Best-selling business advice from a BrewDog

As the only beer writer on the planet with an MBA (probably), it falls to me to give a business school-style review on behalf of beer drinkers to Business for Punks, the just-published “how we succeeded and how you can too” guidebook from BrewDog co-founder James Watt.

Not that any review is likely to make much difference to the book’s popularity: it is already the number-one best seller in the “entrepreneurship” section of Amazon’s UK website, and in the top 350 best-selling books on the site overall, despite only being published last week. The book, it appears, is as popular as the beer.

Thanks, James we get rthe idea

Selling like hot … um … ale … James Watt and book

Business manuals from stars of the American craft brewing scene have been popping up like mushrooms in the past few years: Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Tony Magee of Lagunitas, Steve Wagner and Greg Koch of Stone Brewing and Jeremy Cowan of Schmaltz have all written books about how they started and grew their businesses, Calagione has a second book out in December, Off-Centered Leadership: The DogFish Head Guide to Motivation, Collaboration and Smart Growth, and Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams, has his “how I did it” book out in April 2016 .

Britain’s craft brewers have been slower to get their experiences on paper: maybe they’re too busy brewing. It’s not as if we lack an audience for how-to-be-a-successful-brewer books: large numbers of people apparently want to brew commercially. Some 200 new breweries have opened in the UK in the past 12 months, and the country now has more than twice as many breweries per head as the United States: 1 to 38,000, against 1 to 80,000. More likely, we lack the “superstar” brewers that the US has, people whose name on the cover will attract the buyers. I doubt that Watt wrote the book and sought a publisher: much more likely that someone at Penguin Random House approached Watt with the idea

Watt, of course, and his fellow founder of BrewDog, Martin Dickie, are among the very, very few candidates for “star brewer” in the UK. More than 6,000 people turned up to BrewDog’s annual general meeting in Aberdeen in June. Six thousand people. In Aberdeen. Admittedly this is not so much an AGM as a beer festival-cum-love in, with something on the order of 40,000 pints of beer consumed. But there isn’t another brewery in Britain that could hope to attract that level of support. And as Pete Brown once pointed out, when even his Stella-drinking mother in Barnsley has heard of BrewDog, you know you’re looking at a powerful brand.

So: what’s Watt’s book like? The tone is much what you’d expect: cocky, iconoclastic, egotistical (there are more than a dozen pictures of Watt in the book, and a gratuitous plug for Musa, “a great local restaurant in Aberdeen”, which Watt fails to mention that he owns), occasionally outrageous, with parts that are guaranteed to make some people very angry. Take the claim (p28) that “back in 2007 craft beer did not exist in the UK”, and it was BrewDog that created and established the British craft beer market and “built a committed audience from scratch.” Let’s be frank: this is egregious nonsense. Even if we’re extremely generous and decide to define “British craft beer” the way Watt appears to be doing, as “beer inspired by modern American styles”, there were brewers making this sort of “craft” beer in Britain long before BrewDog, with pioneers in the 1990s such as Sean Franklin at Rooster’s in Yorkshire, and Brendan Dobbin at West Coast Brewing and Alistair Hook at Mash and Air, both in Manchester. Hook’s next venture, Meantime, which started in Greenwich in 2000, was “craft” by anybody’s definition. Other brewers of “British craft beer” before BrewDog include Dark Star with Hophead, Kelham Island with Pale Rider, Champion Beer of Britain in 2004, and Thornbridge – where Dickie brewed before co-founding BrewDog – with Jaipur IPA. These were the brewers starting to create a market in Britain for the beers American consumers had been drinking for 20 years.

