For any beer aficionado, a visit to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark is a must. Andrew Marshall reports
Don’t forget your ticket for some complimentary beers,” says the attendant inside the world-famous Carlsberg Brewery as I begin my introduction into the beer and bar culture of Copenhagen, Scandinavia’s liveliest and most cosmopolitan city.
The Carlsberg Visitor’s Centre offers a free self-guided tour of Gamle Carlsberg, the oldest part of the Carlsberg Brewery dating from 1847, with exhibits showing beer production and its history.
In fact, Danish beer dates back further than you’d expect after a girl was discovered in a peat bog clutching a jug of well-aged brew and was carbon-dated to 1370BC. The Carlsberg Brewery was founded by J.C. Jacobsen who began his career in the early 1800s working in his father’s small brewery.
In Denmark at the time, only top-fermented beer was brewed and after tasting a rich bottom-fermented Bavarian beer at a merchant’s shop, the young Jacobsen became obsessed with developing a Danish beer along with the Bavarian tradition.
Carlsberg Brewery, the largest exporting brewery in Europe, was the very successful result.
The tour route is well-provided with signs featuring photographs and explanatory text in both Danish and English, exhibiting objects from past and present, bringing the old ways of brewing to life while still impressing the visitor with modern technology using video clips that show production methods of today. There is quite a bit to see.
En-route you pass a steam engine that revolutionized early industrial beer production, antique copper vats used in the brewing process, the former house of J.C. Jacobsen (Carlsberg’s founder) and the stables that still house a team of 12 Jutland dray horses for pulling wagons of beer.
Rather appropriately the tour ends at a small bar in the stables where you can choose two free beers. I order a Carls Special, the local favorite – a beautifully smooth dark malt, and a glass of the globally-recognized Carlsberg lager. They go down well as I gaze out across the wonderful Carlsberg Academy gardens.
Before leaving, it’s well worth checking out the four giant Bornholm granite elephants (Elephant Gates) that guard the brewery grounds entrance – a fine example of world-class industrial architecture.
For a big city, Copenhagen surprisingly easy to get around and it’s a particularly pleasant place for walking.
If your feet get tired, take advantage of the ecologically-minded city cycle scheme (Bycykler) where anyone can borrow one of the city’s 2000 bicycles for free.
The distinctive-looking bicycles are available at more than 100 widely scattered stands in public places and it works rather like the shopping trolley concept at supermarkets.
You simply deposit 20 kroner in the stand to release the bike and when you return it to some other stand you get your kroner back. A pretty cool idea though not recommended if you intend on a leisurely daylong pub crawl.
Before long, I arrive at the picturesque Nyhavn district with its showcase canal, dug in the 17th century to allow traders to bring their wares into the heart of the city. It soon established itself as the place where returning sailors indulged themselves in the numerous bars, brothels and tattoo parlors which populated the area. It was also the haunt of writers such as Hans Christian Anderson who lived at No 67 for nearly 20 years.
Today, traditional sailing craft crowd the canal adding to the salty atmosphere, and it’s still possible to find a couple of sanitized tattoo shops and a seaman’s mission, among the colorful gabled townhouses lining the canal. But of course no seaman’s district would be complete without the ubiquitous taverns and here there are plenty where a thirsty traveler can wet the whistle.
Seated in chairs or simply sitting on the wharf, this is where Copenhageners meet for a quick beer or to laze away the afternoon and I’m in a like mind.
A favorite bar of mine for a fine view of the harbor through the masts of the many sailing vessels tied alongside is Nyhavn 17 with its outdoor seating, a perfect spot for a sidewalk scientist like myself with a penchant for people gazing. There are 15 bottled beers to try here, and in the months from March through to October Nyhavn 17 hosts a beer tasting every month.
Danes down some two billion bottles of beer a year, ranking them sixth among the greatest beer drinkers worldwide. A century ago there were literally hundreds of Danish breweries though today there are only 13 left along with a couple of ‘micros’. Even so there are scores of beers to choose from, the most popular being pilsners or lagers (around 4.6% alcohol content) especially from Carlsberg or Tuborg, but there are also dark lagers, draught beers and hearty stouts that kick in at a mighty 8%.
It pays to have a basic understanding of drinking terms in Danish. Beer ‘ol’, can be ordered as fadol (draught beer), pilsner (lager), lyst ol (light beer), lagerol (dark lager) or porter (stout).
