Denmark is a Scandinavian country in northern Europe and home to an increasingly vibrant beer culture. With approximately 5.5 million inhabitants, it is a small country compared to its closest neighbors, Germany and Sweden. That said, Denmark is among the top 10 beer consuming countries per capita in the world. Beer has always been part of the Danish culture as an important beverage, especially as Denmark is too far north to produce wine. As in the rest of Europe, until fairly recently beer was a major provider of calories and was considered far healthier to drink than water, which could rarely be trusted.

The known tradition of brewing in Denmark dates from approximately 1370 bc. At this time many beers were sweetened with honey. The “beer,” known as the “Egtved Girl’s beer” contained cowberries or cranberries, wheat, bog myrtle, and large quantities of pollen.

The hop is now found as an indigenous plant in most of Denmark. The introduction of hop growing in Denmark is possibly linked to medieval Benedictine, Augustine, and Cistercian monasteries where, as in other countries, beer was regularly brewed. In 1473 the Danish king Christian I ordered hops to be grown in Denmark to reduce German hop imports, and subsequent kings followed his lead, requiring the people to grow increasing amounts over the next 2 centuries. By 1687 there were 140 breweries in Copenhagen, the nation’s capitol, and all produced top-fermented ales. In 1845, J.C. Jacobsen got his hands on some bottom fermenting lager yeast while visiting the Spaten Brewery in Munich. He coddled the yeast all the way back to Copenhagen, and that winter started to brew lager beer. By 1847, his new brewery was called Carlsberg, and was to become one of the largest beer brands in the world.

Lager beer swept quickly through Denmark and soon all the old styles were all but gone. From the early 20th century until 2002, almost all the beer consumed in Denmark was pale lager, with Carlsberg and Tuborg very much in the lead and other brands such as Faxe (now Royal pilsner), Hancock, Fuglsang, and Thy pilsner relatively widespread. The interest in speciality beers started in 2002, together with an economic upturn and an increased interest by the public in “the good life.” Danes wanted luxury items, they wanted more interesting food, and they particularly wanted more interesting beer. Overall Danish beer consumption dropped, just as it did in other European countries, but small breweries began to proliferate. Between 2002 and 2008, Denmark went from a nation with 19 breweries to one with more than 100. Carlsberg, which still dominates Denmark’s beer landscape, got involved through an innovation project called Jacobsen, which brews specialty beers at a small brewery at Carlsberg’s visitor’s center in the Valby section of Copenhagen.

This recent wave of craft brewing has brought ale brewing back to Denmark, along with a startling level of creativity. The new Danish brewers took inspiration from Germany, Britain, Belgium, and the American craft brewing movement. They also took inspiration from Denmark itself, showing particular interest in local herbs such as bog myrtle, wormwood, and thistle and using regional berries and fruits. Bilberries, cowberries, juniper berries, rose hips, mint, and apples found their way back into Danish beer and the old Baltic Porter style staged a comeback. At Christmas and Easter, most breweries release special beers, many of them based on old Danish winter beer traditions.

In Denmark there is a particular interest in the renewal of indigenous Danish food. In the Nordic countries the weather conditions (hours of sun, rain, and wind) and the type of soil is markedly different compared to other locations in the world. This influences the development of raw materials such as cereal, herbs, and fruits and Danish malting barley is considered to be of very high quality. Experiments are ongoing to bring back old varieties of both malt and hops. To support the overwhelming new number of new beer styles, the Danish Brewers Association launched the Danish Beer Academy and the “Danish Beer Language.” The latter was developed to give Danes a few simple and comprehensible tools to get a better grasp of what they now see on their beer shelves. The “language” consists of 110 words describing various aspects of the appearance, aroma, and texture of beer. The Copenhagen Beer Festival, held every May by the Danish Beer Enthusiasts Association, is a large and boisterous affair.

The pairing of beer and food is taken seriously in Denmark, where 13 Michelin stars nestle among only 5.5 million people. In 2010, the Copenhagen restaurant Noma was crowned best restaurant in the world, wresting the crown from Spain’s venerable and audacious El Bulli. Noma takes an interest in all things Nordic, and beer is certainly Nordic. Should one go for dinner at the best restaurant in the world, many fine beers will be found on the menu.