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Strange name, traditional beer

Celebrating small breweries in monopolistic Denmark

A tragic-comic recollection: My girlfriend's father, after a life relished, was approaching its end, half-conscious in a hospital bed. She had stayed for long hours, seeking to comfort him, and for a moment there seemed nothing to say. Her mind turned to happier days, when they had so often met over a pint of Brain's beer, in their native city of Cardiff, Wales. "Why did we never try Hancock's?" she murmured, referring to a lesser brewery of that name in the same city. With a start, her father was conscious, and momentarily almost vigorous. "Because it's rubbish!" he boomed.

That simple, explanatory, phrase has in the years since become a private joke whenever my girlfriend and I find cause to reject something.

Her father was, of course, talking about Hancock's of Cardiff. If the very word epitomised dreadfulness, how does the name Hancock attach itself to one of the best regarded breweries in Denmark? Ever since I first heard of the Danish brewery, in the early 1970s, I have wondered about this. Beer trivia, I suppose, but a good excuse to visit the brewery.

"In the1960s, an English lady called Hancock was married to our export manager," I was told there by Fritz Strange Nielsen, third generation of the owning family. "We felt that her name sounded more acceptable in the English-speaking world than Strange Nielsen. We thought we could sell some beer in America, but we didn't." All the same, the brewery never reverted to its original strange name. So, the answer is a two-sided coin: ambition of international conquest, followed by self-effacement.

Perhaps the notion of international conquest dates back to Viking times. Hancock's is in the tiny port town of Skive, on a network of fjords on the north-western corner of Jutland, the peninsular part of Denmark.

The modesty seems to be personal. Mr Strange Nielsen appears to be a genuinely self-effacing fellow, though he is running a business that must be very significant to the town.

The brewery was established in the town in 1889, and in 1962 moved to new premises three miles north, among fields of wheat and potatoes. The brick-built tower brewery displays a cockerel logo, appropriately rural thouh strangely familiar. Inside, above the brewhouse, is inscribed a reassuring rhyme suggesting that hard work and beer ensure longevity. Hancock's has traditional copper kettles, uses a double decoction mash for its darker products, and opts exclusively for Saaz hops, the latter mentioned on some of its labels. Until eight years ago, this modern brewery even used an open cooling vessel.

I found an excellent, fresh, hop aroma in the crisp, refreshing, principal product, a golden lager of 5.0 abv called Hoker Bajer. The second word, a you may have guessed, means "Bavarian." The first refers to a spice merchant in the colonial era. No doubt "Bavarian" lagers seemed like exotic imports when this style was introduced by the brewery in 1935. This beer is hopped three times and, like all the Hancock lagers, fermented with Spaten yeast. Mr Strange Neilsen told me that the lagering time was 45 to 60 days.

A lager labelled only in English, as "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year," and boasting 6.6 abv, was still available when I visited. It will be back for Easter (Paske, in Danish). For a beer of such strength, this was very clean and dry, with a biscuity maltiness and a very lemony, flowery, Saaz character. Not satisfied with this seasonal speciality, the brewery also has a second, stronger, 10.0 abv, Christmas speciality called Yule Brew (Jule Bryg), with a creamier malt character and a more peppery hop and alcohol finish.

"Now try our light beer," came the incongruous suggestion from Mr Strange Nielsen. "Light" turned out to be the colour. Gambrinus Light comes in at 9.8 to 10 abv, with toffeeish malt, very lively flavours, and a warming finish. Gambrinus Dark, with an abv of 10.0 to 10.5 and a deep amber colour, had a depth of malt flavours that reminded me of apricot, vanilla and toast. In an interesting range, this delicious brew was my especially enjoyable.

While I was at Hancock's, I was joined by Eli Andersen, an activist from the organisation for West Jutland Beer Culture. Small breweries are rightly celebrated in Denmark, the most monopolistic of traditional brewing nations. This small contry has today only about ten regional and local breweries. Some of which simply imitate the national giant, but the northwest has two lively competitors.

An hour round the fjord at another small port, Thisted, I admired the 1899 facade of the second. The Thisted brewery abbreviates its brand-name to Thy. There, I tasted a fresh, smooth, malt accented, organic (Okologisk) Pilsner, as well as mintier conventional version.

Then came the smooth, soft but dry, slightly smoky, bittersweet, Porse Guld, a very unusual pale lager of 5.8 abv. The second word means "gold," the first indicates the use of bog myrtle .

