Monday 26 July 2010

BrewDog Are Dead: Long Live BrewDog!

I shouldn't really be writing about BrewDog, and here's why.

When the whole thing around Tokyo* blew up, after a complaint was made to the Portman Group about the phrase "intergalactic fantastic" hinting at the use of hallucinogens, James Watt (MD of BrewDog, or Emperor Penguin, as he prefers to be known) asked if I'd like to write a defence of their 18.2%abv beer. I did so, and was pleased that it made a lot of online and print media. My take on it was that very strong beer is responsible for drunkenness in the same way that Michelin-starred restaurants are responsible for obesity. I still think that's true, and rather vainly, I still think it's a rather neat analogy.

Of course, when it came out that it was James himself who had complained to the Portman Group about the wording on the label, I was furious. I'd been made a pawn in their publicity machine, and vowed never to write anything about them again. Looking back, I still think it was a pathetic stunt, and when I explained to a friend what had happened, his response was "Christ, what a douche". Yes, my friend is American, but he's also right.

What I love about James (and BrewDog) is their total self-belief. It's not enough for them just to brew great beers - they want to be the coolest kids on the block too. I love their sense of "if you're not down with BrewDog, then it's because you don't get it, you square" mentality. I'm not saying I agree with it, I just admire their cussed enthusiasm for that marketing technique. For them, it's not enough to just like their beers - you've got to buy into the lifestyle as well. Again, a great marketing technique - it served James Lavelle well when he launched Mo Wax records, and made him rich and successful, and this same approach is going to work for BrewDog.They're not just selling beer - they're selling a lifestyle, an attitude, and if you don't get it, the you're part problem.

Now, with The End of History, BrewDog have installed themselves as the Turner Prize of the beer world. They know that as long as they can create a bit of controversy, they can make the front pages. It's the Sex Pistols crossed with Damien Hirst. It's Pete Doherty Lite. It's Sigue Sigue Sputnik for the 21st Century.

There are many reasons to be irritated BrewDog generally, and James in particular, not least his response to some of his critics (responded to here and in full here). My main beef with them is that they are so busy arseing around with 55%abv quintuple freeze-hopped eisbocks that they can't brew their other beers fast enough to keep up with demand. And make no mistake, the demand for their beers is immense. Even when I was furious with them, I still drank their beers, because their beers are great. Well, maybe I left off them for a few weeks, but as is always the case with BrewDog, resistance is useless.

I can see that many people find beer in a stuffed animal is a bit distasteful. No-one, surely, believes BrewDog's assertion that they did it to honour the animal - they did it for publicity, and not for the squirrel or the stoat, but for themselves. Don't get me wrong, I love a bit of taxidermy - one of my prize possessions is an albino mole that my grandfather caught when he was working as a gardener. It's a family heirloom, but I don't feel the need to sew a bottle of beer into it. It's sort of distasteful, sort of ironic, sort of postmodern.

It's not about beer, it's not about art, it's not about irony. It's about BrewDog.


  1. "very strong beer is responsible for drunkenness in the same way that Michelin-starred restaurants are responsible for obesity"

    While I'm the last person who wants to ban them, I'm not sure that's true of the Carlsberg Specials and Tennents Supers of this world, which are specifically designed to get you pissed quickly*. In the days when all we had of that strength was barley wine in nip bottles (and Old Tom and Owd Rodger on draught) you had to treat such brews with respect.

    * I deliberately didn't say "cheaply" - from my observation these beers are often dearer in terms of price per unit than the bottom-end 4% and 5% lagers.

  2. My real issue is that they have become a bit boring. They have created a monotony in their marketing even though they think they are cool and extreme. I loved the Portman move myself and I might even get a tattoo - but it's all combining to be too much and too much of the same.

    a few years back, I heard a bit of an interview of Mordecai Richler's son where he described having his Dad review his own early writing. Mordecai did not object to the use of the word "fuck" just the second and third uses. Repetition caused it to lose its edge entirely. BrewDog is killing off their interest in what they have to say in the same way.


