It’s almost impossible to appreciate just how much the American craft beer scene has changed over the past 10 years or so unless you remember what it was like to walk into a liquor store around the start of the previous decade, where it was rare to encounter more than a single set of shelves dedicated to the various offerings being pumped out by some of the smaller operations that comprised the 1,800 breweries the country was home to at the time.
After spending most of my college years subsisting almost exclusively on whatever 30-rack contained the most booze for the lowest price, I eventually decided to start to branch out with the help of Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head, and the other vanguards who helped usher in a brewing revolution that was just over the horizon.
My first real foray into this particular sphere began around a year before The Alchemist first canned its iconic Heady Topper in 2011, a libation that marked the beginning of my transformation into a Certified Beer Nerd. If the aforementioned breweries had opened my eyes to another world, my first sip of the hallowed IPA was like a massive hit of DMT; an introduction to a new realm I couldn’t believe existed and couldn’t wait to continue to explore.
Thankfully, that’s been much easier to do when you consider the subsequent explosion that led to what is arguably the Golden Age of Beer. As of 2019, the number of craft breweries whipping up suds in the United States had skyrocketed to over 8,000, which resulted in plenty of people speculating it was a bubble just waiting to burst.
When you consider how many of those upstarts were primarily focused on making a footprint on a hyperlocal level, I never really bought into that theory, as there was a pretty foolproof strategy when it came to boxing out the competition in an increasingly saturated market: making some damn good beer. With that said, there was only so much the industry could do to prepare for the pandemic that will likely result in the loss of thousands of breweries unable to weather a storm they never could’ve anticipated.
‘Making some damn good beer” is exactly what “Beer King” Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø has been doing since he founded Evil Twin Brewing in 2010, and while his company hasn’t been immune to the impact of the situation that’s unfolded over the course of the year, he hasn’t stopped it from letting him do what he does best.
I recently got the chance to chat with Jeppe to address a variety of topics ranging from the current state of craft beer and his predictions for the future in addition to the journey that began in his native Denmark over 20 years ago before Evil Twin found itself at the forefront of a burgeoning New York City beer scene, where it remains a major player to this day.
Jeppe says he initially set off on the path that brought him where he is today in 1998 after getting bored with the fairly generic beers that dominated the taps in his home country around the turn of the millennium, saying:
I had decided to start a beer club with some friends. We’d rate everything we tasted. I was bored with beers like Carlsberg, which is a huge brewery in Denmark, and needed to explore new flavors and styles.
I started exploring by going to some British pubs. Finding new beers and flavors was an extension of my love for food so the transition was easy. Eventually, I started to homebrew just to see if I could make beers as good as the ones we were drinking in our club.
Jeppe was a school teacher by day and an aspiring brewer by night but also established a side hustle when he opened a small beer store in 2005. In the following years, he’d served as a bit of an ambassador by making frequent trips to Belgium and bringing back bottles from Cantillion and some of the country’s other famed producers and eventually set his sights on America, exposing his fellow Danes to the stouts and IPAs that were few and far between in Europe at the time.
Jeppe eventually reached a point where he was satisfied enough with his own creations to begin selling them at a stall he set up before getting his big break when he was presented with an intriguing (and slightly overwhelming) offer:
I was approached by an importer about making and distributing two of my beers. I hadn’t made more than 40 barrels before and the importer had asked for 100 barrels of each.
I called up a friend working at BrewDog in Edinburgh, Scotland to ask if I could use their facility to make the beer, which he agreed to. It was shipped to New York and sold out in a day so I thought I might be able to make a business from it.
The practice of outsourcing production to a preexisting facility—commonly referred to as “gypsy” or “nomadic” brewing—allowed him to keep his overhead low (it had also been harnessed by his identical twin brother Mikke, who had used the same strategy to get Mikkeller off the ground after co-founding the company in 2006. To say the two don’t exactly get along is a bit of an understatement and it’s not exactly a mystery why Jeppe opted to go with “Evil Twin” when he established the brewery in 2010, the same day he and his wife—who are still the sole owners of the business—welcomed their second son into the world).
Juggling teaching and parenthood with his growing business was no easy task, and after Evil Twin began to make a name for itself among American drinkers, Jeppe made the decision to pursue it as a full-time venture:
I began to travel to attend various festivals and events in the United States. The beer scene was rapidly growing there and my wife and I thought it made sense to move where all the craft beer action was happening. We made the decision to move to America in the fall of 2011 and left in the spring of the following year.
While he may have left his homeland behind, the same can’t be said for his gypsy brewing roots, as he continued to work with well-established operations, which not only allowed him to cut costs but also continue to expand his knowledge:
Gypsy brewing provided a lot of inspiration by letting me meet new people, learn about new cultures, and experience new flavors. Without it, I wouldn’t have been exposed to some of the flavors and experiences that make Evil Twin what it is.
