Interview with Tobias Emil Jensen of To Øl

Quite a meteoric rise To Øl did. Only five years old and already, according to RateBeer, it is one of the ten best breweries in the world. Tobias Emil Jensen, who along with Tore Gynther is To Øl, visited Switzerland for three stops. Between the two Meet The Brewer sessions at the Erzbierschof-Bar in Zurich we got the chance to sit down with him and ask him a few questions.

You are rated as number 9 on RateBeer. There are three breweries with a Danish background in the top-ten. How come?

That is a very good question. In a way I am closely related to all these guys. So it is weird that all of us are on that list. The brewing community is very small, especially in Copenhagen. Everybody knows each other. No one is competing, if anything it is a friendly match. We are still fighting against those 95 percent of the market which is industrial lager.
I think it is because of the lack of tradition in Denmark. When we started in 2010, there was Nogne Ø in Norway and of course Mikkeller was out there as well, Evil Twin was just starting, Amager was active. There were things happening in Scandinavia and Nordic countries.
After NOMA [according to the Restaurant magazine, the best restaurant in the world for four years in a row – ed.] there was suddenly an interested in Nordic beers. And I think we have a touch of Scandinavianism in our beer: All of our beers are brewed with a little bit of oats. Oats is the secret behind the sexy haziness, body and mouthfeel, as well as good foam. So we put five to ten percent of oats into every beer.
Plus we are curious to brew, both with local ingredients and crazy ingredients that we can find from all over the world.

So the craft beer market share is 5 percent?

The statistic usually say 93 percent Danish industrial lager, 7 percent craft beer and import beer. Those 7 percent also include Budweiser or Hoegaarden. Which is a fine witbier, but I wouldn’t call it a craft beer.

You are number 9 and Russian River is number 10. How does that make you feel?

I didn’t know what to feel when we heard our position, because Russian River is legendary good. Pliny The Younger, Pliny The Elder, all the other things that they do, are amazing. I haven’t had the chance to go there myself yet, but I want to.
I think RateBeer needs to be taken with a dose of salt. Because there are a lot of good brewers who are not getting the amount of attention that they deserve. RateBeer can be a result of basically which country you are available in, as different countries rate differently. That is why big breweries, who are available everywhere, often don’t get high ratings.
For example, if you are available in some Asian countries, they don’t like some styles as they are not used to a real sour or hoppy beer. Thus they don’t rate it well and this will lower your overall rating. A country like Poland is extremely enthusiastic about beer, so if you are sold in Poland you’ll get high ratings.
Furthermore RateBeer doesn’t really reflect what the vintage of the beer is, especially considering IPA. There’s no date tag on your rating. All the American beers in Europe might be old, they might be a one year old IPA and then of course a local IPA tastes better. But if you ever were to try the same beer in the States, you’d know that every state has great IPAs that are just as good as or even better than a European IPA. But you don’t get them fresh enough here.
Therefore RateBeer could be improved.

There’s one question we ask everybody: Which of your beers would you have served to Beer Hunter Michael Jackson?

[laughs] I am a little bit too young to have experienced the era of him, but he’s a legend. Wow, I’ve never been asked this question before.
Maybe Black Malts and Body Salts, our Imperial Black Coffee Double IPA, because I am quite proud of when you close your eyes and drink it, and you really think body wise, it feels like an IPA. But it has just the right amount of roasted malt to give it an edge and the coffee further boosts that. The coffee is a great way to create more deep flavors without needing to put more heavy malts. Thus it still feels like an IPA, but hast the roasted softness of a stout.

Is this a leftover homebrewing recipe? Or how many of your homebrewing recipes are still in production?

To be honest, when you start as a homebrewer, you make a lot of mistakes. So I am proud to say that most of our homebrews are no longer in production [laughs]. We tried to make some seriously weird things, because we were still learning.
But Goliath is a big thing for us, because it originated in a homebrew recipe that we fucked up. First Frontier, the Barleywine Mine Is Bigger Than Yours, are the only three of the real homebrew recipes that we have kept.

When you think of a new beer, how do you anticipate how it’s coming out when it goes into production?

It is a difficult process and it usually ends with me and Tore having a chat. The idea usually starts with a thought about the taste, but it can also start with a very catchy name. For example Black Malts and Body Salts, we had the name and then tried to figure out what beer that name would be. In a way it was obvious that it needed to be a Coffee Double IPA.
We really try to seek inspiration. You need to taste beers from other breweries to get inspiration. Yes, I can go out and drink a lot of wine, or drink cocktails and spirits, and that’ll give me inspiration. But in the end I want to know what other people are doing. I want to go to hop farmers and want to know what they are growing for the next season.
We don’t brew beer due to demand, because if you want to satisfy everyone, you know, that’s not going to be possible. Because everybody has different tastes. So the only ones we can satisfy is us. Thus it makes sense that we make beer that we like, cross our fingers and hope that other people also like what we like. Luckily it seems like we have the same taste as many other people.

Do you have some beers you brew regularly?

We’ve never sat down and decided on a core range, planed seasonal beers or others as one ofs. At the same time we do have sort of a core range: First Frontier, Raid Beer, Black Ball and Reparationsbajer. But that is basically because we have grown so fond of them.
Every time we make a new recipe, we brew it and people drink it. Then we look at it and think if it was so good that we want to brew it again. I’m not saying that an old beer was bad, but we might want to make a different version. It is more fun as a brewer to make a new version then to re-brew a beer. If you’re laid back, you will only want to re-brew beer you’ve done before. But we rather find a balance between one ofs, seasonals and core.

You seem to have a few themes, like “…bigger than yours”, “fuck…”. Can you say a little bit about what the beers of these themes have in common?

