Tactical Penguin Goes Nuclear

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Unless you’ve been ducking and covering under a rock, you no doubt saw that, while we were sitting down to eat turkey on Thursday, Scotland’s BrewDog released Tactical Nuclear Penguin, which they’re touting as the new champion “world’s strongest beer.” Weighing in at a robust 32% a.b.v., it bested the current American contender, Samuel Adams Utopias, by a whopping 5%. As is typical of the self-styled punks of beer, the release was amid controversy. Predictably, anti-alcohol groups in the UK wasted no time denouncing the beer’s strength as irresponsible, a laughable claim given Scotland’s whisky industry. Jack Law, head of Scotland’s own Alcohol Focus Scotland, said “it is child-like attention-seeking by a company that should be more responsible. The fact that they have achieved a new world record is not admirable. It is a product with a lot of alcohol in it – that’s all. To dress it up as anything else is cynical. It’s as strong as whisky, so you have to ask whether this is actually a beer or a spirit – it’s clearly a spirit.” So obviously the Scots have no shortage of ignorant blowhards in their neo-prohibitionist organizations, too. The fact that there are only 500 bottles and each one sells for £30 (almost $50) and is only a 330 ml (roughly 11.2 oz.) would suggest this is not cause for widespread panic, as it’s hardly going to be selling out of the local Tesco anytime soon.

Perhaps more surprising, one of BrewDog’s bitterest critics of late has been Roger Protz, the grand old man of CAMRA and British beer writing generally. I usually have great respect for Roger and all he’s done for beer, but he seems to have lost his mooring on this one and drifted out into the waters off insaneland. In today’s BrewDog Go Bonkers , he calls the BrewDog lads all sorts of unflattering names and accuses them of all manner of impropriety, even incorrectly accusing the new beer of not actually being a beer — it clearly is — and gets the barest details of its manufacture wrong, despite the fact that BrewDog’s website includes a video explaining how they created Tactical Nuclear Penguin.

He even throws his hat into the ring with the likes of Jack Law, head of Alcohol Focus Scotland, which I find almost unforgivable, especially given Law’s churlish quote about BrewDog’s “childlike attention-seeking.” Um, gentlemen, what exactly do you think marketing is? The very point is to get attention. You can disagree with the way a company goes about the marketing of their products, but calling it “childlike” or suggesting that it’s seeking attention is like saying the goal of advertising is to sell things. Duh. Paging Captain Obvious.

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James Watt in his penguin suit, with his newest beer.

Just two weeks earlier, in Enough Is Enough, Protz was again telling BrewDog’s James Watt and Martin Dickie it was time they “grew up and stopped behaving like a couple of precocious teenagers standing on a street corner with back-to-front baseball caps screaming for attention.” Wow. Watts referred to Protz, when he retweeted this, as “Grandpa Protz” and I think he may be onto it. I can’t imagine telling a brewer to grow up in print. That takes more cheek than I possess. They’re all adults, conducting their business the way they want to. But apparently taking their cue more from American sensationalist brewers than the often stodgy traditions of UK beer really ruffled Protz’s feathers. I know Roger to have strong opinions and to be a great champion of English brewing traditions, but these two anti-BrewDog posts seem more like personal attacks, as if they’ve offended him directly. As much as I hate to say it, he comes across as out of touch, a sentiment apparently shared by a great number of people who left comments to his posts. There were an enormous number pointing out the flaws in his reasoning and calling him on being set in his ways and unable to appreciate anything outside classic English beer’s range. Read the comments, they’re as illuminating as Protz himself, and are in many cases highly entertaining on their own.

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James Watt out of his penguin suit, with bottles of Tactical Nuclear Penguin.

From the press release:

This beer is about pushing the boundaries, it is about taking innovation in beer to a whole new level. It is about achieving something which has never before been done and putting Scotland firmly on the map for progressive, craft beers.

This beer is bold, irreverent and uncompromising. A beer with a soul and a purpose. A statement of intent. A modern day rebellion for the craft beer proletariat in our struggle to over throw the faceless bourgeoisie oppression of corporate, soulless beer.’

