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To Øl Is Building an Epic Beer City

December 12, 2019

By Diana Hubbell, December 12, 2019

I’ve called up Tore Gynther to talk about beer, but he wants to tell me about French fries instead. Specifically, the fries at BRUS, To Øl’s brewpub in Copenhagen. Pencil-thin, double-fried, and dusted with Leprechaun-green lovage powder, they’re such a fixture that customers might riot if they were ever removed from the menu. While they might look like a standard bar snack, these are crispier, creamier, and somehow potato-ier than their McDonald’s counterparts, thanks to a nine-day fermentation period in a salt brine before they ever hit the frier. 

“Let me tell you, this is the future. They’re a bit like salt and vinegar chips, but funkier. We’ve had people travel from all over the world to try our fries,” Gynther says. “We also experimented with some long-matured fries. We started doing one-month batches and we even released a small amount of one-year fries. Those were some pretty funky fries.”

Fries aren’t the only menu item that benefits from a brush with wild bacteria. The mayonnaise served alongside them gets a heady umami boost from fermented mushrooms and the kitchen hosts a pungent roster of kimchis made with everything from daikon radish to pumpkin. René Redzepi and his New Nordic disciples have long been proponents of the power of fermentation to transform ingredients, but the chefs at BRUS aren't just taking their cues from Noma. 

Courtesy of To Øl & BRUSFermented fries, kimchi and other dishes at BRUS.

“It’s only natural. We were already doing wild beer and spontaneous fermentation, so why not do it with food?” Gynther says. “There’s a lot of emphasis on fermentation in Nordic countries now, but for us brewers, it was something we’ve worked with since the very beginning.”

To Øl’s beginnings as a small, scrappy gypsy brewery were decidedly modest compared to what it has become. A former student of Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the founder of Mikkeller and a pioneer of the Danish craft brewing movement, Gynther started homebrewing in school kitchens back in 2005. When I first visited BRUS in 2016, it was a cavernous construction site in the gritty-cool, industrial neighborhood of Nørrebro. Markers on the debris-laden floor indicated where Brite tanks and barrels would eventually stand. 

Today, the taproom at BRUS is buzzing and To Øl exports its beers to more than 50 countries. Beers like Fuck Art This is Hygge, a rye saison with rhubarb and potatoes, 1 ton of… Lingonberries, a scarlet sour loaded with the namesake fruit, and My Honningkage Is Bigger Than Yours, a seasonal spiced barley wine brewed with a traditional Danish Christmas cake, have earned a global following for innovative use of Nordic ingredients.  

The cool thing about wild fermentation is that you can do it in so many ways. It comes down to religion more than science.”

Having fully secured their status as one of Denmark’s most influential craft breweries, Gynther and his team are gearing up to take their experiments with fermentation even further. The brewery’s latest and most ambitious project to date is To Øl City, a sprawling 150,000-square-meter complex in Svinninge, located an hour’s train ride outside of Copenhagen. Bucolic even by Scandinavian standards, the sleepy town with a population of 2,772 is barely a blip on most road maps. Yet it has one distinct advantage: it’s one of the only places with enough open space to house the brewery’s colossal ambitions.  

“One of the big reasons we’re building To Øl City is we wanted to have a proper wild beer and sour facility,” Gynther says. “The cool thing about wild fermentation is that you can do it in so many ways. It comes down to religion more than science. It’s also one of the places you can talk about terroir with beers.”

Courtesy of To Øl & BRUSBRUS.

While coolship-fermented lambics, wild ales, and goses may be having a moment in the US, Gynther insists that To Øl isn’t interested in these kinds of beers simply because they’re trendy. Much like the fermentation techniques on display in BRUS’s kitchen, these are styles with centuries of tradition behind them. 

“In Europe, spontaneously fermented beers have been a part of Belgium’s tradition for a long, long time,” Gynther says. “Now, lambics are considered fairly niche and a favorite of beer geeks, but originally, they were a peasant’s drink. I remember when we would just drive to Belgium and fill up bottles with these super delicious unfiltered lambics for a euro. It’s only recently that the hype caught up and brewers started to raise their prices.”

The last few months have been a blur of activity as construction crews set up horizontal fermentation tanks, which put less strain on yeast, and long-maturation tanks for lagers and pilsners. Once completed, Gynther envisions the place as one part mad scientist's laboratory and one part brewing industry nerve center, complete with plenty of barrels for aging and facilities for making cucumber G&Ts and other cocktails on tap. The grounds will feature fruit orchards packed with pear, apple, and cherry trees, along with rows of bushes growing raspberries and lingonberries—all destined to wind up in beers, meads, kombuchas, and hard ciders.

I remember when we would just drive to Belgium and fill up a bottle with these super delicious unfiltered lambics for a euro. It’s only recently that the hype caught up.”

“Right now, we’ve got 70,000 square meters of land that’s well-equipped for orchards and I’m getting pretty tired of just looking out at grass,” Gynther says. Before they start cultivating trees, however, he has a brewery to open. “The idea is to create this kind of craft beverage hub out here. We want to invite some of the producers that we know that have been struggling with issues of space to come out here and create.”

Those producers include Æblerov, a local cidrerie named for the Danish word for apple theft, and Læsk, a kombucha company, and Phantom Spirits, which produces beer barrel-aged rum and other experimental liquors. While some might resent sharing a space after investing so much time and money into it, Gynther views the gesture as paying it forward. After years of brewing with borrowed facilities, To Øl is ready to return the favor. 

“We definitely want to give back to the community,” he says. “We faced the same issues as a lot of other people and now we got this opportunity, so we’re really happy to be able to invite people as citizens of the city.”

Courtesy of To Øl & BRUS

Any project of this scope is inherently risky, especially when it stands on its own geographically. Rather than hedge its bets to conserve funds, the brewery has gone big—To Øl City is already so massive that a full tour takes two to three hours.

Thanks to the towering presence of Mikkeller and its annual beer festival, as well as a host of other innovative breweries, Copenhagen has developed a thriving craft beer scene vibrant enough to lure international travelers. The question remains if wild ales and barbecue are enough to convince them to venture out beyond the capital. 

Much like Tree House Brewing in Massachusetts, Gynther is banking hard on the “if you build it, they will come” theory. Given that the brewery wrapped up their first on-site test batch just this week, it’s too early to tell if this gamble will pay off, but the early signs are promising.

“We just had a Christmas market on Saturday and we thought it would be a small thing, but the place was packed,” Gynther says. “People will drive a long way to buy beer.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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