The island of Amager lies in the South of the city of Copenhagen. Although a part of the municipality—and even the international airport—lie on this island, when you enter in Amager, you can also feel that it has a distinct personallity, more like a small town vibe compared to the more big city feeling of the other more trendy neighbourhoods of Copenhagen. Parts of Amager are still full of industrial buildings and warehouses, while others are crumbled with small cottages and summer houses next to the beach.
In one of these old warehouses, formerly owned by the Church of Scientology—that stored here for years their collection of bibles, called
Henrik Papsø welcomes us in a surprisingly sunny winter morning in front of the brewery's building. Henrik joined Amager Bryghus in 2012, after working 20 years as a journalist in TV Øst and DR. He was friends with Jacob and Morten, and he had already helped them with the small stories on each beer. On top of that, he was a celebrity among the Danish Ratebeer community, as he was the 2nd most prolific rater all around Denmark, and also 2nd in the world. This year is going to be a landmark for Amager Bryghus, as they have their 10 years jubilee, and they have plans to move to a new location.
Your building was an old warehouse, in the middle of Amager. Could you tell us a little bit about its origins, and also about your local focus with the place.
Henrik: Amager started as a brewery funded by two friends—Morten and Jacob—you can see them in the photo right there. Jacob is the big guy, he is the brewer, and Morten is smaller. In the first four years it was just the two of them, Jacob brewing the beers and Morten selling them. And from there it has been growing, very solidly, organically. Amager has never been doing any big movements, any big investments. We have just been growing as demand for our beer has been growing. And in the beginning, the plan was only to be a small brewhouse here in Amager, like so many other small craft breweries here in Denmark that have started within the last 15-20 years.
What happened was that one of the first beers that Jacob made was
And soon thereafter they went to the first Copenhagen Beer Festival, and they were approached by a couple of quiet guys in a black suit that turned out to be from Shelton Brothers, an import company based in Massachussets, importing craft beer from Europe to the US. And on the Ratebeer Top 50, all other beers were already in the US. They were American, British or Belgian beers. But then there was this Hr. Frederiksen beer they have never heard of. So Morten and Jacob were quite surprised, because they have not expected this—they just wanted to be a small local brewery—but they went home and started to make a lot of
I think that gave Morten and Jacob a lot more confidence in the brewing and in dealing with what they wanted Amager Bryghus to be. They started doing more experiments—stronger, more hoppy beers. Beers that they liked themselves more, instead of the more mainstream ones they had started with—those beers with old photos in the labels, with old images of Amager. They are not bad beers, but they are just not so extreme. Then on we started experimenting with more extreme beers, and that was well received about the “beer geek” Ratebeer community, as they kept interested in what Amager was doing. And that eventually led to that in 2009, for the first time, we came up in the Ratebeer Top 100—and we have been there for 8 years in a row. I think that only a few American breweries have managed to stay as long as we have stayed as a Top 100 brewery. And it is extremely difficult, because you know how hard the competition is, with so many new breweries.
That has been a selling point for us, because as the “craft beer revolution” has been spreading through the world—right now it is not just Europe and the US, it is everywhere, China, Asia, South America—so when they decide to import some good beer from Europe and from the US, they want to make sure that it’s the best beer they get, so one of the places to check that is to see the Top 100 from Ratebeer. And the good thing about that list is that it is actually based on people trying the beer, they actually drank the beer and gave it a rating. It is not just an expert saying “this one”. And I think that makes the Top 100 a much more solid list.
So, that has been helping us a lot commercially, and that has also meant that we have not had any need for doing traditional marketing with commercials, anything like that, because customers have just been coming to us.
Was there any local brewing tradition here in Amager?
Henrik: No, there has been a couple of breweries before, but they have closed many years ago. So when we started up, it hadn’t been any brewery in Amager for almost 100 years.
You entered in Amager Bryghus in 2013, and you already were one of the top Ratebeer raters here in Denmark—you rated 3 beers a day for about 25 years. How do you think that Ratebeer ranking has evolved in the last years, and how do you think that affects your business as a brewery?
Henrik: Today actually you see a lot of “Ratebeer people” that went into the business—not just me. Some of them are going to the bar business, some of them to the distribution business, and I went here doing marketing, sales and communication—I have a background as journalist, I’ve been working in TV for almost 20 years.
