At the turn of this century, Scandinavia was on the brink of what has been called a “beer revolution.” In 1999, there were only nine breweries in Denmark; within six years, more than 10 times that number had opened, marking a surge of brewing in the country. It was around that same time that Tore Gynther and Tobias Emil Jensen, two 17-year-old high school students in Copenhagen began playing with the idea of brewing their own beer. Tired of the flat, commercial brews served at all their school parties—the legal age for drinking beer in Denmark is 16—they came up with a plan fueled by stories they had heard about their physics teacher, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø (yes, that Mikkel, of Mikkeller fame), who, at the time, homebrewed in his kitchen.
Gynther and Jensen attended Det Fri Gymnasium, a high school based on the principle of open, direct democracy; students and teachers voted on the school’s rules and initiatives together. Along with some other students, the two proposed that the school buy brewing equipment.
“It was the fastest unanimous vote ever. Basically, everyone agreed that the school should buy the equipment,” Jensen recalls with a grin. And so, Gynther and Jensen’s brewing journey began in their school’s kitchen, where they were allowed to brew after school hours under the guidance of Bjergsø, experimenting with any malts and hops they could get their hands on.
“We started it as an enthusiastic school project, but our goal was always to brew the best beer in the world,” says Gynther. After graduating, Gynther and Jensen continued brewing at home. In 2010, when they were both 23, they launched their first beer—a zesty IPA called Overall under the label To Øl, which means “two beers” in Danish. Brewed at the Flemish De Proef Brouwerij in Belgium, the beer was a collaboration with Bjergsø, who had already founded his brewery Mikkeller in 2006. “When we started, everything was new to us. I had just tasted Belgian beers and was discovering a world beyond Danish lagers,” says Gynther.
On a balmy summer afternoon last August, I met Gynther and Jensen at their new brewpub, BRUS, in Copenhagen. We talked over one of their recently launched pale ales—BRUS Willis—about their latest venture (co-owned with Morten Bruun and Chef Christian Gadient) and their brewery’s journey thus far. Gynther and Jensen are now in their late 20s, and since founding their brewery six years ago, they have already created more than 200 beers together.
BRUS is a stone’s throw from their old high school in the vibrant and quickly gentrifying neighborhood of Nørrebro, where the duo spent much of their high school years. “We used to have our math exams in that building,” says Jensen, pointing at a two-story brick structure next to BRUS’ main entrance. “When we heard that we could get our hands on this space in Nørrebro for our brewpub, it felt like coming home.”
The building that houses BRUS was once an old locomotive factory for the Danish railways. Today, its old windows and brick walls merge effortlessly with the bar’s stylish interiors, adorned with custommade wood furnishings and minimalist art. Shiny fermenter steel tanks stand meters away from the bar, a contrast to the old wooden barrels that line up next to it. At the far end of the room is an open kitchen for the gourmet restaurant Gynther and Jensen also own; its counters are heaped with buckets of seasonal vegetables and herbs. They named it Restaurant Spontan to ostensibly encourage spontaneity among customers, with the only requirement being a love of beer. “In many restaurants there is a wine list 10 pages long and only a one-page beer list. We have about the opposite,” Jensen explains.
In 2014, To Øl was named the world’s ninth-best brewery by Ratebeer.com, but Gynther and Jensen are not satisfied to rest on their laurels and instead work to constantly reinvent themselves. The BRUS brewpub is the latest big project they have added to their list. However, it’s clearly more than a brewpub because it also serves as a laboratory for the To Øl founders.
“This place is getting slightly schizophrenic. Both BRUS and some To Øl beers are brewed here. It’s not a rule, but normally all fresh, local house beers are labeled under BRUS,” Jensen explains. While To Øl still brews most of its beers in Belgium, the brewing facilities in this huge factory building have made experimenting with different wooden casks significantly easier. “If Gynther and I have the idea to barrel-age a stout, it is of course interesting to taste it fresh. Or to keep it for three or four years, and then possibly bottle it as To Øl. But we would never bottle the pale ales we make here at BRUS,” he quickly adds. Apart from aging beer in cognac barrels and experimenting with Brettanomyces, BRUS has put a strong focus on pale ales and pilsners from the beginning. “You shouldn’t underestimate the classics,” Jensen says.
To Øl has recently taken on another challenge: to create a high-quality, instant beer. Essentially, the project involves applying the principles of instant coffee to beer—they chose to partner with a leading food-processing company for this experiment. Gynther and Jensen started with four of their own beers: a dark beer brewed with coffee, a fruity IPA with tropical notes, a wild yeast IPA and a dry pilsner. Five liters of each were put on separate trays in a freeze-drying machine at minus 40 degrees celsius and 0.1 millibar of pressure. The water and the alcohol were extracted so only the beer solids were left behind: sugar, proteins, bittering compounds and some aroma compounds. To make the substance drinkable again, only sparkling water and some type of alcohol needs to be added to it. However, the brewery claims not to have any specific plans at the moment for releasing a freeze-dried beer.
“We first of all wanted to understand how different leftovers in different types of beer come out during freeze-drying, but we also realized that if we produced four different dry matters and the corresponding alcohol, then people would be able to mix together various types of dry matter and alcohol to create their desired type of beer, both in low ABV or imperial versions, of course,” Jensen explains.
For more than a century, the Danish beer scene has been dominated by a few commercial giants, including Carlsberg and Tuborg. However, the growing popularity of small-batch beers is clearly creating ripples in Denmark’s beer market. Last year, 1,298 new Danish beers were released in Denmark. In 2000, the number was only 15.
In 2014, Carlsberg launched a series of beers called “Brewmaster’s Selection,” presumably with hopes of flirting with craft beer lovers. Jensen thinks that the macro-industrial brewers were probably waiting to see if craft beers were just a temporary trend before jumping on the bandwagon. “Now they are picking up the pace (with attempts at craft beer production) because they can see how much market share we are gaining. We are still very small, but we are gaining,” says Jensen. Gynther points out that the big brands are having a hard time entering the world of craft beers, because they are used to selling only one beer over and over again. “Today, the macro breweries in Denmark are trying to fit craft brewing into their existing business model but I don’t think that is the right approach to craft beer-making. It is something that requires constant development,” he says.
This search for “constant development” is mirrored in the duo’s notion of terroir. Despite Denmark’s difficult climate for growing hops, beer terroir has become a hot topic among Danish brewers. For instance, the Ny Nordisk Øl (New Nordic Beer) movement is trying to create beers using only local ingredients that express a Nordic identity. For To Øl, beer terroir matters in a different way. Gynther say for him, terroir implies embracing the fact that beer is a “living” product that cannot be duplicated identically over and over again. Moreover, the To Øl founders seem to be focused on the quality, rather than the origins, of their ingredients. “There is so much to learn. For instance, when it comes to hops, we have to ask ourselves where you get the best Citra and which is a good vintage for Citra, etc. You can’t really be a brewery that has the complete terroir, at least not a Danish brewery, because the climate here is not good for growing hops,” says Jensen.
Experimentation appears to be To Øl’s mantra, which has stayed with them since those days in their high-school kitchen. It continues to shape their vision, and according to them, their focus lies in developing new beers. “Some call us gypsies, but we like to call ourselves architects or beer designers, because we try to develop new stuff and push the boundaries.”