A Stiff Drink

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It’s hard not to chuckle a bit when BrewDog manufactures another controversy to get free publicity. Their latest, and possibly greatest, stunt is their new world-record beater — at 55% a.b.v. — The End of History. As if a 110 proof beer wasn’t enough, each of the limited bottles (only 12 were made) cost £500 (approx. $770 U.S.). And they sold out in mere hours to consumers from the Canada, Denmark, England, Italy, Scotland and the U.S. Why, you may ask — besides of course supply and demand? The answer is no doubt designed to bait the press and especially animal lovers, because each of the twelve bottles is inside a small stuffed animal. That’s right, a taxidermist placed a bottle inside the body of 4 squirrels, 7 weasels and 1 hare, all collected as roadkill.

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The BBC was the first to weigh in, calling it “perverse.” They got a twofer of outrage from both Advocates for Animals and Alcohol Focus Scotland. Libby Anderson, policy director for Advocates for Animals was quoted as saying “[i]t’s just bad thinking about animals, people should learn to respect them, rather than using them for some stupid marketing gimmick,” forgetting that animals are nearly ubiquitous in advertising, from cute and cuddly to perverse and scary. Remember the Foster’s Farm chickens driving around hoping to be eaten? She adds “[i]t’s pointless and it’s very negative to use dead animals when we should be celebrating live animals. I think the public would not waste £500 on something so gruesome and just ignore it.” Sorry Libby, I guess you don’t know the public as well as you thought, because it sold out in less than a day. Others have called it “shocking” and in “bad taste.”

Here’s how BrewDog describes the beer:

The End of History, at 55%, is the final installment of our efforts to redefine the limits of contemporary brewing.

This blond Belgian ale is infused with nettles from the Scottish Highlands and Fresh juniper berries. Only 12 bottles have been made and each comes with its own certificate and is presented in a stuffed stoat or grey squirrel. The striking packaging was created by a very talented taxidermist and all the animals used were road kill.

To me, the proof that it’s a put up lies in this fact. If you read much philosophy, perhaps the title of the beer, The End of History, sounds familiar? It should, because it’s taken from a 1992 book by Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History and the Last Man,” which itself was based on an earlier essay published in the international affairs journal The National Interest. Fukuyama’s original 1989 essay is online, and a percentage of the later book can be read online through Google Books. In referencing the title, BrewDog comments that “this is to beer what democracy is to history.”
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There’s also a pretty funny video about the End of History, you can find more about the beer at BrewDog’s website.

The End of History from BrewDog on Vimeo.

BrewDog In San Francisco

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Last night Monk’s Kettle in San Francisco hosted a little meet and greet with co-founder James Watt of BrewDog in Scotland. Having just enjoyed a cheesesteak together at Jim’s Steaks with James (and Greg Koch and Bill Covaleski) in Philadelphia the week before, I felt duty-bound to find out how he enjoyed the state sandwich of Pennsylvania.

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Dana Blum, from Anchor Brewing, James Watt, from BrewDog, and me at Monk’s Kettle.

I was handed a 5 a.m. Saint when I walked in joined the conversation already in progress. Apparently, cheesesteaks don’t compare favorably to haggis, but I think it’s all about what you grew up with, so I take no offense. We talked World Cup, Philly and beer, of course. John Dannerbeck and Dana Blum, both from Anchor Brewing, added golf to the discussion, and it turns out James is a big fan. I then moved on to the Hardcore IPA, brewed with American hops like Simcoe. At 9.2% a.b.v. and the Simcoe, it’s more like an American version, which is what they were going for.

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James pouring samples of Sink the Bismarck.

I was going to leave early, but James opened bottles of both Sink the Bismarck and Tactical Nuclear Penguin so I stuck around, not wanting to miss another opportunity to try them both. This version of Bismarck had far more peaty aromas than the last one I had — a plus, I think — and the Penguin had a thinner mouthfeel and more spirity flavors, with less roasted malt character.

World’s Strongest Beer Title Changes Hands Again

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After Samuel Adams’ Utopias and the 31% Schorschbräu, the folks at BrewDog beat them both last fall when they came out with Tactical Nuclear Penguin, at 32%. Then Schorschbräu answered back with a 40% version. In February, BrewDog launched Sink the Bismark, again over-taking their German rivals with the 41% hop bomb.

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Schorschbräu has now created a 43% Version, and is again — at least for now — the world’s strongest beer. Gizmag has a nice recap of the whole story.

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Sink The Bismarck: The Feud Continues

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I’m no longer sure what to make of the undoubtedly mock feud between Scotland’s BrewDog and Germany’s Schorschbräu over who can make the world’s strongest beer. I’m sure it’s great publicity for both companies, as each one-ups the other for the title. The latest salvo is BrewDog’s Sink the Bismarck, a clever name given the contestants.

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Unlike the last extreme BrewDog beer, Tactical Nuclear Penguin, this one is not a dark beer, but a hoppy one instead. Sink the Bismarck, at 41% abv, bests the latest 40% Schorschbräu beer by one percent.

Sink the Bismarck is a quadruple IPA that contains four times the hops, four times the bitterness and frozen four times to create at a staggering 41% ABV.

This is IPA amplified, the most evocative style of the craft beer resistance with the volume cranked off the scale. Kettle hopped, dry hopped then freeze hopped for a deep fruit, resinous and spicy aroma. A full out attack on your taste-buds ensues as the incredibly smooth liquid delivers a crescendo of malt, sweet honey, hop oils and a torpedo of hop bitterness which lasts and lasts.

