In February, Burnside Brewery’s nine-year tenure came to an abrupt end when its landlord changed the locks overnight following a stretch of unpaid rent. Not long after, local restaurant magnate and ChefStable owner Kurt Huffman began sliding notes under the landlord’s door, indicating he might have a great tenant for the vacated space.
That tenant? Superstar Danish brewery Mikkeller. Since its inception in 2006, Mikkeller now runs roughly 46 bars spanning from Seoul to San Francisco, and its prestigious beers have graced the menus of Michelin-starred restaurants like Upstairs at Mikkeller in Bangkok and Copenhagen’s Noma. Cofounder Mikkel Borg Bjergsø wanted to open a pop-up bar in beery Portland in the insanely short span of 10 weeks. (As of press time, it was scheduled to open in June.)
The famously eccentric Bjergsø could not be reached for comment. But on a sunny May morning, I met a slightly haggard Huffman in the future Mikkeller bar, still strewn with canoes, salmon sculptures, and horns from the old brewery tenant. Covered in construction debris and bits of fake moss, he asks me to wait while he deals with an old moose head.
“[This has] been one of the fastest things we’ve ever done,” says Huffman, turning back. The famously deliberate ChefStable’s past projects include Lardo, Loyal Legion, and La Moule.
While this breakneck pace may be new to Huffman, partner Bjergsø’s brand has always been about fluidity, experimentation, and improvisation. A “phantom brewer,” Bjergsø made his name in the beer world without brewing much beer himself. Instead, he asks beer partners to follow recipes he simply writes down. (“When I do a recipe, it’s not difficult anymore. I know what comes out of it,” he told the New York Times in 2014.) The results tend to be conceptual, and he’s collaborated on brews with everyone from filmmaker David Lynch to American heavy metal band Mastodon to ’80s pop legend turned internet prank Rick Astley. These days Mikkeller operates two production breweries in San Diego and NYC. (The former will produce the beers sold in Portland.)
“It’s funny to build something that you know will be gone in seven months,” says Huffman, whose days lately have been filled with Skype meetings with Danish designers.
Indeed, with the fate of the East Burnside location up in the air—an unannounced buyer has scooped up the building, and it’s unclear what the long-term plans for the space are—Mikkeller is going to have to clear out even if the pop-up is a hit. Huffman says they hope Mikkeller can reoccupy the same space once renovations are complete. In an effort to put down some local roots, Bjergsø invited brewers from Gigantic, Boneyard, and Great Notion to its annual Mikkeller Festival in Copenhagen this past May, to discuss collaborations and joint tap lists.
“Why can’t foreign places come in and do well?” Huffman asks, pointing to successful out-of-towners like San Diego’s Modern Times (see p. 44), Melbourne’s Proud Mary Coffee, and Tokyo’s Afuri Ramen. “If we’re going to consider ourselves America’s great craft beer town, the more perspectives, and the more people in the community, the better.”