LERVIG del 3 – Murphy’s Law

He was recently called Magic Mike by a Facebook user, and his boss calls him a crazy magician and a machine that only wants to go upwards and onwards. You know him as Mike Murphy, the brewmaster who has led LERVIG’s journey from local brewery to worldwide renown. In this interview he speaks to BR about his beers and how he goes about creating them.

Brewing Lucky Jack for the first time

When I was coming here for a job interview, I told them I wasn’t gonna make just Pilsner. They said «No, we want a pale ale too». So I got up here and had a look at the recipe the previous brewmaster was working on. I was glad he hadn’t brewed it yet, it would’ve been harder to reverse. So I brewed [my version] and I think Beau [Schiner – now with Austmann] took a glass up to the office and when he came back he told me: «Dude, they’re all sitting around drinking it going ‘It’s way too bitter. How much is in the tank? Oh no!’, and now they’re freaking out a little bit.» I thought the beer was perfect.

When I first came here, I remember going to Cardinal to talk to everyone. They wanted to know what my plans at LERVIG were – if I was gonna just keep things the same or push things in a new direction. I told them I’m not an industrial brewer, I’m a craft brewer. I didn’t come up here with plans to just keep the status quo. But at that point in time I’d just got here, so I didn’t know where they wanted to go.

If things hadn’t been able to evolve here, I wouldn’t have been here long. I would have been stepping through here, finding the next thing. But Lucky Jack hit, and after a few months of sale they realised it was going better then they’d anticipated, and I think they also… They didn’t vet me at first, but they vetted me after, and they realised that ‘Mike has been around for a long time and everyone knows Mike» and things started moving in the right direction so they started giving me a free hand – a little bit.

Lucky Jack Extra Hard and the way forward for IPAs

I’d been meaning for years to make a Vinmonopolet version, and I thought Lucky Jack still had a good pull. You know, we had done a grapefruit version and some other things. I think maybe we tried too much, like Jack Black. I wanted to come out with a series of different flavours and characteristics, but I saw that it was hurting the brand more than anything, so I stopped.

Lucky is pretty light and this is a harder version. I was in Tokyo and someone gave me a sixpack of Asahi Extra Hard and I thought that it was funny. I even borrowed from their design a little.

Canned inspiration

We’re selling it for 39 kroner at Vinmonopolet because we want the volume, but I don’t know why it’s not going very well. Maybe the graphics aren’t working, because it’s still got the old graphics and now we’re changing everything.

I think the beer’s great. I love it! It’s one of my go-to beers. It’s pretty old school. It’s Lucky Jack with 6% alcohol, so just more of everything. When I say old school I don’t really mean West Coast IPA but somewhere a little bit newer than that. Not so bitter. Kinda moving away from all the IBU. I never liked high IBU beers anyway – I just found them hard to drink. I like hops. For some people a lot of hops means high IBU, but for me a lot of hops means flavour and aroma. Old school beers, they hold up good for a few months. 3 months is good for a beer.

In Europe, for many years, hops were hard to deal with because of the fresh factor. Nobody was storing beers cold. I started making the hazy IPAs when… In Spain the customers look at the packaged-on date, and if it’s more than two months old it won’t sell, so that gave me the sign that I should start making beers that should be sold fresh. I don’t call them NEIPA. I call them juicy IPAs. I just make them what they are. They’re maybe a bit more bitter than the East Coast IPAs. They seem to be working well, and everyone’s making them and some are making them better than others. Some, you know…

Malt and mouthfeel

I smell and taste new malts, but you don’t really get a feel for what they will taste like in the finished beer. When I’m coming up with a new recipe, if I’m not sure, I’ll go and grab some and look at it and think about how it will affect the beer. But I’m working with stuff I’ve been working with for a long time. I have like 15 different malts that I’ve been using mostly through my career.

I use less and less caramel malts. I use Simpsons T50 which is really nice. I’m still finishing off the 300 EBC crystal malt I bought last year. I’m trying to get through it. I use a low colour crystal – in Hoppy Joe there’s a 120 EBC – and I’ve been using melanoidin malt more and more for colour.

We don’t overcomplicate things. A lot of the recipes I make are based on how easy it is to move things through the brewery. I used to use pale malt from Denmark, but it wasn’t much different from pilsner malt so I’ve switched to Simpsons Golden Promise now. It’s kinda in between an American pale malt and a Maris Otter, but not as strong as Maris Otter. I think it has good quality, it smells great and it gives an improved mouthfeel.

I have pilsner in my malt silo, so in a lot of my recipes I keep blending pilsner malt into it because it’s so much easier to handle. We can just press a button and the malt gets into the brewery, rather than having to move [sacks] around, and store it, and order new. It’s also half the price of pale malt. It’s not about the money though, but about how the brewery functions. The sacks can be difficult to work with, so we put another 1000 kilos of pilsner malt in and see how that works. It’s hard to tell the difference when you add so much oats and flaked barley.