Christmas Snowflake (Julefnug), also at 5.8, had a flavoursome, interplay of crisp malt and minty hop. Again, there is a stronger Christmas brew Thy Julebryg, at 7.9, with a fresh hop aroma and marshmallow maltiness.

The surprise climax to the tasting was labelled in English as Double Brown Stout and in Danish with the local name Limfjords Porter. Like other Danish beers in this style, it was bottom-fermenting, but it was full of character: a dense, brownish, head over a slatey, black, brew; full-bodied and lightly oily; a touch of burnt-grass, rooty, peatiness; a long, warming, finish; and an alcohol content of 7.9. The flavours were very complex, and I was not surprised to hear that both smoked malt and licorice were used.

I heard great things of another stout, made at the Saint Clemens brewpub, in Jutland's principal city, Arhus, on the east coast. Unfortunately, neither the stout nor seasonal abbey-style or wheat beers were available when I visited the pub. I did enjoy the regular product, a malty, toasty, rounded, unfiltered, amber-coloured interpretation of a Pils; and the seasonal special at that time, a juicy-tasting Christmas beer of 5.6 abv.

The pub, which displays the sign of a brew-kettle outside, is in the former printing premises of a newspaper, on the cathedral square. Inside, the kettle and tanks, clad in beaten copper, provide centre-pieces of the bar and restaurant area. The unvarnished Pomeranian pine of the furniture and broad floorboards add to the natural colours and textures.

The menu includes spiced herrings, pickled salmon pork ribs and steaks. The proprietors also own the Apollo brewpub, in Copenhagen, and a chain of "Hereford Steak" restaurants in Denmark (and in Leeds, Yorkshire). More brewpubs are planned. The owner's son, an interior designer, has created steak knives in his own smithy, and commissioned a glass-blower to make stirrup cups. As with the similar Kwak glass in some Belgian cafés, these are offered on the deposit of one shoe.

Saint Clemens has the additional feature of Viking tools displayed in a small exhibit downstairs. They were found when the cellar was excavated. Brewer Gustav Ullerichs began his working life with quite different tools. He was a dentist. "I got tired of that. You can't talk to a patient when he has a mouthful of instruments," he recalls. "I prefer being in a bar."

A physicist working on radiotherapy for cancer, a geologist, a landscape architect and a blacksmith were among the beer-makers I met at a unique brewery elsewhere in Arhus. Brewer Ole Madsen took me there: to a complex of tower-blocks that had been built on farm land. The surviving agricultural buildings, dating from 1873, were acquired in 1970 by the tenants of the flats, for "social activity." Under the guidance of a renowned social worker, who liked beer, the activity turned out to be brewing.

As the resultant "Hand-Brewers' Guild" approaches its 30th birthday, it reckons that more than 700 people have made beer in the building, and there are currently 40 or 50 members.

As the resultant "Hand-Brewers' Guild" approaches its 30th birthday, it reckons that more than 700 people have made beer in the building, and there are currently 40 or 50 members.

The building, smartly tiled, is permanently fitted for brewing, which takes place once a week. All the brewing is from malt extract, and the kettles are milk-churns on electric hotplates. The temperature of the wort is lowered in milk-coolers. About a dozen further milk churns are used for primary fermentation. Another 50 milk churns or soft-drink vessels provide conditioning capacity.

The beer is consumed by members upstairs, in an open-beam hayloft that has been converted into what I would defnitely call a pub, were it not private. Although all the members are resident in Arhus, several are foreigners.

That physicist, for example, turned out to be from Sale, Cheshire.

Saint Clemens is at 10-12 Kannike Gade, rhus.

Tel (0045) 86-138000; fax 86-138611.

For information on the Hand Brewers' Guild, contact Olde Madsen, 24 Hasselhoj 8361 Hasselager, Arhus. E-mail:

Copenhagen has a newish restaurant specialising in mussels and fries, with about 20 beers from the Low Countries, and run by Netherlander Peter Postma. It is near the main shopping street Stroget. Café Amsterdam (2 Cort Adelers Gade, corner of Holbergs Gade; tel 33 12 66 14). It is very small, so reservations are advised.

Published Online: JULY 28, 1999
Published in Print: APR 1, 1999
In: What's Brewing

Brewery Review - Brew Travel

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