How to Survive the World's Coolest Beer Festival

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How to Survive the World's Coolest Beer Festival

How do you spend four hours in the company of 80 of the best breweries in the world? Do you wait in line for the hip shit, pretending that you actually believe it tastes a bit like fermented pine shoots and windshield wiper fluid?
June 15, 2016, 10:00am

Considering they were about to indulge in some of the world's most potent beers, the 2,500 people waiting in line at the Copenhagen Beer Celebration were a polite bunch. While Credence and YMCA blared out from a nearby sound system, the guests diligently lined up in long lines, tasting glasses in hand, wristbands attached, indicating that they were among the lucky few who had secured access to one of the world's most formidable beer festivals.

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Started by famed Danish brewery Mikkeller five years ago, the Copenhagen Beer Celebration (CBC) is a right of passage for any beer geek worth their hops; a two-day event showcasing the finest craft beer makers from around the world, spiced up with side orders of barbecue, gold-plated hot dogs, and independent distilleries. This year, the festival more than doubled in numbers and size, moving from an indoor athletics arena to larger premises at Øksnehallen's event space in Vesterbro. Tickets to its four tasting sessions sold out in an instant; the most diehard connoisseurs invested in pink wristbands that gave access to the promised land all weekend.

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While inevitably heavy on tattoos and beards, the crowd at CBC is a varied bunch, from hardcore beer geeks to a couple from Stockholm who had traveled down to Denmark after she bought her boyfriend tickets as a gift.

But how do you spend four hours in the company of 80 of the best breweries in the world? Where do you even begin? Do you start out on a diet of sour beers or heavy-duty stouts? Do you wait in line for the hip shit, pretending that you actually believe it tastes a bit like fermented pine shoots and windshield wiper fluid?

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In the end, there is little point in pretending to have a plan. We decided to do like most people here: start out ambitious and then eventually end up drinking what we know and love. And then you just try not to fall off your bike on your way home (we didn't succeed). Only the most hardcore seem able to really stick with a strategy after the first couple of hours of tasting, at which point many of the brewers switched their tap selection to guilty pleasures. "At the end of these sessions," said Andreas Skytt Larsen from Danish brewery Alefarm, "people just want to drink IPAs."

But the hardcore never relent at CBC. They congregate at the folding tables and benches along the center of the hall, from where they dispatch each other as couriers to pick up the last armload of samples. At one of these tables, three student friends from Sweden were jotting down marks and reviews on paper as if they were dabbing bingo numbers. Daniel, wearing a red PBR t-shirt ("It's only a little bit sarcastic") said they would each have tasted close to 400 beers by the end of the weekend. Their tactic: sipping small measures. "It's about focus," said Daniel. "After the first 50 beers, it gets harder and harder. The trick is to take small sips. We bring two beers each and then we share them. Then we go out to get more. Afterwards, we rate the beers in the app "Untapped." We just try to get as many as possible."

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When offered a pouch of Swedish chewing tobacco—a pedestrian habit of Swedish sportsmen and beer drinkers alike—Daniel and his friends instantly refuse. "No way," said Daniel. "We can't taste the beers properly with that stuff in our mouths."

The highest scoring entry on their beer sheet this afternoon wasn't a highfalutin gueuze or Belgian tripel. It was Crand Cru Berry, a deep-red, berry-packed mead from Superstition in Arizona (Daniel from Sweden scored it 4.7 out of 5 on his ratings sheet). Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the man behind Mikkeller, told us before the festival to look out for the meaderies. "I don't just drink beer," he said. "I drink lots of wine, mead, and cider and it's great for me that we can show off those things as well. I think we'll see much more of that in years to come."

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Another of the mead producers at CBC was Brad Dahlhofer, who runs B.Nektar in Detroit together with his wife. They were making mead as a hobby, but when the financial crash hit hard in Michigan, they both lost their jobs. They didn't have money to start a brewhouse so instead they turned their focus to the meadery. In 2013, B. Nektar became the first medaery to join the ranks of the top 100 brewers on the influential Ratebeer.com site. Today, it's a profitable business, and here in Copenhagen, they were standing side by side with the brew kings and queens of the world.

