Every year, on the final Friday of February roughly 600 beer loves descend on my home town of Kolding, Denmark for a joyous one-night celebration of all things beer and beer-related, put on by my good friends at my local wine store, Kolding Vinhandel.
The event, known as Kolding Ølmesse (Literally: Kolding Beer Fair), has, over the course of the last 10 years, achieved cult-like status amongst beer lovers on a regional and even national level. And the concept is as simple as it is ingenious: The organizers ask a host of Danish craft breweries, specialty beer importers, distributors and beer enthusiasts to make their way to Kolding, gather in a large exhibition space and spend part of their Friday evening showing off their skills, and pouring samples of what they consider their most premium brews. 500 lucky, paying participants are then (in return for a largely symbolic fee purely meant to cover costs) allowed to spend four hours exploring the exhibition space, talking, networking, bonding and freely sampling the beers of their choice.
Usually, at least a good 10 to 15 craft brewers as well as some larger operations and at least a handful of importers or distributors are present on such an evening, offering up everything under the sun when it comes to beer or beer-related products and making sure that not a single of the 500 paying guests runs the risk of leaving thirsty, un-entertained or sober for that matter.
Now, being a good, old friend (and a loyal customer) of the organizers, I’ve been lucky enough to find myself on the organizer/helper team for this highly anticipated, sought after and always sold out event for the past three years. Which has been a lot of hard work, but also a ton of fun, a bunch of laughs and a great networking opportunity in the wonderful world that is craft brewing.
My volunteering duties are simple. I usually arrive in the afternoon on the day of the event and lend a helping hand whenever and wherever needed, either setting things up, showing people around or solving whatever little crises that may pop up. Come 6:30 PM, when the doors open to the public, you’ll usually find me hooking up with one or two breweries and help them introduce, pour and showcase their brews to excited beer lovers. In between all of this, I spend as much time as I possibly can talking to the masters of their trades; the brew masters and representatives as well as other hardcore beer lovers, while I frantically try to seek out the most exciting and/or outrageous new brews in a vast sea of potential.
This, by the way, is by no means an easy feat with 20+ breweries offering a total of 160+ beers and beer-related products such as aquavit or Danish whisky up as (free) samples. One might easily get lost in the samples, or downright blind, stinking drunk if so inclined. But one also has work to do, so it’s a fine line between business and pleasure, fun and earnestness – which, I suppose, is kinda what craft brewing should be all about.
I’m sorry you couldn’t be there, but here’s what you should know
Now, I realize that not many, if any, of my readers were lucky enough to get tickets for the fair which, this year, sold out nearly three months in advance, so I thought I’d do a little run down of some of the trends I ran into this year and what we might expect from the wonderful world of Danish craft brewing in 2014. Since I spent about every available minute of fair time this year, manning a stand for local beer importer Beer Enthusiast (the name suits me, don’t you think?) and being completely overrun by beer lovers who wanted to sample the line-up of Finnish and Japanese imports we were pushing, I did not have nearly as much time as I’d have hoped to cruise by other stands and sample the merchandise. I did, however, manage to make a few visits before doors opened, and here are some of the more interesting trends I ran into:
Trend #1 – Lakrids: The Danish word for crack?
There’s one word that every culinarily interested foreigner visiting Denmark will have to learn: Lakrids! Licorice, that is! There’s a licorice epidemic sweeping Denmark these years thanks in large parts to Danish licorice wizard Johan Bülow. We’re seeing licorice on every restaurant menu, licorice in every food item imaginable (yes, even licorice cheese, it’s been done!) and, of course, licorice in drinks and beers. Walking around the fair, I actually saw fewer licorice beers than I’d have thought, but they were definitely represented, proving that the arrival of 2014 obviously did not spell the end for the licorice craze. One obligatory licorice stout was showcased by Ørbæk, a small, semi-local all-organic brewery:
Ørbæk Black – Licorice Stout (Light stout, 4.7% ABV)
Now, one can think whatever the hell one wants about the Danish licorice craze. While I agree the constant focus on licorice as a culinary ingredient is getting a little ridiculous, I do love me a bit of licorice which is why I’ll try mostly anything that has the word licorice on the label. And let me be honest, that’s pretty much what Ørbæk Black is, a beer with the word licorice on the label. It certainly doesn’t taste a lot like licorice.