I think “Ratebeer people”—although some breweries don’t like it very much—have a huge understanding of different beer styles, and they have a huge network within the beer business. So in many ways “Ratebeer people” can be attractive to breweries and to beer businesses, because they really know a lot. They’re still amateurs in the sense that they haven’t had any kind of formal training for tasting. But I think you do develop your own palate a lot. And when you do together a system of tasting, even as an amateur, even if you haven’t had any formal tasting training, you still develop a sense of “what’s good and what’s bad” in a beer or “is this beer infected in any way?”. So you do get a very basic understanding of beer.
When I started here, I was also pulling a formal beer tasting course at Carlsberg—they do have some classes where you can come and go through flaws in beer. And I was quite proud that in my class I came out Top 1, with the brewmaster from Carlsberg next to me. So even though I never had any formal training, I was still pretty good at it. But you can say that my Ratebeer career has given me a job, or I have created it myself, as I have a huge knowledge, because I have been with Danish beers since they started. Also I am a founding member of the Danish Beer Enthusiast Association—I don’t know if you have something similar in Spain.
Yes, we have the homebrewers association—ACCE.
Henrik: When we started in 1998, there were only 13 breweries back then in Denmark—now we have 10 times that amount. So when we funded the organization, we were frustrated by the situation, because Denmark was pretty much a lager country. Carlsberg had made Danish people believe for many years that Denmark was a proud brewing nation. But we were not. We were shit brewing. We just brewed pretty crappy lager. Because Carlsberg was one of the biggest ones, Danish people thought we were a great brewing nation. But we were not. And whenever we traveled, we would find interesting beers in the US, in the UK, in Germany, in Belgium, and then when we came back to Denmark, there were just Tuborg and Carlsberg.
So we funded this organization, in an attempt to make Danish beers more interesting, to have more breweries, and more styles, and more different beers. And I think you can say that we succeeded. The founding meeting, there were 26 people, and within 3 years there were 11.000. And the organization is still around 9.000-10.000 people. So I think they [the “Ratebeer people”] have also had a huge impact in the success of the Danish beer scene.
Since 2009 you have been in Ratebeer Top 100, along with other Nordic breweries. Why do you think the Nordic scene is performing so well?
Henrik: I wish I could say that there was any sort of specific secret—like “it’s the water”. But, to be honest, I don’t think there is a… [Henrik stops and thinks it again] I think perhaps the reason is that we were so fed up, because we only had lager like Carlsberg. And then, eventually when they started becoming an interest, there was like an explosion. We call it the “Danish Beer Revolution”. There were a couple of years when every month there were 3 or 4 new breweries starting up. It’s the same that has been going on in Spain in recent years. Spain has also been exploding.
Spain has more tradition as a wine country, but here you maybe had more tradition about brewing in the old times.
Henrik: I think also Denmark had a strong homebrewing tradition. There were a lot of good brewers, but amateurs, at home in the kitchen. But suddenly they saw that there was a market for the beers, because the interest in the different beers was growing. So most of the Danish microbreweries were started by people that were originally homebrewers, and have been homebrewers for many years, and have sort of been perfecting their homebrewing. They were not just complete idiots, they were actually making good beer.
And Morten and Jacob were the same. Because they have been homebrewing for many years. So that means that when you start, you don’t start from scratch. You have some experience about how the beer is supposed to taste. But of course it doesn’t mean you have experience in running a business. And a lot of breweries have gone bankrupt because of the business part. But I think that also in the Nordic countries there was a tradition for small company craftsmanship—good producers, but in a small scale. Today, you find small scale butchers, and small business like this all over the Nordic countries. Also because Norway and Sweden are quite remote, so there is not so many big companies. But other than that, I cannot point to any particular thing that says that Scandinavian breweries should be this successful. But they have just been good at their craftsmanship, and also in their way of running a business.
We know you had this celebration beer when you reached 20.000 ratings and also when you hit 25.000. Could you tell us a bit about how this started?
