The craft beer industry has become trend-crazed, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø is telling me. It’s a surprising thing to hear from the founder of Mikkeller, perhaps the world’s trendiest brewery. “I can spend a year making a beer,” he says, “but if it’s not [following] a trend people won’t give a shit. It’s become less about enjoying the actual product and more about hype.”
We’re at his soon-to-open Mikkeler Bar in Downtown Los Angeles, here to see the place but mostly because Rick Astley is in town. Astley—who you may remember by his late-’80s hit “Never Gonna Give You Up,” or the more recent “Rickrolling” meme the song inspired—is the latest collaborator with the Danish craft brewery, working with Bjergsø and his team to come up with an English-style lager with a craft-beer fingerprint. This joint venture could confuse you if you didn’t know that Mikkel was a huge Astley fan as a kid, and Astley’s wife Lene Bausager is a Danish film producer; Bjergsø contacted them in 2015 and asked if Rick would like to develop a beer together. The first draft (er, draught) is ready to taste, and since Rick is in Los Angeles gearing up for the start of his U.S. tour, here we are.
Pre-Rickrolling, Astley (voluntarily) spent a good two decades out of the spotlight, and it shows: he’s gregarious and quick to smile, easygoing and unguarded, dressed like a cool, casual dad. He talks with his hands a lot; he’s like a friendly bloke you’d meet at your local pub. As such, he was never much of a beer nerd. “I’m not an aficionado,” he tells me.
To indoctrinate Astley into the world of craft beer, Bjergsø brought him to Belgium—where many Mikkeler beers are brewed—to visit a few well-respected breweries and cult-favorite bars. It marked a serious shift in the way the singer considered beer, the a-ha moment that many a nascent-beer-nerd narrative shares. “I had to look at it not like I was just chugging a beer down—it isn’t like that. You’re entering a different world.”
While he found these wild, sour, red-hued beers eye-opening, Astley knew he wanted something a little closer to home. “I told Mikkel and the guys over there that I would like a beer that I can just open while there’s a game on with a friend and then drink it and not have to kind of go, what is this?” And so the lager came to be.
“It’s important to taste those beers,” Bjergsø said of the funkier things found in Belgium. “People would die for it. And I’m like, well, it’s a good beer, but let’s fucking just drink it and have fun. I don’t need to sit and do the whole ritual in the rose garden.”
For Bjergsø, this collaboration is a welcome change from his past collaborations, which he usually develops with chefs or other breweries. (“We kind of invented that,” he says of the collaborative trend in the craft beer industry.) He appears tired of bending to trends, and excited at the prospect of making something a little more regular, as it were. “Customers always want the most crazy thing,” he says. “A good chef will always want—umami, or some bullshit. Rick just wants beer he can drink a lot of.”
The bar itself is vast. The signature style of illustration that makes Mikkeler’s beers so easy to spot—they’re made by artist Keith Shore—adorn a few of the walls, and there are long communal high-top tables near the expansive sixty-plus tap bar. First we try a few non-Astley-branded beers, the most exciting of which is the Fruit Face, which is fizzy and bright pink, and tastes of raspberries and coffee grounds. It’s reminiscent of eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with your morning coffee, only more refreshing. I become obsessed with it. There’s also an IPA that I likened to floating over a field of wildflowers while being lightly showered with hops, but I said this after three beers. The speakers blast AC/DC and Cream. What is happening in the room between Astley, Bausager, Bjergsø, and his beer team can only be described as “chilling.” (Of the Fruit Face, I catch someone saying, “Is it beer or not? Where does it end?”)
Astley’s beer isn’t canned yet, so we get it in the bottle of a past brew. The lager itself is a deep amber color, smooth and fruity and quick to refill. There’s a barely detectable hint of ginger, too—a strange little nod to Astley’s reddish hair that was his daughter’s idea. Everyone seems pleased.
“When I’m in my local pub—it’s hundreds of years old, a proper pub, if you know what I mean—they have a couple different beers on tap that aren’t your stock ones,” Astley tells me. “There’s something ugly about drinking the last 10 percent of your glass—but not with this. It’s not out of context that you would find it in a country pub.”