Friday 21 February 2014

BrewDog: diacetyl machine and all

There’s a machine for testing diacetyl, snug and secure in the cabin-sized, glass fronted laboratory that looks out onto the cavernous, cathedral-like (vast and open as in the starkness of a great northern European space for worship rather than one in the south, Malaga for instance) brewing hall with its steel ribs reaching out and holding up the sky (and keeping out the sky); there’s a machine for blasting more hops into the FVs, silvery, towering cylinders sitting out in the grey, chilly morning that is the colour of mud-streaked chalk, a hop cannon says Martin Dickie; who wants to climb to the top asks James Watt and a couple of hardy souls clamber up the steel ladders. Back inside the cathedral of a brewing floor there are miles of metal pipes through which beer flows; there is the hum of machines and there is the clang of metal and there is the voices of brewers as they get on with their day’s work.

Then there is the clinking, chinking, ice-and-a-slice-in-a-glass-of-G&T music of bottles of Jack Hammer as long lines twirl their way around the bottling line (Peter West really should be here). The bottles slow down, gather together, like wildebeest on one of their great treks, or a crowd being funnelled into the turnstiles when Saturday comes, crowding together for comfort and then they are bedded down, 24 bottles intimate in a cardboard box, no street drinkers these.

The brewing floor of BrewDog is noisy and purposeful, a vast conclave of stainless steel cardinals gathering together to elect the next beer pope. The noise is reminiscent of the 1980s band Collapsing New Buildings and thoroughly melodic in the effect it has on the brain. Come inside a container says BrewDog’s James Watt, quietly spoken, slightly shy it seems to me, nothing like the reprehensible, irresponsible that some have suggested, come inside where we leave Sink The Bismarck; there’s a wreath of cold air, it’s -25˚c inside here, gone in 30 seconds.

I’ve always liked BrewDog, I’ve always liked the swagger, the up yours and even the wind-up gramophone of slight hysteria, but in recent years they seemed to have slipped off my radar: the punk aesthetic was becoming tiresome (after all punks grow up, or in my case grow their hair a little longer). Hardcore is my favourite beer of theirs and I’ve always enjoyed visiting the bars in Camden and Bristol; I pick up Punk when I see it and Dead Pony is rather special. But…I have felt divorced from them, felt that they were doing lots of different beers, crowd sourcing and collaborations amongst them (didn’t enjoy the Flying Dog one for instance, which I felt disappointed with in a bar in Rimini), dude-ing it up, and there was nothing substantial for me to think or drink about. There’s also the revivalist nature of the fans. I’m always suspicious of evangelical movements, whatever the nature. It is just beer after all.

But…when the invitation came to fly up north to Aberdeen and spend a day in their company, drink their beers, see the new (13 months old) brewery, hear about their plans, visit their bar and eat at Musa, I said yes, even though there remained a cynical part of me that asked my inner ethicalist (a rarely awaken kraken-like segment of me that is usually asleep in an Arcadian grove where everything is jolly nice): would it be a stunt? Would we (there were 10 of us, from the UK, Norway, Finland and France) be met by a man in a gorilla’s suit on a bicycle with 10 seats? Would we discover that the brewery didn’t exist and that it was a cosmic joke on those of us who dare to approach the unstoppable and bewildering bewitchment of beer with the same seriousness that other writers treat rock culture? On the other hand, this wouldn’t be your typical corporate brewery trip where the PR type, eyes gleaming with a messianic beam of righteousness, would blab on forever why this brewery (or maybe it’s that brewery or the brewery over there even) had finally understood craft — here have a glass of our craft beer (re-badged and reborn and re-jigged with its own Grizzly Adams beard and aslant Tibetan prayer flat cap).

In the tasting room we go past friendly people doing the sort of jobs that all breweries require their people to do, whether craft, kreft or completely unaware of what point of the compass they should proceed; in the tasting room we gather, beer bottles popped, caps rattle-trapping on the table, glasses hustled by the quicksilver approach of beer. James Watt had sidled in earlier on, before our expedition onto the brewery floor, quiet, seemingly shy, introducing himself (well what was I expecting, Loki?), thanking us for coming in a voice that was mid-Atlantic Scots, and gradually warming to his theme: we make the beer we like to drink. Then Martin followed, a thicker Scottish brogue, slow and stately, deep, a ponytail in his wake.

