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?”

A Murky Mile (Four Nations of Beer Part 2)

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In a series of four features, I will be examining the beer culture in four countries through the lens of a particular event. This second part looks at the all-new craft beer institution that is the Bermondsey Beer Mile and just how varied and mature the London beer scene has become. Read Part 1, featuring the W-Ales Beer Festival, here.

The Bermondsey Beer Mile is so craft it hurts. Five microbreweries, ranging from the fresh-faced Anspach and Hobday to the more established like Brew By Numbers and Partizan to the already legendary like The Kernel, are dotted along a line (easily over a mile if we’re being pedantic, especially if you travel in an irregular fashion) in east London. I joke to people that in the future, archaeologists will incorrectly reason that railways were built to connect all the capital’s breweries. In Bermondsey, you would be forgiven for thinking just that.

No sooner had ‘The Mile’ become A Thing than people were complaining about how busy it was at every brewery. Beer geeks could be seen plotting innovative strategies of ‘tackling’ the Mile on Twitter, trying to outwit the hordes and be front of the line for a fresh 2/3rds at each brewery. The reality is that it is a bit difficult to do it in a straightforward way, but I think that for some people that’s part of the fun.

So what’s the appeal? Well, generally speaking, the Bermondsey Beer Mile offers some of the best beer in London, at relatively low cost (£3 for 2/3rds of a pint, unless otherwise indicated) and the opportunity to drink as fresh as is feasibly possible. When done in a mob group of fellow wankers seasoned beer enthusiasts, it can make for a wonderful day. Also, naturally, it gives one a rather profound insight into how ‘craft’ is doing in London right now, so on 14th June I made the journey to Bermondsey and did the mile with some excellent drinking partners.

In Brew By Numbers, where our Mile began, we have a brewery rapidly graduating into that ‘2011-2012 Kernel’ sort of phase, where almost everything they do is brand new and quite exemplary. I love the branding, but the actual numbering system is a bit annoying to me still (who asks for the number at the bar and not the beer ‘s name?). After an exhilaratingly crisp and juicy Motueka and Lime Saison, I ask for a Session IPA Mosaic and, like my fellow Milers, am simply blown away by it. The aroma is a spectacular bouquet of tropical fruits that comfortably makes the case for ‘fresh is best’. The beer’s palate is like an electric conduit of lime, orange and mango jacked right into your tongue, ripe with pith and bitterness. The vibe at BBNo is very laid-back, with a very simple layout of benches outside that encouraged a sociable drinking atmosphere. Given how great their beers are tasting at the moment, they may need to work out how accommodate far greater numbers of people.

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Meanwhile, at The Kernel, now closing early (at 2pm) due to its arch-busting popularity, we are greeted by nothing less than a fort of iconic brown paper-clad bottles. The last time I was inside The Kernel, it was a cave of pallets, bottles, boxes and just stuff. Now it seems sharper, more organised, not corporate but certainly a professional appearance honed by a growing legion of fans and regular custom. One cavernous arch is given over entirely to customers, seated or otherwise. Some fantastic beers were on draught, including the collaboration with Camden Town Brewery, Gentleman’s Agreement, a barrel-aged blend of Camden Gentleman’s Wit and Kernel London Sour. It’s a truly stunning beer, its apple-skin and sharply sour edges injected with lemon and grapefruit juiciness and rounded by tannic, oaky notes. It’s a technical marvel – enormously flavoursome and complex for a beer at 4.3% abv.

There is a very promising trend in blending and barrel-aging at the moment, something that really shows a maturation (no pun intended) of the British beer scene. Sure, we still love to throw hops at beers like there’s no tomorrow, but we’re also experimenting in esoteric methods and using real skill to – and I mean this as a verb – craft beer. I expect to see more of this in the next year, as the more accomplished new breweries each seek to up their game in this area.

After The Kernel came Partizan, which was tricky to find. It required traversing an active (and very noisy) building site and following an extremely ‘craft’ hand drawn cardboard sign. There were more cardboard signs inside, at the tiny bar in front of Partizan (formerly The Kernel’s) brewkit. The beers on offer included some delectable-looking saisons and IPAs. Another trend I’ve noticed of late is beers infused with different types of tea, and I’ve enjoyed pretty much every one I’ve had. The one on offer at Partizan, an Iced Tea Saison, was too tempting to resist, especially at its sensible strength of 3.9% abv. Unfortunately, it was just a bit too thin, with not enough tea flavour to justify its name. When I think of the best tea-infused beers I’ve had, they tended to be bigger bodied styles – IPAs and porters, so perhaps a different approach to the saison recipe is needed as well as using more tea. Still, it was further evidence that the more established breweries on the Mile are Thinking In New Ways. Partizan are great brewery and I’ve no doubt that, with their track record, they’ll master this style in no time.

