It is with interest that I have read the guest posts over on The Beer Monkey this week about everyone's favourite brewery/PubCo to talk about, BrewDog. One post in the naysayer camp and one an epistle from the St Paul of BrewDog fandom. As a result of reading the comments, I decided that I wanted to attempt to write a balanced post about those love/loatheable brewers from the North East of God's Country.
Way back at the beginning of Fuggled, I wrote a post about the various places I had lived in or had been influenced by and the breweries and beers that come from those diverse parts of the world. My mother comes from Fraserburgh, a fishing town at the very pointy bit of the Grampian region (well ok, Kinnaird Head is a little bit closer to the pointy bit, but since when have beer lovers been utter pedants?). I still have lots of cousins of varying removedness living in the town and surrounding area, most of whom I haven't seen since I was just edging toward my teens. Naturally, when I learnt that the Broch had a craft brewery, I knew that the next time I got back to the UK from Prague, I would be on mission to find some of their beers, after all, they had to be good, they came from the Broch.
Thus it was that while Mrs Velkyal was at an education conference in Oxford, I tagged along for a weekend jolly in one of the finest cities in England (back in the days when I had 25 paid days holiday a year, plus public holidays, and insanely low rent). Walking around, waiting for the pubs to open, I happened upon an Oddbins and popped in to peruse the selection and ask for directions to the Royal Blenheim, a pub I was planning to visit during the weekend. In the fridge were 3 bottles of Punk IPA, which I bought and stashed away in order to give one to Evan Rail and the other to Max from Pivní Filosof. When eventually we got home to Prague, Evan, PF and I did a co-ordinated blog post about the beer. At the time, I wrote the following:
"the beer pours a golden amber with flashes of orange and a thin white head. The nose is very hoppy, as you would expect from an IPA, with distinct floral notes and a very assertive citrus tone. Citrus is also very much to the fore on the taste front as well, like pink grapefruit, tart, yet with sweet undertones which save the bitterness from being too much. The sweetness reminded me of butterscotch or tablet, one of my favourite confections my mother makes. There is a nice full body, which doesn’t cloy, is smooth going down and the zing in the aftertaste makes it a nicely refreshing beer. I only have one gripe, I wanted more than just 330ml – ok it is 6% ABV, but it certainly doesn’t feel or taste like an overly alcoholic beer, so a full pint would have been ideal, as I say though, just the one gripe."
Over the next few months, I would email James, who would send me boxes of beer - including 3 prototypes, which again I shared with Evan and Max. I really enjoyed the beers, although I wasn't a fan of the 77 Lager. Yes I would have considered myself a fan of BrewDog, the beer was generally good, I liked the fact that they were trying different things, and then there was the letter to the Portman Group. You know the letter I am talking about, the one complaining about Tokyo* which turned out to have been written by James in order to create a furore and garner some free publicity.
Unfortunately it wasn't a one off, an aberration or even a misguided attempt at making a point, it seems to have been just the opening salvo in an all out war against anything beery that they happen not to like. Like most wars, they become tiresome and weary after the initial "over by Christmas" excitement has worn off. In the firing line since then been CAMRA, cask ale in general, the "boring" British brewing scene, "staid" pubs, the Germans, the list goes on. It has got to the point where my knee jerk reaction to any piece of BrewDog news is "what have they done this time?".
The important thing though, so the apologists tell us, is to look beyond the shenanigans and realise that BrewDog are making great, revolutionary beer. How I wish that were true. Sure they make decent beer, if you happen to like IPAs, lagers that taste like IPA or amber ales that taste like IPA. Yes, there are the stouts, and I do like Rip Tide, and the occasional something from the Paradox series, and so I am open to the idea that my problem with BrewDog could have something to do with my being more of a stout than IPA drinker. Are the beers though really all that great?
Bloggers quite often talk about context, usually in the sense that an ice cold pint of mega swill can be enjoyed on an exceedingly hot day. But I think context has played a major role in forming my current opinion of BrewDog.
When I think back to my drinking days in Prague, most of them were filled with pale lager, excellent pale lager to be sure, but it is sometimes difficult to get excited about a new brewery opening which will make yet more pale lager. BrewDog then were a welcome change from that, not better, but a nice change in terms of flavour. The likes of Kocour and Primátor were also doing something different, so I enjoyed their beers as well.
Having left that world behind for the US, the context changed and suddenly I am surrounded by craft breweries, there are 5 within 30 miles of my apartment, and no doubt more will pop up in the years to come. One thing that these breweries all share though is having a hoppy pale ale as one of their leading beers, IPA is not revolutionary in this context, it is the driver of many a business. As a brewery executive commented to me recently, "you have to have an IPA or no-one takes you seriously in America" - personally I think that is a sad indictment of the craft drinking public, that for all our hype, we are really deeply conservative about what we drink, whether it is macro lager or craft IPA.
Within the context I find myself, BrewDog is by and large irrelevant, perhaps even derivative - it is difficult at times not to think of them as a British rip off of Stone, much like Wimpy is a British version of McDonalds. When presented with the option of spending $8 or $9 on a bottle of Punk IPA or the same amount on a six pack of Sierra Nevada Torpedo, I will usually go with Sierra Nevada. In my world it is a better beer, and I get more for my money. If you don't have to worry about the amount of money you spend on beer, then I envy you. Here in the trenches though, beer is an expensive passion.
When you do look beyond the hype and nonsense that seem to be part and parcel of the BrewDog circus, what you have is a brewery making some decent enough beers, though nothing earth shattering, but supported by the kind of marketing that will no doubt be talked about in college courses as a way of getting plenty of free publicity. Perhaps they are more of a case of form over function, a perfect representation of all that I find disquieting about the modern world, where the marketing is better than the product.
While it is true that I find a lot of their marketing methods annoying, there is no denying their efficacy, and part of me will always have the opinion that they are doing what they do well and making themselves a tidy living out of it, so fair play to them.