If Watt and Dickie were pushing at a door already being opened by others, though, it cannot be denied that they shoved that door wide open and – to stretch this metaphor to its limits – loudly announced its existence, allowing others to find it and pour through. The success of BrewDog certainly encouraged a host of other brewers to brew other beers than mainstream British cask ales, dramatically widening the availability of craft beer, which meant craft beer bars could open up that did not have to rely on expensive American imports. At the same time, Watt is certainly correct in saying that the BrewDog ethos “engaged a new breed and generation of customer” in way that other brewers had not been able to do. This engagement is demonstrated by the way BrewDog has been able to raise £13 million from 40,000 investors (according to the Daily Telegraph this month – £15 million from 30,000 investors according to Business for Punks) through its “equity for punks” crowdfunding scheme. The Equity for Punks scheme has been heavily criticised by some – one senior industry member told me it was ” a huge con” that “verges on the fraudulent”. Watt takes time to insist in Business for Punks that “We went through a full and formal regulation and approval regulation and approval process with our share offering, going through the same standards as any large-scale public listing, giving our investors a level of security that you simply do not have with other crowdfunding platforms.” In five years, Watt says, early investors have seen their shares in BrewDog increase by more than 500%. But for BrewDog, “the real beauty is not the financial side. It is in terms of how it entrenches the relationship between us and the people who enjoy the beers we make. We don’t just have investors, we have a community of loyal and dedicated brand ambassadors, our very own army of craft-beer evangelists.”

Some of the 6.000 Equity for Punks shareholders at the 2015 BrewDog AGM

Some of the 6.000 Equity for Punks shareholders at the 2015 BrewDog AGM

This message – be passionate, carry that passion into everything you do, from the product to the marketing to the interaction with customers – is a large part of Business for Punks: “You need to make sure your product is awesome.” “If you can’t get your staff to fall in love with your business, you haven’t got a chance in hell of a customer to even consider liking it.” The very first chapter is headed: “Don’t Start a Business, Start a Crusade”. But an important swath consists of extremely sensible, if aggressively presented, business advice, including a segment headed “Cash is Motherfucking King”. Most businesses fail, Watt points out, and they always fail for financial reasons: “The first lesson in business is cash flow … lack of cash flow can kill your business instantly, like being shot in the face with a sawn-off shotgun.” Watt glosses over his background as a law graduate, and insists in Business for Punks that “Before Martin and I started BrewDog we did not have a clue about finance. I struggled to make sense of my own bank account.” That, frankly, I doubt: I would be very surprised if part of Watt’s studies for his law degree did not touch on accounting and/or finance somewhere. Still, he says, once the brewery was running, “Embracing the original punk DIY ethos of learning the skills we needed to be completely self-sufficient I went on numerous finance and accounting courses. I devoured finance books, I spent as much time as I could absorbing knowledge from the best finance experts. I listened to podcasts and even stayed up at night watching online finance lectures. OK, I maybe only did the last bit once. But you get the point.”

The sensible advice – avoid giving credit if you can, and if you have to, keep the terms tight, do daily bank reconciliations, always look at the opportunity costs (what does paying for that new bottling line stop you doing that might be even more profitable?), competing on price is a hiding to nothing – comes with other statements that seem more deliberately provocative than smart, however: “The whole gap-in-the-market approach is an outdated fallacy … don’t look for a gap in the market … you have to narrow your focus to such an extent that there is no current market for what you are about to do.” But of course, BrewDog aimed precisely at a gap in the market: one for British versions of American-style well-hopped pale ales and imperial stouts. They knew there was a market for such beers, because the successes of Pale Rider and Jaipur told them so.

Watt also fails to point out that while start-ups fail because they run out of cash, the primary reason for not having enough cash is most likely to be a business idea that is simply not competitive or attractive enough to sell in sufficient quantities. The three pillars of the Business Punk, Watt says, are
1) Company culture
2) The quality of the core offering
3) Your gross margin (“Defend your gross margin like a junkyard Rottweiler”)
and each feeds into the other. But however much you and your team believe in your product, there is no guarantee others will agree. Watt admits: “People in North East Scotland hated our beers when we first launched them. Completely hated them. They hated the flavour, the packaging, the branding, everything. We sold almost nothing at all for our first six months. But we did not care … We knew that if we stuck to our guns and did things the way we wanted to and never compromised that we would eventually find our audience and our audience would eventually find us.” Without that confidence, BrewDog would have failed, of course. But just because you’re confident there’s an audience out there, that doesn’t mean there actually is. Launching a business is a huge risk: Watt is good on some of the practical ways of reducing that risk, such as cutting deals with suppliers – he repeats the story of Lagunitas, and how it struck an arrangement with its bottle supplier which cut its costs and eventually paid off tremendously for both parties – but he doesn’t cover how to reduce the uncertainties surrounding whether the product you’re putting in the bottles you’re done a deal on will actually find a market.

