40 Years in Beer, Part Fifteen: A clash of titans (with Elephant Beer) in Copenhagen, 1987

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Graham, Roger, Barrie, Kim W. and Kim A. at the Mouse & Elephant, August of 1987.
Allan, Roger, Kim W. and Barrie at the K & H Cafe, Lanesville, in December of 1987.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Fourteen: Pilsner Urquell pilgrimage, locked gates, and a taxi driver’s day off.

Back home again in Indiana, the year 1987 came to a rollicking close with a wonderful visit from friends, which in itself wouldn’t have been particularly newsworthy if not for the fact that they traveled to New Albany all the way from Copenhagen, Denmark.

It was a unique experience for all of us, including the somnolent city.

During the summer’s European adventures, Barrie Ottersbach forged an early acquaintance with Kim W., our USSR group leader, while aboard the Aeroflot flight from Copenhagen to Moscow to begin the tour.

I joined them in the heart of the evil empire via a 36-hour rail journey from Budapest. A few days later in Leningrad, Kim introduced us to Allan G., and we bonded by the side of an urban canal, with mosquitos the size of starlings illuminated by the white nights, and a bottle of Russian vodka passed from hand to hand.

Kim W., Allan and Roger, Leningrad, July of 1987.

Then in August, Barrie and I hopped a train back to Copenhagen for the express purpose of having beers with Kim (henceforth, “Little” Kim) and his pal “Big” Kim A.

Unfortunately Allan couldn’t attend the festivities, but nonetheless the Three Danes of the Apocalypse had entered our lives, and we’ve been buddies ever since. Now, in 2022, I’ve known the three Danes for far longer than not, a total of 35 years, and I’m immeasurably enriched by their camaraderie in ways too profuse to adequately chronicle.

Granting that the primary purpose of this ongoing “40 Years in Beer” narrative is to wax autobiographical about my participation in the business of beer, these episodes of European beer travel may seem superfluous. However, in retrospect they strike me as absolutely essential.

It cannot be repeated often enough that European places, people, history, food and libations were huge influences on me, and while in 1987 I’d yet to harbor ambitions to be in the pub business, when the dominoes finally started falling, my only real strategy was to duplicate as much as possible elements of these travel experiences for a local drinking audience.

There is a story to tell about The Clash of Titans, or a drinking bout that took place on the evening of August 12, 1987. Verily, it is a day that will live forever, albeit in relative forgetfulness.

As Barrie and I pursued our 1987 travel itinerary, from Czechoslovakia through West Germany and France to Ireland, we were intrigued by the tales we’d been told about Big Kim. After all, we were a tad oversized ourselves; Barrie was a fine football player in high school, and I played basketball and baseball.

Just who was this legendary Falstaffian character called Big Kim? When would we meet him, and where?

Barrie needed to return to Copenhagen for his flight home, while I was scheduled to return from Brussels. He’d already arranged to contact Little Kim once in Denmark. Originally I didn’t think there would be enough time for me to accompany Barrie, but at a pub somewhere near Cork, after my tenth pint of Guinness, I bowed to his characteristic persuasiveness.

I had a rail pass. What better use for it than reconnecting with Little Kim? Soon after debarking in Copenhagen, we were reunited and safely burrowed in Kim’s tiny apartment with chilled Tuborgs in hand and Monty Python songs in our hearts (all three Danes credited the British comedy troupe for helping perfect their English language skills).

Following opening toasts, Little Kim divulged a surprise: An evening with Big Kim already had been arranged. From the beginning, our host had concluded that Big Kim and Barrie were too much alike, both in terms of physical stature as well as possessing a shared zeal for life, not to be brought together over a beer or five.

Consequently the planned evening immediately morphed into a bona fide event, with the unmistakable whiff of sheer spectacle. The planet could forget the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier “Thrilla in Manila.” Instead, onlookers were advised to gird for the “Altercation in Copenhagen,” to be held at Musen og Elefanten (Mouse and Elephant), a pub near the main square where we were informed there would be copious quantities of draft Elephant Beer, Carlsberg’s fine, sturdy and pleasingly strong lager.

When I use the word “strong,” there may be a degree of variance in terms of detail. Carlsberg’s website currently lists Elephant Beer at 6.3% abv, but consider this web post from 2009:

Elephant Beer was initially brewed as a ‘Special Export’ for the African market in 1955 and then sold in Europe in 1959. At 7.2% it’s one of the stronger mainstream lagers, but it still pales by comparison to Carlsberg’s Special Brew, supposedly brewed for Winston Churchill in 1950 to a full 9%.

I trust the 7.2% citation as applicable to the Elephant Beer we drank in 1987, placing the Danish lager’s strength in the range of German Bocks (either dark or pale). It’s worth noting that alcohol contents higher than 6% were rare at the time, and if drinkers paced themselves drinking Elephant Beer according to an assumed 5% rather than the specialty’s higher figure, things could get interesting fast.

But not for us. We were trained professionals – or so we thought.

It would be our first ever visit to the Mouse and Elephant, with many others following during the years to come. The only sign of identification on the façade above the front door was a small sculpted plaque depicting – what else? – a mouse and an elephant.

