Category Archives: opinion

BrewDog are the Big Dog

Vintage-style lightbulb pictured in BrewDog, Sheffield.

Some people might not like to hear it, but the fact is, BrewDog are interesting and important.

That is the main reason why people (including us) just cannot help talking about them.

Of course it also helps that they have the will and the means to court beer writers and bloggers, and a well-drilled army of staff on social media, but even those who are scornful of the ‘pooches’ apparently feel compelled to pick at the scab.

If we had to pick one brewery to symbolise everything that’s happened in British beer in the last decade, it would probably be BrewDog. When established breweries decide to ‘do craft’, it is more often that not the boys from Fraserburgh they have in mind:

In an interview with James Hurley in The Times this week (thanks for the heads up, John West), BrewDog founder James Watt set out plans to become even bigger:

“We love the chaos of fast growth,” Mr Watt says. “If we don’t have that, we’re not pushing hard enough… You’ll laugh at me, but we want to list for £1 billion in five years’ time… We’ve got the road map with annual targets. We think it’s an achievable objective.”

As part of the plan, Watt says, the company is maturing, and toning down the combative rhetoric. That’s a relief for boring bastards like us, but we wonder what those who enjoy combative rhetoric will make of it? And where does this fit in?

At any rate, BrewDog is well on its way to becoming a household name, if something we overheard in a pub the other day is anything to go by:

I’ll just have a lager. Carlsberg, or that Korev. Oh, wait, no — have they got my favourite lager? That Punk IPA?

UPDATE 04/09/2014: how close BrewDog are to being a household name is hard to measure but this Google Trends graph gives a clue: it compares the volume of searches from the UK for Marston’s, Greene King, Stella Artois, Magic Rock and Walker’s crisps. BrewDog, who have never run a national TV ad campaign, are up there with the big brands.

Blogging About Blogging: Speak Your Brains!

Pipe, hat and pint.

Bad news: this is a blog post about blog posting. There’ll be a post that’s actually about beer later today. If you choose to read on, don’t say we didn’t warn you!

We’ve been reflecting lately on our tendency to self-censor. We used to shelve posts quite frequently, finished and illustrated, because, at the last minute, we found ourselves anticipating a bad-tempered response and couldn’t be bothered to face it.

Click to enter the navel…

Failure to be Outraged

timothy_taylor_474

Once again, we find ourselves struggling to summon what is apparently the appropriate level of outrage as the Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB) award is announced by the Campaign for Real Ale.

It’s an important competition which can tip a brewery over into the big time, sure, but it’s not the Word of God.

If you accept that, of the thousands in production, it’s legitimate to name a single beer The Best, then there’s no reason we can see to be angry that the award has gone to Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker, aka Best Bitter.

Now, we get as bored as anyone of entering pubs and finding three ubiquitous and underwhelming bitters on offer, and we have to admit that we did hope something a bit sexier might win for once — the pale’n’hoppy Oakham Citra, universally loved in the Blogoshire, which came in second place, for example.

But, like it or not, bitter is part of the landscape of British beer — should it be banned from the competition because its character derives from something other than prominent aroma hopping?

We’ve not had Boltmaker, as far as we can recall, but we suspect we’d probably enjoy it. Two of our most fondly-remembered pub sessions have been on Timothy Taylor beer — one in Haworth, and another at the Bricklayer’s Arms in Putney — and it can be transcendently wonderful, in that subtle, indescribable way that regional brewers sometimes achieve. (See also: the Batham’s.)

Perhaps that’s how Boltmaker tasted today? Enthusiasm on the part of the judges certainly seems a more likely than a sinister conspiracy aimed at the suppression of ‘craft’.

(Having said that, we’ll certainly be filing today’s result in the memory banks for next time someone claims traditional bitters are some kind of endangered species that don’t get enough attention…)

The Great British Beer Festival runs until Saturday 16 August.

A Brewer Writes…

Email inbox.

In response to Friday’s post about pop star brewers, we got an email from a brewer, who wishes to remain anonymous…

I think there are a couple of important points you haven’t discussed in it, as, not surprisingly you haven’t really looked at it through the brewer(s)y eyes.

