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.
It’s also a bit cheeky to say that Atlantic IPA contains “classic English hops such as … Bramling Cross” – I’m very fond of Bramling Cross, it’s a lovely hop, but it’s a cross with a wild hop from Manitoba that first appeared in the 1920s and was hardly available to the earliest IPA brewers. Nor should BrewDog be implying that two months on a North Atlantic trawler in any way replicated four months or more on an East Indiaman sailing vessel going round the Cape of Good Hope and crossing the equator twice.
All that said, what’s the beer like? I spotted it on the shelf in my local specialist beer store in East Twickenham and reeled slightly at the price: north of £9 for 33cl of beer. Centilitre for centilitre, this is the equivalent of £20 for a bottle of wine. However, something is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it, and balancing my desire to try this much-hyped beer against its high price, I decided I was prepared to buy one bottle (but not two).
It was, as you’d expect of a beer with 90 IBUs, strongly hoppy and heftily bitter. The nose had a fair bit of bruised apple and vinegar, and while the beer poured with a good head there was little condition apparent in the mouthfeel. There was oak in the background from the time spent sloshing around in casks, and a hint of orange, doubtless from the East Kent Goldings. This was definitely a sipping beer, not just because of its eight per cent abv, complex, but ultimately somehow less than the sum of its parts: the bitterness and the toffee sweetness from the malt seemed to be fighting each other rather than integrating. It reminded me most – and not in a good way – of a souped-up Innis & Gunn. I suspect Atlantic IPA could improve with time spent in the bottle, but I’m sorry, I’m not going to invest another £9 to find out.
I paired Atlantic IPA with another beer I knew would be towards the hop bomb end of the shelf, Sierra Nevada Anniversary 2009. This year’s Sierra Nevada anniversary beer is in the style of an American IPA, with pocketfuls of American hops, Chinook and Cascade. It’s still strongly hoppy and bitter, with passionfruit and ginger coming through, but the complexity is subtler, the integration better – and the price barely a quarter of Brewdog’s Atlantic. I have greatly enjoyed beers that Brewdog have made in the past, and I commend them for constantly pushing the beery envelope, but on this occasion I fear it’s an experiment that didn’t quite come off.