I’m after the mouthfeel. A lot of the beers we make, I wanna change their mouthfeel now. I want it to be similar beers but with a completely different mouthfeel.

I’ve been using a lot of oats, wheat, flaked barley, and flaked rice. Everything to kinda tweak the character. I use them mostly in the IPAs, but I’ve been using them more and more in the other stuff we’re making just to keep evolving. We put flaked barley in House Party because it’s a 4% beer, and we wanted to build a better mouthfeel. The first batch we made got a little watery near the end. I wasn’t too happy with it, so we actually didn’t sell it. We missed the launch date in the UK but now they’ve got it and they’re selling it once they get it. I actually had to tell some of the bars that have dedicated draft lines for us that they can’t have it for a while. They only want steel kegs too, so that’s part of the problem.

I haven’t really started making new beers this year. I mean, I’ve made a few to plug some holes. Like, I made House Party for the UK market because they were having trouble with Lucky Jack because pale ales are a dime a dozen over there. The price was okay, but it wasn’t competitive with UK craft brewers’ cost.  3-4 years ago it was OK because most of the UK craft breweries were small, but now they’ve grown up. Fourpure, Beavertown, Magic Rock and Thornbridge and all those breweries – they’ve grown quite well in the last few years so they’re supplying all my customers.

A beer for the UK market. Photo: Beer Merchants

Cloudwater are a little different. They’re more like us if we only made Tasty Juice and Supersonic and kept exploring that direction – which is also an idea for us.

I think some of the people on the board, and the director, wanna see the average liter price go up. But I still think there’s room for beers with a lower price to hit the market in a bigger volume. We can handle that. They might not have as a good a margin, might not be as expensive, but should still represent the kind of beer we make. And that’s what House Party does.

If I wanna sell a lot of a beer, I can it in 33 cl. If I want it to stand out more for the geeks, I put it in 50 cl. I need another 50 cl beer. I’m working on a recipe, actually, for next week. It’s a new 10% double dry hopped. I don’t want it to be too sweet, so I’ll probably put a little sugar in it just to lower the finishing plato. I use white syrup for that. That’s just a trick I use in big IPAs to dry them out a bit more because if they’re too sweet they just taste like orange lollypop to me, and I can’t stand them. A lot of breweries make that, and some people love that. I find that when we have a higher finishing plato the beer stands out more to the beer nerds. As longs it’s balanced, if it doesn’t feel cloy, I’m okay with it. I want beer to be dry but with the right mouthfeel, so that’s where we’re trying to get to – and to balance that with bitterness.

Mashing

We do step mashing, although sometimes we just mash in and move it up to the right temperature right away, Our mill doesn’t like to work too hot, so we keep it right below saccharification temperature and then move it up. I even start raising the temperature while it’s mashing in. We use short rests, and high temperatures sometimes. We have to mash off because we have a separate lauter tun, so we mash off at 78 degrees and pump it over. It doesn’t flow well if you don’t do that.

The brewing wort side is very easy. I don’t even get to do that anymore, it’s so easy.

Water and salts

Norwegian water is great, but you still have to add some salt to it. Calcium chloride is always good in the mash.  It definitely needs some calcium chloride. That helps to build the mouthfeel as well. Especially in stouts. It makes the beer smooth.

If I did a 20 000 liter IPA recipe, I would put 4-5 kilos of calcium chloride in the mash. And maybe 1.5 kilos in the boil.

If you wanna pop the hop character out some more, you can put some gypsum in the boil, but not too much because it gets a little salty.

We notice seasonal variations in the water for sure, but I’ve only had real problems once when they switched some pipes around and we had brown water for a day.

Hops, centrifuges and vegans

There’re always new hops, so we like to check them out. I go and do the hop selection in Seattle, but I can’t select and get what I want without buying it all at once  – and buying a minimum volume, which for most varieties would be too much. I could get storage for them at Tine, but that would be expensive too.

I think I buy 8000 kilos of Citra every year. If I bought it all at once, they would to let me take the selection, pick the harvest day and say I want it from this specific day. You know, it changes from day to day. Like Cascade – it takes 6 weeks to harvest and there’s only one week when it’s perfect. Most of the time, they mix everything together and make homogenous hop pellets, but if you buy it all at once, you can specify the harvest day. If I were to buy all the Citra at once, that would be like 2.5 million kroner tied up in hops. I’m not sure we’re that deep in pockets. It would be nice to have all the hops at once and not have to worry.

Citra beers always sell. You know when there’s Citra in it that it’s gonna taste good. I’ve always been a fan of Chinook and I still like Cascade, but I find that when I use Cascade people don’t get too excited about it. Check-In IPA had Cascade.

