"When I talk about beer, I talk about flavors," Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø says during our recent phone interview. The topic of the day is his new book, Food & Beer, a hefty hardcover written in collaboration with Chef Daniel Burns, his partner in Greenpoint, Brooklyn's excellent beer bar, Tørst and tiny backroom tasting menu gem, Luksus. Jarnit-Bjergsø is a global craft beer maven, not known to be bashful or modest. We didn't stay on topic for long.
"I've said it before, and I'll say it again, and some people are not going to like it, but I don't care too much about the process of beer making," he says. While this seems like an odd statement for a man some call a "gypsy brewer," those that know him won't be surprised. "When I make a recipe for a beer it's about the end result. It's about how the beer tastes, that's the only thing I have in mind."
That fierce orientation around flavor began for Jarnit-Bjergsø in the late 1990s in his native Denmark. The then-schoolteacher found his passion while trying to escape the bland ubiquity of Carlsberg, traveling and learning about the traditional beers of Europe while also keeping an eye on the growing craft beer movement in the States. That passion begat homebrewing, beer trading, and eventually the opening of Copenhagen specialty beer retailer Ølbutikken. In short order, the shop had a global reputation for quality, and became the exclusive home of the still-coveted Cantillon Blåbær Lambik, a transcendent, traditional Belgian sour ale brewed with blueberries.
Why stop with a shop? Ambition moved Jarnit-Bjergsø to start a European importer/distributor, Drikkeriget, and ultimately Evil Twin Brewing, for which he is probably best known. Using the "contract brewing" model employed by more brewers than you think (but later romanticized as gypsy brewing) Evil Twin recipes were brewed at various breweries all over the globe. With the majority of global demand lying Stateside, Jarnit-Bjergsø moved to Brooklyn with his family and eventually opened Tørst and Luksus. Three years later, he's got a book to prove it.
"When we opened the restaurant three years ago — yeah we wanted to open a restaurant, and show how you can do beer in fine dining, but that's just a small part of it. That's also the reason why we wrote the book. I want everybody to do it, and I want to spread the message. That's why I'm working with other restaurants — Eleven Madison Park, Blanca, Mission Chinese, and all those — because I want to show how awesome beer is."
The grassroots fight for craft beer has been a David and Goliath story, only with lots of Goliaths. While craft brewers fight against macro giants for shelf space, Jarnit-Bjergsø is fighting for space on the beverage list of the best restaurants in the world. "The goal is definitely not to compete with wine. As you know, I love wine," he attests, and I can confirm. "So I'm not trying to take wine out of fine dining. Wine definitely has a place in fine dining, but I think beer has a place too and that's what we want to show. We want to make it equal to wine. I want every restaurant to have a beer pairing next to the wine pairing, because I think it works just as well. Especially with the direction that fine dining is going these days where it's way more driven by the ingredients."
This mission extends beyond his own restaurant. Evil Twin brews specific beers for a number of highly respected restaurants. When asked what he has the most fun doing these days, he doesn't hesitate. "The most fun part for me right now is collaborating with non-brewers; collaborating with chefs and cocktail-makers, which I've done quite a lot recently. I think it's very interesting to make a beer with a chef that doesn't know about brewing, but knows a lot about flavors."
For Mission Chinese, the classic German Gose style, a sour wheat ale spiked with salt and coriander, was spun on its head with a eucalyptus addition. "You have this crazy Szechuan food that has this almost numbing kind of feeling to it," Jarnit-Bjergsø recalls. "It would be kind of cool to make something that totally changed that around, almost a fresh breath of air. That's why we add the eucalyptus, and it just works in such a crazy way. Had that been a collaboration with another brewer, I'm not sure we would have come to the same [place]."
A more permanent collaboration exists at Tørst and Luksus with Chef Daniel Burns, co-author of Food & Beer. With a CV that lists The Fat Duck, St. John, Momofuku, and Noma (Chef René Redzepi wrote the book's foreword), Burns could have done anything he wanted, but a chance meeting at a beer store in Brooklyn and a shared history with Redzepi led him to his current gig. His kitchen serves snacks for the bar, but Luksus, a 16-seat dining room serving an evolving tasting menu, is a crowning achievement — it's the first restaurant exclusively serving beer pairings to win a Michelin Star.
When cookbook publisher Phaidon approached the pair about a book, they had plenty of ideas of what to do, and one specific idea of what not to do. "I don't like the majority of the beer books out there," says Jarnit-Bjergsø. "I have a lot of them. I've read some of them, and they are all the same. They are all boring and don't make a lot of sense. They all talk about the history of beer, how you make an IPA, what is an IBU...all that stuff. It's been written so many times. We wanted to write a book that stood out in terms of not just the topic. I think we're the first to write a book about beer in fine dining, but also how it's written."
Food & Beer contains over 60 food recipes, but nary a beer recipe. The "Beer" half of the book is divided into chapters dedicated to a discussion of flavor — Bitter, Sour, Smoky, etc. "We got asked, 'Are you going to put recipes in the book?' and I [said], 'If you ask us to put recipes in the book, I'm not going to write the book.' I've given recipes to other people's books before, and that's fine. I'm just not interested in writing another homebrewing book, that's just not what I do. Plus, it is a cookbook. It's Phaidon, and Phaidon makes cookbooks, so of course we wanted to have food recipes. But it doesn't necessarily need beer recipes. They asked us one time, and I said, 'Nope!' and they said, 'Okay, fine,' so it wasn't really a discussion." 'Nuff said.
As part of the book's national launch, Jarnit-Bjergsø and Burns are hitting the road for five special events, one of which will be held at Edmund's Oast. "When we were planning this book tour, that was the only request I had — you can send us wherever you want, as long as I get to Charleston. To me, Edmund's Oast is one of the leading places in the country for beer and food. It just made so much sense."
The Charleston connection predates Edmund's Oast by a number of years. Jarnit-Bjergsø first visited for a beer dinner at Oak Steakhouse, organized by Twelve Percent Imports and Rich Carley and Scott Shor from The Charleston Beer Exchange. The three became fast friends, and a fateful visit to a brand-spanking-new Westbrook Brewing cemented a professional relationship that continues to this day.
"We went out there for a 15-minute visit; we didn't have a lot of time. We met Ed [Westbrook], and I just remember coming back and sending Ed an e-mail saying, 'Good to meet you, congratulations on the brewery, it looks awesome. If you ever had any extra capacity, I would gladly make a beer.' And he said, 'All right, yeah, we could probably figure that out.' So, half a year or four months later, I went back to Westbrook and did Biscotti Break — not Imperial Biscotti, but the low ABV version — and Freudian Slip, which were the first two beers we did at Westbrook. That's how it got started."
When asked what folks attending the book launch can expect, Jarnit-Bjergsø has a few tips. "They get to taste Daniel's food, which should be an interesting thing. He's a famed chef now, and he has a very specific way of cooking, and he has a crazy background. It's about that. Obviously it's about my beers, but people are exposed to those already in South Carolina. It's also about the collaboration. You know how much we admire what Scott does at Edmund's Oast, you know how much I love it... It's going to be awesome, that's all I can say."
Timmons Pettigrew is the author of Charleston Beer: A High-Gravity History of Lowcountry Brewing, and Co-Founder/Editor of CHS.Beer. Follow him on Twitter @CHSBeer