BrewDog #PunkAGM2014 (Four Nations of Beer – Part 3)

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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.

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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).

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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?”

Buy the shares, take the ride – the BrewDog Punk AGM 2013

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When you invest money, time or effort in something, you expect a return equal to or greater than what you put in. A major criticism of BrewDog’s Equity for Punks shareholder scheme has been that it is not a traditional model where dividends are distributed and shares traded. Some say that BrewDog are taking advantage of their fans’ passion and excitement and taxing them for it. Others might say that what BrewDog do best is bottle the excitement of the people who are passionate about their beer, and use that excitement to create even more of it. Where you stand on this issue depends on how feel about BrewDog as a company, not just a brewer. Their yearly Punk AGMs are becoming an excellent gauge by which to measure not only their success, but their attitude.

Last year’s Punk AGM held at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC) was a riotous, beer-soaked but ultimately flawed event. Where some things, like the beer, music and people, were absolutely spot-on, there were unacceptable organisational errors that threatened to mar the whole experience. This year, attendees from last year’s event would be examining everything closely. The same mistakes would not be tolerated.

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Thankfully, this year’s Punk AGM was undoubtedly a marked improvement in every way. A larger space was used, allowing for a more visible divide in the event’s juxtaposition of beer festival and music festival. A large seated area with a bigger stage was in use in addition to the space used in the AECC last year, and there more tables and chairs in general, allowing for a slightly more relaxed pace early on. A key improvement was the AGM shop. Last year, it brought out the worst in everyone. Poorly managed, understaffed, and no queueing system at all. Imagine the worst nightclub bar you’ve ever queued at. Seven deep at the bar, a handful of staff, and everyone with a long order to place. This year, it was a remarkably well-organised and simple affair. An actual roped-off queuing area, a division of counters to order merchandise and beer from (but only needing to queue once for both), and more staff made the experience a breeze.

The bars were also well-staffed and featured a frequently-changing menu of beers from BrewDog, Anchor, Brodies and Mikkeller. Anchor was woefully underepresented here, but the selection from the other breweries was impressive and varied. The palpable excitement that crackled around the venue as a new beer came on made for a great atmosphere. Stand-out beers included Mikkeller’s Green Gold IPA, Brodies Romanov Empress Stout, and a true innovation: BrewDog’s Hopinator. The Hopinator is effectively a way of infusing an extra dose of hops (or coffee, or cocoa beans, spices etc) on the bar itself at the point of serve. The IPA is Dead Goldings single hop IPA was ‘hopinated’ at dispense with Chinook, and later with Amarillo, both combinations creating sensationally aromatic and delicious IPAs out of the somewhat awkward and unbalanced original beer. Alice Porter also went through it, and at the Aberdeen bar the next day, Cocoa Psycho was put through a Hopinator loaded with Sumatran Coffee. It was incredible. Look out for a Hopinator in your local BrewDog bar soon.

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Another big improvement was engagement with shareholders, from people in BrewDog and other breweries too. Two brewers from Mikkeller attended, and hung out at the bar chatting to anyone who wanted to talk hops. Brewers from BrewDog were naturally also present (in penguin and alligator costumes as I recall), as well as James Watt and Martin Dickie themselves. Martin in particular made a special effort to talk to as many people as he could, and you could see how excited people were to talk with him.

But what about the business? Wasn’t this some kind of AGM? Business was discussed, as you might expect, alongside videos of exploding mainstream lagers, dogs, fireworks and other such things. There were live tastings of the marvellous crowd-sourced recipe beer #Mashtag, an unfiltered version of Fake Lager, and the new IPA-spirit hybrid Watt Dickie. Meanwhile, we were given a sneak peek at Brew Dogs, the TV series James and Martin are making. If  it comes to these shores (it’s currently being made for the Esquire channel in the US), expect a sort of Top Gear (Top Beer?) style programme but with devil-horns hand signs and pornographic close-ups of hops. It will infuriate some, but enthrall others. I say it can only help to raise the profile of good beer and the people who make it.

The company as whole is still growing at a prodigious rate – and is now the fastest growing food and drink company in the UK. More bars are planned in Liverpool, Dundee and the US, and plans are already underway to expand the new brewery (more on that later). The was a recap of events good and bad in the past year, including the infamous Diageo award-fixing shenanigans (which might be the best thing to have happened to BrewDog). There are plans for off-sales bottle shops (Bottle Dog), starting in London, as well as a renewed effort to get the Hackney Brewing Academy underway. The Academy could well be the best thing BrewDog do, as it plays to their strengths: communication, education and enthusiasm.

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The evening’s local bands all had a similar, indie-rock vibe. The excellent Fatherson, who played last year, were the pick of the bunch. The other groups failed to generate the same full-on, festival atmosphere that the likes of Kassidy and BombSKAre achieved last year. Another improvement was the food selection. Instead of one ropey burger truck, a proper catering section was set up, with a variety of curries, pulled pork, burgers, and other hearty foods were served up, each of them a great combination with the powerfully-flavoured beers on tap. It was a fantastic day and night of beer, food and music, made all the better by shrewd organisational improvements.

The next day, shareholders and their guests were invited to the new brewery in Ellon. It’s a place that is so firmly ingrained in my mind from photos posted online that actually being there felt a little unreal. It’s a really exciting place, glittering with Instagrammable steel and graffiti, and full of people smiling and high-fiving each other. Like other aspects of the company, that sentence may have brought you out in hives. For others, myself included, it was a fantastic place that really gives you faith in the people that work at BrewDog.

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The tour group I was in was taken around the brewery by head brewer Stewart Bowman. Stewart, who looks like he has just stepped out of Skyrim, is a lovely, affable, friendly chap. His knowledge and enthusiasm is a real credit to the company, and if he wasn’t so busy making all that fantastic beer, he would be fantastic in a more public-facing role. We were taken through every stage of the brewing process, and were gleefully shown each part of the new brewhouse and every shiny new piece of kit. The key message was how the brewers are now able to do so much more with the new equipment, and most importantly, how much better they can make every pint of beer they make. Faults and inconsistencies with brews were openly acknowledged, and we would then be shown something that had been put in place to resolve it. More than anything, head brewer Stewart seemed, genuinely, visibly chuffed to be able to work in that brewery. He said at the end of the tour how grateful he was to the shareholders for giving him the opportunity to make more beer, and better beer, every working day.

From time to time, BrewDog make missteps with their marketing and the language they use. Sometimes, the repetitive messages lose their tongue-in-cheekness and come across as pretentious, or condescending. But James, Martin, and other people in the company occasionally say things in passing that should really be the brewery’s main message. “Investing your money in making beer better” for example, needs to slapped onto the front of every shares prospectus. This year’s AGM really brought that message home. It was good enough to see that they had learned from their mistakes last year, but to hear those words, meet these people, and be given the AGM that every shareholder thoroughly deserved, filled me with pride.

Buy the shares, take the ride. An investment in BrewDog isn’t just financial. It’s buying into a culture, an attitude, and a hope that beer can be incredible and bring out the best in people.

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