'Free' Danish beer makes a splash
The Danes love their beer, but increasingly they are looking beyond the old Danish standby, Carlsberg, to quench their thirst.
It is called Vores Oel, or Our Beer, and the recipe is proving to be a worldwide hit. The idea behind the beer comes from open source software. This is software whose code is made publicly available for anyone to change and improve, provided that those changes and improvements are then shared in turn. Perhaps the most well-known example of open source software is the Linux operating system. Microsoft, on the other hand, creates proprietary software, meaning the company does not tend to let others see how its software works. The Danish brewer Carlsberg takes a similar approach to beer. Rasmus Nielsen, who runs a Copenhagen-based artist collective called Superflex, wanted to challenge the idea of "proprietary" beer.
Software and alcohol
He was teaching a workshop on intellectual property and copyright at the Information Technology University in Copenhagen. Mr Nielsen asked his students to think about applying open source ideas to the non-digital world. "Why not take those ideas back to the old world, and try to apply them to other things as well?" asks Nielsen. Why beer? As the Vores Oel website says, why not? "It's a universal commodity that we like to think of as free, but unfortunately it isn't," says Mr Nielsen. "So, I thought it was an appropriate medium to confront these issues." A group of about 15 students at the university agreed. "Beer is an amusing subject in a university environment," says Thorarinn Stefansson, one of the students who signed up for the open source beer project. "It's something more stimulating than perhaps making something non-edible or non-drinkable."
To get started, the students met with the author of a Danish book on home-brewing. Then, they came to an agreement on what kind of beer they wanted. They bought the ingredients, and brewed up 100 litres of it in the university cafeteria. Mr Stefansson says he and the other students decided to call it Our Beer, version 1.0.
"Like in the software industry, the first version is named version 1.0. It leaves room for improvement." Our Beer turned out to be a darker, heavier brew than your typical Danish lager. "It's the kind of beer that you feel afterwards that you've eaten a steak or something. I mean, it's not the kind of beer you'd want to be drinking for a bachelor party or something," says Mr Nielsen.
The students did supply an extra kick to their beer. They added guarana, a South American berry that packs a caffeine-like punch. The students also created a label for the beer, and a website that comes complete with catchy, open source music and sound effects.
Most important, the students released the recipe under what is called a Creative Commons licence. "You're free to change it," says Mr Nielsen. "But if you use our recipe as the basis for your beer, you have to be open with your recipe as well. That's the legal framework that follows the beer." You can even sell your own version, as long as you credit Our Beer for the recipe. The tipple has proved a hit. The Our Beer website has been a busy place, says Mr Nielsen. "We got loads of questions from small beer brewers in Mexico, Brazil, and even Afghanistan," he says. "Afghanistan, that was weird." One smaller Danish brewer is even planning on brewing up some of Our Beer to sell in the autumn. Both Mr Nielsen and his students hope that what people take away from the Our Beer project is that open source is not just for the digital world. Mr Nielsen says there is no reason that developing countries could not use the idea to manufacture, for example, their own HIV/AIDS drugs.
Clark Boyd is technology correspondent
for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production