Travel Stories

Øl That and a Bag of Chips — Beer and Hygge in Copenhagen

We arrived in Denmark by train. Or was it by boat? Technically, we were on a train, and that train was on a boat. OK, so, when the train we boarded that morning in Hamburg reached the Baltic Sea, it loaded itself onto a ship. That ship ferried us northward. When we reached the Danish shore, the train unloaded itself from the bowels of the ship and proceeded to chug right along, as if it hadn't just taken part in a marvel of modern engineering. Past tulip fields and nondescript rural towns and increasingly urbanized transit platforms, we sped along, making our way to Central Station in the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark's capital city.

Thank goodness for the efficient, nonchalant trainboat.

Looking back, such a novel mode of transport was the perfect way to arrive in one of Europe's most vibrant cultural hubs, and it set the stage just so for the next few days we spent taking in everything Copenhagen had to offer, from beers to tacos to barbecue to coffee to markets to vinyl to other wonderful stuff. It’s a good town. You should take a train there. Or a boat. Here’s what I’d recommend you do if you’ve got 36 hours or so.

I've been in some dimly-lit bars in my time. Some dives have been downright dark. But Fermentoren set a new standard for pupil diameter. The only electrical lighting inside comes from a few small directional bulbs positioned above the necessities—the draft board and liquor bottles, of course—and two shaded table lamps in the seating area. All other luminance is provided by candles, most of which are held in empty Cantillon bottles, melted wax cascading over neck and label like lava down a mountainside.

But what Fermentoren lacks in brightness it makes up for in vibe. In fact, the darkness goes a long way toward establishing the mood. The flickering candlelight is warm and inviting. It makes the interior immediately cozy and turns every table into an intimate nook that feels miles away from its nearest neighbor.

A conversational din rises from these worn, wooden islands and collects near the ceiling, but never quite reaches the point of being distracting or disturbing. Cutting through it all are the dulcet tones of Bob Dylan, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and the U.S.-classic-rock like. Looking around, the posters and album sleeves adorning the walls provide a near-perfect visual companion to the soundtrack.

The bar itself is modest in size—its 24 tap handles outnumber stools nearly three to one. On draft during our visit: a handful of Danish breweries (Mikkeller, Evil Twin, Gamma, Ghost, and Flying Couch), including a couple Fermentoren house brand beers produced by sister operation, Dry & Bitter (who had a few handles on as well), some European beers ranging from extremely traditional Austrian Lagers to more modern British IPAs, and a contingent of U.S. offerings from 3 Floyds, Westbrook, and Against the Grain.

Best I could tell, Fermentoren isn't a tourist spot. We spent the bulk of our first evening there and it sure seemed like we were the only non-Danes around. The locals weren't put off by our presence, though, as we had experienced at a few places in Germany. Quite the contrary, in fact. Everyone in the place was as warm and welcoming as the candlelight that was enveloping each of us.

From the bartender to the regulars to the random patrons, everybody was extremely kind and conversational, asking us our plans and duration of stay, providing recommendations and advice, with one even suggesting he could help us apply for citizenship if we decided to stay. (We very nearly did.)

We carried on several lengthy conversations with topics ranging broadly from profession and philosophy to tax codes and the value of an informed proletariat. It felt as if we had nuanced and profound relationships with these people, developed over decades of drinking together. The fact was, with most, we had yet to so much as exchange names.

It was our first real run-in with the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced hue-guh). Hygge lacks a formal definition, but is loosely described as being present in a moment and recognizing that it is charming, comforting, and familiar. Put more succinctly, hygge is the art of enjoying life's simple pleasures.

Were hygge a religion, I firmly believe Fermentoren would be on the short list for Mecca. Everything about it is just perfectly agreeable, from the quaint biergarten patio out front, to the unbelievable vibe inside, down to the Big Lebowski quotes on the bathroom walls (including a simple, "COITUS?" above the mirror), it's all exactly as it should be.

The only thing missing is food.

Copenhagen has a storied culinary tradition, especially in the high-end category. It’s home to globally-renowned heavy hitters like Amass, AOC, Geranium, and noma, among others. Chefs like noma's René Redzepi are world ambassadors for Danish cuisine.

