Tuesday, July 27, 2010

In Defense of BrewDog

I am not lying to you when I say the Robin Lopez post is done.  But given the fact that I have a few new readers now (or so I am intuiting? deducing?), I figure I'd talk about something we can all get behind.  Beer.  Well, I guess what I want to talk about isn't something everyone can get behind.  I want to talk about BrewDog.

For those of you unfamiliar, of which there should be few, BrewDog is a brewery from Scotland known for brewing beers that have an ABV content upward of 55%.  I say there should be few of you unfamiliar with BrewDog because it has a received a huge amount of mainstream press.  They started with a beer called Tactical Nuclear Penguin which clocked in at 32%, believed at the time to be the world's most alcoholic beer.  Some other brewer bested that ABV, so BrewDog released Sink the Bismark, which clocked in at 41%.  Well, what's creating the brew-ha-ha (puns!) now is their new release The End of History (EOH), a beer clocking in at a whopping 55%.  Not only that, but they only made 11 bottles of them.  And they're selling them for $760-$1100.  And each bottle is wrapped in a taxidermed (not sure that's a word) squirrel.  Here's a picture:

The mainstream media did their usual "Isn't this wacky!" and

pieces, but the craft brew drinkers went nuts!  Nuts in a bad way.  If you care to register for BeerAdvocate.com, which you should, you can read some of the vitriol here.  Beer people are not happy.  But that's anonymous commenting on the internet.  Anonymous commenters on the internet are never happy.  There's just no pleasing those guys!  But here's a funny thing.  Legit beer writers weren't too happy about this either.  Brew Club hints at it.  But lovers of all good things alcohol, and friends of the 1000BeerYear, Beer and Whiskey Brothers go right at it.  I just want to say, Beer and Whiskey Bros. is one of my favorite beer/alcohol blogs on all of the internet.  If you're reading this blog and not theirs, well, you're an idiot, but I appreciate that you're not reading them because their writing makes mine look like amateur hour and if anybody gets wind that there is good beer writing out there, I'm done!  Done I tells ya!  With that precursor of mad props and respect out there, I have to say, I think they couldn't be more wrong on this one.  Allow me to tell you why.

First I want to say that in fairness to the Bros, they didn't really present an argument, just a series of impressions or feelings they had about EOH, and it is pretty silly to try to "refute" or "defend against" someone's opinions or feelings.  That said, I still think they are wrong.  Second, I wouldn't write this at all if it wasn't for BrewDog's brewer James Watts coming across like a complete lunatic and angry, angry person when he tried to defend his beer to angry internet commentators.  I believe his first mistake was responding to people anonymously commenting on the internet.  Third, AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, read their piece.  I'll link to it again.  And once more for good measure.  As always I do my best not to strawman, but keep me honest and read the thing for yourself.  With that said, let's do this thang.

If I'm understanding the criticism correctly (which it's very likely that I am not), it's that BrewDog is more attention-seeker than brewer.  And this is bad for beer.  The whole article is essentially an explanation of the facts (high ABV beer, silly costumes, weird packaging, etc), explained in, let's say, a less than favorable manner, in order to lead up to the following sentence:

"If I had any doubt that BrewDog cared more about the media than the people drinking their beers, I don’t now.   The guys are using craft beer for glory and profit and aren’t really giving anything back."

You know, I've tried to wrap my brain around this, and I just don't understand the vitriol for a beer that is 1) admittedly mainly an academic exercise and 2) never been tasted by anyone throwing around the criticisms.  Yes, BrewDog loves hype.  Yes, the squirrels and the wacky press releases primarily serve the hype.  But when has marketing been a no-no in craft beer?  If you look at the squirrels as just another form of packaging, like naming your beer something wacky (and if you have ethical concerns about the use of these road-killed animals, well, you better check your moral consistency meter because I'd wage dollars to donuts that it's pointing directly at "hypocritical"), then how is BrewDog unique?  Craft beer is riddled with silly names and silly roll-out events.  You don't like the squirrels because it's too ridiculous?  Well, I'd imagine you're not pleased with Stone's Arrogant Bastard, or Santa's Butt, or Monkey's Butt (ok, that beer is actually gross), or any number of gimicky beer names.  I don't think you can really have it both ways here.  Either craft beer is somehow above the fray of marketing, or I guess more specifically, irreverant marketing, in which case chuck out the names of almost all of 21st Amendment's brews, or it's not.  To say the only kind of zaniness allowed in the craft beer market is the type that illicits dry, golf-clap-esque chuckles is just wrong-headed.  While it may go toward "Respecting Beer," I think it disrespects beer drinkers.  Because saying this type of marketing is bad for beer is a normative judgment.  It says craft beer drinkers shouldn't be exposed to this.  Or maybe it says that real craft beer drinkers wouldn't want to be exposed to this.  Either way, critisizing EOH based on packaging and marketing makes craft beer drinking out to be an elitist endeavor which, based on just about every beer-festival I've ever been to, it most certainly is not, nor should it be.

As to placing more emphasis on media than the people drinking their beers, I think that it's kind of a strange claim to make against a beer that is literally only available to 11 people.  Those 11 people, the people drinking the beers, I believe, are the people BrewDog most ardinantly cares about.  No one is forcing anyone to buy EOH (or for that matter TNP or STB).  I think the people that are buying it are beer drinkers that think to themselves, "Holy Hell, a 55% beer?  I've got to try that."  Given that's the limited market, BrewDog delivers exactly what those drinkers want.  It's weird to talk about it being a substandard 55% ABV beer, given that at that point, standard tasting criteria for beer go out the window.  If I were still in grad school, and thank Satan I am not, I'd probably write a term paper on Wittgenstein and tasting 55% beer, but the distilled (pun?) point is that at that point, you have to throw out all your tasting concepts and criteria.  You can not like it, but what you can't do is not like it because it doesn't taste like a 55% beer should.  If there were actually criteria for this type of beer, then maybe the claim that they care more about media than their drinkers would be legit.  But there isn't.  So it isn't.