Watt is very good on how to leverage a non-existent marketing budget to get the maximum bang: guerrilla marketing is BrewDog’s speciality, and however much others tut and sigh at the stunts, such as packaging a 55 per cent abv beer in roadkill, the story “was on broadcast news all over the world, in pretty much every major newspaper globally and to date over 100 million people have viewed this story online.” You literally cannot buy that sort of publicity. The loyal BrewDog fans, of course (and one chapter in the book is actually headed “Fans not customers”) loved the outrage the stunt elicited, since it fitted exactly their idea of being part of an organisation happy to upset people. But Watt is also smart enough to know that publicity has an opportunity cost too: “There is only so much a journalist will cover a company or a project: the more information you send, the less receptive he or she will be to that information. In the run-up to a big BrewDog release or event, we always go quiet for a couple of months to ensure the media is ready and hungry to give our big story maximum exposure.”

He also takes time, in a section headed “Get People to Hate You”, to give a kicking to BrewDog’s early critics, including those in the brewing industry who queried the company’s tremendous early growth: ”

One bunch of desperately stupid Scottish brewers concocted a document that basically called us liars anc cheats. It cited we had simply made our sales and growth figures up. To add fuel to the libel, the chairman of Innis & Gunn (a Scottish beer company), Mr Sharp, made a statement, and I quote, ‘It is a well-known fact that BrewDog falsify their accounts. They are widely seen as the laughing stock of the brewing industry. Like an anorak with nae knickers.’ I would personally like to thank Mr Sharp. I had his quote pinned up on my office wall for two years. I looked at it every morning and it motivated me to redouble my efforts.”

Another Watticism is: “Don’t waste your time on bullshit business plans.” But while vision and passion are vital – and Watt and Dickie had a clear vision of people drinking their beer, and a passion to make that happen – business plans are an excellent way to crystallise your thinking and decide what you shouldn’t be doing. All the same, no one should be tied to a rigid plan. Watt tells the story of BrewDog’s first and vital break, early in 2008, when, out of nowhere, its beers came first, second, third and fourth in the Tesco Drinks Awards. (I was a judge at several of those awards, but alas, they were always done blind, so I have no idea if I judged those beers). Tesco told Watt it wanted 20,000 cases a week, and Watt said: “Of course!”, though at that time the brewery’s capacity was a tiny fraction of that figure. The BrewDog partners went to their bank and asked for £150,000 to pay for a bottling line and extra storage tanks. The bank, as bankers do, laughed in their faces, not least because BrewDog wasn’t even paying its existing loans off. So Watt walked over to the rival bank across the road and told them that he had just been given a great offer on a loan, but if they could beat it he would give them all the brewery’s business, publicise them on the BrewDog website, and recommend them to other small firms. Bank number two fell for it, obviously believing they were getting one over on bank number one, the loan for the kit came through, the first bottles for Tesco came off the new loan-financed bottling line three days before they were due to be delivered, “and the rest is history”.

That story illustrates more about the requirements for business success than just the importance of grabbing opportunities with every available limb and telling small porkies to bankers if necessary. BrewDog won the Tesco competition because its beers stood out: that was part of Dickie’s and Watt’s vision, to brew beers with impact. But a different set of judges might not have ranked them at all: palates tuned to American-influenced beers were not universal in 2008. It was partly luck that won them the competition. The second bank could have said no, just like the first bank: bankers are generally risk-averse with small businesses. Again, luck stepped in. You can teach the importance of cash flow: but you can’t teach luck.

