers and monumental architecture of other world capitals. Beauty in simplicity, I’d say.

Thus, as we took an off-the-cuff reroute on our first full day in Europe, passing through downtown to the train station in suburban Copenhagen of the same name, I had low expectations for the Carlsberg Brewery. As is often the case when I set my sights low, I was pleasantly surprised. The Carlsberg Brewery was a revolutionary place in its time, and we were able to see some of that shine.

The Back Story

J.C. Jacobsen, the founder, built his first brewery in 1847 on the outskirts of the city of Copenhagen, for better access to land and clean water. He named his brewery Carlsberg, after his son, Carl. It also happens to be the name of a town in Germany, which was well and good because even in that time German beer was known for its quality.

In fact, Carl was sent away to Germany at a young age to study brewing, which I suppose fueled the resentment of his heavy-handed father, whose mansion stands on the grounds of the brewery. When Carl returned he opened his own competing brewery, Ny (New) Carlsberg, right next to Old Carlsberg.

Years later, the two companies merged, under Carl, and with subsequent acquisitions the company is now the fifth largest beer producer in the world. On a side note, Carl donated the famous sculpture of the Little Mermaid which can be seen in Copenhagen Harbor.

Open Source Brewing

For those that enjoy enjoy craft beer, “Give me a light lager, please!” are words spoken never, yet Carlsberg has a special place in beer lore. At their laboratory, Danish mycologist Emil Hansen first isolated the lager strain, Saccharomyces carlsbergensis, known today as Saccharomyces pastorianus.

In the name of science, J.C. Jacobson agreed to share the findings freely, thus boosting the scientific quality control of mass-produced beer around the world. For that matter, this strain was shown to have come from the first yeast brought to Carlsberg from the Spaten Brewery in Bavaria. So you could also thank the Germans for that one. Either way, you’re able to try a few approximations of those early beers, using the original yeast, on site.

Low-Brow, High-Brow

Main operations of Carlsberg have since moved to a much larger and newer facility outside the city. Mass-produced lager needs mass production facilities, and this 150-year old space wasn’t cutting it anymore, though it is a beautiful building. Not surprisingly, the brewery was not particularly hopping with work, though we did get to explore the lagering tunnels under the old facility and meet the (ceremonial) dray horses. The tunnels seem to have been used recently as storage space, as they’re full of leftover barrels and the detritus of 150 years of brewing history and the horse barn was the cleanest I’ve ever seen.

What is left at the facility is a tourist destination and craft brewery called Jacobsen, which serves up a selection of experimental small-batch beers that aren’t available outside of Denmark. Their beers are small steps for such a tradition-bound place. No over-indulgence in aroma hops as we often have here in the US craft breweries, but we did get to try some historical recipes and a few weird ones, such as a brown ale made with baobab. The bar and event space is impeccable, all gleaming brass and marble and well worth a visit, as it has space for a few hundred. I imagine it’s used as a conference center for visiting beer dignitaries.

There Goes The Neighborhood

Since the brewery moved out in 2008, there is a lot of land up for redevelopment and the neighborhood is in the process of adding space for over 7,000 people, we were told. This new neighborhood is called, fittingly, Carlsberg, and its development master plan that has won international awards. Given the scale of the construction, it might take them a while.

Carlberg Brewery is located at Gamle Carlsberg Vej 11, 1799 København V, Denmark. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm and closed on Mondays. Entrance is 95 DKK and includes 2 beers. More information at visitcarlsberg.com.

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