It's another thing to say they don't care about the people drinking the beer if you're talking about the extremely limited distribution/high cost.  If you think that that's just another marketing trick, and that if BrewDog really cared about beer drinkers they would let more than 11 people try this, then you may have a claim.  But similarly, couldn't we also throw stones at Westvleteren for its rather intense restrictions on its beer distribution?  Is it the brewer's duty to put its beer in as many people's hands that want it?  I've talk about this briefly before and will probably do so again in the future, but my gut tells me the limited distribution isn't a marketing trick so this whole point is moot. 

Unfortunately, what I really think is telling in the Bros' criticism is their contention that they would be more willing to accept this beer if it came from a Dogfish Head or a Bruery.  This is sort of a tough point to argue against because I think it goes not just to the core of a beer drinker's philosophy, but to the core of a person's whole life view as well.  Ok, maybe that's a touch overblown.  Unless you have some ethical reasons not to (like Yuengling and their union busting or Macrobrew and their farming policies), I think a true beer drinker shouldn't discount any beer just because of the label on the bottle.  Discounting a beer because it's not sufficiently "credentialed" reeks of snobbish elitism and needlessly puts a limiting principle on a beer drinker's drinking.  When I say this went to the core of a beer drinker's philosophy I mean this: There are two fundamental ways to approach beer drinking.  You can ask what the beer is and then drink it or you can drink it and then ask what the beer is.  I know, I know, 9 times out of 10 you know what beer you're drinking before you drink it, but the point is, would you rather have a pre-conceived judgment of the beer or would you rather go in blank?  Would you rather have a rubic by which to measure what you're about to drink to see if its for you or would you rather drink it, see if you like it, and then see where it maps onto your previous concepts of what a beer should taste like?  When we start forming instant judgments about a beer, Dogfish Head = Good, BrewDog = Bad, before we've had the beer, well, then we're not being honest craft beer drinkers.  It's funny to invoke Dogfish Head here, because if I recall, before they became the rockstars of the craft beer world, they were prejudged for their "extreme" behavior.  10% ABV?  Who would do that?  That's not beer!  Dry hopping for 120 minutes!  You're not thinking of the beer drinker!  You may not like their marketing style, but if getting up in arms about a high ABV beer just because it's a high ABV beer, well that feels a little bit like deja vu all over again.  So I fail to see how BrewDog, just by making a seriously high ABV beer, isn't "respecting beer."  But I would say that if we are judging a beer based on the bottle and not the contents of the bottle, we maybe respecting our previous experiences/prejudices, but we are not respecting beer.


  1. I have no problem with their marketing tactics. In everything that I have been around, getting your name out in the news or getting people to talk about your product is your end goal.

    What I really do not understand is when people go from bashing their marketing to bashing their beer. TNP, StB and EOH are not their beers that people should judge the brewery on. I love most of their other beer. 5 AM Saint, Punk IPA and Tokyo* are staples in my fridge.

    (Great points about DogfishHead)

  2. Wow, Ryan, thanks for the kind words about our blog and all the links. I love your above-board approach here.

    I tend to write from the gut, and this whole BrewDog thing rubs me the wrong way, mostly because these guys are putting out crazy products to get attention, not to please beer drinkers. I've had Tactical Nuclear Penguin and it was awful - a total mess.

    My point about being on board if Dogfish Head or Avery brewed a mega-ABV beer is based on the fact that I trust them as brewers. I know they won't let a bad product hit the market just so they can get media attention. They care more about their brand and the quality of their beer to let that happen. Having tasted BrewDog's attempt, I can say they don't share the same concerns, and that deeply discounts my opinion of them as brewers.

    The fact that they wrapped their latest effort in an animal carcass only reinforces the fact that they are doing this for the attention, not the craft.

    In the end, they are trying to take a shortcut to notoriety in the craft beer world, not based on brewing amazing, unique beers that area joy to drink, but by creating Frankenstein beers that are all about the stats. No thanks.

    To me, their priorities are clear and they are different than mine, so I've decided to part ways with the brand for good. I'm tired of thinking and typing about it, and so I'm done with BrewDog.

    I wish them all the success, but most beers they brew are easily replaced with a domestic offering that is less expensive and better crafted. That's what I'll be having.

  3. My two cents (more like a buck-fifty): http://bit.ly/9BJqZq

  4. @Katie - that makes me laugh every time. I might actually like to ride in a rocket-powered grocery cart after reading that!

  5. See...that's just the kind of mayhem I like to induce...BrewDog as well. I've spoken to James and I know his heart is really in his brewing...he takes the beer seriously, but he doesn't take himself (or the industry) quite so seriously. There's a lot to be said for a maverick who will thumb their nose up at the inherent pretentiousness of their industry. Given the amount of competition out there today on a store shelf, you have to "yell louder" than everyone else if you are going to be heard above the din. That being said, if your product sucks no one will return for seconds, but given the subjectivity of beer, wine or anything else gastronomic, one man's crap is another man's treasure...or something like that.

  6. A fine post indeed! You make some great points that I think apply to any beer really - mainly to keep an open mind.

    Sure these guys are off the wall with their stunts, but I don't necessarily think that makes them less concerned about beer drinkers or the quality of their beer. They understand, as Katie mentioned, the need to stand out in a very crowded arena.

    Limited edition, very expensive beer encased in taxidermed rodents will work. Is it any good? I suppose the 11 or so people who bought it think so!

    (For the record, Bob the Brit penned out post.)