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?”

Yes We Can: Part Deux

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After a period of intense, blog-abandoningly-busy writing, I am back in the saddle.

On Saturday, I attended the Hells Can Party at Camden Town Brewery, where their Hells Lager was launched in cans, at last. I say ‘at last’ because it feels like a long time since I first spied Camden’s small canning plant, and I had hoped to spend the summer with a few crates of Hells, or even USA Hells, in cans. Unfortunately, it took a lot of time (and as I am led to believe, extremely hard work) to get the Hells cans launched. Some noted the oddness of launching a canned lager this close to winter, but when it’s this good, I say why the Hells not?

Camden Town’s bold, sharp branding is perfectly suited for cans, and their artist Mr Bingo has really outdone himself on the Hells can design. A straight adaptation of the Hells Lager bottle label would have been more than enough to impress anyone, but the intensely and eccentrically detailed madness oozing from the Hells can label is something glorious to behold. Packaging aside, the beer inside is the same world-beating, ever-refreshing and fantastic-tasting lager. Once I’d poured it into a half pint mug, I must have finished it in about four or five incredible gulps, a few of which washed down a wonderful pulled pork bun from the lovely man at Prairie Fire BBQ. By eck, even the flipping Mayor (of Camden, sorry Boris fans) showed up.

Anyway, I’ve written about my feelings on cans before, but in a nutshell (for those of you who don’t like being told to click on links when you’re right in the bloody middle of reading something), I think they are the future for packaged Good Beer. Bottles will be seen as premium and special; and bottle-conditioned beers will be treated with even more reverence as a result. Fresh, hoppy beers, however, especially those that have travelled some distance, almost always benefit from the total protection that a can provides.

What’s needed is a few other small UK breweries to take the plunge and get canning. It really needs to suit their image and branding, too. The Kernel, for example, would never can their beer and I wouldn’t want them to. There are some brewers however, whose branding and beers would be fantastic in canned form. Here’s my wishlist:

1. Magic Rock Brewing – Tell me – go on, just try – that Magic Rock’s madcap labels wouldn’t look sensational on a shiny can, especially the metallic ‘shiny football sticker’ labels given to their more limited beers. As for the freshness of those hoppy monsters, well, just imagine cracking open a can of Human Cannonball or Magic 8 Ball and let me know when you’ve finished drooling.

2. Tiny Rebel  Brewing Co – A brewery that’s going from strength to strength, Tiny Rebel are just the kind of brewer to embrace canned craft beer. Their labels could even make the cans look like the spray paint used by their hoodlum teddy bear mascot. Just the thought of beers like Hadouken and Full Nelson tasting brewery-fresh already has me all excited.

3. Oakham Ales – There’s something about Oakham’s beer labels that already reminds me of cans, as they often use a bright, rectangular image that could fit onto one just so. I’d love to be able to come home to a fridge full of cheeky, hop-faced cans of Citra, or, be still my beating heart, Green Devil IPA.

4. Beavertown Brewery – Beavertown’s bottled beers are almost always bottle-conditioned as far as I can tell, but if they could pull off can-friendly versions of Black Betty, Gamma Ray and 8 Ball, I think their branding would look even cooler than it already does on their bottles. Imagine cans of Beavertown at your next barbecue – surely a dream come true.

5. Meantime Brewing Co – It’s surprising in many ways that this old stalwart (over ten years old, people, that’s ancient) of the London brewing scene hasn’t dabbled in cans. They have the quality, consistency and capacity. Cans might not somehow suit the brewery’s schizophrenic mix of innovation and tradition, but really, they should.

I think the main issues, as is always the case with canning, is whether the brewers have the capacity and demand. BrewDog famously outsourced the brewing and canning of Punk IPA cans to Thwaites, but following the building of their new brewery, have taken canning of their beers back home.

Given that a brewer based under a railway arch (admittedly that goes for a lot of London brewers) can pull this off, surely plenty more can, too. What do you think? Is there a brewer in the UK who should be canning their beer and they aren’t? Or is it all a Craft Wanker fly-by-night flight of fancy, best left to them bloody Americans and that? Perhaps, but as Craig Heap notes, the UK has a tradition of canned beer innovation. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Urban Sessions – This Year’s Feel Good Hit of the Summer

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It was one of those blistering, unbeatable weekends of sun. Weather that we can expect to continue for a while. Weather that demands you search for a beer. Not just any beer. Only the best will do.

What do you do?

Get out to Hackney Wick. Take a cool Overground train (when it bothers to show up) out east and emerge onto the baking hot platform like you’ve just landed in Spain. Wander up a road for five minutes. Spy a sinister, 1930’s public baths bleached pale grey by the sun. Beer Here, says a sign. Dive in.

This is Urban Sessions. It’s a project that has transformed what is for all intents and purposes a community centre into a circus of beer, music, people and fun. Wandering, sunblind, into a suddenly dark space, I find myself tripping down stairs and emerging into a school-gym-sized space ringed with taps, kegs and casks. Scaffolding, bits of amusement park rides and Captain Pugwash adorn the few spaces not taken up with beer. Chalkboards proclaim magic words, booze and brewery names. Then, just like magic, some nice man appears and guides you to glass of cold beer: Magic Rock Simpleton, the 2.6% abv solution to a problem I only just realised I had.