It’s a pretty little thing, though, dark almost black in color with a white, creamy head. Aroma and flavor is typical of stout: Roasted, dark caramel, chocolate and the likes, a tiny shot of chili, and a subtle hint of licorice that’s far from overpowering but mainly present as a vague aftertaste. Honestly, I’ve had non-licorice stouts that had more notes of licorice than this which begs the question why they’d label it a licorice stout and not go all in. I’m sorry, but I was really disappointed with this, I’ll take the Svaneke Brgyhus & Johan Bülow collaboration Licorice Stout any day, thank you very much.
Trend #2 – Easter Brews: On Danes, religion and alcohol
What makes Danes such a special people? There are a lot of perfectly acceptable answers to that question, but one thing that certainly makes us extremely special in the eyes of foreigners is the way in which we celebrate major religious holidays such as Christmas or Easter; by ceremoniously brewing very traditional and very strong beer types which we then consume in very large quantities over hour-long binge lunches in the company of friends and family. I’ll be the first person to admit it doesn’t make a lot of sense, yet I’ll also be the first person to vigorously defend my right to get sloshed at lunch time in the name of tradition and all things holy!
With Kolding’s traditional beer fair taking place in February and Easter usually falling a month or so later, the fair is usually one of the first opportunities for beer lovers to sample this year’s upcoming Easter brews. 2014, of course, was no exception as quite a few brewers had brought new Easter brews. Sampling these particular brews are usually one of the highlights of my evenings, but being hard pressed for time, I only had time to sample a few. Luckily, though, apparently I aimed for perfection in my first taste. Or maybe I just got lucky when visiting the stand of Mylius-Erichsen Brewery.
Mylius-Erichsen Bryghus – Mammelukfjeldet (Easter Brew) (Doppelbock, 6.2% ABV)
First off, I’ll personally buy a beer for the first non-Scandinavian reader who gets the pronunciation of this gem right.
Danish Easter brews are usually made in a German doppelbock (a malty/sweet highly alcoholic beer) tradition, and this one is no exception. Where it breaks off from the norm, though is in the addition of wild Myrica picked locally in proximity to the brewery. This primarily shows in the nose, but also in an unusual, subtle but strangely appealing spicy Myrna flavor note. Where traditional Easter Brews usually get overly sweet and heavy in the long run, this one had a surprisingly crisp and dry finish and a more subdued sweetness, making it perfect for the long haul of a lengthy Easter family lunch. Some beer enthusiasts will more than likely argue that this particular specimen is a bit “boring” and one-sided. I, however, found it nicely balanced and not too overpowering – unlike many other Easter brews or double bocks. I’ll have to go bug my wine guy to pick up this brew, the small sample that I had was very more-ish.
Trend #3 – Ginger: It’s what’s brewing this summer?
I’ve got a strange prying feeling that ginger will be the new black this summer. One needs only have a look at the marketing that’s already being rolled into place and the fact that at least a generous handful of the samples available at Kolding Beer Fair were either ginger beers, ginger ales or suicide by ginger (as I’ve come to refer to my Japanese discovery rated below as) to suspect that something may be up.
Now, ginger brews may well be something that’ll divide the population, but I – being a fan of the spicy, exotic flavor of ginger root – welcome this new development, and I think I know a small handful of lovely, young ladies who will be downright ecstatic by this prospect! It’ll be fun to see what this new shift brings, one thing that I did manage to take home from Friday night was the fact that ginger ale certainly isn’t just ginger ale. From the few samples that I managed to get my hands on, it’s obvious that ginger ales can be both subtle or pungent, spicy or sweet, crisp or mellow, light or, well, downright dangerously alcoholic! As was the case, for example, with Kiutchy Brewery’s oddly named 8% alcohol by volume Real Ginger Ale, a ginger ale that was more ale than ginger:
Kiutchy Brewery – Real Ginger Ale (Strong ale / Ginger ale, 8% ABV)
This ginger ale is nothing like anything I’ve ever had before. Not when it comes to beer, not when it comes to ginger ale, fruity brews or, well, anything. It is indeed brewed with a generous amount of fresh, raw ginger, but also with four kinds of malt, including chocolate malt, and three kinds of hops. The end result, in my book, is actually more of a strong ale with notes of ginger than a traditional ginger ale. The spicy ginger notes are definitely present, but they’re not overpowering or dominant as with some ginger ales. Rather, they’re backed by a strong, sweet, malty backbone and a fair kick from the hops. Very strange, very peculiar and quite interesting. I don’t suspect this will be a summer hit, but it might be a new winter favorite.