The Antarctic name inducing schizophrenia of this uber-imperial stout originates from the amount of time it spent exposed to extreme cold. This beer began life as a 10% imperial stout 18 months ago. The beer was aged for 8 months in an Isle of Arran whisky cask and 8 months in an Islay cask making it our first double cask aged beer. After an intense 16 month, the final stages took a ground breaking approach by storing the beer at -20 degrees for three weeks to get it to 32%.

For the big chill the beer was put into containers and transported to the cold store of a local ice cream factory where it endured 21 days at penguin temperatures. Alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than water. As the beer got colder BrewDog Chief Engineer, Steven Sutherland decanted the beer periodically, only ice was left in the container, creating more intensity of flavours and a stronger concentration of alcohol for the next phase of freezing. The process was repeated until it reached 32%.

Pete Brown, by contrast, has a far more measured reaction to BrewDog’s new beer. We agreed on what was the best part of the press release.

Beer has a terrible reputation in Britain, it’s ignorant to assume that a beer can’t be enjoyed responsibly like a nice dram or a glass of fine wine. A beer like Tactical Nuclear Penguin should be enjoyed in spirit sized measures. It pairs fantastically with vanilla bean white chocolate it really brings out the complexity of the beer and complements the powerful, smoky and cocoa flavours.

Pete takes the right approach IMHO, wanting to focus on the beer itself, which he describes as “an Imperial Stout that has been matured in wooden casks for eighteen months. It has then been frozen to minus twenty degrees at the local ice cream factory in Fraserburgh. By freezing the beer to concentrate it this way, they get the alcoholic strength.” Hard to say what it might taste like, but Pete speculates it will have “very rich, smooth, mellow and complex flavour.” Also, like him, I’m certainly keen to find out. I recently attended a Utopias beer dinner, my third tasting of this year’s version, which is 27%, tantalizingly close to Penguin’s 32%. It’s a wonderful beer, but its release was not accompanied by the frenzy of this beer. Likewise, other very strong beers like Schorschbräu (at 31%), Hair of the Dog Dave (at 29%), as far as I know, did not cause any beer writers to scold them for their efforts. So what’s the difference?

As to the question of whether or not it’s beer, Pete continues:

I once attended a breakfast hosted by Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams, father of the awesome Utopias. I asked him a similar question — is this still beer? — and was inspired by his answer. He said something along the lines of beer has been around for thousands of years. Over that time it has evolved continually, and the pace of evolution has picked up considerably in the last couple of centuries. “How arrogant would we have to be to say that in this time, our time, we’ve done everything with beer that can be done? That we’ve perfected beer?” he asked me.

This is why when I love Brew Dog, I really do love them. It’s easy — and not always inaccurate — to accuse them of arrogance. But not when they do something like this. It’s far more arrogant to say ‘we can’t possibly improve on our beer’ than it is to never stop trying to do precisely that. In my marketing role, I often hear brewers talk about something like a slightly different bottle size and refer to it as ‘innovation’. Brew Dog are genuine innovators on a global stage, redefining what beer can actually be.

I guess I just don’t understand the bombastic reaction the release of this beer produced and the way in which it and the brewer’s intentions have been misinterpreted. Why wouldn’t any beer lover want to try it? After all, it really should be about the beer.

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Comments

  1. says

    Just goes to show that “grand old man” can be a euphemism for “guy whose ship sailed long ago if he ever had one.” I have never seen why Protz receives the regard he has (other than his self-anointment soon after Jackson’s passing) and now I’ll never have to think about it again. This tantrums points out his inability to deal with the experimental – even if his point might otherwise be a well made one.

  2. Brian says

    I’m all for pushing the boundaries of beer, but…

    “By freezing the beer to concentrate it this way, they get the alcoholic strength.”

    Isn’t this a type of distilling? If you’re freezing the beer and removing the ice to increase the alcohol, how is this any different than heating the beer to concentrate the alcohol (as whiskey distillers do)?