Will someone who buys Business for Punks, given luck, be able to turn themselves into the next BrewDog? Well, no, probably not, or not in the UK beer market, because as far as what BrewDog now represents, there is only room for one iconoclastic, rule-breaking, self-proclaimed punk brewery, Dickie and Watt spotted that gap in the market and filled it extremely successfully. We may well see firms start up that will be “the BrewDog of grocery retailers”, “the BrewDog of software manufacturers”, even “the BrewDog of estate agents”. But no sector, I suggest, can sustain more than one marketing guerrilla, and guerrilla marketing is what BrewDog does brilliantly and what its fans respond to enthusiastically. Ironically, considering it has always been an accusation made about the consumers of mega-brand beers, BrewDog drinkers really are drinking the marketing first, and the beer second.

Business for Punks cover

Business for Punks: Break All the Rules – the BrewDog Way, by James Watt, is published by Penguin at £14.99


How I got Mikkeller to call me a bastard

What sort of bastard goes along to a book launch just to point out to the author the mistakes he’s made?

Errrr …


OK, it was done in what I’d like to insist, really, was a semi-joking way, and in a spirit of, I hope, friendly beer comradeship, but if someone as highly regarded and influential as Mikkel Borg Bjergsø – founder of Mikkeller – is repeating historical beer myths in print that I (and others) have been trying to stamp on for a dozen or more years, well, somebody has to do something – even if I did come across as a prat.

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø down in the cellar at BrewDog Camden, conducting a swift beer tasting for the launch of Mikkeller's Book of Beer

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø down in the cellar at BrewDog Camden, conducting a swift beer tasting for the launch of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer

Fortunately for me, I’ve known Jo Copestick, who works freelances for Jacqui Small, publisher of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer, for some years, so at the launch for the English language version of the book, at BrewDog Camden in North London on Thursday, I was able to give my corrections to her: (p53) no, George Hodgson did NOT invent India Pale Ale, nor was IPA brewed stronger to survive the trip to India – it was, as Ron Pattinson regularly points out, comparatively weak for an 18th century beer – and I’ve no idea where the idea came from that the beer was stored in oak barrels which “caused the beer to develop a particular complexity and bitterness that proved extremely popular” – ALL beer was stored in oak barrels. Admittedly, IPA was kept in barrels before serving longer than, say, a mild ale, and that would have added some complexity as the beer aged, but that happened to other beers as well, and if anything the bitterness would have mellowed out as the beer aged. Nor do I think it’s true that “An IPA is generally darker than an ordinary pale ale.” And (p59), porter was NOT “first brewed as a more nourishing beer for the port workers of England in the 19th century” – porter was first brewed in the early 18th century, it was taken up in London by the men called porters, hence the name, some of whom (the Fellowship porters) loaded and unloaded ships in the Thames, but many – most – of whom were Ticket or street porters, working in London’s streets, delivering parcels, letters and goods about the city. And porter wasn’t specifically designed to be a “more nourishing” beer than its predecessor and parent, London brown beer: it was designed to be tastier and more appealing. Nor does the word “stout” mean “‘robust’ or ‘solid'” – it means “strong”.

I am a bastard – official. Mikkell of Mikkeller says so.

I am a bastard – official. Mikkell of Mikkeller says so.

Having slipped Jo my corrections, I then thought it would be extremely cheeky to introduce myself to Mikkel, explain what I had done, and ask him to sign my copy of the book with the words “You bastard!” Which, as you can see, he was amused enough to be happy to do – rather than smashing me about the head with the nearest beerglass, which is what I might do if someone did the same thing to me at one of my book launches. (And yes, there most certainly ARE mistakes in my books, though I’d be grateful if you’d email them to me privately when you find them, rather than revealing them publicly in the comments below.) James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, was there as well, so I got him to also sign Mikkel’s book – thus making it a unique BrewDog-Mikkeller co-production. Offers over £10,000 gladly accepted …

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The discreet charm offensive of the BrewDoggies

Casks at the Fraserburgh breweryThere is, I suggest, a thick slice of what the Irish call begrudgery in the responses around the British beerosphere to the success of BrewDog. Here are these young guys, starting in their early 20s, who managed in a few years to build one of the best-known and fastest-growing breweries in Britain, worth on the order of £10m, in part through a series of stunts including reporting themselves to the drinks industry watchdog just for the publicity, selling beer at £500 a pop in bottles that had been stuffed into dead animals, and calling the Advertising Standards Authority “motherfuckers”.

