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The Carlsberg Experience, Copenhagen: Art, Craft, Tradition and Ruthless Capitalism

May 30, 2012 3 comments

Whereas J.C. Jacobsen, founder of the Gammel Carlsberg brewery, had a great interest in science, his son Carl left his mark as a patron of the arts.  The Ny Carlsberg Glypotek, an art museum in the centre of Copenhagen, was established by Carl and built around his collection, which had originally been housed in a gallery on the brewery site.  The Ny Carlsberg brewery buildings that he commissioned also reflect his interests.

The most striking feature of the brewery is the Elephant gates, where four granite elephants hold up a tower like Hindu world-elephants, or more recently the giant elephants who stand on the back of an even more enormous turtle to support Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

One of the elephants wears a swastika, as can also be seen the wheels of Thor’s chariot, on a dramatic statue on the roof not far away.  As Carlsberg is at pains to point out, this innocent use of a Norse/Sanskrit good luck symbol as a trademark was abandoned by the merged Carlsberg brewery when it became tainted by associations with Nazism at the time of the war.

As the people of Leeds know, the recent history of Carlsberg can also be characterised by cold rationalisation.  It closed the Tetley brewery in Leeds last year, but not before decommissioning the historic breweries in Valby in favour of a brewery site in Frederica, on Jutland.  As a result, the Carlsberg district was oddly quiet when we visited on a weekday morning.  However there are still healthy-looking cart horses in the stables, unlike the Tetley dray horses, a 184-year old traditional Carlsberg did away with in 2006.

However, unlike in Leeds, at least Valby is left with its architecture and a visitor’s centre.  Further, there’s even a “speciality” brewery on site (read “macro-does-craft”): the Jacobsen Brewhouse.  After we wandered around the Old Brewery, we claimed our two free drinks each in the Jacobsen bar.  Jacobsen Dark Lager had a rich apple and red berry smell, if a relatively muted taste.

Carl’s Special was another dark lager from the group, presumably brewed at Frederica.  It was easy-drinking, slightly sweet and nutty, but nothing to write home about.  A standard Carlsberg pilsner was as refreshing and slightly watery as you would remember.  In fact the standout of the four beers was a Tuborg Påskebryg (Easter brew), a strong pilsner with a tongue-tingling spicy hop character. It went well with the marmitey beer-roasted almonds.  Carlsberg bought Tuborg in 1970; the original Tuborg brewery in Hellerup area of Copenhagen was closed in 1999.

There wasn’t a guided brewery tour on offer when we arrived.  Much as I enjoyed the visit and the beer, I did come away with the impression that the visitors to the Carlsberg Experience probably have slightly more esteem for the heritage of the brewery than has recently been displayed by the Carlsberg Group itself.

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