  3. When was the last time Brewdog brought out a new beer that wasn't a one-off, a statement or super-strong? The last few beers I can remember are Nanny State, TNP, Sink, the Abstrakts, EOH, the Tate Modern saison. They've plugged the new Hardcore since it won the award but I don't think very much of it. Wouldn't you just like a really good new 4-7% beer, no stunts or PR-machine, just a great beer? I would.

  4. I quite like stuffed animals, got a red squirrel that my great grandfather apparently did after finding it dead on a path sometime towards the end of the 19th century.
    Talking about BrewDog — aren’t they only responding to the times, where everyone oohs and aahs about some rare beer or other — I met a guy the other week whose t-shirt said ‘Crave the Lupulin’, which to me summed up a certain part of the beer-going public’? Are BrewDog the tail wagging the dog or is it the other way round?
    Some good beers though, I bow to no one in pledging my enjoyment of their Smokehead series and I enjoy Zeitgeist on draft with its ringing blackurrant notes, rather a good tonic for breakfast I would have thought.

  5. Mark just said what i wanted to say...

  6. Curmudgeon - I guess what I really mean is that strong beers of any kind aren't involved in the apparent epidemic of binge drinking - of course they get you pissed quicker, but then so does Duvel. The majority of drunk people in town on a weekend have been drinking ordinary strength beer - just too much of it.

    Alan - I agree entirely, I just don't have the will to ignore them any more.

    Mark - again, I agree entirely. I'd be happy to see them brew a core range, then quarterly specials. It remains to be seen whether they manage to realise their dreams, or just implode under the stress of being pulled forward all the time.

    Adrian - as long as you don't have a lupulin threshold shift, you'll be OK.

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  8. Brewdog tread a fine line, but really we could do with some solid brewing from them. (Not the first time I've said that.) Maybe real drudgery day in day out brewing isn't what they are after? Maybe the fun is in the journey and the cocking of snooks? Maybe as beer drinkers we are looking at the end game of exciting,innovative beer we can all enjoy and that is missing Brewdog's point? Maybe we are barking up the wrong tree? Maybe for them it is the journey that is the point, not the destination? In which case, we'll all probably just get fed up with them.

    I don't really care either way. I'm indifferent to them and this is my first comment on BD since I enjoyed a pint of Trashy Blonde. That comment was about the beer mind you. Which was good if that matters at all.

  9. "The majority of drunk people in town on a weekend have been drinking ordinary strength beer - just too much of it."

    Or alcopops, but certainly not super-strength lagers, which just aren't available in pubs. They may contribute to people quietly wrecking their livers, but as you say have nothing to do with drink-related weekend disorder. Which is why Tory plans to put a supertax on "high strength beers and ciders" will achieve nothing apart from possibly hurting craft brewers and cidermakers.

  10. I think there is truth in what you say Zak, they are creaking under the worldwide demand for their beers and should concentrate on keeping their range in stock, and unfortunatley for Mark there will be no room in their crazy brew schedule for any new beers of any real volume as their kit is working 24/7. Some might say they have made their bed... An enviable business position none the less.
    Sometimes I just dont get their need to run at 1000mph and use up all there ammo, after all Rome wasn't built in day...

  11. "Sigue Sigue Sputnik for the 21st Century" - I laughed at that one.

  12. I posted this comment over on A Good Beer Blog, but think it is apt here as well:

    "It is quite funny watching BrewDog's antics from this side of the Pond because in many ways the bulk of their product line is entirely irrelevant over here. I loved Punk IPA when I had it in Prague, would I take it over Starr Hill's Northern Lights IPA? Not a hope. I enjoyed Hardcore, would I choose that instead of Sierra Nevada's Torpedo? Again, no chance. Chaos Theory was a grand drop of beer, but would it replace Ruination in my cellar? Not for a second. The story is the same with Rip Tide, wouldn't take it over Rasputin. For all their aping and courting of the American craft beer scene, their products just aren't in the top 5% of what is available here in order to justify the cost."