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At the next stop, Fourpure, tucked away in an industrial estate at the other end of The Mile, we have a glimpse of the future, or at least an alternate version of the present. This is an example of The American Way: a shiny new brewery with towers of brightly-coloured cans, a brewery tap bar slinging schooners of the freshest draught beer and, naturally, a ping pong table next to the canning line. The friendly bubbling of beery conversation around long tables is occasionally punctuated by a ping pong ball bouncing off a piece of brewing equipment or a tower of hollow aluminium cans. Special mention must also be given to the pulled pork sausage rolls available at the bar, which were nothing short of majestic. It’s a warm and welcoming place, but then it has to be, given that it’s the furthest flung of the Bermondsey Mile breweries.

Here, many of us partook of another Session IPA, though Fourpure’s example was a subtler and smoother beast designed to be enjoyed by the six-pack. Still, it was refreshingly crisp and had some nicely nuanced depths to its hop character, though it’s certainly not the fireworks of the Session IPA Mosaic we had at Brew By Numbers earlier that day. There’s certainly a lot of ‘Session IPA’ going about in London now, which is a very American take on something we already do quite well – fresh, bright hoppy pale ales. I don’t have a problem with the name exactly, and it doesn’t matter what we, and I mean beer geeks, think of the name. Ultimately, if consumers as a whole find it useful, it will stick around, just like so many beer style names in the past.

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My Mile ended somewhat inauspiciously at the opposite end from Fourpure, in the arch shared by Bullfinch and Anspach & Hobday, a brewery of which I am rather fond. I hold A&H’s Smoked Brown, Table Porter and IPA in high regard, particularly for a such a new brewery. Whenever I have had their beers from the bottle or at a Craft Beer Co, they’ve been sublime. Their Smoked Tea Porter, a recent collaboration with Melissa Cole, hit all the right notes and was impressively balanced – one of the best tea-infused beers I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, this particular visit saw some fellow Milers given some below-average beers that seemed not entirely ready to serve, and there was one glass of The Pale which took London Murky to its extreme. The beer was everything that unfined beer critics would just love to be served: an opaque liquid the colour of a manilla envelope that couldn’t have finished fermenting. The beer was exchanged but not taken off sale. Concerns were raised with the brewers and were duly noted, but it was still a low point on which to end the Mile.

There’s a lot of spite and anger about unfined and unfiltered beer at the moment, much of it directed at new brewers, some of whom are even accused of deliberately ‘murky’-ing their beer to be ‘cool’. The fact is that many of these newer brewers simply do not have the technology to stop their beers being as hazy (and I mean hazy, not murky) as they are, and many are often trying to meet exceedingly high demand for their beers. However, there is no excuse for charging money for a beer that should simply not be served, and this was one of those instances. This time A&H fell short, but I have no doubt that on another visit, I’ll have a great beer from them. It’s just a matter of being more patient with their beers, and being absolutely certain they are ready for sale. They can only lose out by trying to serve beer that will harm their reputation, just in an effort to be part of The Mile’s buzz.

You might think that this all adds up to a very mixed review of The Mile, and you’d be right. As a measure of where craft beer in London is right now, the Bermondsey Beer Mile is perhaps more indicative of the ‘bleeding edge’ – barrel-aged blends, tea-infused saisons, session IPAs and gleaming canning lines – but it’s an edge that cuts both ways.  The fact is, The Bermondsey Beer Mile, this dazzling rainbow of London craft beer in its many forms, approaches, intentions and futures, is a murky beast indeed. The Mile needs time and a stronger sense of cohesion to become the finely-honed showcase of the best beer in London. A nice start might be a collaboration brew from the five breweries involved. I hope that over the summer the Mile is shaped into something we can proud of. As it is right now, I’m willing to be patient. Great beer deserves patience and London deserves great beer.

In the next part of Four Nations of Beer, I review the controlled chaos of BrewDog’s shareholder AGM 2014, and see if Scotland’s squeakiest wheel brightest burning light is still at the front of the ‘craft beer revolution’.