Again, there’s not a big plan we have about what series we have, but so far all the Frontiers – First Frontier, Final Frontier, Sans Frontier, Thirsty Frontier – are all in the IPA-theme, may they be a Session or Belgian Style IPA. All the Fuck Art are inspired by Belgium, so they are Quadruples, Dubbles, anything Trappist like.
Then there are the session beers where the dogma is that they have to be 4.6 percent. Okay, one is 4.7 and one is 4.5, but the goal was for all of them to be 4.6. The ABV was chosen, because it is the normal pilsner strength. We wanted to show how much flavor you can put in a beer with an ABV of just 4.6. It is a hard beer to make. There is not a lot of malt you can add. So you really need to be sharp and key on the yeast and hops.
Then Garden Of Eden and Fall Of Man are like a couple. We actually have a lot of couples, like Mine Is Bigger Than Yours and I’ve Seen Bigger Than Yours.

You’re a gypsy brewer. What would you do different if you’d have your own brewery?

That is a really good question, because my dream is not to have my own brewery. The classical financial way of explaining this is: unless you are rich, which we are not, you need a lot of money to start a brewery. You can go to a bank, find some investors, get some money, open up the brewery. Then every week, every month, you need to repay the loans and rent for the big warehouse that you’ve got. That forces you into a cycle where you have to constantly be efficient. Which can, I guess, for some people lead to an effort where you want to promote volume rather than quality.
I like the idea that we could decide not to brew anything for a month. Because we are not paying rent for anything, we don’t have any brewers employed or warehouses, we are just four guys: me and Tore, our label designer Kasper and a new guy called Henri who helps us with all the paperwork and all the sales.

You’re a partner in Mikkeller & Friends. Who drinks beer at the bar?

There’s one in Copenhagen and now one in Reykjavik. I was amazed, especially in the one in Copenhagen, how young the people are. I used to work as a bartender and I know that beer drinkers are sort of oldish, mainly male. But on a good night in Mikkeller & Friends, the gender is 50:50 and people of my age, and I’m 28.
It is in the neighborhood Nørrebro, where both Tore and I live, is a bit young, ethnic, a little bit socialist area. All the local people are youngsters and the bar attracts them.

We were at Copenhagen Beer Celebration in 2014 for two days. You, however, were only there for one day. The second day your stand only had a fridge with your beers inside.

[laughs] Yes, we put up a vending machine as a stunt. We tried to make it look like we were hung over. What people however didn’t realize that the machine could only hold three cases of beer. So I was constantly refilling it.

How exhausting is a festival like that for a brewer?

We get about 50 invitations to festivals per year. Thus you have to prioritize them to satisfy all your importers and also prioritize where you think it’d be exciting to go and taste beers local to the festival.
CBC is not so exhausting. There is a lot of work beforehand, because people expect world class beers or even one time brews. So we do a lot of homebrews for that festival.
We have access to Copenhagen University where I got my degree. We do a lot of scientific research in brewing with them, therefore we have a close relationship with them.
CBC is one of the best if not the best festival. Everything is taken care of: they buy the beer from you, you don’t have to care about tokens and they throw a gigantic and cool afterparty for the participating breweries.

I guess you also get 50 invitations from breweries to brew with you.

We do get a lot of invitations. I am a big believer in Karma. When we were small, people were helping us, like Mikkeller was helping us to get a global name. For example we brewed with Mean Sardine in Portugal, which is a tiny brewery with a brewkit of 2.5 hl. It’s just two guys and one of them still has a full-time job. I don’t know how he manages that. But they really live and die craft beer and Portugal is still a desert. So I really wanted to bestow them with my name and help them out. Apart from having a good time. It is always easier to brew with likeminded brewers. Brewing is also about being together with friendly people, friends that you’d like to be with.
But yes, we do say no. Not because we’re arrogant, but it is more of a time issue and we have to have a connection. Sometimes people ask me by email. I’d still be open for it, but I want to meet the people first and see if we bond together, taste their beer and figure out if it’d make sense.

You mentioned your degree. How much of a scientific approach is there to your brewing?

We walk a very fine balance between old fashioned craft and trying to educate people that science is great, as long as it’s made to make no compromises. Biotechnology and food science are the answer. Anything with new yeast strains that exhibit different characteristics, new hop varieties, new brewing methods, that’s scientific.
Yes, the beer is brewed the old fashioned way. That is why it is unfiltered and unpasteurized and bottle conditioned. But it also results in the best flavor you can get, from a scientific perspective. And that is why we do it.
At the same time we think a lot about shelf life and the quality. There are so many things we don’t talk about at tastings because they are too technical. But we worry about them.

And finally the second question we ask everybody: Five beers you recommend everybody should drink before they die.

You need to try any beer from Anchorage from Alaska. Those beers are truly amazing.
Then of course I am going to list Mikkeller, because he taught me how to brew beer when I was his student. Mikkel’s mind is never idle. He always thinks of new beers, which is just impressive.

Do you have a favorite of the Mikkeller beers?

All the sours are great, all the stouts are great, all the pilsners and IPAs are great. So it’s hard to say. But if you want just one, then Beer Geek Brunch.
Then Arizona Wilderness makes fantastic beers as well. They are hard to get, because so far they only do kegs.
LoverBeer from Italy is good as well. I like Belgian Sours, like from 3 Fonteinen, Cantillon and Tilquin, are really, really good. LoverBeer has a bit more modern take on sours. They use more ingredients like fruits and herbs.
Crooked Stave, based in Denver. It’s really amazing to be in their taproom.
But it is hard to make a list, because I like so many breweries.

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