Here are some facts: Male, 38 years old, from Denmark but currently residing in New York; 10th best brewer in the world, and top non-US brewer last year (according to RateBeer’s 2013 data); brewing professionally since 2010 and has brewed in excess of 130 different beers and counting; overseeing a beer bar (Tørst) and a beer focused restaurant (Luksus), both in New York; he’s got a beard, looks very Scandinavian and is generally a cool cat.
This is Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, aka Evil Twin, aka hotshot-brewer rocketed into fame, and we were lucky enough to get some of his precious time to sit down and learn more about his story. We caught him at the premises of Siren Craft Brew, way out in Finchampstead, where he’d been brewing with his fellow brewer, and long time friend, Ryan Witter-Merithew.
This is what he does. He travels the world and brews with different breweries. He’s a gypsy brewer, or as his Twitter account says, a Beer Production Company, which arguably is a better and more politically correct description of how he operates. The question is, how did this Dane end up where he is today?
Before all this. Before the restaurant and the bar and all the accolades, way back in 1997, Jeppe was studying to become a teacher. And as all students he drank a lot of beer.
“We drank a lot of Carlsberg, or Carlsberg owned breweries, or Carlsberg imports, and they all tasted pretty much the same.”
But there was one exception. One shining beacon of a beer that would help set him on his path – Limfjords Porter by Danish brewery Thisted.
“It’s a really good beer. I remember it being one of the first beers I tasted where I was like what the hell, can beer taste like this.”
Jeppe was already interested in flavour, something he attributes to his mum. “I’ve always been into tasting things. When I grew up my mum always made weird food, as we would call it back then, stuff like no one else in Denmark ate. I’ve always been used to trying different things.”
This quest for flavour and more interesting beer resulted in a beer club that he started just for himself and a few mates, 15 in total. “We all had to bring one beer, and we tasted it and rated it and talked about it.” They met every other month, although in the beginning it was hard to find good beer. “We bought everything we could get our hands on – wheat beers, a few Belgian beers, like Chimay Blue and Leffe. And then we started buying English beers, like St Peter’s.”
When they ran out of options from the supermarket they’d go to pubs who had their own import and ask to buy bottles from them. “We were just a bunch of nerds. We made a beer magazine called “The Beer Nerds”, where we rated beers, just for us fifteen friends. It was a lot of fun.”
The next step was to start homebrewing, and the members of the club began putting their own beers into the blind tasting. This is how it went for a while. He hunted for nice beers, brewed a lot at home and had a geeky beer club. In 2003 he found RateBeer and started rating like crazy. Over the next few years he would rate over 2600 beers. He was sinking deeper into the world of beer, trading with people abroad, hunting for the next good brew.
Beer can be addictive and Jeppe was as hooked as a crack addict hunting for his next fix. We’ve all been there. The lack of good beer brought him onto his next venture. “I thought there was something missing in Copenhagen. There were a few decent beers, but there weren’t any really good ones. So I was like, if no one else is doing it I might as well open a beer shop myself.” The result was Ølbutikken, or The Beer Shop. Started mainly as a hobby business, while he was still a teacher, and only open 12 hours a week. “We pretty much just imported beers we could drink ourselves. We could sell beer and make enough money to be able to always have free beer, which was kind of cool. It was very small.” The shop is still there (now closed – Ed) in Copenhagen, ready to welcome you if you’ve got a hankering for a bottle or nine.
Many people would’ve maybe settled there. Grown the shop and potter about, happy to have easy access to beer. Not Jeppe. His next move was to start an import business with his friend Henrik Boes Brølling.
It’s called Drikkeriget (Drink Kingdom) and today they’re distributing almost 40 breweries across all of Europe. And the breweries are some of the best you can find; Crooked Stave, Lost Abbey, Westbrook, Jester King and De Molen, to name a few. Their very first delivery was from Jolly Pumpkin and Hoppin’ Frog for christ’s sake. So with a beer club (complete with nerdy club magazine), a beer shop, a beer import and a few years of homebrewing, he was ready for the next chapter – open curtains on “Evil Twin and Jeppe’s fairytale of brewing”.
“I Knew a lot of brewers at that time, and I thought, it would be fun to make a beer and even try and sell it and see if people like it. So I made Soft Dookie. It was the first beer, a vanilla imperial stout, that I made at Amager Brygghus. I made like a thousand litres, delivered it out to different bars and got good ratings.”
But beer was still just another side business, as he was busy educating young Danish minds. All of this would change when he met Brian Ewing from 12 Percent Imports. This was late in 2010 and he’d only brewed a couple of beers, 5000 litres in total. One of them was a blueberry lambic made with the heroes of sour beer, Cantillon. It got a lot of attention and Brian had heard of it. He wondered if Jeppe wanted to send beers to be distributed in the States? But he didn’t mess around with a few bottles. He wanted 20.000 litres.
“I asked BrewDog if I could make two beers at their brewery, and I went over in January 2011, made Yin and Yang (a stout and an IPA that can be mixed to achieve perfect balance and inner peace), shipped them to Brian, all of it, directly from Scotland to New York, and he sold all of it in like one day.” Jeppe laughs. “So, that’s how it started. The market was ready for more craft beer.”
When Jeppe talks about his approach to business he makes it sound so easy. So effortless. And his steps seems so obvious. “Everything I’ve done has been more or less for fun, it just grew into businesses. I never wrote a business plan. We’re actually just a bunch of amateurs. I believe that if you’re really into what you do, and you put all your energy into it, you’ll succeed.”
