Signifiers

Just Like Witches — WarPigs Brewpub in Copenhagen, Denmark

Evil minds plot destruction. They also plot far-fetched, trans-continental, multi-faceted collaborative brewpub concepts. The notion of America’s pioneering heavy metal brewery and Denmark’s original gypsy brewer shacking up together seemed a bit odd from the outset. The Indiana-based Three Floyds couldn’t—and still can’t—meet demand as near as Missouri. Mikkeller had—and still has—a stranglehold on the Copenhagen craft beer market with nine other locations already in operation.

So, why would either want to collaborate on a small-scale brewpub?

The easy answer is that they wanted to. And they could. But there were other reasons—practical, intangible, and otherwise—for the beer-geek-dream union. And it’s hard to argue with the success they’ve seen so far. Weird though it may be, it kind of makes sense in a twisted sort of way. And that’s where the charm of WarPigs begins.

“It’s definitely a party area,” says WarPigs head brewer, Kyle Wolak. “Sometimes when I get in here at 6am, people are still partying.” He’s referring to Copenhagen’s Meatpacking District (or Kødbyen, which translates to “Meat City”), where the brewpub is located.

Kødbyen is a district of Copenhagen’s Vesterbro neighborhood, and it’s subdivided into three sections (white, grey, and brown), each dubbed for the predominant color of its architecture. WarPigs resides in the white area, which is austere in an almost mechanical way.

WarPigs is a place where you can have fun and be a little loud without worrying about disturbing other guests.
— Mikkel Borg Bjergsø

All the buildings are low-slung and long. Most feature large-windowed facades topped with white fascia and blue trim. Some, with second and third floors, have matching blue-framed windows or blue awnings on the upper levels. Each structure looks nearly identical, like they were all assembled from the same LEGO set. And, with the exception of signage, everything looks as it did when the district was built in the 1930s.

Kødbyen is an historic district, which, in Copenhagen, means that virtually nothing can be altered, inside or out. That fact helps account for the fairly stunning aesthetic inside the brewpub, too. Case in point: every square inch of permanent space is covered with tile—white subway on the walls and columns, a patchwork mix of brown and tan on the floors.

Exposed rafters and ductwork, along with the gleaming stainless of the brewhouse, add to the industrial feel. Not to mention the meat rail system suspended from the ceiling, left over from the slaughterhouse days. Row after row of long, olive-colored picnic tables, as well as a liberal use of wood at the bar and kitchen, help temper the sterility and warm the atmosphere.

"The idea was to create a laid back place with references to Texas BBQ combined with a beer hall and metal music. All with an army theme," Mikkeller founder Mikkel Borg Bjergsø explains. "WarPigs is a place where you have can fun and be a little loud without worrying about disturbing other guests."

Even if that vibe seems familiar, the space bears no resemblance to Three Floyds or Mikkeller. It’s something different entirely, equal parts biergarten and sacrificial altar with a splash of illicit laboratory thrown in for good measure. It bridges the gap between the building’s history, its current incarnation, and the oft-eclectic brews produced within.

Although the atmosphere doesn’t immediately evoke the feeling of Three Floyds or Mikkeller, the beers do. WarPigs’ focus is to make hoppy, American-style Ales, which is largely what put both parent breweries on the map. 

Their flagship beer is Lazurite, a bright-but-fairly-bitter IPA with noticeable traits from both mom and dad. The hop profile is aggressive, teetering on the edge of imbalance in relation to the grain bill, without ever quite toppling over—similar to a lot of Mikkeller offerings. The yeast character, on the other hand, is reminiscent of Zombie Dust or Alpha King, and is very prominent on the finish. (It’s worth noting that the WarPigs water supply is run through a reverse osmosis system to strip out all the minerals, and rebuilt to match the water profile of Lake Michigan, replicating the H20 used at FFF to a tee.)

The melding of influences is apparent, and attributable to the brewers themselves. Wolak was at Three Floyds for a little more than five years before he made the move to Copenhagen as WarPigs’ head brewer at the end of 2014. Lan-xin Foo was working on the Mikkeller pilot brewhouse prior to joining WarPigs as assistant brewer.

“With one brewer from Mikkeller and one from Three Floyds, the blend of the two breweries’ styles came pretty naturally,” Wolak says.

The brewpub is only a five-minute walk from Mikkeller’s main office, so Mikkel was present for the buildout and many of the initial brew days. “He still comes by to taste the beers on tap regularly,” Wolak adds. “So I’ve been able to get a good sense of his vision for us.”