Henrik: My first celebration beer was from here, from Amager, a small 25 cl. Quadrupel 12% in Jack Daniels barrels. Because I really like the heavy Belgian, monastery style, like Westleveren 12. I like the heavy stuff. And I like Bourbon a lot. So I talked with Morten and Jacob, because even before start working here I was kind of friend of the brewery. I helped them doing label texts, and with beer names, and with pamphlets. So I was doing some writing for them—as I’m a journalist. So they agreed to do a celebration beer for me. So that was for my 10.000—it was called Hr. Papsø. Then, because I had so many friends in the industry, and I knew so many people, for my 15.000, I asked somebody else—a small producer. This time it was also a Quadrupel. And then on, it became sort of a tradition. Whenever I had a jubilee. When I hit 20.000, I think I asked 4-5 breweries to make a beer. And to my surprise, they all said yes. And at the 20.000, the event was held at Mikkeller Bar, so my beers were on, and people came and tasted them. And it was attracting quite a crowd, because there is a great Ratebeer community here in Copenhagen, and I knew a lot of people. And then, for the 25.000, it was a bit different, because I had started here in January, and I knew that I would hit 25.000 sometime in Spring 2013, so I continued doing ratings and going to meetups with the community in Copenhagen to reach 25.000
And then I decided to stop. Because I feel that as a professional—and my account has my name and my photo on it—it would be a very bad signal to go on rating friends and colleagues, and competitors in public while I work for Amager, and to put a stamp to what I mean about that beer. So I decided to stop when I reached 25.000 And again I have been asking quite a few breweries. And again, to my surprise, most of them said yes. Even Cigar City made a beer for me. So that event was held here in Copenhagen at a place called Fermentoren. And I think there was like 12 different beers. And I always had my last name in the beer title, because it is easier to find them in Ratebeer. You just have to type my last name and they all come up. So I had this celebration and then I stopped.
I still have a secret account doing a little bit of rating. But I don’t go to meetups or festivals on Ratebeer. The beers I rate now are mainly for lunch, because I started this tradition that I buy beers wherever I go in the world. So we have 5 new beers every day for lunch. We don’t drink everything, we take samples. I think it is important that the brewers taste different beers from other breweries. Some breweries, they just taste their own beer, and they think it is world class—because they don’t get anything else. I think it is important to drink other beers—both good and bad beer. And to see how market develops, how styles develop, etc. So I made as a tradition that we share some beers every day—and I rate those. But that’s about it. And I feel very happy to be out of the “Ratebeer game”, because it was very exhausting in the end. Endless meetings… We had a weekend with one friend—Danish rater number one, and world’s number one. He lives on a farm, far away, in the countryside… You arrive after work, Friday at 5 o’clock, and then you rate until Sunday at noon.
It’s like a full-time job. Henrik: It is like a job. We rated 225 beers in that session. And especially, if there is, you know, 100 of those that are German lagers, it’s becoming very difficult to try to find new words for them. So it was becoming a bit tedious. And also the constant hunt—every weekend, you have to go through all the bars in Copenhagen, to see if there is something new. So it was becoming a bit stressful, to be honest. And I thought it would be difficult to give up, but I’ve found that it has been very nice to give up, to be honest. It was fun when it lasted—also I started many years ago, when I was a teenager, to take notes—, but it was only when I joined Ratebeer and met the other Ratebeer guys in Copenhagen, that it really exploded like that. But I still believe Ratebeer is an amazing database for everything beery, and I use it everyday at work, to look things up, see how’s that beer performing, etc. So it is still a database with a very strong value. Although member-wise it has been bypassed right now by Untappd. Untappd really just exploded. I think that every time we have one rating on Ratebeer we have 50 on Untappd. Do you think Untappd has more quality when it comes to ratings? Henrik: I think that, as Untappd come as an app for your smartphone, it is easier. It is always there when you are in the bar drinking. Whereas Ratebeer did not really have a proper app developed until many years later—because they were a website. And the apps they have made, they have not been superb. Untappd is so easy, and so simple, and you don’t need to write anything, just stars. You don’t even have to give stars, you just tap what you’ve been rating. But unlike Untappd, Ratebeer a lot of statistics that Untappd does not have yet. I think both have value in many ways. About the names that you give to your beers. You have Granny with a Gun, Jar-Jar goes all Jamaican, Papsø on acid, Galloping Into the Autistic Sunset… How do you decide the names, and what’s the story behind them?
It’s like a full-time job.
Henrik: It is like a job. We rated 225 beers in that session. And especially, if there is, you know, 100 of those that are German lagers, it’s becoming very difficult to try to find new words for them. So it was becoming a bit tedious. And also the constant hunt—every weekend, you have to go through all the bars in Copenhagen, to see if there is something new. So it was becoming a bit stressful, to be honest. And I thought it would be difficult to give up, but I’ve found that it has been very nice to give up, to be honest. It was fun when it lasted—also I started many years ago, when I was a teenager, to take notes—, but it was only when I joined Ratebeer and met the other Ratebeer guys in Copenhagen, that it really exploded like that. But I still believe Ratebeer is an amazing database for everything beery, and I use it everyday at work, to look things up, see how’s that beer performing, etc. So it is still a database with a very strong value. Although member-wise it has been bypassed right now by Untappd. Untappd really just exploded. I think that every time we have one rating on Ratebeer we have 50 on Untappd.
Do you think Untappd has more quality when it comes to ratings?