What Jeppe has is massive balls. Metaphorically speaking. Something that is evident in his next endeavour. He was working like crazy in Copenhagen, while also travelling to the US all the time, where Evil Twin was getting increasingly more popular. ”They wanted me there to do events, brew beers, tap takeovers and all those kind of things. I shipped pretty much 80% of what I did to the US. And every time I shipped something over it got sold in no time.” So him and his wife decided to pack up the family and move to the US.
“We took a chance. We just moved. Some people thought we were crazy. We didn’t have a place. We just moved with two kids and suitcases. We had all our furniture in a container that we shipped over. So we had a month to find an apartment before the furniture arrived. If not risky, we definitely took a chance. Let’s go all in and see if this would work.” Dramatic pause. “And it was the right decision, for sure.” Like I said, massive balls.
Jeppe has had a lot of success, both in the States and further afield. And he’s constantly making new friends. Soon after he came to New York he met a chef named Daniel Burns. They started talking and Daniel invited him to help him set up a beer bar and a beer focused restaurant. The bar is called Tørst and is the best place in the world to try Evil Twin beers. Jeppe is not an owner, but helps out as a consultant.
The restaurant is called Luksus, and although it’s described as a beer restaurant it’s not about cooking for specific beers or adding beer to the food. Daniel makes a new menu every month and Jeppe uses his extensive knowledge about food and beer (and his interest in flavour) to help pair the new dishes with some world class beers, just like you would with wine. Jeppe is a massive foodie and spends a lot of time going to some of the best restaurants in the world. I’ve seen a photo of him with a big grin on his face, standing next to Jiro Ono, one of the best sushi chefs in the world. So it makes sense for him to get involved with a restaurant. His desire is to make it the first restaurant with a proper beer list to get a star in the Guide Michelin.
The beer scene in the US has welcomed Jeppe and Evil Twin with open arms. And Jeppe is loving it there. He’s excited about the direction beer is going in the US. “It’s absolutely crazy. It’s never been better and it’s growing by the day. It’s insane.”
He thinks the UK and Europe still has a long way to go to get to the same place as them, where good beer is becoming easily accessible. “It’s much more integrated in the whole way of how people are going out drinking. If you drink craft beer in Denmark you call yourself a beer enthusiast, or a beer geek, and you go to beer bars. In the US a lot of bars has ten taps, or fifteen taps. Restaurants have ten taps now. You’re not a beer nerd, you just like beer. There are still beer nerds. They are the ones who show up at Hill Farmstead and stand in line for five hours. Everybody drinks craft beer. It’s actually a part of people’s life.”
Luckily the rest of the world is catching up, and Jeppe travels the world, from China to Brazil, and sees the scene growing, with new breweries opening left, right and centre. We’ve barely started to see the good times. Another thing he likes in the US is that there’s a lot of new breweries focusing on perfecting different styles.
“A lot of new breweries are only focusing on quality. In the past we’ve have had breweries opening, but it’s been more about making big imperial stouts, big IPAs and doing crazy shit, and being wilder than your neighbour. Now you can actually only do saisons, and you can still succeed. You couldn’t do that five years ago. No one gave a shit about saisons, no one gave a shit about low alcohol beers, nobody gave a shit about styles that didn’t blow up in your mouth. I think that the beer scene right now, especially in the US, is amazingly good.”
When Jeppe comes up with ideas for his own beers he only thinks about what he would like to drink himself. It’s his desire for new flavours that still guides him. “It’s like cooking. You want to try different spices in your curry. Every beer I make, I make for myself. Do I want to drink this beer? We made this Belgian blond ale with white pepper, and it just sounded really cool, because Belgian yeasts often give a white pepper flavour. And then we added brett. I just want to taste new stuff, and if no one else makes it I might as well do it myself. I know what I like, and I know what I’ve done before.”
He also draws inspiration from other brewers and the vibrant beer scene around him. “Brewers talk, especially me and Ryan, we’ve done a lot of stuff together. Also, after I started drinking Crooked Stave beers, I absolutely love what he does.” Crooked Stave has become famous for focusing on beers made with brett, or brettanomyces, a family of yeasts that produces really interesting flavours in beer, but is quite hard to work with.
Brett is something that Jeppe is getting more and more into. “I like brett beers. It’s just fun to experiment, because brett is such a diverse yeast, and the flavours are so unique. I’m going to make a lot of brett beers, just because I love it.”
Because I love it. That seems to be the guiding star for Jeppe. And it’s rare you meet someone who has so much confidence and commitment to what they love. He’s built his empire, one step at a time, fuelled only by his love for beer and a huge amount of ambition.
Jeppe himself attributes his success partly to this story. “I don’t pretend that I make better beer than the rest of the world. I make good beers. A lot of people make good beers. So why is Evil Twin so popular right now? It’s also because of the branding and my background and my story and me being from Denmark living in the US, and having opened Luksus and Tørst. There are 2800 brewers in the USA right now. One brewer is not a lot better than the other one.”
With those words the interview is over. Jeppe has to get on a train and get the hell out of Finchampstead. He’s got a reservation at Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner, and he can’t be late. And like that he goes back into the world to do his thing. All I can think about is that I can’t wait to see what his next big balls move is going to be.
Words by Per Steinar