Firstly, there is unbelievable demands from bars/pubs/restaurants/festivals for brewery appearances at anything and everything. We say no to way more than 50 per cent and yet do an event or two pretty much every week. You get quite practised at public appearances, and therefore most people get pretty good at doing them. Often the shy guy ends up doing it when no one else can!

Secondly, most of the small breweries you talk about struggle to get by (paying themselves below average salaries) and use these sorts of events as their main marketing tool. It’s a way to connect with the public and compete against the big boys with the only tool that they have at their disposal — themselves and their story. With social media helping to carry that message.

I personally don’t think people get in to brewing to get ‘famous’ even in a weird beery way, but if you happen to be good at standing up in front of people, you will be asked to do it again and again.

Some food for thought.

We should clarify that we don’t fundamentally have a problem with ‘meet the brewer’ events, as long as the ability to brew great beer remains more important than star quality.

Pop Star Brewers

Adapted from Elvis Pez by Joel Kramer, from Flickr under Creative Commons.
Adapted from Elvis Pez by Joel Kramer, from Flickr under Creative Commons.

We live in strange times when brewers have their own television shows, sign autographs and form super-groups.

For most of the last few hundred years, insofar as anyone cared who was brewing their beer, they probably assumed it was the bloke whose name was on the bottles — Mr Whitbread, or Mr Boddington.

Then, in the 1970s, along came microbreweries. What made them news was often the stories of the people involved. A great part of the appeal of the Litchborough Brewery, launched in 1974, was the tale of an individual, Bill Urquhart, pushing back against the monolithic, literally ‘faceless’ might of the Big Six. Working at Watney’s, he had been part of the machine behind the red façade, but when newspapers wrote about Litchborough it was Bill they were interested in.

At a time when there was an active struggle between consumers (enthusiasts) and big brewing concerns, it was also another way to needle the secretive big-wigs of the Brewers’ Society. As far as they were concerned, the names of their brewers, like the alcoholic strength and ingredients, were not really any of the public’s business. Microbreweries were more transparent.

Alongside that came the rise of beer writing as we know it, through the pages of the Campaign for Real Ale’s What’s Brewing magazine, and the work of Richard Boston and Michael Jackson. This new art form (chortle) needed people and personalities if it was to be anything other than dry.

So far so good: consumer power, sticking it to the man, and something to read on the bog.

Where it might have gone wrong

At some point, personality-led marketing became ‘a thing’ and almost every product on the supermarket shelf now has to bear a signed personal message from the company’s CEO explaining how passionately they believe in sliced white bread or curry sauce. Investors want to know what the story is, and who will be the face of a ‘brand’, before they open their wallets.

Beer is no exception.

As a result, the bar has been raised for serious geeks. Where they might once have been happy name-dropping, they now expect to be able to hang out with and interrogate those who make their favourite beers.

This is a culture which disadvantages those who aren’t natural performers, even if they’re demons in the brewhouse. On our recent book tour, we heard more than one story of awkward meet-the-brewer events —  “He’s obviously cripplingly shy and there were lots of long awkward pauses. He didn’t want to be there.” But (massive generalisation) aren’t those are just the kind of people who are really good at focusing their attention, managing processes and achieving consistency?

Meanwhile, a handful of photogenic show-offs get more attention than perhaps they deserve, turning out beers which are too often advertisements in liquid form, conceived primarily with column-inches in mind. Advertisements that, apparently, people pay for.

The cult of personality doesn’t work for us — it emphasises presentation over product, and contributes to a culture where it can feel as if you’re not really into beer if you haven’t hung out with Greg Koch at a BrewDog shareholder meeting.

It can also seem just a tiny bit… creepy.

Baby, not bathwater

But a return to faceless monolith-ery isn’t what we want, either.

As a consumer, it can be helpful to know a bit about the brewers for various reasons. If you’ve got a name, then you can be reasonably sure it’s not being made in the Ukraine, shipped by tanker and re-badged. If Stuart ‘Magic Rock’ Ross took a job as head brewer at Greene King, for example, we’d be interested in the results. When a beloved brewery’s beer dips in quality, staff changes are often the reason. (Maybe the brewer-as-chef analogy makes sense after all.)

And, please, let’s not ruin beer writing for the sake of denying the oxygen of publicity to blowhards. We like reading articles about people, whatever their profession, so why wouldn’t we also enjoy such stories which have the bonus of added beer?