If I find an experimental hop that I like, I buy 150 kilos of it and then I can decide whether I just wanna make a powerful single hop thing, which I never do, or use it in something and then I want more of it. This year we got BRU-1 and I was like, what am I gonna use that in? So I threw it in House Party but then we went through it in two batches.

I use Enigma, Eukanot, Citra, Azacca, and Mosaic, and we’re moving back into Galaxy now, so some of the new stuff we’ll make this year will have that. I’ve got a 150 kilos of Idaho-7, but haven’t used that yet. Azacca is what we use in Perler For Svin. It’s the only one we use it in.  It was one of those experimental hops last year, so we ran out of it real quick, so I reduced the amount of Azacca and upped the amount of other hops in Perler, so it wasn’t very different to Tasty Juice. I had to get another 1000 kilos of it, so now we’ve moved back to mostly Azacca which is very mangoey and tropical.

When we’re brewing Pilsner we use bittering hops. For Lucky Jack we never put that much bittering hops. For old school IPAs it’s just whirlpool hops or sometimes at 5 minutes. We get bitterness out of our whirlpool hops because it takes 45 minutes to cool. If we wanna reduced the bitterness, we cool it down to like 85 degrees. We boil a little high plato and add cold water in the whirlpool, and once the temperature drops we throw the hops in and let it rest for 15-20 minutes. We used to do it the hard way – do a 95 degrees, and 90 degrees and 85 degrees and adding hops all the time, but it was too many trips up and down. Now we just cool it down to 85 and soak’em.

I’d say roughly the amount of hops we use in the whirlpool we’ll also use in the dry hopping, but we dry hop twice. So, if we used 80 kilos in the whirlpool, then we’ll use 80 kilos in the dry hops and then we’ll dry hop again with 80 kilos. Primary fermentation normally takes 4-5 days and we do a dry hop right at the end of high krausen. Then we do another one 4-5 days later, and 3-4 days after that we’ll cool it.

We centrifuge all of our beers. Before we had the centrifuge, it would take us at least another week or two of tank residence before we could get the beers out and sometimes we’d think we were gonna package a beer the day after tomorrow so we’d get it out into the bright tank today but we’d start moving it and there would be just too much solids moving into the tank and we couldn’t get it out without filtration – and we don’t wanna filter our beer. So we started fining Lucky Jack but we stopped after we got the centrifuge. I used to just cool it down for a day or two, but there was too much losses in the centrifuge; Too much trouble to get through the centrifuge. With the new tanks I can homogenise the tanks and then centrifuge it out.

We got in trouble with the vegans. Somebody had asked me whether our beers were vegan and at that point everything was vegan. Then later I spoke to a vegan guy and I told him we were using isinglass and his face went white. So we got a little hate mail going on. But I’ve told them we’re not using isinglass any more now that we’ve got the centrifuge.

A centrifuge really helps with the turn-around. If you wanna increase your cellar capacity but you don’t have any more room for tanks, the best way is to put a centrifuge in. We’re down to 12 days now, depending on the beer. But it also depends on how fast you’re running. Those new labelled cans – we package them without labels and label them afterwards – we had a guy here labelling beers until midnight, but he left and went back to England so I’m a little sad about him. We’ve got a new [automatic] labeller now. And we’re getting a bigger filling line soon. Right now we’re running at 8000 cans per hour. I can’t wait to see the one that goes 15 000.

Yeast, Reinheitsgebot and religion

I’m thinking of changing out my lager yeast. I have a pretty easy to work with lager yeast for a pilsner. It’s just, I like that sulphur effect. You get that a lot in German pilsners. I can get it in my beers, but I don’t always get it. Some yeast strains have that more. But the one thing mine doesn’t do is create a lot of diacetyl so it’s easy to work with. The pilsner we’re making is just a straight up pilsner for the regular Joe who wants a pilsner. But I do like more authentic pilsners. If craft pilsner sold better in this country, then I would love to spend more time making pilsners. It’s happening elsewhere, like in the UK with Lost and Grounded Brewers. Their goal is to make UK’s best kellerbiers and they’re doing a good job. They’ve built a really nice brewhouse and they even make their own lactic acid for souring. It’s something you see a lot in Bavaria.

I’m not a fan of Reinheitsgebot, but I’m a fan of good beer made right. If it’s a pilsner and you wanna follow Reinheitsgebot and stick to the traditions and it tastes good, then I’m happy for you. But I don’t think there’s any reason for following it. It’s like following a religion. You know, religions were written before man was aware that he wasn’t the centre of the universe. It isn’t my direction. When I first came here, it said Reinheitsgebot on the can, but it wasn’t. They were using lactic acid.

