Family Feud: The Bjergsø Brothers & A Case for “Middle Class” Breweries

I was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram a few days ago in search of reprieve from talking to my boyfriend’s mother, who does not speak English. How does that popular saying go again? “You can’t choose your family but you can use social media to avoid speaking crude Swedish?”

No family better exhibits this spirit of “you can’t choose your family…” than the Bjergsø beer dynasty of Denmark. During my mindless Instagram scrolling, I came across a post from New York’s Evil Twin Brewery owner Jeppe Jarnit Bjergsø disparaging his twin brother Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, founder of Copenhagen based Mikkeller.

It is a tale that, to me, has become tiresome. Two highly competitive brothers, working in the same beer industry stuck in a perpetual loop of trash talking. The subject of Jeppe’s most recent posts — Mikkel and Mikkeller “selling out” — is important, but not for the reasons he lays out.

Indeed, Mikkeller’s success, especially in the last few years, marks a shift in contemporary craft beer trends. Namely, the emergence of a “middle class” within the beer market. I argue, however, that they haven’t sold out, so much as scaled up. But, can a “craft” brewery — i.e. an institution often associated with “grassroots,” “local,” and “artisanal “— really scale up? Or, does it evolve into something else?

Since the beginning of time (that being 1979 when our Lord and Savior Ken Grossman started Sierra Nevada), there has been an ongoing antagonism between what can be categorized as “craft” and “mass-produced” beer. The reality is that these categories over simplify and, consequently, pigeon hole what beer can mean to consumers.

In short, systematically categorized “craft” beer denotes “good” while its mass-produced counterpart is demonized as “bad.” In practice, however, I have drank a lot of crappy craft beers, and I am not ashamed to admit I like an occasional Tuborg Classic. My point is that quality, taste, and, most importantly, meaning are subjective measurements, dependent on the palate of the individual consumer.

The only potentially valid indication of “craft” from “mass-produced” beer lies in the production size of the brewery, which even then is problematic. How does one count the production size of a brewery that subcontracts all or parts of its production space from another brewery (a practice commonly called nomad brewing)? Is something actually “craft” if it was produced 6,000 kilometers away from its intended market?

Both Mikkeller and Evil Twin have been long term practitioners of nomad brewing, but are starting to lay down roots. In addition to a barrel room in Copenhagen and brewery in San Diego, Mikkeller recently opened Mikkeller New York inside Citi Field, home of the Metropolitans professional baseball team. It is also the subject of the latest Bjergsø versus Bjergsø spat.

Jeppe started Evil Twin in New York, far away from Mikkel in Copenhagen. Thus, the opening of Mikkeller New York has sparked a turf war of sorts, sensationalized by a recent New York Post article titled “Inside the Most Dramatic Restaurant Wars,” in which Jeppe accused Mikkeller of “selling out.”

As previously mentioned, I do not think they have sold out so much as scaled up. However, on some level, I can relate to Jeppe’s frustration with the Mikkeller’s lack of transparency with their brand as they have scaled up.

For example, despite baseball being the favorite sport of precisely zero Danes, cutting a deal with a major sporting events center is on a caliber of “big business” that anyone can see through. Gone are the days of Mikkeller, some alternative brewery started in a high school in Copenhagen that got big on Ratebeer. They are a beer titan now, with the ability to tap into a market of baseball fans who may not know anything about craft beer or that Mikkeller is Danish or might even mix up Denmark with Venezuela.

Herein lies my issue with Mikkeller being categorized and, more importantly, centering their branding around being “craft.” In my opinion, the craft beer trends of today extend far beyond the consumer palate. It is a cultural phenomenon rooted in local communities. What preservation of localism and, therefore, “craft” can a company have when they’re spread across three continents? What is the meaning of food consumption if there’s virtually nothing tying it to its place of origin?

Mikkeller is not alone in their apparent out growing of “craft.” There is a burgeoning “middle class” of breweries like Brewdog, which has a bevy of franchise bars across two (soon to be three) continents and, even, a beer hotel in construction. Other examples include Boston Beer Company, Stone Brewing, and Fuller’s Brewery.

As the legion of “middle class” breweries intensifies, they face unprecedented obstacles as they grow away from their local “craft” brewery contemporaries and increasingly share more in common with their “mass-produced” foes. How do they scale up sustainably while maintaining their “craft”origins. More importantly, how do they avoid temptation to be bought by beer conglomerates like AB InBev?

This scale up phase is where I believe customer loyalty is actually most important. Transparency about a company’s business ventures and inner workings as they evolve has the potential to pay off. Steady business from loyal customers during a scale up phase might keep a Heineken buyout off the table…or, at least, make it less tempting to take.

Ultimately, beer consumers are not at all like family. They will not stick with a brand if they feel alienated or abandoned during a brewery’s efforts to scale up rather than sell out. How does that popular saying go again? You can’t choose your family, but you can choose which beer you drink to cope when dealing with your family.