Henrik: I think that, as Untappd come as an app for your smartphone, it is easier. It is always there when you are in the bar drinking. Whereas Ratebeer did not really have a proper app developed until many years later—because they were a website. And the apps they have made, they have not been superb. Untappd is so easy, and so simple, and you don’t need to write anything, just stars. You don’t even have to give stars, you just tap what you’ve been rating. But unlike Untappd, Ratebeer a lot of statistics that Untappd does not have yet. I think both have value in many ways.
About the names that you give to your beers. You have Granny with a Gun, Jar-Jar goes all Jamaican, Papsø on acid, Galloping Into the Autistic Sunset… How do you decide the names, and what’s the story behind them?
Henrik: I do a lot of drugs [laughs]. As you may have found out if you read our label text, humor is very important to us. I think that many people in the beer business have taken themselves way too seriously. And we wanted sort of to react a little bit against that. At the end of the day, we say “it’s only beer”. Have a beer, and have fun. And we sort of wanted our beer and the whole image around Amager Bryghus to be sort of a little loose, a little funny. We are not stars or anything, we are just plain guys who like to play around and have a good time. That’s really the idea we want to come forward with. And—of course—can we make a beer title that would be interesting and make people smile? I also want to make people curious with some of the beer names, because some of them are actually funded in a movie or somewhere else.
So there is always a story behind some of the beer names. I am also a great Star Wars fan, so there is a lot of names based in that. It started with
If you go to a bar, you see a lot of breweries just name their beers in behalf of the style. And it’s just so boring. Why not to make up a name that is funny and catchy, and you always can write the style underneath. So the customer still knows what kind of beers is buying. I think a lot of brewers totally lack imagination in the marketing and the naming of the beers. I think there is a great potential. Right now I’m so happy that so many brewers are so lazy, because it leaves more room to us. But so many breweries could do so much more in order to make their beers much more interesting. And it goes the same with the labels—our labels are not very traditional. And I’m not saying that our labels are the best or the prettiest, but I think that if you go through a beer store, there are so many different beers on the shelves.
They have personality.
Henrik: Yes, exactly. You have to create sort of your own story, and your own personality, and you have to stand out. To this day, I’m amazed that De Molen can sell as much as one beer. And I said to Menno: “Menno, you have to do something about this”. But he says: “It’s our style, it’s doing well”. We are fine with that, but if I were a beer customer, I wouldn’t buy one De Molen beer, that’s for sure—but they have made it sort of their tradition, of course. The problem is, some breweries make almost the same label for every beer, and they just change the name. Or they name it beer #1, beer #2… And as a customer you cannot remember. Did I had #1 or #2?
You need more hints...
Henrik: Yes, and you have to have a visual recognition, because you can suddenly remember you had a batch 1000 or something like that. But a number 21 or 22, that’s too much information. So I think customers in a bar, when they see a beer title, they buy also with their eyes. Something that is funny for them, interesting. And also with beer labels. I think women buy with their eyes, a lot. So that’s a way I can also have a little fun playing around. People start talking about that these days it is impossible to come up with a new beer name, as they have all of them already been used... and I say them “fuck you”. It is just a matter of being creative, and having a little fun, smoke some dope.
You have the “7 Deadly Sins” series, whose label was censored in Sweden.
The gatekeepers at Systembolaget—they are actually some lawyers controlling the labels passing in to Systembolaget—because Sweden have very strict rules about what you can show in the labels. You cannot show children, anybody younger than 24 years old, you cannot show sports, you cannot show people at work, you cannot show anything sexually related with beer—there is a whole series of rules. These lawyers are sitting there controlling that all labels live up to that. So he called me and said “we have a problem, because the lawyers won’t accept the last label with the lady on it”. Then he sent me the email from the lawyer, and the email said “we think that you are promoting that by drinking this beer you can have sexual success”. And sexual success was not really an impression that I was familiar with before. So I was a little bit confused. And then I suddenly understood that they are saying that we are saying to people that “if you drink a couple of this you can go out and score”, or something like that. Which of course is true to some extent, because, I think we all had our first sexual relation when we were slightly intoxicated, or made our first child in such a state. But you cannot joke with that in Sweden. Because they don’t have much sense of humor.
So usually, when a brewery is told that, they change the label. But probably because I have a background in journalism, I don’t like censorship, so I said “instead of doing that, can we change our existing label, give it a twist so you can accept it?”. And they were happy doing that, but all of our proposals were just turned down. So we gave her smaller breasts, and we heightened the water level, so it hid more of her tits. We wrote “censored” across and all that, but they didn’t find it funny at all. And time was ticking because we had to have the label ready for the release. So in the end I thought “if you guys want censorship, then I will show you how censorship looks like”. And that’s when I came up with the black label.