Martin Dickie and James Watt now have their beers on bar and supermarket shelves not just in Britain but around the world, a growing and increasingly international chain of bars of their own, and even their own American TV show, FFS, now entering its second series. Uniquely among British brewers, Dickie and Watt have made a huge success of crowd-sourced funding, raising around £9m from some 14,000 customer-investors to fund their extremely impressive growth (that’s about £650 an investor, to save you working it out). Around 5,000 of those investors are expected to make the trip to Aberdeen this summer for the BrewDog AGM. You wouldn’t be the first to suggest that it’s Kool-Aid rather than Punk IPA they’ll be drinking.

While their fan base is clearly considerable, and happy to hand over lots of its cash, you certainly won’t search long to find vicious criticism of BrewDog on the web: “BrewDog are horrible marketing-type suit people who make terrible beer”; “a lot of juvenile rhetoric, devious marketing stunts and grotesquely cynical ‘punk’ references”; “There’s absolutely nothing ‘punk’ about Brewdog. We’re sick and tired of their shit marketing and faux-persecution complex … their beer is total shite.”; “shallow, arrogant hyperbolic fuckwits”; “Next to a genuinely class brewery like Beavertown or The Kernel, BrewDog are an embarrassment … Punk IPA – a truly dreadful beer … they’re a successful marketing company who happen to use beer labels as their medium, rather than a genuine craft brewery” – you’re getting the picture.

There is, of course, a simple answer to all that criticism: you say that, but you don’t have 14,000 investors and your own American TV show, and nor are your marketing tactics being used as case studies for other businesses.

I’ve had disagreements with BrewDog myself, but I’ve always thought that Dickie and Watt had no reason to care about what I thought, any more than they would be bothered by any of their other critics: if some people don’t like their beers and their marketing tactics, a more-than-sufficiency of others do. So I was surprised to be approached by the company and asked if I’d like to join nine other beer bloggers and writers from as far away as Finland, Norway and France to be flown to Aberdeen, taken round the 13-month-old Ellon brewery and beered and dined at BrewDog’s expense. Were BrewDog on a charm offensive? Apparently so: last week they flew up a load of journalists who had written about BrewDog in the past, for a similar jolly, which resulted in, eg, this review in the Morning Advertiser. But why woo me? According to Alexa, this blog ranks number 32,360 among UK websites: that’s really not very influential.

But, hey, I like looking around breweries at other people’s expense, even if it means having to get up at 4am to drive to Gatwick for a flight on the EasyJet red-eye. And yes, I was interested in meeting Dickie and Watt, probably the finest guerrilla marketers currently operating in Britain (and easily the best guerrilla marketers the British brewing industry has ever seen). I don’t know how much they actually spend on marketing, but I doubt it’s a huge amount, which makes their ability to generate column inches all over the world from apparently tangential events quite brilliant – come on, what other British brewer do you know who could get stories in newspapers from Sweden to Thailand publicising their new beer launch? Continue reading

BrewDog couldn’t be more wrong in wanting an ‘official’ definition of craft beer

Ancient Order of Frothblowers“Never be afraid to be controversial” is less a statement of policy and more like a reason for living, as far as the BrewDog guys are concerned. Last week James Watt, the brewery’s co-founder, put up on his blog an impassioned argument putting the case for an “official” definition of craft beer to be adopted in the UK. Below is my response, published originally over at the day job, showing how he’s completely wrong.

