Fried chicken, olives and moss: These are just a few ingredients that brewing pioneer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø has turned into beer throughout the course of his career. Jarnit-Bjergsø is the head of the wildly innovative Evil Twin Brewing and he founded two similarly pioneering establishments in New York, Tørst and Luksus (the latter has been closed since late-2016). He’s also the former beer director at the acclaimed fine dining institution Noma in Copenhagen.
Before all that, he was just a schoolteacher, with a love of ales, who started home brewing. That passion turned into a beer shop and distribution company that changed the face of Denmark’s beverage scene. In the process, Jarnit-Bjergsø has become one of the foremost authorities on all things brewing, beer pairings and drinking destinations.
That’s why he was tapped to write Where to Drink Beer, the newly released guide to drinking beer around the world, from America to North Korea. In addition to the book, Jarnit-Bjergsø is also in the process of building Evil Twin’s first brick-and-mortar brewery in Queens, set to open early next year. We sat down with Jarnit-Bjergsø on a sunny afternoon at his deeply-in-construction brewery to talk about the best beer cities, his most creative brews, and why he thinks smoked beer could (and should) make a comeback.
In the introduction to Where to Drink Beer, you talk about how, growing up in Denmark, you used to have to go very far to get a good beer. Can you talk about those early beer adventures?
In Europe, England and Germany have these very old beer traditions, and their own styles that they have been doing forever. In Denmark, Carlsberg was all we had. I remember putting myself in a car and driving 12 hours to Belgium, where I could drink Belgian blondes. In Germany, I could try hefeweizens. I just couldn’t get what I wanted in Denmark. Because Carlsberg is such a big brewery and Denmark is such a small country, Carlsberg has this monopoly in the country and that kept a lot of beer stuff out of Denmark. Denmark only went through its beer revolution 20 years ago. Now it is one of the best beer countries in the world!
You used to be a schoolteacher. How did you decide to get into beer?
I started home brewing in the late 90s and early 2000s. I went to Belgium and also trained with American beer makers and got obsessed with the idea of beer—wanting to collect, try everything, know everything. Also, beer is very approachable in terms of how it’s made, and the price point. But while beer is very uncomplicated, you can still get the complexity and balance that you have in wine. In general, the quality level of beer is so much better than it was 10 years ago.
You have been a big part of that evolution—particularly with regards to all the amazing collaborations that you have done with restaurants.
It’s fun to come up with crazy shit! Those collaborations give me a different approach to putting flavors together. When we did a beer with the Aviary and Alinea in Chicago based on their strawberry and olive dessert, at first, I was like, “This sounds weird.” It wasn’t something I would have thought of. But then I thought of salted beers, and how we could replace that salt with olive brine. It worked really well! Beer shouldn’t be limited. I see myself as a cook—we put a bunch of stuff in a pot, heat it up, ferment it and see what comes out.
What was the first beer you ever brewed?
A Belgian-style wheat beer. We called it a Doppelwit, inspired by the name of a Marilyn Manson movie. It was good. It was drinkable. It was a real eye-opener because when you do something like that the first time, you hear all these horror stories about people making beer and wine at home and it tasting terrible. But ours actually tasted pretty good. And we were fermenting everything in plastic buckets. I look at home brewing kits now and they are really professional. I imagine home brewers can now create even better beers than we could.
There is this little beer bar called Bia Hoi Junction Hanoi in Vietnam where you sit on top of buckets and drink tiny glasses of beer for ten cents.”
Your new book is so enormous and comprehensive. How did you approach such a daunting task of telling people where to drink beer all around the world?
I am very connected in the industry and I have distributed in many countries So I started by giving [Mike Amidei], who helped me with this book, contact info for someone in, say, Japan, and he would say, “We are doing this book, can you name 20 beer people that you think would be good for this in Japan?” And it became this chain reaction. That is the only way you can do this. I wanted the book to be not just people I trusted, but also the people others trusted. That’s how you get as accurate a book as possible.
I appreciate that your approach was decidedly global, and not overly focused on beer in the western world.
That was the rule. We wanted to make sure this was a worldwide travel book. That was very important to us. We want to give people the opportunity to experience good beer, but we also want them to experience beer traditions in other parts of the world that they are less familiar with. For example, there is this little beer bar called Bia Hoi Junction Hanoi in Vietnam where you sit on top of buckets and drink tiny glasses of beer for ten cents. It’s a unique experience, so we wanted to include that.
Were there beer destinations that surprised you while you were doing research for this book?
There is one place in North Korea! That was a big surprise, and a cool one to have in the book. I know very few people will ever go to North Korea, but who knows! Maybe!
What percentage of the places in the book have you visited?
Not a lot. But I wanted to include places in here that haven’t already been recommended by lots of people. I wanted to bring in places that aren’t part of the conversation. I am never going to say I know all the places in the book—there is no way that would ever be possible.
What is your all-time favorite city for drinking beer?
New York City. Some people say I only chose it because that is where I am and where I am opening a brewery. But when I moved here seven years ago, New York was lagging big time—so much has happened since then. Because New York is so expensive, you have to go all in and make great beer. There is so much good stuff in New York, so if you don’t serve high quality, people won’t care about you. You can get away with more in other cities. In New York, you’ve got Other Half, Threes Brewing, Folksbier. They are all at such a high level because you can’t get away with mediocre stuff here. If you are mediocre, you have to shut down.
I wanted to have a space where we don’t have to ask for permission.”
Tell me about your vision for the Evil Twin Brewing taproom that’s opening up here next year.
I have always wanted to be a New York brand, and I think we have become that but the final step is having a brewery here. Being able to sell to the consumer is something we have never had to do. We have been doing contract, or nomadic brewing, and with that you can never fully control anything. You have to compromise. I wanted to have a space where we don’t have to ask for permission.
Are there any special beers that you are excited to brew here?
When I started Evil twin we did a beer called the Cowboy—it was a smoked lager. People loved it. But three years ago it totally died out—it was impossible to sell anything with smoke in it. Things either had to be extremely hoppy or extremely sweet. I want to take stuff like that back, and do some of those styles that we can do at a small scale.
What beer destination are you eager to go visit next?
I would love to go to Africa. I’m curious to see what all fermented drinks they are doing over there. I have a friend in Ethiopia, and I’ve heard there are brew pubs over there. I would be really interested to see. I have been to so many beer destinations, but there are always so many more that I want to go to.