When the beers were released in Sweden, there was a Swedish beer blogger who found that labels strange, and did a research and found out what had happened. And he wrote a story about censorship. And after some weeks, that story spread to the daily newspapers. A big newspaper in Stockholm made a “net referendum”. They put those two labels and asked: “which one would you like to have on your beer in Sweden?”. And 92% voted for that [the one with the sexy woman in it”]. There were 32.000 people voting in just 24h. So it was quite successful. And the story spread to the international news, because some Swedish newspaper wrote about it in English. It was in the Huffington Post, in New York Daily News, even in India the story was in the Dainik Bhaskar (दैनिक भास्कर), the biggest newspaper in India. So I think we had over 30 stories all over the world in just one week. And of course, that was an exceptional marketing. Because it didn’t cost us anything, and it was sort of a good story, easy to understand. Sort of a “David against Goliath”, the Swedish state against this Danish naughty brewery. And also because I was feeding everything in Facebook, in social media at the time, Swedish beer lovers they were outraged, because they thought it was so shameful that the Swedish state behaved like that. And, you know, to buy a beer like this in Sweden, you have to be 20 years old, so it is not for kids. It’s really like saying “you cannot think by yourself, we’ll do it for you”—that’s what I don’t like. And it’s the only country Lust has been censored. It’s been in 30 countries all over the world. Just not... Sweden.
You recently started a collaboration with Jameson, where they give you their used whiskey casks in order to use it for barrel-aging. Could you tell us a bit about it?
Henrik: Jameson actually approached us, because somebody had mentioned our brewery. Jameson is doing something that is called “project hops” all over the world, where they make collaborations with breweries. It started in the US—I believe—, but they are doing it in many countries—in Kenya, in Poland. The idea from Jameson, commercially, is that they want to sort of penetrate the craft beer world. So when you have a craft beer, you have a shot of Jameson on the side. That’s their commercial interest in it. So they have contacted a series of craft breweries, that are well know for their personality.
So they contacted us and asked if we were interested—and we were, of course—, we always like to do barrel-aging stuff. And the idea was that we could have some barrels that were freshly emptied—the worst thing in barrel-aging is if you get barrels that have been to dry, because they have been empty months or even years ago. But the idea was that the barrels should be emptied in Ireland at the beginning of the week, and then 2-3 days later, they would arrive here, and we would have a beer pretty much ready for them. In the beginning, Jameson said that they were just going to give us Bourbon barrels, because for their Jameson whiskey, they use a blend that has been in Bourbon barrels, and then in Spanish Sherry barrels. But we said “why only have the Bourbon barrels if you also use Sherry barrels”. So they went home and had some meetings about this, and they came back and said “OK, you can also have some Sherry barrels”.
So actually our
And what about the collaborations that you have made with another breweries. How has that helped to evolve your style as a brewery?
Henrik: Collaborations have played a huge role in our success and in our progress. We have always been sort of a collaborating brewery. In the beginning, it was just local brewers that we were friends with. And at one point, there were a lot of American brewers here, in Copenhagen. And Morten and Jacob became friends with them because they would meet up and share beers in many places. So it was just sort of “would you guys come up and work with us”? And none of these guys was like “Mr. Nobody”. One of them was Shaun Hill from Hill Farmstead—world’s n.1 brewery according to Ratebeer. He was brewer for 2-3 years at Nørrebro Bryghus here in Copenhagen. And he would come out, and brew with us, and create some recipes. And also Mike Murphy, that is now at Lervig, in Norway. They actually worked together with us in one beer. So in the beginning it was just friends, hanging out with us.
Our first collaboration was
And these beer are always quite successful. They are not “the best”, of course, you cannot hit 100 each and every time. But it’s a good way of making ourselves interesting working with some of the big names in the industry. Even though our beers have been in the US for 8 years, there is still a lot of people who doesn’t know who Amager is. But perhaps, they know Cigar City or 3 Floyds—that we have been working with—so they may buy the beer because they see their name on it. So it is sort of a co-branding. It is like in the music industry, if two stars work together, when they pull out the record, it has a bigger, broader appeal, because you can appeal to different fan bases. That’s the idea. Of course, it’s marketing, but it’s also fun, you can be inspired. René was now making
And what about the collaborations that you have made with another breweries. How has that helped to evolve your style as a brewery?
Henrik: In April 2017, we have our 10 years jubilee, and we are going to make 3 beers for the jubilee that are going to be heavy [