I won’t yield to anybody in my admiration for James Watt’s abilities as a guerrilla marketeer. He and Martin Dickie, co-founders of Brewdog, have skillfully turned a small independent brewery in – with the greatest respect to the people of North Aberdeenshire – the rear end of nowhere into one of the leaders of the small independent brewery sector in the UK. They now have a reputation among many beer drinkers as perhaps the most iconoclastic, “edgy” brewers in the country, a growing empire of their own bars around the UK, and a presence on the shelves of leading supermarkets and in any “craft beer” bar worthy of that name. From last month the pair even have their own TV show, Brew Dogs, on the Esquire cable TV network in the United States, where they travel across America, visiting bars and breweries and creating “locally inspired” beers. Fantastic. And yet, Watt’s latest campaign, to try to get an “official”, “industry recognised” definition of “craft beer”, to “protect the fledgling craft beer movement in the UK and in Europe” and also to “protect and inform the customer”, suggests to me he doesn’t actually understand the business environment he is working in as well as he thinks he does. What is more, his arguments for the need for an “official” definition of craft beer are entirely nonsensical and totally evidence-free.

Watt says the reason a proper definition of “craft beer”, “to be recognised by both CAMRA and SIBA and also at a European level by the Brewers of Europe Association” is required is because of “three words – Blue Fucking Moon”. Just like many small brewers in the US, he is clearly annoyed that Molson Coors’ Belgian-style wheat beer comes in packaging that could pass as a product from a much smaller operator, and does not declare itself in huge type to be made by one of the giants of the American beer market. He quotes approvingly Greg Koch of Stone Brewing in California, who also wants to define “craft beer” as something in opposition to “the industrialised notion of beer” that has been “preying on the populace for decades”. Unfortunately it’s not clear if Koch, or Watt, are really interested in “saving” the drinking public from “industrialised” beer, or protecting their own sales from a much bigger rival.

Watt insists that the British craft beer movement is being held back because of the lack of an official definition of craft beer, and “the US craft beer movement has only been able to grow as it has because of the US Brewers’ Association’s official and accepted definition of craft beer.” Naturally, Watt fails to give any evidence for these assertions, because there isn’t any. They’re total nonsense. Good grief, the definition Watt points to only came into existence eight years ago, in 2005, when the Brewers’ Association was formed of a merger between two other industry organisations and the combined membership decided to rig the rules so that the “big guys” would be excluded from their club. Nobody ever said before 2005: “I’m thinking of trying Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, but without an official and accepted definition of craft beer, I’m really not able to.” The boom in the US craft beer scene over the past 30 years has not been because anybody came up with a definition of “craft beer” and suddenly “craft beer” was able to take off: but because a wave of new producers dedicated to making small-batch, artisanal, flavourful beers met a wave of consumers happy to drink those sorts of beer.

This mistaken idea that consumer movements can only prosper when they have “official” guidelines to channel their enthusiasm leads Watt to assert that while “we want retail stores, bars, restaurants and hotels all to have a craft beer section in their offering,” it is “almost impossible to get them to commit to this without being able to offer them an official definition of what craft beer is.” More evidence-free nonsense. I don’t believe that any supermarket, any bar owner, any restaurant ever said to any small brewer: “I’d like to stock your beers, but without a definition of craft beer I’m just not able to do so.” Watt also declares: “What we don’t want, is for them to a create a craft beer section in their shop or menu only for this to be carpet-bombed by beers that are not craft.” What’s the matter, James – afraid that if a bar is selling Blue Moon alongside 5am Saint your beer will do badly?

The truth is not just that trying to define craft beer is impossible anyway. Watt suggests that the definition should be a completely circular one, that “craft beer is a beer brewed by a craft brewer at a craft brewery”, with the argument then devolving onto what a “craft brewer” and a “craft brewery” are – but his idea that the Campaign for Real Ale, an organisation Brewdog regularly chooses to battle with, would back any definition of “craft beer” Brewdog and SIBA might come up with is another nonsense.

