Craft beer enthusiasts worship brewers like rock stars. So when it was announced earlier this year that Danish brewery Mikkeller would establish a pop-up in town, bringing founder Mikkel Borg Bjergsø's acclaimed beers to Portland for the first time, local beer geeks reacted as if Beyoncé were doing a summer residency at Rontoms.
The excitement was justifiable. Mikkeller is a legend in its field. Bjergsø's brews have been custom-ordered by Michelin-starred restaurants around the globe, yet he can still exercise the rare creative freedom to keep churning out dozens of styles every year. Over the past decade, the Mikkeller empire has grown to include quirky bars everywhere from Tokyo to Bucharest—even on the remote Faroe Islands hundreds of miles off the coast of Norway. But until early June, the closest the company got to our neck of the woods was San Francisco.
Add in a Momofuku alum helming the kitchen, and it's not a stretch to call the Mikkeller opening one of the biggest beer events of the year, and the crowds that have flocked to the former Burnside Brewing space since its launch have borne that out. It's become the spot to see and be seen—the site of the beer scene's must-have selfie of the summer. Those people who've populated your Instagram feed with photos of quinoa pancakes are now bombarding it with shots of $6 cinnamon maple hazy IPA.
Here's the thing, though: We all know Portland has one of the best beer scenes in the country, if not the world. Even for a renowned global brand, if you're going to come here, you need to bring your A game. And what we're getting from Mikkeller is a C-plus.
Since twice visiting the pop-up myself, I've wondered if the Copenhagen-based brewery thought it could cruise into Portland and coast on name recognition alone. Because, of the dozen offerings I worked my way through, not one stood out as being equal to batches produced by Portland's best. The different flavor profiles and daring approach promised by Kurt Huffman—owner of the ChefStable restaurant group, which is helping run the Mikkeller operation locally—are nowhere to be found in the initial lineup.
In the mood for a brewery that can stun you with both a delicate unfiltered lager and a bold dark beer? Ruse's pleasingly simple helles and oatmeal stout beat Mikkeller's bland Building Blocks and Beer Geek Brekkie, which is perfectly fine but not worth shipping 1,000 miles north from its San Diego brewery when edged out by the abundance of oatmeal coffee brews produced here. I'd point anyone to Breakside or Culmination for a superior IPA—Mikkeller's Ripple Effect had none of the punchy, luscious tropical notes of a citrus-driven version nor enough piney character of the danker take on the style. Instead it was more like sucking on a water-logged stick. The imperial Wicked Sik Spells was similarly thin, but left a copperlike flavor clinging to the tongue. It doesn't help that servings cost $6 to $10 for less than a full pint.
The atmosphere is equally uninspiring. Anyone who used to drink in Burnside's dining room will find the gutted interior a bit jarring. Long gone are the dried hop bines dangling from the rafters and the roomy black booths. The interior now looks as if it were furnished after an emergency IKEA run—long communal tables and squatty round backless stools make the place feel like a Scandinavian kindergarten classroom, with walls augmented by mauve-hued murals depicting Mikkeller's iconic mascots with unsettling black eyes. Sure, this is all temporary—the building will be redeveloped when the pop-up runs its course—but for now, take your 13.5-ounce pour to the picnic tables that remain out front.
There are some positives here. The Windy Hill hazy is a delightful swirl of fresh-squeezed oranges that fade into a dry bitterness, and the Passion Pool gose gushes with tart raspberry before a dash of salinity reins in the fruit. The latter pairs well with the Asian-leaning food prepared by Shaun King, former executive chef at Momofuku Las Vegas. Though the steep prices ($9-$32) won't help your already painfully high bar tab, the quality of the dishes, like a buttery hamachi brightened by confetti shreds of lemony sorrel or glistening sweet soy-glazed wings, justify the price—unlike the beer.
The pop-up is expected to run through the end of the year before looking for a permanent home. To gauge how open local drinkers might be to Mikkeller in the long term, the closest model is San Diego's Modern Times, which infiltrated Oregon in 2018 with audacious yet well-regarded beers in a space that could be described as fun and irreverent or just plain gaudy, depending on taste. When it moved into the Commons farmhouse brewery building, there was both hype for the product and hate for the $7.50 pints, but the lines out the door that persist a year later attest to our willingness to embrace a transplant.
But a brewery can't be that loud and proud without making good beer. Modern Times does. Right now, Mikkeller does not. Whether it's because the kegs are traveling long distances in less-than-optimal conditions, or simply that Portland has cultivated a crop of superior brewers, Mikkeller simply feels, at this point, like an awkward party crasher.
DRINK: Mikkeller Pop-Up Portland, 701 E Burnside St., mikkeller.dk. 5 pm-midnight Monday-Thursday, 5 pm-1 am Friday, noon-1 am Saturday, noon-midnight Sunday.