That vision, explained by Mikkel himself, is "to create the best hoppy beers produced in Europe, that people can get fresh, directly from the serving tanks." Furthermore, he clarifies that "WarPigs is our playground, where I can do things that [are] harder to do in a production brewery, and having Three Floyds as partners makes it even greater."

The partnership is why the hoppy beers can trace their lineage to Bjergsø or the Floyds, but the idea of a playground affords the opportunity to stray from the family tree, get experimental, and have some fun. The small size of the brewhouse—a 10 hectoliter (around 8.5 BBL) BrauKon system that Wolak likens to a “Harley-Davidson moped”—and the desire to fuck with the form a bit, has led to some out-there beers.

In their 20-plus months of brewing, Wolak and team have made a variety of oddities, ranging from a Sloe Berry Braggot and a Berliner Weisse with sea buckthorn, to Saisons with smoked hay or black rice, to a riesling-grape-juice-infused Belgian Strong Ale. Most recently, they brewed an IPA using licorice pipes in a collaboration with the Swedish indie band Bob Hund. (As it turns out, licorice is quite popular in Sweden.)

In addition to collaborating with touring bands, WarPigs also opens its doors to traveling brewers. “They’re not as much collaborations as they are ‘guest brews,’” Wolak explains. “We’ll brew a beer they already make, we’ll just brew it here on our system. It can be cool because, obviously, it’s going to be a little different. But people out here might never have the chance to taste the real thing, so it’s the closest they can get.”

Recent guest brewers include The Veil and Beavertown, who joined a laundry list of heavy-hitters that have passed through—most for the annual Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen—such as AleSmith, Arizona Wilderness, Cigar City, and Half Acre.

While the core lineup offers an amalgamation of the Mikkeller style most Danes are familiar with, and the experiments offer something off the beaten path, the guest brews allow customers to taste something entirely foreign: in most cases, something American. Which, like the Texas barbecue, is part of the draw.

Copenhagen is one of the world’s pre-eminent food destinations. In 2016 alone, more than a dozen restaurants across the city earned a collective 20 Michelin stars, including three for Geranium, and two each for noma and AOC. It’s a remarkable feat for a city with a municipal population of a just barely north of half a million.

These are the sorts of restaurants that serve extremely high-end, prohibitively-expensive, miniature-portioned, Nordic cuisine using hyper-local ingredients that were likely foraged from a shipping-container-micro-farm earlier that day in order to make things like foams and gelatins and foods that look like other foods, all served on white tablecloths with interesting silverware in exquisite dining rooms.

“The WarPigs vibe kind of counters that ideology,” Wolak chuckles.

WarPigs has two smokers—a 300-kilo and a 750-kilo, respectively—that can slow-and-low their way through more than two tons of meat a day. That makes them the largest smoking operation in all of Europe.

Head chef Andrew Hroza—former executive chef at Goose Island, and former traveling chef for Van Halen, Slipknot, and Norah Jones—and his team dish out gigantic portions of meat meant to be eaten by hand on metal trays at communal picnic tables outfitted with industrial-sized paper towel rolls. The latter are to be used as napkins because, you know, everyone’s eating with their hands. They even have a soda machine with unlimited free refills, which is absolutely unheard-of in that part of the world.

"There is nothing like [us] here in Denmark," Hroza says. "Every place here is very service-forward, and at times stuffy. We chose to put the same effort into our food as any fine dining, but let customer serve themselves. The Danes were confused at first, [because] the concept is completely foreign, but our staff does a great job educating."

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This is how WarPigs defines success: a regularly packed house and laboratory for experimental beers, ones that throws down the gauntlet on Danish cuisine—all embraced by a wide range of customers. Folks from all walks of life pour in: young, old, locals, tourists, metalheads, families, prim Nordic models with cheekbones for days, beer geeks, and run-of-the-mill American expats. They all gather, elbow to elbow, drink some beers, and chow down on piles of authentic Texas barbecue.

"We don’t have a specific clientele," Hroza explains. "We get tons of tourists who pilgrimage to check us out. But we're also one of the few places that has tons of space for a large group of locals to gather and drink. With our patio in the summer and the large indoor space, we can have 300 people at one time and turn over a couple times in a day."

To feed that crowd, WarPigs has two smokers—a 300-kilo and a 750-kilo, respectively—that can slow-and-low their way through more than two tons of meat a day. That makes them the largest smoking operation in all of Europe. Now, most days, they don’t reach that capacity, but Hroza advises, "we sell out regularly, so like any good BBQ, you have to get here early to get meat."

