September 22, 2020
A Match Made in Beer Heaven
As you have probably discovered, we brew beer: a lot of it, and in many different places. What started out as a home brewing hobby in a school teacher’s kitchen has grown to encompass a large-scale production process at our brewery in San Diego and in collaboration with different breweries around the world.
Our closest collaborator through all times - and a key to Mikkeller’s success - is De Proef Brouwerij in Belgium. Here’s the story of a very treasured collaboration.
De Proef Brouwerij and Mikkeller have grown alongside each other since their collaboration began back in 2007. The close partnership can account for a great deal of both Mikkeller's and De Proef's successes, not least of which includes the constant scientific development of new beers and recipes.
“Dirk (owner of De Proef) is insanely skilled and is one of the best brewers in the world with a huge technical knowledge of processes and raw materials. My creativity coupled with his technical skills and knowledge has meant that we complement each other really well”, explains Mikkeller founder and CEO Mikkel Borg Bjergsø.
Rewinding to Mikkeller's early years, Mikkel brewed his beer at GourmetBryggeriet in Denmark. But after his breakthrough in 2006 with the coffee stout Beer Geek Breakfast, his brewing career really began to take off. He needed to produce larger quantities of beer, so he started looking around for a brewery that could handle this task. Through his beer distributor, Beer Factory, he heard about a brewery in Belgium that specialized in licensing brewing for others.
He contacted owner Dirk Naudts, who along with his wife, Saskia (both of them with a degree in biochemistry and focus on brewing) had started up their own brewery in 1996 with the sole purpose of producing the recipes of other “beer architects”.
The gypsy brewer and the perfectionist brewing engineer
The first two beers that De Proef brewed for Mikkeller were Monk's Elixir, a Belgian ale, and the pilsner Draft Bear. When Mikkel was very happy with the results, production of Green Gold and Santa's Little Helper – Mikkeller's first Christmas beer – quickly followed. Mikkel wanted to continue with several new recipes, but initially he and Dirk did not fully agree on the production process. There was a little persuasion involved, says Mikkel.
“Dirk was used to brewing a few recipes, but in large quantities and then leaving it at that. He had a very traditional Belgian approach to beer and was not used to his clients being particularly creative. So, in the beginning, we had some discussions back and forth. But I persuaded him, and as we got started, he himself started to think it was really exciting. We started experimenting and developing beer together. It was the same when I got the idea to barrel age our beers.”
For Dirk Naudts, Mikkel showing up and shaking things up a bit was perfect timing for De Proef. The brewery had been around for over ten years and was prepared to take on the challenge.
“Mikkel was not like the other customers. They did not want to reveal that they brewed with us, but Mikkel stood by it one hundred percent. He said, 'I'm a gypsy brewer, I don't want my own brewery. Instead, I want to look for competent people who can transform my recipe into the kind of beer I like”.
The first major project that Mikkel and Dirk dove into together was the production of a Single Hop Series: a range of 21 beers brewed using the same recipe, but with different hops. De Proef hired PhD student Ann Van Holle, of the University of Ghent, to lead The Single Hop Technology Project.
The project aimed to analyze different types of hops from around the world. In this process, they discovered that there was no guarantee that the hops you bought were actually the hops you received.
Therefore, Mikkeller and De Proef began to acquire hops directly from the hop farmers. The project has been of great importance to microbreweries around the world, and has raised the requirements for the quality of hops in general.
“Our Single Hop Series is one of the projects in collaboration with De Proef of which I am most proud, because it has meant that both beer drinkers and brewers around the world now actually know what types of hops they prefer, and that beer labels now also indicate which specific hop variety a beer contains. Before, it just said 'hops' on the ingredients list”, Mikkel says.
Like a solid marriage
Another project Mikkel is particularly proud of is the range of non-alcoholic beers that Mikkeller and De Proef have produced together. The development of a new yeast strain for this purpose has meant that it has become possible to brew versatile non-alcoholic beers that have lots of flavor and fullness.
“A few years back it was simply not possible to brew an alcohol-free beer that actually tasted of something”, he says.
The Mikkeller Spontan Series, which consists of a large number of barrel aged spontaneously fermented beers, is also worth highlighting as a notable result of Mikkeller's fruitful collaboration with De Proef Brouwerij.
Dirk Naudts describes the collaboration with Mikkeller as a long marriage. After years of experience it has found an unusually solid and stable ground, he says:
“The problems are always solved in a pleasant and good way, and we have reached a point where we fully understand each other and can spend our time concentrating on quality and organization”.
When Mikkeller started brewing at the Proef in 2007, the brewery brewed 10000 hl and had 10 employees. In comparison the brewery brewed 90000 hl in 2019 and now has 48 people working there.
If you're interested, you can read more about De Proef Brouwerij right here