BrewDog: Love ‘em Or Hate ‘em, You Can’t Ignore Them

This week we take a look at an upstart brewery from Scotland which has been annoying more people than Simon Cowell, but which could be one of the most exciting things to happen to British brewing since the introduction of hops.

So there I am on Wednesday morning, which is Saturday morning for me because Wednesday and Thursday is my weekend, and I notice that something has kicked off on Twitter. There's a hashtag called #AndTheWinnerIsNot that seems to be attached to a whole bunch of tweets, plus it's trending, so I take a look at it and find that it's a story involving Scottish brewery BrewDog, an awards ceremony and the beverage giant Diageo who own, amongst other brands, Guinness, Tanqueray, José Cuervo, Johnnie Walker and, sadly, Talisker (I say 'sadly' because Talisker is my favourite Scotch whisky and this story might involve a boycott of Diageo products, dammit).

Before we get to the juice let's talk a little about BrewDog. They've been on my list of Digest subjects for some time; this seems like the perfect opportunity to write something about them.

For a company that's barely six years old, BrewDog has an exceptionally high profile among beer geeks, largely because of their provocative (some say childish) marketing tactics. The company was founded in Fraserburgh by James Watt and Martin Dickie and shipped its first beer in 2007. From the outset BrewDog's has fronted itself as an American style craft brewery rather than a British brewer of traditional ales and has ploughed its own very deep and very straight furrow. Never short of an opinion on the British beer scene, BrewDog has often found itself at loggerheads (sometimes aggressively, even dismissively so) with the aims and ideals of CAMRA (which BrewDog feels is holding back the craft beer revolution in Britain) and, it seems, a sizeable proportion of British beer drinkers, as well as a few from this side of the water. Any conversation on Beer Advocate which concerns BrewDog will immediately become polarised; there's almost no middle ground here.

The first I heard of them was when this story appeared on the BBC in 2009. Even by American craft beer standards, 18.2% ABV is up there. It's higher than any of Avery's 'Demon' series (Mephistopheles, Samael's Ale and The Beast) and is in the same range as Dogfish Head 120 Minute (which can be anything from 15% to 20%, depending on the batch). But compared to most British beers, which are generally a few points lower in ABV than their American equivalent, Tokyo* is rocket fuel!

And what was BrewDog's response to the criticism they received for having the nerve to brew an 18% beer? They made an IPA called Nanny State with an ABV of just 1.1% and then became engaged in a race with German brewer Schorschbräu to brew the world's strongest beer (although BrewDog claims there was no race and it was mostly just coincidence). The prize went back and forth a handful of times, the ABV pushing 30%, 40% and finally 50% with each new beer. BrewDog's parting shot in this war of beers was something that only they could (or would) do. A super rare (only 12 bottles if memory serves) and super expensive (around £500 a bottle) beer with an eye-watering 55% ABV that came packaged inside roadkill.

Schorschbräu have since surpassed it and the book is closed.

When two of these super strength beers (Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck!) were being launched in the U.S., James Watt dropped in at the Draught House here in Austin during South by Southwest 2010 to put on the penguin suit, and talk to Chris Troutman from Beertown Austin.

By the way, Nanny State is far from being the only unusual IPA BrewDog have made. It seems that James owns a fishing trawler. He and Martin thought it would be a good idea to brew an IPA and take it on board for two months while the crew plied the seas off Scotland fishing for mackerel (theoretically re-creating the journey that those first IPAs took from Britain to India), thus creating what they claimed to be the first ship-conditioned IPA in 200 years - Atlantic IPA. Of course, the temperatures in the north Atlantic are very different to those experienced on the journey to India so the effect on the beer wouldn't be the same, therefore the claim doesn't quite stand up to deep scrutiny, but it's still a neat idea and I hear the product of this experiment was pretty good.

If you're one of the people who participated in BrewDog's Equity for Punks programme and bought shares in the company (which come with rewards such as discounts on their beer and merchandise), you'll no doubt be interested to hear that their pre-tax profits were up by 92% in 2011. The £2.14m which the share offer raised is going towards opening more BrewDog bars across the UK (and there are plans to open some overseas too, I hear) and a brand new built-from-the-ground-up brewery which will increase their production capacity tenfold.

Although the tied house system has its drawbacks which the US three-tier setup was devised to prevent, don't you wish there could be Stone bars, Sierra Nevada bars and Lagunitas bars across the US?