On a side note, I must add that I was generally pleased with the efforts of Kiutchy Brewerey which was represented by a total of three brews, all of which were about as traditional as pumpkin pie on Easter Sunday (i.e. not very traditional at all, but a welcome change!). Other efforts included a Belgian style wit beer brewed with English ale yeast for extra body, and a sweet, malty bottle-fermented and highly volatile brew with red rice and sake.
Trend #4 – You want some liquor with that?
A fun aspect of Kolding Ølmesse, to me at least, has always been to take a quick stroll around the exhibition space to have a look at all the things that are either close, somewhat or not at all related to beer and brewing. Over the years, we’ve seen varying degrees of pretty interesting and at times downright silly things, but there’s always something interesting to look at, this year included.
The first thing that caught my eye, and eventually made it into my pocket, were a couple of cask-aged beer vinegars, the likes of which I’d never really seen before. The fact that I have absolutely no idea about what to do with beer vinegar is largely overshadowed by how much I’m looking forward to playing around with these in the kitchen. If I were you, dear reader, I’d expect some playful vinegar-related posts in the near future.
Another thing that caught my eye, this year as well as previous years, is the small but growing market for Danish-made distilled spirits. And I’m not talking just aquavits, beers distilled into liquor amd/or fruit brandies here. We’ve known these for centuries. I’m talking full-blown, yet small scale productions of proper cask-aged spirits such as rum or whisky distilled and aged right here in Denmark! It’s a trade in its infancy and production is small and horribly expensive, I have been so lucky, though, as to have had a taste of some of what’s being made and much of what I have had has been very impressive and has shown great potential. Apparently my little-old home country has pretty good conditions for making whisky amongst other things. Who’d have thunk? I feel so proud!
What makes me even more proud is that one of the forerunners in this exciting development is actually my personal friend and poker buddy Michael from Trolden Brew House and Distillery. Michael has produced and bottled a limited supply of young whisky right here in Kolding. I was actually lucky enough to help pour and sample to an excited crowd two years ago and things are apparently now going so well that he’s taking orders for full mini casks to be filled and stored at the distillery. So, should you ever find yourself in need of your own cask of whisky (with visitation rights), well, now you know where to get one… I know I want one, so, uh, if anyone doesn’t know what to get me for my birthday, go talk to Michael, won’t you?
Best in show?
Usually, following a nice Friday evening at Kolding Ølmesse, I’d sit down with a few of the other helpers, visitors and maybe a brewmaster or two and try to figure out what was overall the most exciting brew or lineup of the evening. With the limited time I had available for tasting and shenanigans this year, that would seem a little unfair and one-sided though, so I’ll have to refrain from picking a personal overall winner this year.
Rather, I think, the overall winner this year would be beer in general, beer lovers in particular and specifically the lovely forum that is Kolding’s beloved beer fair! For such a relatively small-scale event, it’s amazing how much love, fun, geekery and dedication can be put into four short hours which probably goes to explain why the reputation of this little event has spread like a wildfire. It seems that every year now, the show sells out faster than the year before, this year being a record with the last ticket gone almost three months in advance. With such demand and with brewmasters and visitors driving all the way across Denmark to attend, apparently this is the place to be for hardcore beer lovers.
Should you not want to miss the opportunity to attend next year, I’ve been made aware that Kolding Ølmesse 2015 takes place on February 27, 2015 and that tickets for 2015 go up for preorder on October 1st 2014, exclusively by personal request at Kolding Vinhandel. You heard it here first!