22 October 2012

Carlsberg Bryghus

In winter-hardened, cobblestoned Copenhagen, the thing to drink is beer.  Sure, Danes will dabble in wine or sip at a cocktail, but look at any bartop and you're likely to see more bottles and half-liter glasses than anything else.  And in those glasses, chances are, one is likely to find one of two beers - Tuborg or Carlsberg - even if the color varies and the taste does change.  These two pillars of Danish brewing are actually part of the same company, and, until recently, they bubbled to life at the same place.
In the heart of Copenhagen, on a little rise (nothing in Denmark approaches a real hill) that catches the October sunlight, is one of the grandest and horsiest breweries we've ever seen.  We spent the better part of a morning and noontime there, eating, drinking and looking at barrels.
The Carlsberg plant is so large that it actually constitutes an entire neighborhood of Copenhagen.  The buildings are of fantastic brick and copper, the architectural style is pure 19th century industrial pomp.  Approaching the main gates is akin to walking up to a palace - huge elephants hold up a tower, statues peer out of windows, theres a lighthouse and gardens, chimneys and archways.  A touch of Willy Wonka pervades the place, lent by the magic of booming business and rivers of product, but
it's mostly a show; the brewery was decommissioned in 2008, and the neighborhood (known as "Carlsberg-distriktet") is in the process of being developed into a livable space.  Carlsberg's made a modern dance center out of their old mineral water building, and the bottling plant has become a conference and exhibition space; soon, apartments will begin going in.  Still, beer is the dominant theme.  A small brewery remains in use for specialty products, there's a museum, stables and a visitors complex.
For those with visions of musty cellars, dripping taps and booming barrels, a visit to Carlsberg might seem a little sanitary at first.  The museum's collection mostly consists of old wagons and beer trucks (there's even a Tuborg rickshaw, from India, and a Chevrolet in the shape of a cask), with a smattering of copper tanks and ancient laboratory vials.  You can certainly get a sense of age, but most of the facilities have been thoroughly modernized.  There are loads of videos and two slick taverns, colored lights, giftshop soccer jerseys, scent machines and foosball tables.  In the same way that beer advertisements blend "sepia-tinted tradition" with "awesome nightclub," Carlsberg has tried to amp up its artifacts with flatscreens and glass walls. This is a beer tour, after all, not some lame skansen.
The stables were a highlight because it's hard for mammoth animals not to act genuine.  Carlsberg's "ambassadors" - some two dozen Jutland draft horses - live in a bright, clean space somewhere between the giftshop cash registers and the stools of in-house Bar 1847.  We'd seen the one-ton horses pulling tourist carts around town, but not up close.  Jutlands are huge.  They were used extensively for pulling loaded beer-carts, and became known as bryggerheste, or "brewery horses."  The breed almost died out in the 1970's, but has been revived a little since.  One can pet the ambassadors (who look a little bored), watch them get hitched, see them trot out the gates and then return in a sweat.
Carlsberg was founded in the 1840's by an industrialist named J. C. Jacobsen, who began a laboratory that developed beer yeast for pilsners and the concept of pH.  The beer company grew rapidly, and began exporting in 1868 - its distinctly pale pilsner was a hit in Europe, and by the 20th century Carlsberg was among the largest breweries on the continent.
It wasn't until later, though, that the brewing company became the giant that it is today.  In the 1960's, the Carlsberg group began brewing internationally and snapping up competing brands - including Tetley, Baltika, Kronenbourg Lav, Mythos, various asian products and (Danish competitor) Tuborg.  Still, it's the company's original beer that dominates the world, making Carlsberg the fourth largest beer company on earth.  It accounts for forty percent of all beer sales in Russia and - as far as we can tell - is stocked in every supermarket from London to Tbilisi.
Included in the price of admission to the visitor's center are two (admittedly small) beers at either of the on-site bars.  At Bar 1847, the popular pour was a new beer - Jacobsen's brown ale.  It was sweet and supposedly inspired by British style beers.
Outside in the insipid sunshine, we wandered in autumn garden and listened to the clomping of large hooves.  There was a decorative hops greenhouse and a miniature version of Copenhagen's famous little mermaid statue.  The day was warm, even a little beer was enough to feel sleepy.
The other "tavern" is really a slick, multi-floor extravaganza where families eat lunch above a working bottling plant.  We ate herring, pate and pork meatballs at Jacobsen Brewhouse and Bar, watched Carlsberg commercials and drank pilsner.  It was a light-wood and stainless steel space, outfitted with three copper vats and a long, shiny bar.  The food was good, the atmosphere convivial, the crowd substantial.
Production's been moved west, to Fredericia in Jutland.  Perhaps its just as well - modern beer brewing has little to do with rolling barrels and building with brick.  It would have been fun to see the clattering rows of bottles and the blur of filling and capping.  But, mostly empty, this visit made for a more relaxing day.  After our second beer and a game of foosball, full of fish and liver, we got back on our bikes and rode down the cobblestoned hill to Copenhagen - it really felt as though we'd been away.
J. C. Jacobsen famously had a "beautiful" chimney built for his brewery (the curving, many-detailed "winding smokestack") because he wanted to show the world that a factory could be more than just an industrial site.  He wanted grandeur for his brews.  And, in the movies that play in the museum, you can hear echoes of that old splendor.  In one film, men sing lusty songs as they clean giant casks and harness elephantine horses - the songs sound almost nationalistic, anthems devoted to beer, as though Carlsberg were a nation unto itself.
At least the horses are still just as big.

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