As my partner and I planned out our time in Copenhagen, we entertained the idea of dropping an enormous wad of Kroners at one or two of the Michelin-starred establishments above. But when I asked Trevor Williams from Hoof Hearted Brewing Company about his favorite meal during a recent trip, he changed our trajectory:

"Dude, you've got to go to Hija de Sanchez. Best tacos I've ever had. The owner used to work at noma."

Hija de Sanchez is not at all like noma. There are no white table cloths, no heavy silverware. In fact, there isn't silverware at all. And, if we're being honest, they don't even have their own tables. The picnic tables in Hija’s space belong to Torvehallerne Market, where the taquería is located.

Torvehallerne is situated in the heart of Copenhagen's downtown city centre, nestled between the bustling Nørreport Station, the Botanical Gardens, and the Ørstedsparken public park. The market occupies two identical glass-enclosed buildings that house more than 80 vendors of every ilk, ranging from fish and meat, to home goods and exotic spices, to coffee and floral arrangements.

Hija de Sanchez occupies a modest footprint—no more than 100 square feet—in the courtyard between the two buildings. It’s there that Rosio Sanchéz and her team prepare some of the most authentic Mexican food in all of Europe, hand-rolling corn tortillas from scratch, building traditional tacos like carnitas and lengua, and serving up paletas (ice pops) inspired by ingredients found throughout the market.

All the tacos we had were dynamite—just absolutely delicious. But the unexpected showstopper was the “El Paul,” a treat comprising crispy fish skin, gooseberry salsa, onion, cilantro, and avocado. The brine and crunch of that fish skin, juxtaposed with the creamy sweetness of the avocado slice, and the tart burst from the gooseberry was downright sublime.

Quite the contrast to Fermentoren, the only thing missing at Hija de Sanchez is beer. Luckily, there's a Mikkeller & Friends Bottleshop just inside the market, and whose on-premise consumption extends to every corner of Torvehallerne, including outside to the taquería.

Stop by Mikkeller & Friends first, pop a couple bottles, and take a stroll through the market. On your way around, you’ll get a preview some of the ingredients Sanchéz is working with that day. Sample a few things along the way if the spirit moves you, but don't fill up. Even though Hija de Sanchez isn't etched onto the walls of the Copenhagen culinary canon yet, it's some the best, most soul-filled, hygge-inducing food in the city.

Please note: if you visit Copenhagen from November-March, Hija de Sanchez will be closed. But they've opened up a second, year-round location in Kødbyen, one that just so happens to be located a short stumble from WarPigs Brewpub.

Kødbyen (or "Meat City") is Copenhagen's meatpacking district. The area, part of the hip Vesterbro neighborhood, is subdivided into three sections (white, grey, and brown), each dubbed for the predominant color of its architecture. WarPigs, the collaborative brewpub concept from Mikkeller and Three Floyds, resides in the white area.

All the buildings there 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 it was originally 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 focus at WarPigs is two-fold: hoppy, American-style ales and smoked, Texas-style barbecue. In regard to the former, the bar has 22 draft lines, with about half devoted to hoppy beers, and six serving the core lineup. The latter is a different beast entirely.

Barbecue isn't at all familiar to Danes, nor is the concept of eating with your hands. (See above: lots of fancy restaurants.) But those two factors don't stop WarPigs from being the largest smoking operation in all of Europe, with the ability to churn out more than two tons of meat every day. Even with that capacity, if you want food, you're going to have to get there early, because it goes fast.

If you love BBQ, go with what you normally like—just about everything is excellent. For what it's worth, we really dug the brisket, beef ribs, and pork shoulder, in that order. All the meats adhere to the low and slow mentality, spending 12-14 hours in the smoker. It shows.

The brisket is absolutely perfect: unbelievably, melt-in-your-mouth tender on the inside, and a lovely bit of char and texture on the outside. (Go with the Alabama Creamy Sauce, here.) The ribs really do fall right off the bone. (I went with the Texas Spicy Sauce and was not disappointed.) And the pork shoulder is so soft and full, it's like a gigantic, enveloping hug for your mouth. (KC Sweet Sauce for this one.)

Standard sides of mac and cheese, coleslaw, and potato salad are all solid, but the hidden gem on the menu is the cheddar cheese pork rinds. I recommend eating them first, as—what the fancy places in town would call—an amuse-bouche.