  13. Tandleman - for me, they have a solid core range - some staples, plus a couple of really tasty and innovative beers - and I also like the way that their brewery has a personality. I just think that now everyone knows they exist, and should dial back on the publicity a bit, and consolidate their business.

    Curmudgeon - I agree entirely. Plus Belgian imports will no doubt suffer, unless some clause about country of origin is inserted into the legislation - unlikely, as then we'll just see superstrength beers brewed elsewhere in the Eurozone.

    James - quite - they are being pulled forwards at tremendous speed, and might just disintegrate because of it. I hope not, because the brewery and folk behind it are largely hugely likeable.

    Ed - thanks - one for the older readers there.

    Velky - I agree with you, and that's part of their allure for the UK drinker - essentially they are making good American craft beer here in the UK,. and kudos to them for doing so. It would be interesting to be able to compare optimal samples of the beers you mention.

  14. Some very sensible and pretty accurate comments Zak. My response to the critics was pretty sharp but after reading 450+ posts many of which were pretty scathing (unfairly so I thought) my answer was not quite as composed as it should have been. I still think the points were pretty fair.

    At the start of 2010 we decided that our core range would be Trashy Blonde, 77 Lager, 5am Saint, Punk IPA and Hardcore IPA. These were the 5 beers we would focus on and the ones we would aim to keep permanently available. With the exception of Hardcore IPA, which takes forever in a tank due to the high ABV and double dry hopping, we have managed to keep these in stock. At the start of this year we also put a rigourous QC system in place as we had consistency and quality issues the year before due to the speed of our growth.

    This QC system includes external lab analysis on just about every parameter imaginable for every batch. Only last week we had to condemn a batch of Hardcore IPA as it did not pass the QC tests and we take our commitment to quality very seriously. The new QC system also involves extensive taste checks by at least 2 senior brewers at every stage of the process with all notes recorded and filed. In addition there is also full analysis on raw materials included in our 2010 system.

    The result of all this for me has been that the core range has been much more consistent, much better quality and almost always in stock this year and it has been something we have worked really hard on. Still, we are up 250% this year (and around 240% in 2009) so any company growing this quickly will always have some issues.

    We are happy with the 5 beers which make up our core range and would like to have done more with seasonal this year. I accept the point that all our special releases recently have been small, very limited batches and pretty extreme beers. This is simply because we have not had the tank space to make larger batches of seasonal or specials in the 5-7% range. However this is something we are working on fixing and have a pretty sweet special seasonal 4 pack ready in around 8 weeks!

    In additional our newest collaboration with Mikkeller (I Hardcore You) a 50-50 blend of IBU and Hardcore which is 4 times (yes 4 times) fry hopped, is being bottled later this week and is tasting amazing. I am biased but I am a huge DIPA fan and this is up there with anything I have tasted.

    We also have a few very special guests from the other side of the pond coming over to do beer dinners at Musa as we look to develop the a new craft beer culture in the UK and not just the BrewDog brand. These 2 events will be announced soon and will both totally rock!

    I accept that we sometimes do things that not everyone agrees with, and I am guessing with BrewDog that will pretty much always be the case. However our commitment to trying to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are and our commitment to doing all we can to aspire to brew world class craft ales in the North East of Scotland never wavers. We just like to have a little bit of fun and challenge conventions along the way.

    James, BrewDog

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  16. No one is ever going to be happy are they...

    Live is good because of variety. If BrewDog have a core range and 5 or 6 seasonal specials, are they not basically conforming to the same old brewery output that we're used to? If every brewery was the same it would be a boring ol' world (rather than a brave new one?!).

    I'm not going to comment on stoats and squirrels and whether I would press the like or dislike button on Facebook, but I think ATJ makes a good point in that people probably quite like these extreme brews; it's something for many beer lovers to get excited about. And you don't have to be much of a journalist or sleuth to look online and find torrents of BrewDog fan love amongst the negative criticisms.