The most popular spirit is akavit, better known as snaps and spiced with heady caraway. It is neither an aperitif, cocktail nor liqueur but goes together with food and is served ice cold.
The rule of thumb here is not to sip it, but to throw it back in one shot followed by a beer chaser. For a thoroughly Danish experience, try it with herring, perhaps at the traditional canalside pub and cafe favorites, Nyhavn 17, Cap Horn or Nyhavn Foergekro where you can have your herring baked, marinated or in rollmops with the ubiquitous boiled potatoes.
A short walk from the Nyhavn district is the beginning of Stroget. Billed as the world’s longest pedestrian street it is in fact five continuous streets: Nygade, Vimmelskaftet, Amagertorv, and Ostergade. Running right through the city center, it’s crammed with shops, eateries, bars, and cafés. You are bound to find yourself here at some point on a visit to Copenhagen.
There are several good watering holes in the area, including Absalon’s Bar, Café Norden, the trendy Café Krasnapolsky which boasts the longest bar in Copenhagen and Café Sorgenfri, a cozy corner cafe with abundant local character down a side street off Stroget.
I detour from here to Charlie’s Bar down another side street at Pilestraede 33, in search of a beer from some of the more obscure Danish breweries.
This bar has three genuine hand pumps and a cask on the bar serving beer by gravity. I order another favorite of mine, a pitch-black Limfjord’s Porter.
Although all these more cosmopolitan-style cafés serve beer, wine, and spirits and play a leading role in the social scene of Copenhageners, my taste in watering holes leans towards the more traditional Danish pub for a drinking atmosphere and there’s plenty to choose from. The traditional Danish pub is known as a ‘bodega’, and you will find these cozy local bars, often in cellars, the length and breadth of the city.
A good example is the 94-year old Pinden, down a side street near the railway station. Favored by actors in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Pinden is an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city center and attracts a mixed crowd.
There’s also the Peder Oxes Vinkaelder on Grabrodre Torv 11, which was built on the remains of an ancient monastery. A modern restaurant serves great Danish fare on ground level but the place for a tipple is the vinkaelder (wine cellar) located not surprisingly, in the wine cellar of the monastery remnants below; an old traditional low ceilinged whitewashed room filled with long tables and bench seating (pine of course).
A really interesting spot to visit right in the center of town is Café & Ol-halle on Romersgade 22. It is a restored beer hall from the end of the 1800s housed in the Arbejdermuseet (workers museum). This is an authentic watering hole with a good selection of foreign beers but for a Danish one try the bottled Stjerne Pilsner complete with its original 1947 label.
Another authentic pub well worth checking out is the Hvide & Lam founded in 1807 and a short stroll from Stroget.
As I enter the small doorway, a warm glow is cast over a bar oozing with character. I have the feeling that the whole place is filled with locals from just around the corner. All the right ingredients are here – cozy atmosphere, bearded characters smoking pipes or chewing tobacco, and as an added bonus, a three-man jazz band performing a snappy number in the corner by the billiard table.
Jazz first came to Copenhagen in the 1920s and the Danes took to it with gusto. In 1978 the city hosted the first Copenhagen Jazz Festival and today this is the biggest musical event of the year. Ten days of indoor and outdoor concerts with jazz booming from practically every park, square, club and café throughout the city starting on the first Friday in July. Most open-air events are free as are many held in cafes though some charge a small cover charge.
Beer aficionados will think they have staggered into paradise here. As they say in Copenhagen… “skol.”
When to Go
The months of May, June, July and August are the best times to visit Denmark though you can expect to see some rain. On average there’s 11 days of rain in July, the month with the least precipitation. May and June can be good months with the weather warming up, the beginning of longer daylight hours and less tourists beating a path to your chosen hotel door or bar. After mid-August school holidays are over meaning less crowds.
Good accommodation is available in every price bracket and unlike some main cities you don’t have to pay a premium to be in the city centre. The City Tourist Office (Wonderful Copenhagen) near the Central Station books unfilled hotel rooms at discounted rates (tel: +45 7022 2432). Most hostels have private rooms and as such can be a good saving alternative to hotels. If you don’t already have an International Hostel card you can buy one at a hostel for 160 kr (annual) or pay 30 kr extra per night.
The City Tourist Office,
Bernstorffsgade 1, is just north of Central Station.
Tel: +45 7022 2442 / Fax: +45 7022 2452.
Lonely Planet Denmark and also its Copenhagen guides are excellent reference guide books. The latter has a great bars and cafés list.