The Week in Beer #0

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Sometimes, it’s hard to generate a whole blog post from the various flotsam and jetsam of beer things that happen. It’s not always enough – not so much a writer’s block as a blogger’s clog – a little cluster of thoughts that lack the electric impulse to become Something To Say. Still, I think that beer is always worthy of note, even if, or especially if, it’s mediocre. This is me having a stab at capturing the stray craft particles, the free radicals of my week, wrapping a big net around them putting a flag in the whole hoppy mess. Here are some beers I’ve had this week and what, if anything, they made me think.

Monday: Dry as a bone, but there was much to be said on Twitter about anger and reactions and beer styles and so on. Another Monday.

Tuesday: I was conveyed unto the Brewed Dog on the Shepherd’s Bush to meet and rejoice with the craft wanker brethren (and sistren). A tasty insult to history was enjoyed in the form of Gloucester Black Simcoe. Also of note: a Rye Bread Sour from Levain Franken that had a quaffable creamy note that made it one of those expensive beers you would drink by the pint with a winning lottery ticket. Also, my curiosity got the better of me, and I tried Hobo Pop, which proves we can now make American Stale Ale as good as them Americans and that. Hobo Plop, more like.

I then proceeded to drink an Amount of Beers Inappopriate for a Tuesday, but stuck to halves and two-thirds and so survived largely unscathed.

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Wednesday: Sixpoint’s cans of Wetherjoy arrived late due to inclement posting attempts. Others posted about them quicker than I, so I didn’t bother to add to the noise. My thoughts on the beers:

The Crisp – slightly too boozy, but largely by the book pils. weird pithiness throughout that gives a sense of Premiumness, but at what cost?

Sweet Action – a fresh, foxy delight of peach, mango and melon. Delightful and juicy. Likely to be cloying in larger amounts, but that exact portion felt heavenly.

Bengali Tiger – an orange pith heavy, grapefruit tart assault on my main face. Refreshingly uncrystally, robust yet accessible.

What does it all mean? Don’t know. Too tired of predicting the future. More interested in the choice of range: for example, why a lager, wheat/pale/cream pale and IPA? Imported European-style US lager in perfect condition to prove a point? Maybe. More likely to be the entry point to all this craft bollocks for your mate who’s with you when you order the pair for £5/6 deal. Hook him in, get him on the Sweet Action, job’s a good’un.

Thursday: BeerBods this week was Moncada Notting Hill Red, an accomplished, American-hopped red ale at 6%. Having had a couple of the brewery’s beers before (Ruby Rye on cask and Blonde in bottle), I was expecting good things, and the Red did not disappoint. Full in jammy and piney aroma, rounded in its nutty sweetness and caramel-soaked orangey, limey hop character, there was a lot to enjoy in this beer. I’ll pursue their other beers with interest.

(Given the thirst for something similar, I opened a bottle of Hardknott Infra Red, only to find it had gone a bit ‘craft’, with a lactic character reminiscent of Rodenbach and much of the hop character and toffee sweetness gone. Not wholly unpleasant, but not the beer on the label. So why did I keep drinking it? It had gone off – I should have immediately poured it away. Truth is, I actually liked what had gone wrong. Truly.)

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Friday: The Gun in the docklands near Canary Wharf celebrated National Pie Week (no, not every week apparently) by offering a Pie and Beer Flight, which was about as close as it gets to my ideal use of a 6 x 12 inch piece of slate. Three mini-pies, each paired to a third of beer. Cockel and smoked fish pie matched to a third of Anspach and Hobday’s The Smoked Brown (a sweet, crispy and smokey boost to the pie); a venison and apple pie matched to Partizan Black IPA (total, lavish decadence); and a figgy fruit turnover-pie with Brew By Numbers Saison Wai-Iti and Lemon (a curiously warming and spicy combination). For £14, it’s achievable and enjoyable proof of thoughtful beer and food matching without being inaccessible or too geeky. Hopefully more to come from this increasingly impressive pub.

On a side note, it was here that I first saw Brewmeister in the wild: their Supersonic IPA was on cask. As I can no longer get away with chiding them without actually tasting their beer, I dutifully ordered a half. Would it be passable? Would it be great? Would it have travelled well, and would a clone of Punk IPA on cask actually be a bad thing? I never found out. Some bastards had drank it all. Ominous. I went for Siren Soundwave instead, of which there was plenty.

That’s all for now. Saturday and Sunday will be spent in York and Leeds, hopefully warranting a gushing blogpost in due course.