The real point is that, despite Watt’s fantasy, any “official” definition of craft beer, will have little to no impact on the marketplace. Those operators who might be defined as “craft beer brewers” and “craft beer retailers” seem to be doing very well in the UK without any official definition of what they are making and selling – and in any case the UK’s small brewery movement seems to me to be well beyond the “fledgling” status Watt is trying to claim for it. If Brewdog is trying to trip up the likes of Sharp’s – now owned by Coors and thus, under the definition that Watt would like to see made “official”, not a maker of “craft beer” any more – Watt really needs to realise that getting craft beer “properly” defined will make no difference at all to the amount of Doom Bar being sold across British bar tops. Overwhelmingly the beer-drinking public, in Britain, in the US and elsewhere around the world, care nothing for “official” definitions of what they are drinking: that goes for the minority who are “craft beer” drinkers, and, of course, the vast majority who prefer those beers Watt and Koch define as “the industrialised notion of beer”, and wouldn’t drink a craft beer if you gave it do them free, no matter what category you said it was in.

Over to you …

Craft beer growth ‘scaring’ big brewers? I don’t think so …

In your dreams, guys …

James Watt, who has a PhD in self-promotion from the University of BrewDog, has just issued a press release revealing impressive growth figures for the Aberdeenshire brewery, and declaring at the same time that the “UK craft beer revolution” (whatever that is) is “scaring” the country’s beer giants into trying to buy themselves a slice of the artisanal brewing action.

Molson Coors buying Sharp’s brewery “is an act of panic, not commercial nous”, according to Watt. BrewDog’s 230 per cent sales rise in 2010 compared to 2009 reflects, Watt says, “a tectonic shift in the mindset of British beer drinkers”, and according to him the Canadian-American giant, brewer of Carling in the UK, “can see the change is coming and recognition that the market is shifting … they, along with every other mainstream brewery, are shaking in their boots. Companies that sell beer through sales offers, discounts and marketing gimmicks alone are just not sustainable any longer because the craft beer revolution is redefining the expectations of UK beer drinkers.”

Um – I don’t think so. Really. I wish it were all just as James says: I’m delighted to see BrewDog doing so well, and it would be fantastic to see an army of Carling drinkers pour their over-promoted lager down the sink, turning instead to BrewDog’s Punk IPA. (Incidentally, for the man who brought us a 55 per cent abv beer sold in bottles inserted into stuffed roadkill to talk about “marketing gimmicks” smacks of the pot calling the washing machine black …) But that ain’t going to happen.

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BrewDog Atlantic IPA: is it worth it?

It’s apparently fashionable now to be sticking one’s boots into BrewDog, since the Aberdeenshire duo revealed they had reported themselves to the Portman Group, the alcohol industry watchdog, just to get the publicity. I’m always happy to join in a fight if the other side is outnumbered, so let’s have a go at them for gross historical inaccuracy over the publicity for their Atlantic IPA.

Unless you’ve been stuck in a dark bar with no internet access for the past year, you’ll know this is the brew BrewDog poured into casks and then left on a trawler sailing the North Atlantic for two months, in an attempt to replicate what happened to the original IPAs as they travelled by sea from Britain to Bombay or Calcutta.

This, BrewDog proclaimed, would be “the first IPA aged in oak casks at sea for 200 years!” Oh, really? What were Bass, Allsopp, Hodgson and the rest doing in the 19th century, shipping chopped liver out East? I don’t know when brewers in Britain stopped sending beer in casks to India to be bottled (and neither do BrewDog) but it was certainly still happening not much more than a century ago. Here’s Cornelius O’Sullivan, head brewer at Bass, one of the great Burton export pale ale brewers, giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry in 1899:

“Do you export beer in the cask to places like India?”
C O’S: “Yes.”
“Which do you do most of exporting in cask or in bottle?”
C O’S: “We sell no beer in bottle. We export a considerable quantity of bulk beer in cask to India and also to Australia and America, not so much to Australia now but still what we send we export in cask. A large quantity of our beer is bottled by exporters and exported: we sell them the beer and they bottle it and export it.”
“Your beer goes out to India in casks?”
C O’S: “Yes.”