The criticism that most often gets levelled at BrewDog is that they make mediocre beers and hype them with ludicrous stunts and oafish behaviour befitting a 15-year-old schoolboy. Of the small percentage of their output I've tried, I've found most of them to be very drinkable with a hit/miss ratio no more or less than any other brewery. Some of them can get a bit pricey by the time they make it across the pond, and both Punk IPA and Hardcore IPA are very good beers, but when you've got fantastic IPAs being made right here in town such as Thirsty Planet Buckethead, Independence Stash and Live Oak Liberation which can be had fresh from the brewery, it seems a little pointless to cough up some hard-earned wedge for an IPA that's had to travel 5,000 miles no matter how exotic or worthy it might be, and bearing in mind that we're not talking about an old school IPA that's going to change its characteristics on the journey.

As far as the conflict between BrewDog and British beer tradition is concerned though, my feeling is that there's room for both and neither should feel threatened by the other. BrewDog wants to smash the tired old system, the tired old system is digging its heels in and refuses to budge. There has to be a happy medium where both can exist. If I had to leave America for whatever reason and go back to the UK, the thing I'd miss the most is the fantastic beer, but sitting here in deepest Texas my British heart yearns to be able to stroll down to the end of my street, walk into the pub on the corner, see a couple of mates sitting at a table and spend the evening sipping hand-pulled 3.5% ales from the wood with them. While it's quite clear that there are plenty of British beer drinkers who wouldn't dream of drinking anything that wasn't cask- or bottle-conditioned, and who wouldn't touch force-carbonated American craft beer even if all the oceans dried up, there are also many (like me) who want to appreciate both and who welcome what James and Martin are doing, if not always the way they're doing it. Evolution, not revolution, is best.

For sure CAMRA needs to be shaken out of its torpor. It's a bit like a certain British radio and television organisation. For years the BBC was rather whimsically referred to as 'Auntie' because it often came across as an old spinster aunt who knew what was best for everyone and wouldn't be persuaded otherwise. Indeed, during its 50th anniversary celebrations in the 1970s someone wrote a letter to the editor of The Times stating "Sir, the BBC has always been 50 years old. I remain, yours etc...". I think CAMRA currently finds itself in the same kind of mid-life crisis that the BBC was experiencing 35 years ago: having good intentions but out of touch with almost everyone, a little stuffy and old fashioned and fearing change. A large percentage of the folks who drink only traditional British ales are getting older and will soon begin to dwindle. Far fewer of the younger generations replacing them want the same kind of beer. Although I haven't yet visited one, I don't think a BrewDog bar will bear much resemblance to a quaint old pub.

And with a mention of BrewDog bars, I think that brings us back to the Diageo fiasco, debacle, rumpus, brouhaha.

It seems that BrewDog was to be named as 'Bar Operator of the Year' at the British Institute of Innkeeping (Scotland) awards ceremony in Glasgow last Sunday. The company was expecting it, the independent panel of judges was expecting it (they would, being the people who voted for the winner), the BII was certainly expecting it (because they'd already had the trophy engraved with the name of the winner), and it seems that Diageo were expecting it too but (for reasons unknown at this point) didn't like it because one of their suits pulled someone from the BII aside and made it clear that should BrewDog get the award the BII could forget about future sponsorship from the company.

No doubt feeling the pressure and having to act on the spur of the moment, the people at the BII decided to bow to the corporation's wishes, an act they later regretted and came clean about (see below).

There was much surprise when the winner was announced and it wasn't BrewDog. The people who were chosen as winners flat out refused to accept the award because it said 'BrewDog' on it. A lot of people wondered what the hell was going on until a few days later when James Watt took a phone call from Kenny Mitchell, chairman of the BII (Scotland), who explained that:

We are all ashamed and embarrassed about what happened. The awards have to be an independent process and BrewDog were the clear winner. Diageo (the main sponsor) approached us at the start of the meal and said under no circumstances could the award be given to BrewDog. They said if this happened they would pull their sponsorship from all future BII events and their representatives would not present any of the awards on the evening. We were as gobsmacked as you by Diageo’s behaviour. We made the wrong decision under extreme pressure. We were blackmailed and bullied by Diageo. We should have stuck to our guns and gave [sic] the award to BrewDog.

James Watt posted the story on BrewDog's blog, and then the Twitterstorm began. Within a couple of hours Diageo released the following statement:

There was a serious misjudgement by Diageo staff at the awards dinner on Sunday evening in relation to the Bar Operator of the Year Award, which does not reflect in anyway Diageo’s corporate values and behaviour.

We would like to apologise unreservedly to BrewDog and to the British Institute of Innkeeping for this error of judgement and we will be contacting both organisations imminently to express our regret for this unfortunate incident.

As far as PR goes, the whole sorry tale is a complete and utter gift to BrewDog, although their diehard critics will no doubt be trying to figure out how they engineered yet another one of their stupid gimmicks. And I guess there's a certain Diageo exec (a potentially ex-exec who might find in the next few days that he has a need to start sending out copies of his - updated - CV) who has come to realise that you can't do stuff like that in this age of social networking, especially to anyone as new and media-savvy as BrewDog.