The Mikkeller brand: Product of a gypsy’s whim or a marketing mastermind?

The Brewery: Mikkeller

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø is the whimsical force behind the Mikkeller brand. The internationally acclaimed Danish brewer-turned-cultural-icon revolutionized craft brewing by globetrotting around the world to brew his beer – an industry trend known as “gypsy brewing.”

Gypsy brewing involves renting a brewery’s space and manpower to produce beer under your own label. It has gained popularity for many reasons, including:

  • Gypsy brewing doesn’t require major capital investment to get a brand up and running.
  • Gypsy brewers don’t have to make mass appeal beer for mass palettes to keep their doors open. Instead, they are free to explore styles or – in Bjergsø’s case – create new styles.
  • By collaborating with other breweries, Gypsy brewers have access to diverse markets and distribution channels.
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The original gypsy brewer: Mikkel Borg Bjergsø is the iconic brewer behind the Mikkeller brand.

A former science teacher, Bjergsø started homebrewing alongside his childhood friend Kristian Keller. As the pair’s “kitchen experiments” began to collect awards at Danish beer festivals, news of the brand spread among influential beer geeks. To meet the rise in demand, the two started brewing larger volumes at a Danish microbrewery.

Mikkeller got its break after the pair’s Beer Geek Breakfast, an oatmeal stout made with freshly French pressed coffee, was rated the best of its style on the international beer forum ratebeer.com.  Soon afterward, Mikkeller  signed with an American distribution agency which prompted even greater demand.

The two friends parted ways in 2007 but  Mikkeller continues to thrive under Bjergsø’s unique business model. Having produced hundreds of different beers that are exported to more than 40 countries, Bjergsø has set his brand apart by continuing to partner with host facilities, breweries and restaurants — like Michelin-starred noma —  rather than build a bricks-and-mortar brewery.

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Not your average watering hole: A minimal, modern design characterizes Mikkeller bars worldwide.

Even so, the Mikkeller brand is anchored in Copenhagen, with its head office and two beer bars – Mikkeller Bar and Mikkeller & Friends  – located in the city. There is also a Mikkeller Bar in San Francisco, U.S. and a prospective one opening in Bangkok, Thailand. Mikkeller has also launched a line of distilled spirits.

The Beer: Monks Brew, 10% ABV, 330 ml

This barrel-aged Quadrupel was inspired by Trappist monks and  brewed in Belgium. The beer pours a deep mahogany and has aromas of fruit and wood. Tart raspberries and red wine notes add to the beer’s complexity.

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Tart and tasty: Monks Brew is a Belgian Quadrupel inspired by Trappist monks.

The Brand: The original gypsy brewer

Bjergsø could very well be a genius — not for his experimental beer recipes (an oatmeal stout, for example, features highly-coveted Civet Coffee), or for his scientific geekery (the brand’s single-hop IPA series is the subject of a PhD study), but for his marketing prowess.

Bjergsø took what many would have perceived as a weakness – a brewer sans brewery – and turned Mikkeller into a revolutionary and fearless brand spanning international borders.

What better way to boost brand awareness than to pair with top brewers worldwide and distribute your product to an international consumer base? And without the headaches of running a physical brewery, like dealing with government agencies such as customs, Mikkeller was able to invest so much more into the company’s branding.

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Off the wall: A Keith Shore mural at San Francisco’s Mikkeller Bar.

That’s where Mikkeller’s resident artist, Philidelphia-based Keith Shore, enters the picture. Shore is the illustrator behind the various Mikkeller labels. His gang of hop-sniffing characters are the faces of the Mikkeller brand, and are gaining as much notoriety as Bjergsø himself. Shore’s aesthetic is also displayed on other branded merchandise, and in the Scandi-modern  Mikkeller bars.

As the original Gypsy Brewer, Mikkeller tells an intriguing brand story of risk and adventure that resonates with consumers in the craft beer community — a humble science teacher gives up his day job to become a renegade brewer. The brand has also paved the way for other gypsy brewers. Bjergsø’s twin brother, Jeppe, has also jumped on the trend. As the founder of Evil Twin Brewing, he has built a successful brand on a provocative tale of sibling rivalry.

So were the Bjergsøs’ ascent to cult craft beer status all part of a carefully plotted business plan? Or rather, was it the product of a whimsical approach to branding where everything fell into place? What are your thoughts?

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6 comments

  1. Nice post and thanks for the link back to my interview of Jeppe. Funny, I was trying to figure out what Mikkeller Bar was featured in the first image…then I realized it’s the Vesterbrogade bar. I have just never been inside in the daytime.

    To complete the Danish gypsy brewing circle, I also have interviews of Mikkel and Tore of To Øl.

    Mikkel- http://craftbeercoach.com/brewery-biography-mikkel-borg-bjergso-of-mikkeller/

    Tore- http://craftbeercoach.com/brewery-biography-tore-gynther-of-mikkeller-and-to-ol/

  2. Thanks for posting your interviews! I would love to go to Copenhagen and visit the Mikkeller bars… and dine at noma too 🙂

  3. I highly…very highly recommend saving up to go to the Copenhagen Beer Celebration in 2015. 2014 already sold out. It’s always around early May and tickets go on sale the November before and sell out quickly.

    I am so incredibly bummed that I will not be there this year. Made many international craft beer friends there

  4. Hmmm… A trip across the pond in 2015 could be reasonable, especially if I start planning now! Thanks for the great advice!

  5. Hello Joe – Actually the 2014 Copenhagen Beer Celebration is Still available via http://www.ciaotravel.com – whose Great Danish Beer Tour includes the four day Pink ticket. Having gone last year I agree it’s world class.

  6. Wow Bill, these tours are pretty cool… Thanks for sharing!

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