However, the practice also comes with more than a few drawbacks that stymied Jeppe’s efforts to help Evil Twin reach its full potential:
There are a lot of restrictions with gypsy brewing. It’s important to be really flexible. When using someone else’s equipment, you can be limited to certain ingredients, need to adjust to a different set-up at each new location, and, most notably, lack the full control needed to execute some beers.
I arrived in New York City two years after Jeppe and to say the local scene was fairly lacking on the innovation front would be an understatement. Sure, you had places like Brooklyn Brewery and Sixpoint that had already made a mark, and while their offerings were perfectly adequate, they were soon overshadowed when the likes of Other Half, Finback, and Grimm began to roll out some of the best beers on the market by constantly pushing the envelope.
That’s exactly what Evil Twin has been doing since its inception, as it was fairly ahead of the curve when it came to recognizing beer lovers who’d begun to develop a palate for ramped-up IPAs and stouts featuring some incredible unique combinations of flavors and added ingredients.
The brewery also had a leg-up on its competitors thanks to the solid distribution network it had secured prior to their arrival but the fact that it still relied on other breweries to make its beer meant it lacked a physical location, which presented a bit of a disadvantage. It’s worth noting Jeppe opened Tørst in Brooklyn in 2013, which began as a beer bar (five of its 21 taps were typically reserved for a rotation of the brewery’s wares) but eventually became a destination location after the counter in the back began serving a tasting menu that made the restaurant the first establishment to earn a Michelin star without having beer or wine on its menu.
By the second half of the decade, Jeppe decided it was time to officially set up shop somewhere, and after dealing with a variety of setbacks and delays, Evil Twin opened its first physical location and taproom in Queens in 2019, where the man who started it all was finally able to focus more of his attention on the product that made it all possible while continuing to think outside of the box:
The brewery in Ridgewood allows me to have full control over the beer-making process from beginning to end. I have the ability to make adjustments along the way so I can reach the desired outcome with each and every beer.
The goal is always to come up with something new featuring exciting flavor profiles. My love for experiencing new foods inspires my beers. We’ve only replicated a small handful of beers we’ve made before at the brewery in Queens because I’m always on the lookout for something new, interesting, and unexpected.
I view brewing a lot like cooking and I think brewers should be challenged by viewing it that way and pushing the boundaries with flavor profiles like chefs. Being open to a world of savory flavors opens the doorway into endless new flavor combinations. With stouts and sours, you see a lot of the same things so I try to introduce new and unusual flavors like freeze-dried astronaut ice cream and Buddhas hand while also experimenting with more savory flavors like sweet potato and carrots.
However, things came to a screeching halt when Evil Twin was one of the countless businesses forced to confront the fallout of the pandemic, and while it impacted multiple facets of the brewery’s business, the onsite sales it relies on for a sizeable chunk of its revenue bore the biggest brunt.
With that said, Jeppe and the rest of his team were on constant alert in an attempt to address every issue that arose:
The beers we produce in Queens are really intended to be served as locally as possible. The government shutdown of bars and restaurants immediately impacted the brewery by forcing us to close our taproom and courtyard. We are fortunate enough to have ample outdoor seating in Ridgewood, and as soon as some of the lockdown restrictions were lifted for outdoor dining, we opened that up as well.
It was vitally important that we adapted on a nearly daily basis. As soon as the government allowed us to do something that benefited the business, we made that pivot immediately. Direct shipping to consumers in the mail wasn’t allowed in New York State. When they allowed it, we immediately began doing it.
One of the reasons I reached out to Jeppe in the first place was I came across an article in September where I learned Evil Twin is planning on opening a new location in Dumbo, which seemed like a fairly bold move considering the current state of the world.
The decision to open the brewery in Ridgewood was partially the result of the comparatively low cost of real estate but the neighborhood also has a decidedly different vibe than the one located in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, which made me wonder what led him to make the decision and if his plans have been changed in light of the events that have transpired over the course of 2020:
I’ve always wanted to expand the New York City brand and our license allows us to have taprooms around the state. I’ve had this idea that we could have one in each borough, so we started looking around in Manhattan and Staten Island before a space in DUMBO presented itself.
It’s perfect for what we’re looking to do in terms of expansion and is in a great location. Of course, the pandemic has forced us to slow down a bit for a number of reasons.
Like everyone else, Jeppe can only do so much to predict how things will ultimately play out as the world continues to strive for some sense of normalcy with an arrival date that’s currently impossible to determine. However, he sees a silver lining and seems optimistic that the beermakers who manage to emerge as unscathed as possible will be ready to endure any more adversity that may present itself:
I think the brewing industry has proven to be pretty resilient throughout the pandemic. Breweries that were able to quickly pivot and adapt to a new way of life and how they do business have proven that.
It’s impossible to say how and when the world gets back to a new normal, especially without a vaccine. What that may look like for our business is unknown but our experience and ability to quickly shift and make changes on the fly is absolutely something that can be applied to any potential hardships in the future.
Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.