We use American ale yeast. It’s pretty flexible and neutral and pretty simple to use. I play with yeasts now and then, in fact I just put a beer in the tank with a Chong sake yeast. It’s a collab with Yeasty Boys. It’s probably gonna be a little fruity and estery. Maybe banana, but I hope not. We’ve added a lot of hops – Galaxy and Citra – and we’re gonna add some Japanese green tea also. It’ll be available for home and export.

We made a kveik beer called Lawless. It took us three years to sell one batch. We were ahead of the curve a little, and the one thing we regret is not calling it a kveik. It’s like when we made a saison; Nobody wants a saison from Norway that costs more than a saison from Belgium. But kveik beer is not my thing. I’m not really into smokey, sweet caramel flavours.

Three years to sell – not exactly kveik out the door

We test the yeast, so we haven’t had problems with infected strains, but once a vendor sent us the wrong yeast. It was packaged wrong. Instead of lager yeast, I got something that tasted like a witbier yeast. I made 57 000 liters of a banana flavoured Pilsner. I was pissed! I ended up selling it as Lervig Blonde really cheap. I sold 30 liter keykegs for 30 euros.

Someone had a blonde moment

A good brewer

A good brewer needs to be able to work hard and be passionate about, and proud of, what they’re doing. They need to know what they like in a beer, and stick to what they like. A good palate is absolutely necessary. Like a chef – it’s not that different.

Some brewers are good at making their beers taste good, and some brewers are good even if they don’t physically brew, because they’re good at communicating it to people. Ideally I could be doing that, but I’m still running around here. If something breaks, I have to fix it. If I could find another Mike, I’d be very happy because I could take a step back. My last boss must’ve loved working with me. He didn’t have to leave the office. I would tell him what to order and when to order it, make the recipes, get all the beer ready for packaging.

I’ve always worked my ass off. Long days – ’till it’s done. Our hours are ’till it’s done. I’ve been running hard all summer, but last week I kinda stepped back a bit because packaging can’t keep up now that Spike [Walker] has gone.

We made a lot of new products last year. So many that our heads were spinning and the sales people couldn’t keep up with what we were doing. When you make a product you have to make a barcode, article number, put them in the system, get the artist to make a label and tell the people what we’re selling. It’s not just making stuff.

It’s not as glamorous as people think, brewing beer. It’s not looking a shiny tanks and making beer recipes all day long. It’s a lot of cleaning and lifting and moving and handling dangerous chemicals, offloading trucks, dealing with hot liquids and CO2.

I try to be very laidback. I don’t want a corporate environment – don’t wanna be too rigid. I work long hours and I take the trash out as well. Brewing is my life, and I used to surround myself with the beer lifestyle, but not as much anymore. I’ve gotta have a family life. I’ve got a child now.

The dark ales and killing beers that aren’t your darlings

I still make dark ales – I made a vanilla shake the other day. It was a mistake, we used 10 times the vanilla intended, but it worked out. And I’m brewing Konrad’s Stout on Monday*. That’s the one that’s stuck. It was my first above 4.7% beer here except for the Christmas beer.

Konrad – Same beer, new wrapping

I’ve killed a lot of beers but they weren’t my darlings. Like, I got tired of Rye IPA. I like rye IPAs, but I got tired of them. Galaxy – we kinda screwed it one time. The beer was selling really well, and then we screwed it when we threw 200 kilos of Galaxy hops in it and it tasted like diesel fuel. It was awful and it stuck with us. I killed it, so I stopped buying Galaxy.

Betty Brown I was never that thrilled with it to begin with. The sales people thought it would sell because Newcastle Brown Ale does. Never let the sales people tell you what to brew. I should’ve made a stout.

Check-In IPA wasn’t that… It was selling well, but I had to kill it. I didn’t wanna keep that beer around. It wasn’t something I wanted to build on and move forward with.

Lucky – I would kill it if it wasn’t growing. We still identify with it. The idea right now is to redo the look of Lucky Jack. It should still look like Lucky Jack, but Nanna [Guldbæk – Lervig’s designer] has to Nanna-fy it. They look good, they look like a respectful brand on the shelf, but… You know, we’ve been moving away from all of our old graphics and trying to reinvent the brewery slowly, which has been working good.

Beavertown

Mike and David Graham visiting Logan Plant (with a towel) at Beavertown

All the craft beer geeks are pissed at me now for going to Beavertown Extravaganza. But I know Logan and I’m not gonna tell him he’s not my friend anymore cause he sold out to fucking Heineken. He’s brewed three collabs for us and has helped us a lot along the way. I’ve always been very impressed with Logan. I’m impressed with his ambition. I’m not happy he sold out – I think he could’ve really built something big for himself – but he can probably fast track that now with Heineken. 50 million pounds is a good cash-out. If he gives me a million of it, I’ll come work for him. Haha!

Mike with a sample of Lucky Jack Extra Hard and his new tanks in the background


This interview was done on Friday July 27th

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