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As the BrewDogs readily admit, the whole things is somewhat silly, and I’m sure more people will continue to be angered by all of this, in a sense, I think, missing the point. This is great marketing. And while not everyone liked Tactical Nuclear Penguin, so far the reviews I’ve seen for Sink the Bismark have been mostly positive. Michael Ironside, who writes Diary Of A Hop Head, thought it was “wonderful.” Mark Dredge, who writes Pencil & Spoon, had this to say about it:

Maybe the hoppiest beer I’ve ever had, earthy, citrus, floral, imperial. So thick and full bodied, like syrup, like honey. It smells like a hop sack, so fresh, uniquely fresh, like hop resin, hop oil on the finger tips. It’s sweet like candy but hot like bourbon, it’s smooth but jagged, it’s bitter, it’s intense, it’s astonishing. Five months in the making, this is insane US Extreme IPA meets Scottish whisky, an unimaginable blend.

I’ve bought a bottle and I’m glad. Sink the Bismarck, whatever you think about the name and the marketing approach (it’s a bit of fun, nothing more – initially the name is shocking but it’s more of a jovial up yours than a vicious fuck you), is a special beer. It might not be to everyone’s taste – in all senses – but it’s a remarkable achievement.

Mark was over in San Francisco for SF Beer Week and I had a chance to spend some time with him at a couple of events, to the point where I trust his opinions and appreciate his point of view. Mark was also declared “New Media Writer of the Year” by the British Beer Writers Guild, so I don’t think anyone can dismiss his opinions out of hand. This is not just an extreme stunt beer, but a great-tasting one, as well. I hope I can have an opportunity to try it for myself.

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Given that Schorschbräu’s website states that they’re at “40% and still going strong,” I’m sure we can expect yet another stronger release from them. What BrewDog has up their sleeve is anybody’s guess, but you can bet it’s something interesting.

Stone To Release Collaboration Video

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Stone Brewing, at 1:00 p.m. Pacific Time, will be releasing their latest video project, Stone Skips Across the Pond, a record of their collaborations with two breweries. [NOTE: the video, once released at 1:00 p.m. PST, will be available at Stone's Blog.] If you just can’t wait to see some of it, check out the trailer.

The first collaboration is with Nøgne Ø, the Norwegian craft brewery. After brewing there, the Stone team heads to Scotland to brew yet another collaboration with BrewDog.

I had an opportunity to screen the video last night, and it’s a fun short film at just under 30 minutes. It was filmed again by Redtail Media, the same team that created I Am A Craftbrewer. The production values are amazing. The film stars not just Greg Koch, but also his business partner Steve Wagner and head brewer Mitch Steele, some amazing landscapes, terrific looking food, some beer you’ll be jealous you didn’t have along with the brew crews at both Nøgne Ø and BrewDog. Looks like it was a fun time. It’s a great window into the camaraderie among brewers, regardless of national boundaries, in the craft beer world

Next Thursday, Part 2 will be released, followed by parts three and four on each subsequent Thursday. For now, enjoy part one.

Beer In Ads #26: McEwan’s Everyone’s Choice

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Wednesday’s ad is for the Scottish beer, McEwan’s, which until recently was owned by Scottish & Newcastle, but in 2007 it was split up and bought by both Heineken USA and Carlsberg, who each picked over its bones and took bits of it for themselves. Heineken got the McEwan’s brand.Who knows what its ultimate fate will be, though Heineken’s track record isn’t exactly geared toward preservation.

I don’t know when this ad was produced, but given the burning cigarette dangling above the McEwan’s man — taken from the Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals — in the ashtray. it certainly must be when smoking still didn’t carry the stigma is does nowadays. I love the tartan background and just the simplicity of the drawing.

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Tasting Tactical Nuclear Penguin

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I had a special treat today that was completely unexpected. One of the beers that my friend Phil Lowry — who owns Beer Merchants — brought along to the surprise birthday party for Rodger Davis (Triple Rock brewer) was BrewDog’s Tactical Nuclear Penguin. I’ll have more about Rodger’s party on Tuesday, his actual birthday. For now, I’ll concentrate on the BrewDog beer. I had been very keen to try it ever since I’d read about it.

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Tactical Nuclear Penguin, on the left, in its paper bag wrapper. In addition to the brown paper, it was also bound around the neck with a simple string, tied.

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Removing the wrapper, we poured it into small glasses for sharing. It was nearly black in color with very little carbonation or head. It was not thick or viscous at all like an imperial stout, unsurprisingly, and also appeared thin and wasn’t opaque by a long shot. Swirling the beer produced nice lacing inside the glass. I’d read the nose was smokey, but it seemed more peaty to me, on the order of an Islay whisky. That was the overriding aroma, though underlying that was more subtle soy, a surprising sweetness and chocolate and toffee malt. And there was a bit of heat; hot alcohol, though not as much as I expected.

The peat character continues into the flavor profile, with plenty more going on, too, happily. Most surprising is that the alcohol heat doesn’t seem out of place (which it definitely did in the Paradox — Penguin’s base beer — I had at The Rake earlier this year) but works with the other flavors. Caramel and chocolate notes along with a treacly sweetness, licorice and a meaty saltiness, which combined for a very different, but thoroughly enjoyable, beer. It all came together well.

Though the two are very different, it’s hard to not compare it with Samuel Adams Utopias, since both made their reputations, at least in part, because of their extreme strength. I think the Utopias is more complex and a little more smooth, but not by much. The Penguin had much stronger flavors that lingered not only long afterward but even after I’d had other beers. Driving home, the peatiness was still with me. I say that as a plus. The beer really stays with you.

My overall reaction is that the beer did live up to its hype. I can’t say much about the price, admittedly high, but given its scarcity and what it took to create it, I can’t say it’s unreasonable. But as for the taste, it truly is extraordinary, like nothing else I’ve ever had in a beer.

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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