And after the brewery tour we began tasting beer.

Punk IPA has its trademark pungent and arousing nose, peach and apricot skin (ripe and luscious after time spent in the sun); lychees, papaya, mangos trip off the tongue, while I pick up a gentle touch on the elbow of white pepper in the dry and grainy finish. Jack Hammer is a bigger beast, with the bitterness clanging away like an alarm bell announcing that the Vikings have just landed and all must fight or die. Dead Metaphors is the colour of a moonless night, smoky, coffeeish, chocolaty, both lean and creamy-smooth in the mouth, a counterpoint between the dark, dark, dark into which we all go and the soothing milk stout flurry of benevolent violins (for this we thank Richard Taylor and Rob Derbyshire).

This is something new says James Watt, AB15, an imperial stout with salt caramel and popcorn in the mix, a beer that has ruminated and contemplated time in both rum and bourbon casks before being blended together. It’s vanilla, woody, velvety, rich and spirituous, sweet, caramel-like and a sly shoulder-barge-when-the-ref-isn’t-looking of saltiness manifesting itself on the back of the tongue; there’s an opulent, silk sheets kind of sweetness, before there’s a knock on the door of the five-star bedroom that the beer has become, announcing that dinner will be served, but do continue to linger with the beer; it’s a multi-layered and complex-flavoured beer where flavour notes crash all over the palate like neutrons in a particle accelerator before coming together in a steady stream of all that vanilla, caramel, berry fruit, smoke, coffee and complete pleasure.

Later on James and a couple of others drive us to the original brewery in Fraserburgh, cold and closer to the sea than I would like to be, robust and rugged, experimental (white IPA, mango Berliner Weiss), friendly brewing staff. And it’s then that you begin to realise how small and near the knuckle things were for BrewDog in the early years. Two men and a dog (the latter sadly dead — James Watt and I shared a few quiet moments talking about dogs), equipment cobbled together, tight-fisted banks, so perhaps you can see why they felt the need to act the way they did in those early years (there are things we wouldn’t do now said James Watt). It got up the noses of the brewing industry, pissing off some pretty decent brewing people, but that’s the past. 

As we got into Aberdeen and drank beer at the BrewDog bar and then great beer and food matches at Musa I made up my mind: BrewDog are a force for good, they might not always get it right (my glass of Fake Lager had seemingly escaped the diacetyl machine but the next one hadn’t so this was that great issue that effects all beer: dispensation), they are not in it for the short term (for god’s sake they’re still in their early 30s), the beer often reaches heights that Buzz Aldrin would envy (though there have been lows that Dante Alighieri would have known about) and there’s a force of nature about them that suggests they might sometimes get it wrong but more often or not they will get it right.

Do I really have to spell out disclosure? I got flown out there, got my accommodation and beer and food paid for, but that’s my job. As it is with travel, if you expect journalists to pay their own way then you get people with private incomes doing the gigs — I’m independent but this trip came as a beautiful surprise.

Highbury in the late 1980s when we won the title after a 18-year drought, how times change…


  1. What a wonderful, nail on the head article, thanks Adrian.

  2. Metaphor-laden, as text about something so sensory should be. I was up there in Fraserburgh for the day to brew said experimental beer, and hope it'll reach the potential it and the people who make the other beers in the range deserve.

  3. Yeah great article and, as a shareholder, I salute you:)

  4. Fabulous story. Adrian, are you aware that the Helsinki brewpub Bruuveri has made an Arsenal double IPA, and a second version with some spices ..

  5. cheers all and thanks Ari for the news about the Arsenal beer, well have to seek out

  6. Adrian, I like your conclusion on the evolution of BrewDog, the good, the bad, the ugly, but ultimately progress.