In one of the beer industry’s strangest Kevin Bacon-esque connections, it only takes one person to get from world-renowned contract brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø to disgraced investment fraudster Bernie Madoff. The intermediary is Saul Katz, who, according to paperwork filed on June 20, 2017 with the New York State Liquor Authority and obtained through a FOIA request with the state, (more here, and here) set up a 9% stake in an LLC that is an owner of Mikkeller Brewing NYC, located in Citi Field.
Along with Katz, two sons of his business partner and New York Mets owner, Fred Wilpon, are also heavily invested in the brewery, according to paperwork filed with New York State. Bruce Wilpon (47.2%) and Jeff Wilpon (9%) are part of 14 total people behind Sterling MB Holdings LLC. That LLC is the almost-exclusive owner of SEMB Holdings CF LLC alongside Jim Raras, who has a 2.5% stake.
Together, all these people and a limited liability corporation combine to make SEMB CF LLC, who, on July 18, 2017, filed paperwork to open Mikkeller Brewing NYC. Bjergsø is not listed as one of the owners, leaving his role, financial or otherwise, unknown. In its press release announcing the launch of the brewery, sent July 7, 2017, he is referenced as founder of Mikkeller, but never explicitly stated as owner of the Citi Field enterprise. Raras, who had previously worked as CFO of Hill Farmstead Brewery, is listed as executive vice president, but the release itself doesn't mention his stake in the overarching LLC or SEMB CF, the LLC which was used to file with New York State.
If it all sounds complicated, that’s because it is—at least on paper. Although the complex business partnership that brings all these people together isn’t out of the ordinary. According to Chris Toia, Mikkeller’s national sales manager, the company will adapt to different markets and different laws depending on what’s possible.
“Some countries we’re allowed to fully own a bar, some countries we have to work with a partner, other countries it’s a preference because we identify someone or a friend or collaborator that we’ve worked with in the past and we’re like, ‘It’s going to be awesome to work together again,’” Toia said during a Good Beer Hunting panel discussion at Brewery Ommegang’s Belgium Comes to Cooperstown festival. “And if the two of us combine forces, there’s no way we can fail.”
From day one, Mikkeller has relied on other people to brew its beer. But following a series of partnerships around the globe, it’s become clear the company also relies on others to run significant portions of the operational side of these businesses, from beer production to retail environments. Consumers have come around to contract brewing. Will they eventually feel similarly about the entire brand experience?
In reference to the Mikkeller NYC partnership specifically, Toia added that the company was connected via a friend about potential to open a facility in the baseball stadium. He didn’t specify who that friend was, but noted that the company immediately jumped at the opportunity. Bjergsø tells GBH that across all the companies he owns around the world, which he counts as “more than 25,” he has in place non-disclosure agreements and can’t discuss aspects of ownership, setup or other business practices. He did mention often that no Mikkeller location or product could exist without his “100% agreement and approval.”
“All Mikkeller places work the same way,” he tells GBH. “I have 100% control of any decision in any of my partnership [sic] that uses any Mikkeller owned IP.” He adds that, as such, he has the ability to close down any location that does not live up to his expectations. According to the limits of NDAs in place, Bjergsø didn’t discuss operational aspects of these scenarios, or what might, for example, serve as a violation of his expectations.
When asking about Mikkeller NYC, Bjergsø cited NDAs as a reason he couldn’t talk about ownership structure filed to New York State, but described in general terms what could be understood as a franchise-like or brand licensing agreement similar to how sports teams can enable manufacturers to use their logo and other assets on a spectrum of apparel, video games, and related fan experiences. These kinds of agreements can result in a financial boon in exchange for the right to market under the brand without having to be responsible for operations.
Speaking broadly about the topic, Bjergsø noted that he owns every intellectual property right for design used at Mikkeller NYC. According to paperwork, he isn’t an owner in the way a beer drinker might customarily define “owner.” In this case, Mikkel describes his role as one who provides the design assets, but also said he has right of refusal with things like staffing, noting that all senior level positions are approved by Mikkeller HQ in Copenhagen.
“Every project involves a lot of business decisions and secrets to the Mikkeller brand, that we have worked years on building and is something that we cannot risk losing,” Bjergsø writes in an email to GBH. “This is a normal procedure in almost every partnership of this kind worldwide.”
When first approached by GBH to learn more about the Citi Field business, Bjergsø suggested that GBH’s questions had “very little place in reality” and threatened legal action. Pages from the state application can be seen here.
The business dealings that go from idea to opening aren’t unique to this situation. Rather, they’re just the latest example of a loose and layered network of bars and various companies that follow a similar path.
In April 2016, Mikkeller Brewing San Diego opened, registered under Stella Polly, Inc., which was formed in Delaware on May 13, 2015 and filed on Aug. 18, 2015 to do business in California. Another iteration—the first—of this company was actually Stellapolly Craft Beer, licensed as a limited liability company in Denmark on July 3, 2015. In Denmark, that Stellapolly LLC was originally filed with 90% ownership under BJERGSØ HOLDING, another LLC registered to two other LLCs, both of which are owned by Bjergsø. A minority stake was owned by Mikkeller COO Jacob Alsing until both were "terminated" under Danish filings, so the Denmark-based Stellapolly Craft Beer could be 100% owned by Craft Brewery Holding, also an LLC owned by Bjergsø.