Tasting B Nektar's 12 percent mango-habanero mead, you do not have to swirl the drink around in your glass, do funny gurgly sounds as you let it linger on your tongue, close your eyes and strain every last taste bud to find the mango or habanero flavor. No sir, the spice of the chili and the exotic sweetness of mango hit you right in the face, and then continue to evolve with each sip. Small jolts of sweet, sour, salt, and bitterness. And copious amounts of booze. "My approach is very much taken from the a Buddhist philosophy about food balancing all four corners," said Brad. "Not that I'm a practicing or even non-practicing Buddhist, but it's just an approach to looking at things."

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The mead is made with fermented orange blossom honey, which Brad said helps bring out citrus notes that match the tropical flavor. Honey quality and flavor were crucial to the final product. "We don't want to buy from wholesalers. We want to buy unblended and unpasteurized honey and that has it's own problems. You end up getting wax and whole bees in the honey drums, but the honey you get is so much more complex, rich, and deep."

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Mead was part of the new black at CBC. Compared to previous editions of the festival, it seemed as if the heavy barrel-aged stouts were getting a pass from brewers, who instead chose to highlight tarter, funkier brews. Like Hill Farmstead's excellent Florence, a wheat saison, served by head brewer Shaun Hill, a man who—in all honesty—looked liked he would rather be anywhere else but in the company of 2,500 thirsty Scandinavian beer nerds.

The OGs of tart and funky, Brouwerij Boon from Belgium, were also here, serving vintage lambics from 1985 and 1997. There is something to be said for the nonchalance of Belgian brewing. They have a method, they have been doing it well for a long time. If you like it, that's cool. If not, then fuck off. You're the problem.

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Mikkel Borg Bjergsø giving the guy behind Crooked Moon a tattoo.

Swedish brewery Omnipollo was another of the big crowd stealers, selling its particular brand of intense flavors and psychedelic label layouts, which has found a steady fanbase. Anyone who hasn't already put them off the "talented Swedish brewers" list and onto the "awesome Scando powerhouses" list need to do so, toute suite.

Omnipollo has been around for a while and visited CBC before, and this year's festival also acknowledged the enormous development that Scandinavian brewers are going through. An area called "Scandinavian Bar" aimed to give small, emerging Nordic breweries a showing among the major leagues. "We get a lot of American guests who really want to taste the local stuff," said Borg Bjergsø. "So this year, we picked the Nordic breweries we like and who produce really high quality. It's also to motivate the local breweries. You can't turn up at an event like this and serve something crap. They have to up their game."

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Andreas Skytt Larsen from Alefarm.

Andreas Skytt Larsen's Alefarm Brewing has got plenty of game. As soon as he graduated as a librarian, Andreas skipped the books and went to work as bartender at Mikkeller & Friends, kicking off his home brewing experiments while he learned on the job form the best in the business. His sour farmhouse-style beers, made on an actual farm outside the Danish town of Køge among fields, pigs, and fertilizer were already a big draw.

"I'm overwhelmed by the response," said Andreas. "Twice today we've had a line. I was a beer geek myself before I started brewing. I know exactly what it is like lining up for the most sought-after beers. It's just so cool when you come from that background and then find yourself on the other side. It's a big dream come true."

And Andreas was right in his earlier prophecy. After three-and-something hours of hoppy wonderland, all you want is that IPA. And a chat. As in previous years at CBC, there was no better place to do so than in the company of The Kernel Brewery from London and their bunch of merry brewsters. Their beers are never crazy, they seem to have missed the "everyone has to yuzu" memo, but they are all the better for it. Quietly confident, great beers, nice guys.

Their Mosaic Citra IPA was everything you needed at that point. Crisp, clean, and well-behaved.

Like most of the crowd at CBC.