BrewDog: The Strongest Beer In The World

They sell more beer in Tokyo than Aberdeen and more in the USA than UK. Meet the Scottish upstarts who brew to the sound of techno and death metal.
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They sell more beer in Tokyo than Aberdeen and more in the USA than UK. Meet the Scottish upstarts who brew to the sound of techno and death metal.

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You might have heard of BrewDog.

They’re Scottish. They brew the strongest beer in the world (well they did the last time I looked). They wind up the neo-prohibitionists. They also wind up the gentle souls who make beer in the rest of the British brewing industry. They look to the US (the greatest place on Earth to drink beer at the moment — if you don’t believe me, read my account of Vermont beer-hunting on the Telegraph’s travel pages) for their succour rather than anywhere else. They make some great beer; they also have the odd stinker. Here’s an interview I did with them last year just as the whole strongest beer schtick (began with the beers Tokyo and then Tactical Nuclear Penguin) started to take off. They’re also canny buggers though — despite all the anti this-and-that rhetoric, they’re very happy to work with those well known radicals Tesco. C’est la vie.

Once upon a time I ventured out of my flat and crossed the Holloway Road to watch the Jesus & Mary Chain play a gig at North London Poly. Interviews had been conducted, records had been reviewed, hype hyped — 'I’m on the guest list' was always a sweet thing to say, especially if there was some cute Goth babe on the door. A mini riot broke out during the gig — after about 30 minutes or so — and they trashed their equipment on stage; predictability was attached to their name that night I felt. This is what the audience expected, this was what they had come for — rock’n’roll was as cosy and comfortable as The Archers, you knew what was going to happen. Previous generations had been led up a similar garden path by Jimi Hendrix pouring lighter fuel on his Strat and set it alight night after night, while others waiting with bated breath for Pete Townhsend and Keith Moon to conduct a double demolition derby.

I was reminded of this Mary Chain gig when reading about BrewDog’s travails with the Portman Group — was this not to be expected? Hip young gunslingers on the brewing scene, calling out the cask alers, flash-mobbing the morality police, sticking a two fingered salute of barley sheaves in the direction of all and sundry. With a rare fit of Mary Whitehousism I felt that calling a beer Speedball, which was brewed in a town known for its desperate love of pharmaceuticals, was something akin to taking a holiday in other people’s misery. Yes, it was two hop-stained fingers up to the Portman Group and all its misplaced Victorian cosseting pity, but it also seemed to be making light of the undeniable problems that people in Fraserburgh suffer from.

Unless, of course, the brewery was made up of ex smack addicts and junkies who were proud to use the language of their addiction, eager to slap the faces of the censorious. I wasn’t sure of their lager — diacetyl hell I wrote somewhere. After a while, I had another beer (Punk IPA, Trashy Blonde, Paradox) and calmed down. That’s the problem with BrewDog, you can be deflected too easily from the wonderful beers they produce (a bit like the Mary Chain, whose razor sharp melodies and homages to the bands that had been before could make you forget about all that riot causing controversy). So instead of fulminating about the meaning of this and the unmeaning of that I thought I would give BrewDog’s Martin Dickie the Heattreatment and just send him some questions — and he’s good enough to play ball (or should that be speedball…).

Does being in such an edge of the world location have any bearing on the brewery’s worldview — you’re nearer to Scandinavia than London. Does it make you more inclined to take risks.

The lack of a local market soon opens you up to the rest of the world. We export to 14 countries and work with Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Oddbins. There are not very many local pubs to service so when you ship by the pallet onto a lorry it makes no difference where the end stop is. We sell more beer in Tokyo than in Aberdeenshire, and more in the USA than we do in the UK.

"They’re also canny buggers though — despite all the anti this-and-that rhetoric, they’re very happy to work with those well known radicals Tesco. C’est la vie."

You were at Thornbridge for a time, what sort of influence did that have on your approach towards brewing?

Brewing with no previous recipes was the best thing a brewer can encounter for starting their professional career. Being given a blank canvas enabled me to experiment on a commercial scale. I was searching for the most interesting and unusual hops that were around and trying to really push the local market as far as I could with Jaipur (5.9% heavily hopped IPA) and St Petersburg (7.7% Imp Stout). To attempt to push these beers, predominantly in cask into a tradition fuelled market was a big challenge for Thornbridge, I was pioneering the New Wave movement in the UK.

Unfortunately I felt a little bit held back with what I was able to do and obviously it was a business trying to sell contemporary ales in a old fashioned market; the people who embraced us loved our products but it was the initial push into the pubs that was the difficult job. So to sell sub 5% was much easier. I felt this was a compromise on what we were trying to do so given the opportunity to start with James (Watt) was a no brainer.

What was the motivation behind BrewDog, was there a light-bulb moment, was it always you and James Watt, or was it a gradual move towards what you do now?

I had always planned on opening a brewery and one night James and I were playing pool and thought it would be cool to start on our own. We were both on the same wavelength with our disenchantment of the British brewing scene and knew that it was about time there was some excitement and intrigue and cool put back into the British industry. The USA, Scandinavia and Australia were all having a resurgence in the craft brewing industry. If you listen to CAMRA the UK has been expanding and the growth over the last 20 years has seen some 600 micros in the UK — 600 micros maybe but how many exciting beers? [there are now over 700, but is it healthy?] You could probably count them on one hand.