    Yes - I'd like BrewDog to make more quality beers like Riptide, Paradox and Chaos Theory. Yes - I'd like to hear a little less marketing/faux 'post-modern' speak in the press releases.

    Do I expect any of that to happen?

    Do I balls - rightly or wrongly they're fulfilling a gap in the market, a wide gaping hole in the market. Not everyone will like their attitude or their impact on the perception of beer in the wider world, but that's tough. People want it.

  17. Zak,

    I see a project in the offing, although I guess I will have a struggle to find Chaos Theory over here.

  18. James I am not sure when you refer top your core range, if you include cask availability. That seems patchy. In fact the last one I have come across was in May I think,

  19. Sign of the end times?:

    "We also have a few very special guests from the other side of the pond coming over to do beer dinners at Musa as we look to develop the a new craft beer culture in the UK and not just the BrewDog brand. These 2 events will be announced soon and will both totally rock!"

    If the goal is cult of personality, this is a great approach. If it is to be innovative, why copy the now tiring US approach of brewer as celebrity? Well, because that road leads to standard commercial success - and there is nothing wrong with that. If that is your aim.

    But it's hardly a slice of Ron's perfect day: Toss the beer a bone, maybe, James. Once in a while, set aside the QC and the "core brands" and look for inspiration away from the jet setting brewers. Those who stay at home and play with yeasts are making the best stuff these days.

  20. James - thanks for taking the time to respond so fully. Your QC and commitment to good beer isn't in doubt. Your last paragraph says it all for me: "I accept that we sometimes do things that not everyone agrees with, and I am guessing with BrewDog that will pretty much always be the case". You're absolutely right you'll upset people, I'm just surprised that you feel the need to justify yourself all the time. Do the thing you need to do, enjoy it, and move on. You'll get the headlines you require, and I think you just have to accept that for every vocal 'hater' [bleargh, horrible word and meaning], there will be 10 people quietly buying your beers.

    But I do question how sewing a beer (even the strongest beer in the world) demonstrates your "commitment to trying to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are". I love the way they look, and I think from a marketing point of view it's a stroke of genius. But remember, it's not a popularity contest - your sales growth says all you really need to say.

  21. Mark RAR - you're right of course, and I didn't mean to exclude any of what you said by not explicitly saying it myself. But the latest entry on the BrewDog blog is a case in point: Publicity Stunt - Vague Misfire - Frenzied Clarification. I find it tiring being me - it must be EXHAUSTING being James!

    Alan - as you say, the brewer as rock star is an American import, but I'm not sure that the end goal is commercial success. Some of the biggest stars are those who eschew commercial success, and are famous for doing exactly that.

  22. @Zak PR-wise, there's some gaps to filled in the BrewDog strategy I think. Live by the sword and die by the sword...but apologising after wielding it perhaps looks a bit daft.

    @Tandleman Doesn't bother me if BrewDog never brew another cask - there's plenty of real ale out there and BrewDog's beers shine in a bottle. I'd like to see then canned actually...

  23. To paraphrase a bit of Wilde, the is one thing worse than being talked about and that's not being talked about.

    You have to hand it brewdog, they make a substandard range of overpriced mediocre beer, are more engaged in publicity stunts than brewing, but succeed in getting the news press, beer press and pretty much every beer blog all of a quiver. This week its overpriced hopped whisky served from dead animals. Next week they will eat a baby.

    They sold out of the £500 crap. You’ve got to tip your hat at them.

  24. Cookie - you're bang on, apart from your description of their beers. Unless this is your viral guerilla tactic for getting more freebies?

  25. "Some of the biggest stars are those who eschew commercial success, and are famous for doing exactly that."

    Not a chance. Business strategy 100%. There is nothing wrong with brewing as a commercial success but this is all PR. Don't love the brewer, love the beer. Doesn't mean the drinker needs to bear a grudge but don't be a dupe either - they ain't your pals.