On the second floor of the pub, up a narrow flight of ancient steps, a handmade elephant head adorned the wall behind the bar. Draft Elephant Beer poured from the snout, powered by a clever tusk acting as the tap handle. It was said to be the only draft Elephant account in all of Copenhagen.

Sadly the original Musen og Elefanten closed in 2008, but subsequently reopened with new ownership and an extensive interior makeover. Today it’s an upscale, cocktails ‘n’ cigars bar with a strikingly refurbished elephant head tap that pours Delirium “pink elephants” Tremens from Belgium. Actually this seems completely appropriate.

Big Kim arrived in the company of his globe-trotting British friend Graham, who’d reached the same conclusion as Little Kim and me, namely that we’d be slowly nursing those half-liter glasses during the session to come.

At $7 each, Elephant was a pricey pachyderm for budget travelers, especially when compared to those “two for a dollar” draft Urquells that had been customary in Czechoslovakia. Besides, we didn’t want to miss a single inning.

As predicted, Big Kim and Barrie proved to be perfectly matched human beings, likely separated at birth, both possessing a fondness for beer in all configurations, hot and spicy food in large quantities, impossibly tall tales and endless, infectious tsunamis of irresistible laughter.

Big Kim and Barrie approached the high-gravity Elephant Beer at full throttle, and much merriment ensued. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth one, Barrie stumbled. Accounts vary; we can gently infer that some of the beer didn’t stay entirely down his gullet.

Advantage, Big Kim.

After several hours of Elephant consumption, and with monetary reserves reaching dangerously low levels, we decided to continue the match at a nearby establishment where our USSR travel mate Mette worked as a bartender.

As we stood on the street corner contemplating taxi strategies, Big Kim suddenly broke free of the group and tried to hail a passing cab for a ride home. Dodging bicycles, we intervened and quickly loaded him into our own hack to proceed to the next planned stop.

With this unforced error, Barrie equalized.

The bout now devolved into a brutal battle of attrition, with the clock ticking and everyone involved thoroughly fatigued. Both Barrie and Big Kim made it through large export bottles of Pilsner Urquell at the second bar, after which we returned to Little Kim’s apartment for obligatory nightcaps, the outcome still very much in doubt.

Barrie and Big Kim both opened their green-label bottles of Carlsberg Hof. Barrie finished his, but Big Kim had stolen away, ostensibly to use the toilet, and was found a short time later sleeping on the Little Kim’s bed.

Seemingly, it was a last-gasp victory for Ottersbach, although the rest of us were too tipsy to tally the points. Fittingly, The Clash of Titans passed into history as a principled draw.

Only four months later, Little Kim and Allan landed in Louisville, where Barrie and the late Rick Lang met them at the airport and stopped by to see me at Scoreboard Liquors, where I was still catering to my chosen niche by keeping the “Import Door” stocked.

The Danes were fascinated by the many different brands of American beer that all had exactly the same flavor. Their visit long pre-dated “bourbonism” as a semi-official civic governing outreach of Louisville metro government, or else our sampling patterns may have been very different.

Barrie, Kim W., Allan and Rick Lang at Scoreboard Liquors in December of 1987.

However Kim and Allan did taste one of the nation’s trendiest beverages in 1987: peach schnapps, a low-octane and artificially flavored liqueur (as opposed to the powerhouse “white nights” vodka in Leningrad), shots of which kept coming to them courtesy of the solicitous regulars at the K & H in Lanesville, predictably resulting in the buyers soon rendering themselves unconscious while the Danes merely shrugged and continued playing shuffleboard.

Beth, Barrie, Bob Gunn, Kime W. and Allan at the K & H Cafe, Lanesville, in December of 1987.

Meanwhile, and a tad ominously, in those four scant months I had become enough of a Sportstime Pizza stalwart to be named the host of the inaugural New Year’s Eve party, to be attended by the Danes as well as numerous customers, friends and acquaintances of the period.

As they say, a good time was had by all, and transatlantic friendships were cemented.

Human events generally require distance and perspective to be properly viewed. So it is that in retrospect, New Year’s Eve 1987 proved to be a highly symbolic “end of an era” occurrence for me.

Changes were happening already. Barrie and his forever girlfriend Beth had gotten married, which came as no surprise given that our summer Euro revels had always been intended as an extended, 50-day bachelor’s party. He and I would not travel together again until 1993, when I, too, was married (in a much publicized, major setback for Las Vegas odds makers).

Unbeknownst to me, 1988 would bring many alterations to my life. Substitute teaching ended when I landed something approximating a real day job in Louisville, and while my liquor store hours in New Albany continued, they came elsewhere after a move to a new location across town, prompted by the expiration of Scoreboard’s lease and the slating of New Albany’s ugliest downtown structure for demolition.

I had a new residence, too, and by year’s end there was even the hint of a prospective relationship. Taken together, these developments altered my gravitational pull, away from Lanesville and the countryside of my youth, and closer to the urban area.

When the Danes came to town in December of 1987, our ramblings symbolized a dialectical collision between old and new, and the “new” always wins. I started feeling almost like an adult—although not quite yet.

Next: 40 Years in Beer, Part Sixteen: In 1988, I had a slightly better year than Michael Dukakis.

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