To wash it all down, your best bet is a flight. Or two. In addition to the hoppy offerings, there's a lot of weird, experimental beers on the board to test your palate: Sloe Berry Braggot, Yuzu Lager, Barrel Aged Tokaji Fruit Ale, and Saison with Smoked Hay are a few.

Only getting one beer? Go with the flagship, Lazurite. It's a bright-but-fairly-bitter IPA that's likely to remind you of both Three Floyds and Mikkeller. The hop profile is aggressive, teetering on the edge of imbalance in relation to the grain bill, without ever quite toppling over. But the yeast character is reminiscent of Zombie Dust or Alpha King, and is quite prominent on the finish.

As you're sitting there, belly full of meat smoked at one end of the building, drinking a beer brewed at the other, take a moment to look around and soak in what's happening between the two. You're likely to see a wide swathe of folks: young, old, locals, tourists, metalheads, families, prim Nordic models with cheekbones for days, beer geeks, and run-of-the-mill American expats.

The commonality, aside from beer and BBQ, is that everyone is having a good time. From the people sitting in the window, under an unbelievably long row of succulents, to those packed in, elbow to elbow at the picnic tables, to those huddled together, getting some fresh air on the patio out front, there's an indescribable sense of community.

If you go hard at WarPigs (and I’m humbly suggesting you do), and want to go anywhere after (again: you should), you'll need some caffeine. Copenhagen goes fairly H.A.M. when it comes to coffee shops, so virtually every java want and whim can be accounted for.

If you want that idyllic, intimate, small European café: done, easy. If you're more into that manufactured, name-shouting, chain sorta vibe: you're covered, but maybe rethink your approach? If you're a total Goldilocks about your uppers—which, to be completely clear, I am—then The Coffee Collective should be juuuuust right.

There are three Coffee Collective bars around the city: the original on Jægersborggade, a central location inside Torvehallerne, and their roastery on Godthåbsvej, where we stopped.

They take their coffee quite seriously at the Collective. Not in a pretentious way, though—more a supremely nerdy way. The baristas were warm, welcoming, and jackrabbit quick to answer any questions in an enthusiastically precise, I-have-perfect-cognitive-recall sort of way.

The space is gorgeous, open, and entirely tranquil. The furniture is spaced in such a way that it feels a bit like a library inside, albeit a very modern one, with rows of shelves on the wall holding bags of beans instead of books. Table service is provided after ordering at the bar, and the barista will be sure to reiterate the country of origin, elevation, and flavor profiles after delivering the carafe and handle-less ceramic mugs.

The coffee itself at the Collective is—perhaps unsurprisingly—remarkable, and well worth the bit of geeking out that precedes it. But if you're more into the brevity thing when it comes to your cup of Joe, a quicker, low-key option is Sort Kaffe & Vinyl.

Sort is Danish for black and, as the name suggests, they sell two things: coffee and vinyl records. (Get it?) But they do so in a space seems too tiny for either one. A galley-style operation, the front room services both the caffeine- and music-seeker, while the back room contains a larger collection of records to peruse.

While the coffee at Sort is also great, it's also drip, in a pump carafe, so it's easy to grab and go along with a fresh pastry or piece of fruit. This comes in really handy if you're running around town, trying to pack as much hygge as possible into a few fleeting days.

Øl means beer, and there's plenty of it to be found in Copenhagen. There's also plenty of food and coffee and culture and historic architecture and modern design and tall, slender folks that look like they stepped straight out of a J.Crew catalog. And bicycles. Bicycles everywhere.

But those are all things you know about Copenhagen before you ever get there. Those are the things you read about in travel guides, or hear about from a friend who's been, or see Anthony Bourdain crack wise about as he eats his way through town.

What you can't possibly fathom before you experience it—and what I've been trying to impart here—is what Copenhagen feels like. That feeling is everything. That feeling is why the geeky baristas are so charming. That's why an extremely motley crew can feel like a tight-knit pack. That's why tacos made 6,000 miles from Mexico make perfect sense. That's why a Dane offered to help two strangers get citizenship within 10 minutes of meeting them. That feeling is what hygge is born from.

And that's why I'll never forget the moment when that train rolled off that ship.

Words + Photos by
Kyle Kastranec