This isn’t exactly the blog post I thought I was going to write. I have been very firm in my conviction that BrewDog is entering Phase 2, and shrugging off so much that has stopped them from being respected by so many people. Instead, last weekend I saw a conflicting image of the brewery that has left such an indelible mark on the British brewing landscape.
The AGM 2012 was a messy but fun sort of riot. Massively underestimating demand was as much a part of BrewDog as any notions of ‘punk’ back then, so it was expected that their first go at an event that size would be hit and miss. The hits outweighed the misses though, and it was still a great weekend. In 2013, there were noticeable improvements in every area, a sign that they were listening as much as they were shouting. It was a far slicker, better organised event that got just about everything right. Seeing the new Ellon brewery, and the profound sense of gratitude from the people who work for BrewDog, said a lot. The company was ready not just to grow, but also to grow up.
This year, that slickness became over-confidence, and organisational problems that many assumed BrewDog had outgrown once more reared their heads with a vengeance. 2012’s cries of QueueDog once more became the bon mot exchanged in the line for the bar, of which there were only two. It wasn’t all bad though. After 6pm, a lot of people left of their own accord, either because they were bored to death, or because Idlewild finished playing and that’s all they were there for (or mostly what they were there for). Still, that’s not exactly what I would call ‘everything going to plan’. I understand that BrewDog are limited by the AECC in the number of bars they can have and where they can be, but this might be the year they realise the AECC just isn’t the venue they need anymore.
If it’s becoming difficult to have enough bars and taps to keep 4000+ people from being thirsty, BrewDog want to consider a different approach – such as taking the AGM on the road, a BrewDog Tour if you will. There are now BrewDog bars across the length and breadth of the land, just as well-spread as the shareholders themselves. Doing four, smaller events in say, Aberdeen, Manchester, Birmingham and London, would ease the pressure on the bars, allow more brewers and bands local to each event to be involved and help out, and make it a real spectacle. Having said that, they could easily end up with 4000+ people coming to the London one alone. Still, the way BrewDog is going, they will have to either massively expand the AGM or take it on tour eventually.
So what did go right? Well, all the beers were in great condition, a wide range of stuff hit the taps from other brewers such as Mikkeller, Stone, Magic Rock, Cromarty and Gypsy Inc, and it was as fairly priced as it has been in the past (£8 for 5 tokens, average pint cost 2 tokens, depending on strength). The problem was, when a new beer came on (invariably a highly-sought-after, one-off rare beer), everyone queuing at the bar ordered four of them, and seven staff themselves would then have to queue for access to just a single tap. When there’s upwards of a hundred people at the bar waiting, you can imagine how long it took to get served – too long, way too long. More often than not, the beer you were queuing to get would be finished, replaced by another beer, which then ran out by the time you managed to be served. It was frustrating.
That isn’t to say that some of those beers weren’t worth waiting for – far from it. Among a stellar cast of Stone, Magic Rock, Mikkeller and so on, it was actually many of BrewDog’s beers that really blew me away. Jackhammer was on predictably excellent form, and Dog C was a more refined beast than its previous incarnations, a smoother body that blended its heavy, thick and spicy flavours with real panache. This year’s #Mashtag, and imperial red ale, was balanced to the point of being dangerous at 9% abv, its fruity, malty depths balanced by subtle spiciness and a long hop finish. Black Eyed King Imp, a test brew of Cocoa Psycho with chocolate and coffee, barrel aged for 2 years, was a marvel, somehow both juicy with stewed fruit and darkly bitter, with the barrel casting a long shadow over the palate. It was Everyday Anarchy that impressed me the most, a very on-trend French white wine barrel-aged imperial saison that positively danced on the palate, rich and vinous with stone fruit yet bright and sharp and clean in purpose. These were all hugely accomplished beers, the kind that keep BrewDog right at the top of the scene.
While the organisation of the AGM itself was still lacking in several important areas, the updates and plans of the company itself were far more impressive. For one thing, BrewDog is now in a position to fully expand the Ellon brewery site to its full potential, meaning they will effectively more that double capacity over the course of the next 12 months. Furthermore, full-time tasting panels and a comprehensive lab setup will ensure quality remains a constant during this period of further expansion, and new automated packaging lines will help ensure that they can get things into the supply chain faster. The new onsite bar, DogTap, is close to completion, and more BrewDog bars have been announced for Birmingham, Leeds, Brighton, Clapham. BottleDogs will also be coming to Birmingham and Leeds (in the case of Leeds, being converted into one from the current tiny bar).
By far the most significant announcement was the BrewDog Investment Fund, which will see BrewDog provide funding to new breweries to support their growth. James Watt announced at the AGM that Brew By Numbers is the first beneficiary of this fund,
with £100,000 being invested in their brewery (this was tweeted and then deleted by the BrewDog twitter account, suggesting the announcement may have been slightly ahead of schedule) [UPDATE 30/6: see here for full details of the BrewDog Investment Fund]. As I said in my last post, BBNo are hitting all the right notes lately. They could easily be the new Kernel, and it’s impressive and heartening that BrewDog is interested in contribution to the beer scene in this way. It’s been something I’ve discussed with people more and more lately – that the time has come for certain breweries to take a position of leadership and help sustain this thing we’re all enjoying so much. BrewDog, among others, are capable of doing so much good, and I was really pleased to see this Fund being set up.
So, what to make of all this? There’s no way to judge Scotland’s brewing scene on the BrewDog AGM alone, but BrewDog always seem to be at the front of things in the UK overall. BrewDog are more than just a Scottish brewery, they’re an international bar business, importer and now fundraiser for craft brewing. There are still disconcerting signs of them taking their eye off the ball occasionally. Being kindly asked by James and Martin to enjoy the AGM responsibly, then having to join an hour-long queue for food, seemed ridiculous. But there are too many good things to ignore here, and I maintain that there was more than enough evidence of BrewDog growing up as a brewer and a company. Their recent blog post acknowledge the long queues, and they have also emailed attendees with a feedback form about the AGM. Ultimately, they are still the best brewery in the UK at inspiring a younger generation of craft beer drinkers and bottling that enthusiasm, no one else even comes close. I think BrewDog are finally coming to terms not just with how big or fast or important they are, but also the responsibility that this places on their shoulders. Their ability to capture people’s imaginations is at the heart of that, and there is no questioning their impact on British brewing. I’ll end with a quote from Greg Koch of Stone, who crystallised that neatly in the AGM’s opening speech:
“Without everybody’s enthusiasm, we couldn’t have got to where we are today – and the change is amazing, is it not?”