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Blending the Flavors of Detroit and Denmark

Small Danish brewery's trademark bear "as strong at the Carlsberg elephant"

Such is the mass-market that the world's best-selling beers are those with the least flavor. It is a further paradox that their producers employ some of the world's leading experts on flavor analysis. By chance, it was the day after the Stroh Brewery Company announced its imminent demise that I found myself in the company of its world-renowned expert in flavor evaluation Morten Meilgaard.

Professor Meilgaard once ran a large department at Stroh, though his function recently has been as Senior Technical Advisor. Although we had spoken by phone over the years, this was our first meeting. Both of us were saddened by the news from Stroh. I had no direct interest in the company, but no one wishes to see a brewery vanish, especially one that is a family business

In recent years, Professor Meilgaard has divided his time between Stroh's headquarters in Detroit and his British-born wife's home city, London. The day we met, we were jointly cutting the ribbon at a new sensory suite at Brewing Research International, an institute just south of London. I was honored to share this pleasure with such an eminent brewing scientist, and he offered some very kind words, from the podium, about my contribution to the description of flavors in beer. I fear we sounded like a mutual admiration society.

In the train home, we fell to talking about his own birthplace, near Odense, on the island of Funen, Denmark. The city, named after the god Odin, is a 1,000-year-old settlement, know in more recent times as the home of Hans Christian Andersen.

Professor Meilgaard remembered it with some affection for its small breweries. The surrounding countryside, sometimes known as the garden of Denmark, grows sugar beet, wheat, barley and rye, and its milk goes to make a creamy smoked cheese. The people of Funen (in Danish, Fyn) reckon they have a more relaxed, happier, appreciation of food and drink than their neighbours to either side: the more religious fisherman of Jutland or the businesslike burghers of Copenhagen. Once, every farm on the island made its own beer, and some still do so for their own use.

As it happened, I had just returned from Fyn. On my visit there, I called upon a pig farmer who was brewing 130-litre batches in cut-down wine barrels. He was using conventional materials, but boiling his hops in the water he used to sparge his mash. He told me he brewed four times a year, and used some of his beer to barter with neighbours for meat, bread or cakes.

Today, there is only one farmhouse brewery, at the hamlet of Refsvindinge, near the town of Nyborg.

As recently as the 1960s, there were said to be 40 commercial farmhouse breweries on the island, making "table beers" at a strength that did not require the payment of taxes and duties. Today, there is only one farmhouse brewery, at the hamlet of Refsvindinge, near the town of Nyborg.

It would be easy to miss the little roadside sign, carved in wood, announcing the Refsvindinge Maltings and Brewery. Beside the sign are three neat buildings, painted primrose. One is the owners' home, and the others seem at first glance like cowsheds. A closer look reveals a vent and chimney suggesting more interesting activities.

The floor maltings is operated twice a year, in autumn and spring, and the kiln is fired with beechwood. The brewhouse is made of iron, and the ten hecto kettle is heated with steam. The wort is cooled on an open Baudelot.

This little business was founded in 1885 by Hans Povl Rasmussen, and is now in the fourth generation of the family. It is run by today's Hans Povl, his wife Inge, their son John-Juul and their dog Rolf, a labrador-retriever mix. Rolf has not been encouraged to drink. His predecessor, a bit of boozer, got drunk while a film crew was making a documentary about the brewery. He did no worse than fall asleep on camera, but the family felt it created the wrong impression.

They may be country folk, but they are not rubes. Their brewery used to make only table beers, while also distributing in their area the lagers of the Danish national giant Carlsberg. Not long after receiving a commemorative presentation from Carlsberg as a "thank you" for their efforts, they were in the1970s issued with a gentle threat by a new sales manager. If they wanted to retain the Carlsberg business, they should not also be selling their own beer. Perhaps Hans and Inge should be the last generation of their family to brew.

Hans responded with a better, braver idea: He would stop selling Carlsberg and develop more beers of his own. His family brewery's trademark has since the earliest days been a bear. "There were bears in Denmark a thousand years ago, and ours is as strong as the Carlsberg elephant."