It seems very straightforward to me. Although the cask beer market is the whole identity of English brewing, it is the old fashioned CAMRA inclined scene that holds on to tradition. That’s milds and bitters and the occasional pale ale from 3.5- 4.8%. All 600 breweries are selling beer to the same 10 % of independent pubs. Of the 10 % only 75% of these sell cask ale. So your selling to 7.5% of the market and need to do anything you can to get rid of the beer. That means the beer buyer is king; if they say 3.5- 4.8% then you sell 3.5 -4.8% malty beer with a little hops (basically the cask ale equivalent of Budweiser, ie bland and non offensive). The only innovation is seen at CAMRA beer festivals where you get half a kilo of ginger grated into a cask or a bottle of Ribena poured in as it is not worth taking the risk of something unique as if it goes wrong you have 20-30 firkins of the shit to sell.

What the industry needs is a bit of risk taking. Mr Watt was one such man. With my ideas and his encouragement and self-belief that he’ll sell it we set out with no boundaries, no limits and no one to impress. We made the beer we wanted to drink.

What music do you have on in the brewery?

During the dayshift, local radio — anything from 1950s, present, usually with a country beat, (it’s not a nice place to hang out); on the night shift things liven up and varies between industrial strength techno and death metal.

How successful do you want to be, how big do you want to get, how experimental do you want to be?

We want to expose and excite as many people as possible to the experience of drinking great craft brewed beer. Instead of pandering to what people tell you is the mainstream, diluting your brand and cutting costs to make a profit against multinational breweries, we are determined to change the mainstream. We’re determined that the mainstream will move to BrewDog rather than us diluting our principles to sell a few beers. All that’s needed is fantastic beer, some time, education and a loyal fanbase. No matter how big we become the main objective of our being is to produce the best beer we can.

You’re trying to reach different drinkers with different methods ie art galleries, the blogosphere etc — isn’t there a danger of staying a favourite of the fanboys rather than reaching out to all and sundry?

When you have £0 in you advertising budget you need to think up creative ways of getting the message out. I think you’ll find that of all the breweries in the UK we probably got the most column inches last year except for Morrissey-Fox but then they had their own TV show. The way to reach the crowds is to start with very focused areas and get good exposure to a select crowd. Those who will hopefully like what you’re doing will spread the word. It’s not easy if you don’t have the marketing budget of InBev.

"The only innovation is seen at beer festivals where you get half a kilo of ginger grated into a cask or a bottle of Ribena poured in as it is not worth taking the risk, if it goes wrong you have 20-30 firkins of the shit to sell."

What’s the best thing about the brewing industry, what’s the worst thing?

The best thing about the brewing industry is BrewDog. We have the 14 most enthusiastic workers ever. We all work incredibly hard and long hours. The worst thing in the brewing industry is David Poley and his Portman pals.

What’s the most avant garde beer you think you can do?

To date it’s a 10.5% double ipa aged for 20 months in a 1965 invergordon grain whisky cask with 25kg of Grandma Thomson’s Strawberries (50/50 blend of symphony and elsanta). A truly remarkable transformation from a super bitter 120ibu sweet, strong IPA to a super dry, slightly acidic/sour lambic-esque barley fruit wine with. It has the balance and acidity of an oaked white wine. In the future i’m not sure what the ultimate avant garde beer will be but it will probably be drunk through porcupine quills.

Are you the Sex Pistols or Jesus and Mary Chain of brewing? I see you as the JMC — post modern, ironic, truculent, good tunes, good media management.

Yes, that one.

Is confrontation with the likes of the Portman Group a good or bad thing?

It is very disappointing that we have been picked on so relentlessly by the Portman Group over the last 14 months. It is something however that we were never going to back down from. We firmly believe and stand behind everything we have done and produced and for a group of jobsworths who are paid by our competitors to tell us that our labels are promoting antisocial behaviour is just plan ridiculous. We had a great deal of publicity off the back of it last year and our beers were cleared at the end of it. So I suppose if anything I should say thank you to the cunt.

***

And just to show that there is some beer involved, here are a couple of tasting notes

BrewDog, Punk IPA, 6%

Bitter on the palate, dry, full of tropical fruit (lychees, grapefruit, papaya), pungent, more American than the Americans, peppery, spicy, more grapefruit, standing it up to a bit of garlicky chillied pasta. Dry and spicy finish.

BrewDog Trashy Blonde 4.1%

A pale winsome ghost of a beer; on the nose passion fruit drapes itself over a malt backbone, a fresh and inviting aroma; the palate sings with tropical fruits including the passion fruit and hints of lychee, all delivered on the back of solid biscuty malt character; the finish is dry, grainy, chewy with hints of the tropical fruit returning. The sort of beer that you can’t take your eyes off.

BrewDog Zephyr, 12.5%

Colour caramel gold; nose: initially, low toffee-like notes from the Invergordon cask joined by a higher chime of strawberries soaked in spirit; alcoholic notes also barge their way in; all works together a bit like a string quartet that sounds discordant when it starts bowing and scraping but soon enough produces some sweet soothing melodies before adding the odd bit of discordancy as a counterpoint. This is a beer about counterpoint, about blends, about opposite ends of the scale but it’s also about an alliance between flavours: strawberry, vanilla, whisky cask, alcoholic fieriness and more fruit lingering and tingling on the palate without being annoyingly sweet and irritable. It starts seemingly savagely hoppy and spiritually fiery on the palate before berry finesse cools things down. It is big and leathery and slightly oily in mouthfeel, yet well tempered and well made; Beethoven as a biker, Mozart in the mosh pit. I bet it looks good on the dancefloor.

For buffs: 1965 grain cask imperial ale aged with strawberries in an Invergordon whisky cask with a label somewhere between the summer of love and the last summer before the war and a William Morris wallpaper design.

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