So Atlantic IPA is certainly not, as BrewDog claim, “the first commercially available, genuine sea-aged IPA in two centuries” – very far from it. Nor can they have used “a 210-year-old recipe of a traditional India Pale Ale”, since there was no such thing as India Pale Ale in 1799: the name India Pale Ale did not come into use for another 30-something years, and what brewers were exporting at the time to India was almost certainly a standard strongly hopped stock bitter beer. Nor is it true to say that “India Pale Ale was born when brewers realised that together, hops and alcohol act as a natural preservative ensuring that the beer could withstand the voyage and arrive in good condition” – brewers had known about the preserving effects of alcohol and hops for centuries before IPA, and beers were being transported around the world from the earliest years of European exploration.

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Doesn’t the BBC Food Programme read this blog?

I just caught up with BBC 4’s Food Programme from last Sunday, which was about the British hop industry, and as a side issue, IPA in a couple or so of its current incarnations – there are just two days left before it disappears from the BBC website, so if you’re quick, and you’ve got RealPlayer or similar installed on your computer, you can catch it here (oh, and you have to be in the UK, or be able to fool the BBC’s website that you’re in the UK, or it won’t let you listen – sorry.)

Anyway, I though it was a fair treatment of the subject, with a quick scamper through what hops do for beer (flavouring and preserving – but you knew that), and interviews “in the field” with David Holmes, head brewer at Shepherd Neame; Tony Redsell, a Kentish hop grower; and Dr Peter Darby of the National Hop Collection at Queen Court Farm, near Faversham, who talked about the more than 300 different oils found in hops, and the different flavours that, singly and in combination, they bring to beer, from mint to passion fruit.

Back in the studio, the presenter, Sheila Dillon, talked to Roger Protz, and to Martin Dickie, brewer and co-owner of Brewdog Brewery. In a quick tasting, bottles were opened of Brewdog’s Punk IPA, made with Chinook and Ahtanum hops from the US and Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand, and Atlantic IPA (which spent two months in cask on a fishing boat being rocked by North Atlantic waves and will cost you £10 a bottle), and, for contrast, Meantime Brewery’s IPA, flavoured with nothing but finest English Fuggles and Goldings. It was excellent to hear Sheila Dillon saying “Wow, that’s good!” as she tried the Punk IPA, and expressing surprise that, at 65 or 70 units of bitterness, twice as much (at least) as, say, a best bitter, it didn’t pucker your mouth, as Roger and Martin explained that this was because the bitterness was balanced by the alcohol, at 6.5 per cent by volume. Continue reading

The XXX factor

The name of the Hilton London Tower Bridge is a triumph of marketing over geographical accuracy, since it’s actually far, far closer to London Bridge, in the More London development, about a minute from London Bridge station and easily 12 to 15 minutes or more by foot from the more iconic Gothic bascule job down-river that narrowly missed flattening Courage’s Anchor brewery when it was built in the last years of the 19th century. I hope nobody at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual dinner on Friday believed the back of their ticket, which claimed the hotel was “a short walk” from Tower Bridge Tube station: that would have added another three or four minutes to the walk from the bridge itself.

They’d have had some appetite-sharpening exercise, though, and it’s an increasingly spectacular night-time view across the river, with the lit-up new buildings, such as the Gherkin, and the thumb-like City Hall: I’m a middle-class Londoner who, perhaps unusually, welcomes new tall buildings to the cityscape, if they’re well-designed and not boring slabs.

Similarly Tooley Street, where the “Tower Bridge” Hilton is, makes a better scene, much less gloomy, now it’s lost many of the warehouses that once dominated the thoroughfare. The hotel is an oddly shaped structure, and the interior looked blandly corporate. But the grub’s good, on the evidence of the food served at the Guild’s dinner: respect to Brian Turner, who was in charge of the kitchens for the previous two BGBW bashes, but this was, taking all the dishes into the scoring, perhaps the best meal I’ve had at the annual BGBW awards in the dozen or so years I’ve been attending.

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