As he told me the story, he led me through the little kitchen of the house, past Rolf's box, into the front room. The walls were lined with photographs of forbears, offspring and grandchildren, and with collections of commemorative plates in Royal Danish china. Pottery animals crowded two dressers and a bureau. This was the boardroom, guest bar and tasting room.

The brewery's original products were in the top-fermenting rural family of styles that pre-dated lager brewing in Denmark.

The brewery's original products were in the top-fermenting rural family of styles that pre-dated lager brewing in Denmark. This type of brew is known as Hvidtol ("white beer"). As the name suggests, Hvidtol was once made with wheat - but that was long ago. At tax-free strength, it typically has a gravity of 1032, but quite a lot of toffeeish residual body, and an alcohol content of only 2.2 abv. It is sometimes sweetened with sugar.

The very traditional examples made by Refsvindinge balance their sweetness with the smokiness of the malt used. A brassy-coloured Lys ("light") version reminded me of a very good Pale Mild; a copper Ekstra was firmer-bodied. As in some other countries, a "white" beer can be dark (in Danish, Mork ). This interpetation, with added sugar, had a purplish-black colour and an earthy sweetness balanced by lemony acidity.

Slightly livelier versions are made for religious holidays, especially Christmas, when children are allowed a drink. They also leave a glass, with a porridge-like snack, for the Christmas elves, in the way that the British may supply sherry and cake for Santa.

All of these beers are on sale at the brewery in two-and-a-half litre plastic vessels of the types used for fruit juice, but there are also companion brews in a conventional bottle. Another package is a flagon protected by a wooden "fence." This is called Stakitol (stockade" beer). Consumers add sugar to stockade beer to restart its fermentation, boosting the alcohol to eight or nine percent. This is seen as a "ha;f way house" between doing your brewing and buying the finished product.

The "super-premium" variation on this family of styles is the more overtly smoky, malty, lightly hopped, Skibsol ("Ships' Beer"). The seamen of Fyn traditionally topped up this beer with akvavit - the Danish spirit, variously distilled from grain or potatoes and flavoured with herbs like caraway and fill. Refsvindinge's is the last real Skibsol: lively, smokey, sappy and satisfying in flavour.

When these styles seemed in irreversible decline, and Carlsberg had been sent packing, the Rasmussens' brewery in the 1980s launched its own Refsvindinge Pilsner: lower in carbonation and higher in flavour, with a fresh maltiness and delicate hop in its aroma; a smooth body; and a light, lingering dryness of finish. The brewery later added a malty but dry Dortmunder style, of 7.5 abv, called White Gold.

Denmark's first "English" top-fermenting ale has a full ruby colour and an alcohol content of 5.7abv.

Now it has moved on to innovate. Its latest product uses both Danish and English on the label: Aegte Fynsk A.Z. Ale No. 16. The first word means "genuine"; the A-to-Z reference indicates the thoroughness of a brewery that once grew its own grain, and still makes its own malt. Denmark's first "English" top-fermenting ale has a full ruby colour and an alcohol content of 5.7abv. It has a fragrant, tobacco-like, aroma; a rich, licorice-ish, rooty, maltiness of flavour; and a winey, pruney fruitiness of finish.

If that winey fruitiness has a hint of Wiltshire, England, I can guess why. The ale yeast was provided by the Stonehenge brewery (formerly called Bunce's), in that county. The brewer-patron there? A Danish immigrant called Stig Andersen...

Visitors to Odense should not miss a beer bar called Carlsens Kvarter, at Hunderups Veg 19. This corner pub is two or three hundred metres from the city centre. The 50 or so brews on offer are equally divided between Scandinavia and the Low Countries. Owner Benny Weble makes a round-trip of nearly 1,000 miles to fetch beer from the Belgian abbey of Westvleteren.

My host in Fyn was Anders Evald, who recently helped establish a consumer movement called The Danish Beer Enthusiasts, at Buddinge Hoovegade 118 1., DK-2860 Soborg, Denmark. E-mail: Homepage:

Published Online: JULY 15, 1999
Published in Print: MAY 1, 1999
In: All About Beer

Brewery Review

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