There are dozens of other examples, however, all registered with the Danish government through various LLCs. Haven Bar, a Mikkeller location in Copenhagen, opened in 2017 in partnership between Mikkeller and members of the rock band The National, Bryce and Aaron Dessner, as well as chef Claus Meyer. According to filings with Denmark, the "legal owners" each have a third of the business: Aaron Dessner Music LLC, Claus Meyer Holding A/S, and Craft Beer Bar Holding ApS. The latter is owned by Bjergsø Holding ApS, which itself has listed owners as Mikkeller InvestCo LLC and Beer Geek Breakfast Holding ApS. Beer Geek Breakfast Holding closes the loop, as it was fully formed by Bjergsø.
To add another layer, Danish outlet Berlingske Business reported in 2016 that New York-based investment company Orkila Capital bought a 10-15% stake in Bjergsø Holding, and therefore Mikkeller, for an undisclosed amount.
In an analysis of paperwork filed with the Danish government, Good Beer Hunting found 11 examples of Bjergsø’s Craft Beer Bar Holding with partial ownership of Mikkeller businesses since 2012. Four were listed with the LLC as sole “legal owner.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with all this, of course. Across a worldwide network of companies and LLCs, Bjergsø has partnered to open businesses dedicated to food, spirits, chocolate, and even kids clothing. In a panel discussion at 2017’s Beavertown Extravaganza, Alsing, Mikkeller’s COO, said the company is always looking to expand its reach with innovative thinking because he and others at Mikkeller are motivated by doing new things in new places, citing the New York brewery as a "perfect example."
“This is about us being able to do things better than other people,” Alsing said in the discussion, noting various industries and projects in which Mikkeller has gotten involved in recent years. “I think we can do that in the spirits world, the wine world, and definitely in the festival world.”
For at least one detractor of Mikkeller, these partnerships, and the Citi Field enterprise in particular, are at the core of a longer rivalry. That person, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Bjergsø’s brother and Evil Twin founder, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø. In an Aug. 15 Instagram post (which has since gone private), Jeppe called out his brother, saying his involvement with Mikkeller NYC was based on lies and suggesting he should own up to it because Mikkel needs “to be called out just like we call out people that sell to AB Inbev or the like.”
“I’m being confronted all the time being compared to this guy who’s doing his business this way, when I own 100% of my business and am deeply involved in anything that happens,” Jeppe tells GBH. “I did it with all my own money and have a big bank loan. I put everything at stake and he just sells his name.”
One former Mikkeller employee who spoke to GBH on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal by the company, agreed with Jeppe’s statements. They say a culture of aggressive attitudes is at the core of the business, especially its partnerships.
“I understand why [Jeppe] would find it so frustrating that on paper his brother looks to be doing the same thing, but he’s not, he’s franchising,” they say. “And [Jeppe] is being ridiculed. That makes you feel like shit.”
Animosity between the twins goes back years, famously profiled by The New York Times in 2014. The saga added a new chapter this spring in another Times piece highlighting the pair’s new physical spaces in Queens—Jeppe's brewery and Mikkel’s Citi Field location. According to the twins, this latest back-and-forth stems from their own interpretation of what it means to exist as competitors in the same area: Jeppe says it’s because of a need for honesty about small and independent breweries, and Mikkel says it’s because Jeppe wants to discredit Mikkeller.
But the move into Queens—and just about any other location or industry—fits within a credo Mikkel told GBH last year drove his efforts: “We just do it when the opportunity’s there.” That goal, originally stated by Mikkel and echoed again by Alsing at last year’s Beavertown Extravaganza, was simply to maximize craft beer’s exposure to non-craft beer drinkers.
“The motivation is very much that we want to change the way that the beer world is perceived, and that’s what we’re working for every fucking day,” Alsing said, adding that what motivates Mikkeller’s business ventures is taking risks because “taking risks is what changes the world.”
How that change occurs, without company leadership able to speak fully due to NDAs about what the change is, how it came to be, and why it’s important, acts as an internally-created counterpoint. In the U.S. especially, consumers have increasingly demanded transparency from their favorite companies. Which begs the question: could perceptions change if non-disclosure agreements didn’t prevent Bjergsø or others from sharing their broadest vision for Mikkeller and its connected businesses?
It reflects one of the most recent collaborations by the brewery shared this summer, as Mikkel and 1980s pop singer/meme god Rick Astley announced a partnership to open Mikkeller Bar London. That connection itself came to life after a failed attempt by Mikkel to open a bar with BrewDog in England’s capital. Bjergsø and Astley had previously met to create a beer together, with this venture a chance to further solidify the brewer’s passion for beer and Astley’s unique cultural cache. In a release, the company noted that an ‘80s aesthetic will influence design along with “Scandinavian DNA.”
What was not mentioned was who owned what in the business, and how much. And that’s thanks to NDAs.