And while the beer that washes down all that meat is as fresh as can be, it's not necessarily meant to pair specifically with barbecue. "My background as a Cicerone and a chef has always pushed me to pair beers with food," Hroza says. "But here we just want you to have good food and good beer. Kyle's beers are amazing and shouldn't be pushed based on what you order. Our BBQ is assertive so everything works as both a palate cleanser and a flavor enhancer."

On top of housing a brewery and a barbecue joint, WarPigs is also home to a White Labs outpost, the company’s first outside of the United States. The operation consists of a small lab space with a staff of two, including Troels Prahl, a Copenhagen native who also serves as the Head of Research and Development for the company.

The goal of the outpost is to increase production and enhance the quality and freshness of yeasts for their European markets, including brewers, vintners, distillers, and food-fermenters throughout the region. 

"More than 80% of what we sell goes outside Denmark," Prahl says. "Europe has been hungry for high quality liquid yeast for years, and it means a lot to brewers to save money on freight and customs."

Additionally, with the outpost's proximity to the European customer base, Prahl can serve as an ambassador of sorts. He travels frequently, helping to establish and expand relationships while also providing advice and troubleshooting solutions.

While most labs use malt extract as the base for their propagations, White Labs Copenhagen uses all grain to make their wort, brewing on the WarPigs brewhouse twice a week. In return, Wolak and his team get always-on access to a world-class quality control and quality assurance team—as well as all the peripheral knowledge that rubs off along the way—without even having to leave the building.

"The synergy of having yeast production, an advanced lab, and a really nice brewery under the same roof is a dream to most brewers," Prahl explains. "And it matters a lot to White Labs [to see] how our products are used. Sharing the space gives both parties a seat in the front row, helping us to grow and develop new ideas."

The entire thing is pretty hush-hush, though. Aside from a small sign near the fermenters adorned with their logo, White Labs has no visual presence in the building. The only other hint is an even smaller sign informing guests that—much like sex in the champagne room—there’s no photography permitted in the fermentation space.

Unless something cataclysmic happens, there’s no way Copenhagen will be the only location. WarPigs is built to grow.

[Editor’s note: Since the reporting of this story, White Labs Copenhagen has moved out of the WarPigs building. As part of their expansion plans, Prahl and his team have relocated to a temporary production facility just around the corner. They’re currently negotiating on several properties nearby, looking to secure a space more than 10 times the size of the area they once had at the brewpub. Wort production and quality assurance will continue as before until the move is completed.]

There’s a lot of proprietary information around, including the company’s FlexCell and PurePitch technologies, which Prahl helped to develop, and which allow the yeast production and distribution to take place in such confined quarters. It also allows WarPigs—and by extension, Three Floyds and Mikkeller—access to new and experimental yeast strains being developed, including a Norwegian farmhouse culture they’re trying to revitalize.

The name “WarPigs” could refer to the 1970 Black Sabbath hit. It could be a reference to the 2015 feature film starring Dolph Lungren, one that currently holds steady with a stunningly poor 20% rating on RottenTomatoes.com. It could even pay tribute to the military animals used in ancient warfare as a countermeasure against elephants.

Depending on who you ask, the provenance of the name changes slightly. (And for what it's worth, nobody actually mentioned that terrible movie.) But everyone involved agrees that a) the name came from a late night with a lot of bourbon, and b) WarPigs has a huge future in front of it.

Unless something cataclysmic happens, there's no way Copenhagen will be the only location. The concept is proven, there's a clear value to both the Three Floyds and Mikkeller brands, and Texas BBQ is virtually nonexistent on the continent. Whether it comes to the shores of United States, or ventures further afield in Europe, WarPigs is built to grow.

"It's a brand that we would love to spread all over the world, where we brew fresh beer and smoke great meat," Mikkel says.

But maybe even more important than their own expansion, WarPigs is a successful experiment, kicking in the doors of Europe for American-style brewpubs of all sorts. "I think [we] have shown that it's possible to brew great, fresh, hoppy beer and serve it right from the source," Bjergsø declares. "This is new to Europe, but WarPigs has been successful with it, and others will follow."

You might say they only started the war.

Words + Photos by
Kyle Kastranec

Kyle Kastranec

Kyle is designer in Columbus, Ohio, telling authentic stories through branding and marketing. He was born and raised in northeast Ohio, and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.

See more stories from Kyle

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