It sounded like a tall story — one of those yarns spun by a marketing department that doesn’t really understand how beer works.
Someone at Carlsberg in Copenhagen just happened to be moving some stuff around in their cellars, and they just happened to find three bottles of beer brewed in 1883, which just happened to be the year that Emil Hansen successfully isolated and cultivated single strain yeast cells — an innovation that effectively gave birth to modern commercial brewing. And one of these bottles just happened to contain some yeast cells that were still living, which they were able to successfully repropagate and therefore recreate the first modern beer.
I’ll be honest — I didn’t entirely believe the story. But they were offering to fly me over to Denmark to taste the reborn 1883 beer. This beery equivalent of Jurassic Park was directly relevant to the book I’m currently working on, so off I went.
Carlsberg had certainly pushed the boat out. I was one of around 40 writers from around the world who had been brought to Copenhagen. We were given speeches by everyone who is anyone within the senior echelons of the company then given a detailed morning of tours and talks before we were allowed to taste the beer, which had been christened ‘Re-brew’.
There was clearly a great deal riding on this.
Over the course of the morning, my scepticism was carefully and meticulously worn away. Many breweries have a laboratory: Carlsberg has a research institute the size of a small university. It does far more research into beer, brewing and the ingredients of beer than it strictly needs to as a commercial organisation. But that’s because it is not just a commercial organisation.
The story of the love-hate relationship between Carlsberg founder JC Jacobsen and his son Carl — after whom he named his brewery — would make a compelling movie. Rather than pass on the brewery to his ‘unfit’ son, the elder Jacobsen created the Carlsberg Foundation, a charitable trust, and bequeathed everything to it. Furious, Carl built his own rival brewery — New Carlsberg — right next door. But in old age the two were reconciled and Carl’s brewery also passed into the hands of the foundation.
As well as being committed to making a profit by selling colossal amounts of beer, Carlsberg has a genuine remit and obligation to serve both the social and scientific communities of which it is part. As well as its role in creating modern lager brewing yeast, the Carlsberg Research Institute is also where the pH scale was devised in the early 1900s. Recently, in co-operation with Heineken, they’ve managed to brew a strain of barley that doesn’t have the compounds that cause ‘skunking’ flavours in older beer. And they have a habit of sharing these discoveries rather than hogging them for commercial advantage.
When we were shown the cellars — which run some 13km in total — and the amount of junk in them, I accepted that you could stumble across old beers that had lain undisturbed for 130 years. When we were shown the lab, and the detailed genome of the 1883 yeast and how it compares with its lab-cultivated modern-day descendants, showing some minor but definite differences, there was no doubt that the discovery was genuine.
Carlsberg took 10 grains of an old Danish barley variety from a grain archive and cultivated them, and made their best guess at an old hop variety. They brewed the beer in open fermenters, doing all they could to recreate the 1883 beer as precisely as possible.
When we finally tasted the beer it was… good. Not great, but better than OK. That it tasted clean and refreshing proves the whole idea that lab-cultivated yeast gives you consistent beer. The only problem was that, to my palate, the fermentation hadn’t quite finished. There was no condition in the beer and quite a bit of residual sugar.
The scientists confessed that one aspect that had changed was the speed at which the yeast worked — the old one simply doesn’t ferment as quickly as its modern offspring. No one quite admitted it but I think they’d been caught off-guard by this.
But still. On the whole, it was a cracking success. And as speculation of takeovers and acquisitions continues to buzz around the global brewing giants, I think this was Carlsberg going to great pains to say there’s more to this extraordinary brewery than making a quick buck.