A few gulps of this zesty, lightweight yet full-flavoured elixir and I can see properly again. ‘Oh look,’ I think, peering to one side of the room. ‘Belgium. And over there, the USA. And, Italy?’ This is no by-the-book selection of beers on offer, and rightly so, given that Melissa Cole is Urban Sessions ‘Benevolent Beer Dictator’. A constantly changing selection of 500 beverages will grace the bars at Urban Sessions over its three-month residency, with rotating range of 60 beers available at any one time. Over the summer, there will be live brewing sessions, meet the brewer events, live gigs and more. Considering this was the soft launch (plenty was still being constructed, but the majestic frame and skeleton of this wonderful beast was quite clearly in place), there was still an Untappd-busting range of beers on tap.

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Highlights included Flying Dog’s 4.2% and perfectly titled Easy IPA, Birra Toccalmatto’s super fresh and super juicy Re Hop pale ale, Weird Beard & Elusive’s Nelson Sauvin Saison, and Magic Rock’s new, pink grapefruit version of Salty Kiss, which is an absolute showstopper: sweet, sour, crisp, bitter, but grapefruit through and through. A summer blockbuster that demands another performance. But there’s tonnes more beer to try, and excellent staff to introduce you to them all. Credit must go to Melissa for getting these recruits whipped into shape. Everyone I spoke to was bright, knowledgeable, friendly and falling over themselves to get me tasters of anything.

If the indoor space impresses you, you’ll be blown away by the enormous outdoor area. Fields of seating, sand from all of your best holiday memories and soon, lots of belly-filling street food slingers to keep that beer company. As it was, there were some great people to drink with, names from Twitter that I’ve finally put handshakes to, and the happy, tipsy chatter of a group of people having a week’s worth of great beer and sunshine in one afternoon. A personal highlight was Norwich’s own Nate Southwood demanding that Stone ‘brew some shorts’. Every man can dream.

Urban Sessions is not just another place where there’s beer, food, music and people. Even in its incomplete state, Urban Sessions felt like something made with love, like the kind of place we all talk about opening in our rose-tinted bar-opening fantasies. Beer of all kinds to satisfy anyone, and if that isn’t enough, loads of high quality cider, spirits and cocktails too. Urban Sessions launches properly on Thursday 11th July, and from what I’ve seen, it’s set to take to be the most talked-about beer event in London this summer. I’ll see you there.

Un-Human Cannonball

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Thursday saw the launch of Magic Rock’s Un-Human Cannonball, a limited release 12% Triple IPA that will only be available once a year (effectively making it the British version of Russian River’s limited edition Pliny the Younger, the US beer geek pin-up Triple IPA).

The launch was at Craft Beer Co in Islington, where I was pleased to find Matt Curtis of Total Ales (who photobombed my picture above so excellently), Justin Mason of Get Beer Drink Beer and met various other lovely beery people for the first time, including Chris and Emma of Crema Brewery. The pub was rammed, and their bottles of Un-Human Cannonball had already sold out hours ago. Therefore, it was our simple duty to drink as much of the keg version as was available.

I rate Cannonball and Human Cannonball as two of the best IPAs being made in the UK, and Human Cannonball was my UK draught beer of the year. I’m an enormous fan of Magic Rock’s beers, and this was why I couldn’t help but be disappointed by Un-Human.

Before I’m chased by hopheads and beaten into a fine grist, I should explain that I would still give it 4 stars out of 5. It has an enormous body, even bigger flavours, and still drinks like a 5-6% IPA. No mean feat, and a delicious beer to boot. But given it’s heritage, that’s simply not good enough.

The original Cannonball is 7.4%, floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. It is a finely-honed, explosively tasty IPA. Human Cannonball is a 9% powerhouse of toffee, tropical fruit, pith and pine, but is so damn classy, so outrageously clear, defined and crystal-like in its clarity, that its strength is merely an aspect of its flavour and not the dominating characteristic. It’s a masterpiece.

Un-Human Cannonball couldn’t have been more different. It poured like a glass of brassy, hoppy mud. Not surprising really, given that Magic Rock’s description reads like hop pornography: “We used a mountain of Centennial, Citra & Columbus whole hops in the hop back and then the most dry hopping we’ve ever attempted, with 4 monster additions of Amarillo, Centennial, Simcoe, Citra and Chinook in cold conditioning.” That’ll give it a fair old hop haze, then.

The aroma was very similar to Human Cannonball (which, along with regular Cannonball, was also available on draught that night to help with a comparison), with lots of toffee, booze, pine and tropical fruit. Each sip was a shot of citrusy hops injected straight into your tongue, covered with a sticky toffee bandage and buried in flaming, brandy-soaked hop cones. After the smoke clears, a pine forest, a cannabis factory and a mango farm grow out of your tongue. It all felt so violent, intense and lacking refinement.

So what? Isn’t that the point, you ask? Isn’t this supposed to be a ludicrous, barely palateable hop bomb of insane proportions? Maybe, but I have come to expect better from Magic Rock. How can the 9% double IPA be sublime and then the 12% version be ridiculous? Perhaps a bridge too far. I’d be interested in reading how the bottles turn out, and if they have a little more clarity after a month or two in people’s cupboards.

That said, I had to have another measure just to be thoroughly sure. After all, to me it’s still a four-star beer. I also tasted some marvellous beers from Pizza Port, and practically inhaled a pork and venison pie with the help of the outstanding original Cannonball. There may even have been an ill-advised but completely delicious bottle of Cigar City Guava Grove involved. It was a great evening, and made just as good by the people as by all the excellent beer. I can also testify to feeling positively Un-Human the following day.

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