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 KĂžbenhavn 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.

Ranking 11 Breweries in New York (The first half)

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged the hops side of Hops, Trains, and Backpacks: it’s New York City Beer Week and here’s the run down of the breweries we’ve visited over the course of the past year. I’ve graded each on a 1-5 star scale on three points (beer-ambiance-fun):

  • Beer: Quality and inventiveness of the product;
  • Ambiance: Is it pleasant or novel to spend some time here;
  • Fun: Are there things to do while you’re here to entertain yourself.

I’ve then ranked them in reverse order, subjectively, from 11th – 1st, with the most emphasis placed on good beer. Of the 24 beers produced in New York City limits, 21 have taprooms or are brewpubs (see this article from Brew York for a full run down). That means we’re about half-way through. Here’s a map of the ones we’ve visited (in green) and the ones we haven’t (in yellow) to follow along:

[googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/d/embed?mid=zEsOW87RyKdo.kbssccH6e7PM&w=640&h=480]

Beer rotations are changing constantly and these breweries are one-upping each other with more inventive ingredients and more hops, these rankings are based on the time at which I visited. By the way, follow me on Untappd (it’s like Facebook for beer). That said, here goes:

  1. Strong Rope Brewery, Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 2-3-2
    This Gowanus, Brooklyn brewery is around the corner from Dinosaur BBQ and this amazing chicken wings hole-in-the-wall called Wangs. The beer was weak on the ingredients and I simply couldn’t find one I liked, let alone remember in retrospect. They did, however, have live music at their opening. I suppose the plus side is that they’re just starting out and can turn on a dime, though the same could be said of any of the above, with the possible exception of Brooklyn Brewery, which is doing fine on its own.
  2. LIC Beer Project, Queens (Website, BeerAdvocate) 3-2-1
    A small bar tucked in between auto repair shops hosts this upstart brewery. Their selection is mostly Belgian saisons and the like that to my taste were sharp and needed a bit more time to mellow out, though their dry-hopped IPA (WonderLIC) was a standout, and was worth grabbing as a birthday present. Nice neighborhood spot, not worth going out of the way for.
  3. Transmitter Brewing, Queens (Website, BeerAdvocate) 3-1-1
    We visited here on a cold, rainy day and it just didn’t feel welcoming like the others. A very small vestibule is their tasting room, and samples are poured from the bottle, like at a winery. Wasn’t really impressed by the beers, other than their nice packaging. They’re not bad and were fairly interchangeable, though their Community-Supported Brewing model is fascinating and I hope it catches on. They’ve reached the ninth spot on the strength of their beer alone, that said, the strength of their beer selection qualifies them for the ninth spot, though I would give them a second chance.
  4. Big aLICe Brewing, Queens (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-2-1
    Another brewery tucked away in a nondescript industrial area, Big aLICe has the most inventive selection of rotating beers in the city with wild ingredients. The space is small and nicely decorated with wood panels and lights, though with nowhere really to sit and relax. It’s worth it for the beer — order a full flight. When we visited, I recall a salted caramel beer (Salted Caramel) and a white stout (White Coffee Stout), among others. Looking forward to our return visit to see what they’ve cooked up lately.

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    Ever-changing draft list at Big aLICe brewery in Long Island City, Queens
  5. Keg and Lantern Brewing Co., Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-3-2
    This pub has food, we came here for breakfast, and it makes its beer in a custom setup in the basement. I’ve met the head brewer at a New York City Brewers Guild meeting, and he’s trying out inventive, small-batch stuff. Big plus here is the ability to order a meal. This was where we started our brewery tour of North Brooklyn and Long Island City, and I recommend their breakfast if you’re looking to begin your brewery crawl on a strong note.
  6. Greenpoint Beer and Ale Company, Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-3-3
    Formerly called Dirck the Norseman and now renamed to match its brewery, this cavernous space is a bar and live music venue, and when the weather is nice they open up their window-paned garage doors to let in the fresh air and give you a nice view of the tank farm at Bushwick Inlet (n.b. The Tank Farm at Bushwick Inlet will surely be the name of the forthcoming condo project when this area is eventually repurposed to take advantage of its waterfront location). Their seasonal rotation of beers is excellent (just take a look) and they’re walking distance from Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn Bowl, and the Brooklyn Night Bazaar.