    I want to define beer as “grains that have been fermented w/ yeast” but that would also include sake. So….?

    Regardless, I’m interested in trying it and think that all the criticisms are unwarranted (except for questioning if it is beer, that’s legitimate).

    • says

      Brian,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s not actually the same as distilling. In distilling, the alcohol is extracted, leaving all the solids behind. What becomes the distilled liquor is what’s left when the solids are removed.

      By contrast, in the Eisbock method, which has a long tradition in German brewing, you freeze the beer, removing the water, which makes the beer more concentrated, thus upping the percentage of alcohol. But you keep everything that’s discarded in distillation, the solids, which include the proteins, dextrins, hops, hop resins, fiber, malt, malt color, etc. As a result, in a way the process is the opposite of distillation. All of the ingredients that makes it a beer are retained, only some of the water is removed. So what’s left I’d say is most definitely a beer.

      Here’s more about Eisbock, from the German Beer Institute: http://www.germanbeerinstitute.com/Eisbock.html

      As for Sake, I’d also argue that it is a beer, a rice beer, because it’s fermented from a grain using a process similar to beer, whereas as wine is naturally fermented fruit.

      Wikipedia’s take:

      Sake is also referred to in English as rice wine. However, unlike true wine, in which alcohol is produced by fermenting the sugar naturally present in fruit, sake is made through a brewing process more like that of beer. To make beer or sake, the sugar needed to produce alcohol must first be converted from starch. But the brewing process for sake differs from beer brewing as well, notably in that for beer, the conversion of starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol occurs in two discrete steps, but with sake they occur simultaneously.

  3. says

    Thanks for the explanation to Brian, my thinking was along the same lines as his, and now I can see both ways. Whatever you want to call this drink, it is definitely unique, and something that people can talk about. I am glad they are using the press to their advantage.

  4. says

    Interesting post Jay – though I think it is full of some delicious ironies…such as saying that Roger has drifted ‘out into the waters off insaneland’ while lines later saying that you can’t imagine telling a brewer merely to grow up in print. Do you confine your courtesy just to brewers and not fellow writers?

    In the same post that you have excoriated Roger for telling BrewDog to grow up you have celebrated Pete Brown’s moderation. But Pete posted an almost identical rant to Roger’s about BrewDog on 8 November for their “schoolboy pranks” which included a very direct call to BrewDog to “either grow up, or get out.”

    Likewise, finishing the post by suggestion it should all be about the beer when BrewDog’s controversy seeking publicity seeks to make the story about anything but the beer – James wearing a penguin suit, that’s marketing. Launching a 32% beer on the day that the Scottish Parliament is debating an anti-alcohol bill, that’s akin to wearing a bedsheet to a Black Panther rally and wondering why everyone’s upset. I think Pete says it best: “There’s no place in the craft beer world for someone who seeks publicity by winding up regulatory bodies just for the sake of it, sending an early Christmas present to neo-prohibitionist Op-Ed writers in the process.” How is it that Roger’s is a ‘tantrum’ (@Alan) when Pete’s isn’t?

    @Brian has already made the point above that there is a legitimate discussion to be had over whether this is a beer or something else. Despite how it begins life, whisky is not beer. Just because this is frozen rather than heated may not change that, I don’t know. I love whisky and I would be fascinated to try the Penguin – but I’m happy to discuss whether it is, in fact, beer.

    • says

      Matt,

      Damn you for keeping me honest. You make very good points about my own inconsistencies. I guess none of us are perfect, eh? And of course, writers get no civility. 😉

      I did miss Pete’s earlier post, I’ll have to go back and read that one.

      J

  5. says

    Cheers Jay – Roger’s just such a wonderful writer and great bloke that I hate to seem him getting a lash like that.

    I must say as well that when I commented I hadn’t had the benefit of your comment about distillation vs freezing. I’m sold, it’s a beer and yours is the best explanation I’ve seen on the topic!

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