  26. Alan - I guess what I meant was that not all brewers think big is better. I'm not saying that it isn't business strategy, just that some brewers and their breweries are celebrated for making relatively small volumes of good beer. Commercial success isn't the same as world domination. Or do you think it is?

  27. No, I agree entirely with that comment. What I am concerned with is how the cult of personality takes on value in itself, that beer buyers are supposed to support (by paying a premium for beer) a lifestyle which is characterized by jet setting "collaboration" beers to the detriment of the focus on scale necessary, as you say, for constant fine craft brewing.

    This is, by the way, not a zap at BrewDog. But it is something I see having happened here in North America. I also see it starting to go stale here due to another, yet another wave of new smaller hardworking brewers putting out more interesting beer than the glamour boys.

  28. @marketc. Why call yourself real ale reviews if you aren't bothered about cask? Anyway, their cask beers, by and large, are rather good. I'd like to see more of them. Your loss if you wouldn't.

  29. @Tandleman I could say it's a polydimensional postmodern expression of *our* frustration at beer taxonomy and nomenclature, exasperated by the machiavellian attempts to cloak beer in unnecessary labels to confuse, discombobulate and obfuscate contemporary drinkers.

    In truth it's half a statement of the above, half a reference to what people call beer (my Liverpudlian friends call Carling 'ale', my Grandad calls anything half decent 'real') and half a misjudgement of what we we're going to do with the site. And when we lost the site for a few days we nearly changed it. Watch this space...

    PS. I think you'll find I'm more interested in cask than the average beer drinker, but I'd prefer to see good beers come out of BrewDog than them put all their energies into how the beer is delivered to my mouth.

  30. There has been much discussion about Brewdog recently, I admire them experimenting and I don't mind the advertising. Fact is though, their beers are not as good as the better craft beers that the US has to offer. They seem to go down well with Brits but Americans don't think much of them. I take this 'they are still better than a lot of the dross here in the UK attitude'. Give me a top class Ameican craft beer everyday.

  31. Art is... (In my view)
    'Having the idea, and actually doing it'
    Art has nothing to do with Talent or Skill, at least that is how the Tracey Emin's of this world make a living.

    Is this same philosophy applied to brewing?

    I much prefer Art with an Element of Skill attached, some craftsmanship and foresight.

    I'm not sure the Foresight is there at Brewdog, but Tracey must be their Marketing guru!

  32. … 4 times (yes 4 times) fry hopped …

    Is that the next gimmick - frying the hops?

    (alas no - d and f are next to each other on the keyboard …)

  33. Alan - I can't disagree with any point you make there (much as I've tried)

    Pete - I think that of UK drinkers like American craft beers, they can see where BrewDog are coming from.

    pdtnc - I think the key is that artists rarely feel the need to justify their art.

    Zythophile - that puts me in mind of this post by Dredgie.

  34. @Mark, "PS. I think you'll find I'm more interested in cask than the average beer drinker, but I'd prefer to see good beers come out of BrewDog than them put all their energies into how the beer is delivered to my mouth."

    Me too Matey Boy, but I'd still like some cask. I'll explain my theory of Liverpudlian expression next time I see you. It'll be based on my nine years living there, so can be safely disregarded.

  35. I agree with you Zak, I think most of us beer fanatics can appreciate what Brewdog are trying to do. There has been so much mediocrity beerwise here in the UK in the past and it is good to see a few breweries breaking that mould. I still feel that Brewdog have some way to go to get anywhere near some of the stunning beers now available in the US. I manage to get to the US every year and each time I am blown away by some of the beers that are being created.

    I like your blog by the way, I only found it yesterday!

  36. Pete - I'm not sure about the mediocrity thing - I think there are still a lot of classic English ales that are now perceived as being boring because they are not 9%abv double IPAs. I love ordinary brown bitter, when it's done properly. Mind you, there's also a lot of badly brewed beer about, but I wouldn't call that mediocre. And thanks for the kind words!


Sorry about the word verification - the blog was getting spammed to bits.