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    Sun shining on the day’s first beer at Greenpoint Beer and Ale Company
  7. Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 3-5-4 (2 fun if you’re stuck in line)
    Probably the most well-known NYC brewery, you’re either in for a big surprise or a big disappointment, so lower your expectations, steel yourself for waiting in line, and you’ll be fine. After at least 30 minutes and up to an hour, you’ll be let in, a bit like a fancy club except they check your moustache and not your shoes. Once you get in, you’ll feel obligated to stay all night to make up for the wait.
    The space itself is huge and has lots of tables for sitting and drinking, beerhall-style. You’ll get to know your neighbor, because this place is so packed that there is never free space to sit without squeezing in somewhere. Beer is cheap (5 for $20) and you can sample pretty much every brew they make. Their Brooklyn Half is not bad, as is Sorachi Ace and their new Insulated Lager, though you’re not getting anything here you couldn’t get at the grocery store.
  8. Rockaway Brewing Company, Queens (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-4-4
    A bit of a misnomer because their tap room is not in the Rockaways but instead in a section of Long Island City that appears to be conjuring skyscrapers and a brand new neighborhood from the post-industrial muck (which has been replaced by a park and soccer fields). The beer is all sessionable, their English bitter (Rockaway ESB) and stout (Black Gold Stout) stood out, and they give you free bags of Cape Cod potato chips, which are the best potato chips. The vibe is beach-like and light-filled and you feel like this could be a popular neighborhood haunt, as opposed to an industrial site visit.
  9. Other Half Brewing Co., Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 5-4-3
    By far the best beer in the city and the most hyped, with good reason. Other Half makes you trek out to Smith-9th Street and search for an unmarked door next to a McDonalds because the best beer in the city is inside. It’s fun hanging out there because you feel like you’re sharing in a secret and the lights are low and feeling is like a rustic cabin, but really the beer is the main attraction — hoppy, strong, knock you off your seat (All Green Everything, Green Diamonds, Hop Showers). They have session versions of their big guns (Small Green Everything, Baby Diamonds) without the bite. I’ve yet to come on a release day (check their Twitter for the latest), but I’ve heard that the line is around the block to pick up some beer trade bait cans.

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    Waiting line for limited release cans at Other Half (source: idrinkgoodbeer.com)
  10. Threes Brewing, Brooklyn (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-5-5
    In New York City, space is money, and Threes has the long tables and relaxed vibe of a German beer hall on a Sunday afternoon, though including a piano, a game selection (or was this just on game night?) and periodic live music. Plus their beers are sessionable, sour, farmhouse, wild ales or dry-hopped and deceptively strong (Superf*ckingyawn), and all around tasty. Their kitchen hosts a rotating chef, and I’ve yet to sample the food, though it looks great.
  11. SingleCut Beersmiths, Queens (Website, BeerAdvocate) 4-5-5
    Large open space with concrete floors, high ceiling, and roll-up doors makes it feel like you’re having a party in the loading bay of a Home Depot, but in a good way. Their varied beer selection includes sours (Kim Hibiscus Sour Lagrrr!), English session ales (Keith SW4 English Pale Ale), and piney hoppy West Coast (can’t remember name). A massive selection of free board games, including Cards Against Humanity, and a rotating record selection on the turntable make you want to stay here for hours.

On a closing note, New York City has some amazing breweries, and I’m looking forward to the stream of new releases and seasonal offerings when I’m feeling thirsty. Try all of them and start at the top of this list.