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Learning to Fly: Mikkeller's Journey to 35,000 Feet

March 15, 2018

By Sarah Freeman, March 15, 2018

“Carlsberg or Eepa?”

The question comes from a blonde-haired, blue-eyed and blue-clad flight attendant.

I look back at her, confused, and say, “Excuse me, what?”

She pulls out two cans from her roving bar. There’s a familiar green can in one hand and a less familiar blue one on the other. The latter is adorned with the signature Mikkeller cartoon people grappling over an airplane. She repeats her question again, this time with emphasis on the respective cans, “Carlsberg or Eepa?”

Oh, IPA, of course, we’re practically in international waters now, traveling from Chicago to Stockholm on Scandinavia Airlines flight 946. And, while this airline is the first with a beer program specifically designed to withstand altitudes of more than 35,000 feet, craft beer on an airplane is still uncharted territory.

Sarah Freeman

To understand how we got here—sipping a floral IPA made with a blend of five different hops from the non-comfort of an airplane seat—we have to go back a few years to another SAS flight, where Mikkeller’s founder Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and chief operating officer Jacob Gram Alsing were spitballing ideas about where they could take beer next. They didn’t need to look any further than their tray table for inspiration. The epiphany: Put Mikkeller beer in an airplane. Not just any of their already thoughtful beers, but beers brewed specifically for flight, taking into account all the weird and unpleasant things that happen at high altitudes. 

Alsing was tasked with researching these things and how they relate to beer-drinking. Anyone who has had the pleasure of tearing the plastic off a tray of airplane food knows that in-flight eating is not always the most pleasant experience. This is because certain flavors become bland at high-altitudes, where low pressure and dry air diminish the function of the salty and sweet receptors. The same phenomenon happens to beer, which is why your already lackluster macro ale taste even less appealing at cruising altitude.

Before Alsing could make much progress with his research, he received an email from Peter Lawrance, head chef and manager of meal planning for SAS. It turns out, at the same time Mikkeller was exploring putting its beers on an airplane, SAS was taking a closer look at its beer offerings.

“In the spring of 2014, we started internally discussing that our passengers once again are ready for more exciting brews,” Lawrance recalls. “We, SAS, had just launched our new Intercontinental Business Class and needed to match the beer to the rest of our top quality we now delivered.”

On the culinary side of things, SAS is one of several airlines putting extra effort into its meal offerings. Last year, it launched its “New Nordic” program, which introduced ingredients such as Norwegian fjord salmon, Swedish lamb, Danish veal and locally grown vegetables to its meal service. It only made sense that beer would meet the same standards. And when it comes to Scandinavian beers, few are more respected for their creativity and quality than Mikkeller.

“I was served a bottle of Mikkeller's Kärlek in a restaurant in Stockholm, and that was a suitable name as Kärlek means Love, and I feel in love with that beer," Lawrance says. “So, I contacted Jacob Alsing at Mikkeller, in the spring of 2014, and pretty much my question was if they wanted to make beer together with SAS. And off we go! We then launched the first beer together with our launch of the Houston route on the 20th of August 2014.”

That beer was Sky-High Wit, a Belgian wit beer with notes of orange peel and cilantro. The can features the gypsy brewery’s signature cartoon people holding of to the wing of an SAS-blue plane. The process of bringing that beer to life involved multiple taste tests and test brews at two different breweries—first Skyfox Brewing in Philadelphia and then De Proef in Belgium—as well as in-flight tastings, including one captured on video. But why a wit, when, at the time, IPAs were all the rage? It’s because brewing a beer for higher altitude presents a problem that most directly affects hops. 

Most styles work well in air, but the pressure that accrues and the dry air makes bitterness standout and becomes dominant, so we must be careful and make sure our brews are well balanced.”

“Most styles work well in air, but the pressure that accrues and the dry air makes bitterness standout and becomes dominant, so we must be careful and make sure our brews are well balanced,” Lawrance explains. “Also, regarding the cans, you have to be careful with the carbonation, as a beer inflight can easily foam a lot because of the low pressure. This is not an issue with our bottles as here we manly spontaneously fermented beer.”

Yes, that’s right, spontaneously fermented beer in an airplane. According to Lawrance, sours are some of the best tasting beers in flight, followed closely by their coffee stout. Since its inception, the Mikkeller and SAS partnership has produced more than a dozen beers, ranging form a crisp pale ale called Plane Ale to Past, Present & Future, a Belgian ale aged in Chardonay barrels. Some, such as Sweet & Sour, a Belgian ale that is aged in oak barrels for two years and then re-fermented with mango juice, are available only on certain routes. In this case, you can sip the mango beer en route to Hong Kong.

“It’s taken some time both to produce the beers that we think work really well in the air, but also to train staff on the planes to offer the craft beer instead of the more commercial beer,” Alsing says. “We’ve seen a dramatic change over the years. I would always just ask for a beer and would almost always get a Carlsberg, but lately we can feel they are super proud of presenting the beers done specifically for SAS.” 

Sarah Freeman

That brings us back to “Eepa,” the more common pronunciation of the American "IPA" in Eurpoe and the UK. Northern Trails is of the more recent additions to Mikkeller’s lineup. The IPA appears in an SAS-blue can with those cartoonish figures fighting over an airplane. In the background, constellations named after hops fill the sky. It turns out, the can also glows in the dark. But how did it taste? Better than most IPAs I’ve drank on the ground—smooth and balanced with delicate floral notes and a citric backbone. If controlling bitterness was a goal when brewing this beer, then the team succeeded. The beer is refreshing and light. Two cans kept me more than satisfied for the eight-hour flight. The only downside being that only one Mikkeller beer is served per route, both ways. An additional offering can be found in business class, but my SAS Plus seat only gave me access to a single style.

“For us, it’s very much about bringing craft beer to platforms where you don’t usually get craft beers and, especially in Europe and Denmark, where the markets are more conservative,” Alsing says. “People don’t ask for craft beer the same way in Denmark the way they do in the U.S. Bringing craft beer onto a platform like an airline gives us an audience of people that all of a sudden ask for a higher quality in beer, which is amazing to us.”

As Alsing said, the collaboration is about getting craft beer in new places and in the hands of new customers. For me, it also acted as a way to get me to new craft beer. Scandinavian Airline happens to offer direct flights to some of the country’s most exciting beer cities. This time, it was to Stockholm, where I drank slushie-topped lemon meringue pie beer at Omnipollo Hatt and Wineale at Mikeller’s clandestine taproom. Maybe, next time, it will be to Mikkeller's headquarters in Denmark or sipping a sour beer all the way to Hong Kong. Where will beer take you?

Editor's note: The author was part of a press trip hosted by Scandinavian Airlines.

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