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Making Beer for a Michelin-Starred Chef Is Beyond Intimidating

I've collaborated with some of the world's best restaurants, but working with someone who is at the top of their game is still intimidating in many ways. This time, I brewed with the famed Mathias Dalghren, who made me wonder if I’m secretly Swedish...
Photo courtesy of Matbaren.

Welcome back to our column, Nomadic Brews, from gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin Brewery. Each month, we check in with dispatches from Jeppe's travels around the world as he brews tasty stuff in places like Mexico, Taiwan, and Brazil.

In my next life, I'm going to become a chef.

Until then, making beer for a Michelin-starred chef in this lifetime always makes me nervous. It mostly stems from having the greatest respect for them. I think it's the coolest version of human you can be. They work in the same field as I do, playing with flavors and ingredients—which I consider the most important part of creating craft beer. But to know and work with someone who is at the top of their game is intimidating in many ways. I'm young and I'm still new in the craft beer industry compared to others; I've collaborated and worked with restaurants like noma, Momofuku, The Nomad, and spots that believe in what I do.

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My Swedish beer importer owns a brewery called S:T Eriks. It has a close relationship with chef Mathias Dalghren, the guy who used to run the Stockholm restaurant Bon Lloc, which had one Michelin star. In 2007, he opened the restaurant Mathias Dahlgren in the Stockholm Grand Hôtel, which received a Michelin star in 2008, and got upgraded to two Michelin stars the following year—the second Swedish restaurant ever to receive this recognition. And his side restaurant, Matbaren, was simultaneously elevated to one-Michelin-star status. Mathias has also won the Bocuse d'Or. He's the only Swede to pull it off.

Looking beyond his Michelin-star impressions, though, the fact that he's very into craft beer is what's so unique about him to me. S:T Eriks has made a line of beers with him called "Mathias Dalghren" as a way to promote beer and food pairings at his restaurants. He's a big beer geek and loves food. That's the same intention behind we're doing over here in Brooklyn at my restaurant, Luksus at Tørst. So when S:T Eriks asked me if I would be interested in collaborating with him, I couldn't help but wonder: Who wouldn't want to make a beer with him?

After a few seconds of debate, all that was left to do was to fly to Stockholm and make some brews with him. But the reality behind collaborating with anyone you've never met is not having a clue about their personality or approach to things. It can be a gamble in certain situations. I could have shown up to make beers with the biggest douche.

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Luckily for me, he is a really nice guy who is extremely open-minded. Once I arrived in Stockholm, I ate at Matbaren, a very low-key spot with an amazing à la carte menu. I'm Danish and grew up on herring, which means a lot to me, whether it's marinated, pickled, fried, whatever. When I sampled his herring, it quickly made me realize that this guy has a signature fingerprint to everything that he does. After eating his food and hanging out with him for a couple of days, it's clear that he's laid-back and doesn't take himself too seriously, but always strives to do the best he can.

Sweden itself is a very progressive country, from music to art and even maternity leave—but with craft beer, it's explosive. It's the biggest craft beer market in the world. It's so weird to think that a country that small can consume so much craft beer. This is one of the many reasons that I love that country. You have access to a better range of beers when you live in the middle of nowhere, compared to a place like, say, Texas.

Sweden is also a place that's home to very intense people. When Swedes get into things, they become obsessive—very obsessive. In Denmark, there's a handful of beer blogs, but Sweden has over 100. There's always hardcore nerds in the international craft beer movement, but their group is on steroids in numbers. Compare this to America, where if you drink, say, bourbon, you don't just drink it, but seek out different types and go into forums and it becomes a hobby. It becomes part of your personality.

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The Swedish government hand-selects what products come into the country; that includes craft beers and the amount that they want to sell. The selection is very limited, so if you're selected, you've got the chance to have your sales go through the roof. The process requires beer tasters to select what will end up in those state stores, so if they hate what you have to offer, you're screwed.

So any alcohol above 3.5 percent has to be sold in state-controlled stores, of which there's about 300 or so. Say you're a small brewery and you get a nationwide launch all over Sweden; that's great, because you get to the outermost areas of the country. But if you don't get in, it's difficult to sell your beer anywhere. Even the biggest breweries make special Swedish editions, like Pilsner Urqell (which makes a 3.5 percent version).

Sweden's known for its unique beer style, Gotlandsdricke, which comes from Gotland—a small island off the coast of Sweden. Gotland Island is also where you get truffles in Sweden. It's a cool place. The beer, though, is a very interesting style that's low in alcohol and very smokey in flavor; one that a lot of modern breweries like Dogfish Head have reinterpreted.

So when it came to constructing a beer for Mathias, I wouldn't, for example, make him a big imperial stout because that's not what his cuisine is all about. And of course, with anywhere else that I travel, I wanted to do something that had to do with Sweden, so I took a look at the other things that he's made in the past and wanted to create something completely different. So we decided to make a porter, low alcohol—at 6.5 percent—to pair with his menu. The ingredient we went with was blueberry, because I'm totally obsessed with the berries and they're really important to Sweden. They grow everywhere and I like the taste of the chocolate-y roastiness of the porter contrasted with them.

We brewed the beer at S:T Eriks outside of Stokholm. Normally when I do a collaborative beer with a beer maker, we collaborate on the recipe, but he's a chef, so I made the recipe this time around.

Beer is a lot like wine; you never make a wine and say, "This is specifically made for coq au vin or whatever. You make wine, and restaurants buy it because they like it and can figure out what to pair it with. I think this is the biggest misunderstanding—every time you pair food with beer, people think you have to put beer in all the food as you cook it. You don't put wine in all of the food that you make so why would you do the same with beer?

The beer isn't ready yet, but I never make beers for specific dishes. It doesn't make sense to me because you never really know what it's going to taste like until you try it when it's ready, but sometimes you think about notes you want to hit on (like fruitiness.) Once it's released, he's going to fly over to the States and we're going to do a collaboration dinner with what we've created together.

After this trip to Stockholm, I'm starting to wonder if I'm secretly Swedish, not Danish.