IT’S TIME TO STAND UP TO BREWDOG

With a deep sense of frustration and disappointment I read Brewdog’s announcement this week of the release of Ghost Deer, their new Blonde Ale. Clocking in at a robust 28% ABV, Ghost Deer is the world’s strongest fermented beer. While not giving away their tricks, founders James Watts and Martin Dickie hint at a procedure involving “a variety of yeast strains [used] during the elephantine process and drip fed the fermented masterpiece exotic sugars to ensure the yeast lived long enough to continue the fermentation.” Brewdog have long been pioneers in the extreme beer space with such offerings as Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Sink the Bismarck, and The End of History (the last famously packaged in the carcasses of small dead animals). I suppose this is a good time to mention that Ghost Deer will only be served from a solitary tap that will rotate between Brewdog’s brewpubs and dispenses the potent brew from the mouth of a stuffed deer head.

In trademark Brewdog-style the promotional video for the release takes cheap potshots at Brewdog foes Schorschbräu and Jim Koch, founder of Sam Adams who held the previous “naturally fermented” title with their line of Utopia beers. The video is brash, disrespectful, and totally antithetical to the sense of camaraderie, brotherhood, and collaboration found in today’s craft beer movement; I, for one, am sick of it.

Here in America, the evolution of craft beer is moving at breakneck speed. With over 1700 breweries and 600 more in planning, there’s never been a time when differentiation between these new operations was so vital. Yet we continue to see new breweries roll out new IPAs, Brown Ales, and the like. Where is our sense of adventure? Where is our beacon of brewing absurdity?

We are the country of Alehead extremophiles that has Marty Cornel whipped into such a lather. Our hops addiction is leading an international shift in beer taste, causing traditional brewers like Duvel to modify classics catering to our lupuline longings. Each day new experimental beers are introduced to the US market that blur and challenge traditional concepts of beer styles; yet when it comes to crowning the “World’s Most Radical Brewery” there is really only one contender- it’s Brewdog. If brewing extreme beers was a sport, Brewdog would be Michael Jordan in his prime, playing in the WNBA.

We have seen the enemy, and he has a great rack

Brewdog’s critics like to say that the brewery is all about “style over substance” and focus on their offensive videos and penchant for taxidermy; these are but red herrings that allow their extreme beers to get wide-spread media attention from an industry that doesn’t know IBU from ABV. Brewdog is all about the beer; they make statements with their beer, even challenging the very notion of what a beer can be. Once again, Brewdog has thrown down the gauntlet. But will any brewer representing the Stars and Stripes pause long enough pick it up amidst their race for growth and increased distribution?

Because life is simple and clearly delineated, there are only four types of craft breweries in the US right now that could take a crack at an extreme beer along the lines of Ghost Deer: very large national or regional (e.g. Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Stone, Deschutes, Dogfish Head), strong regional (Victory, Terrapin, Great Divide, Russian River), local/ artisanal (Pretty Things, Ninkasi, 5050), and nano (you’ve never heard of them unless they’re in your area, and may or may not conduct brewing operations in a basement, garage, or yurt). Here are some projected reasons they might give for not taking a shot a Brewdog’s record:

  • Very large national/ regional: “Producing a 30% ABV beer is not in line with our growth model or penetration into new markets.”
  • Strong Regional: “We are currently running at capacity and barely able to service our limited distribution area. Producing a 30% beer is not currently something we are looking to do.”
  • Local/ artisanal: “Our commitment is to produce fine, hand-crafted ales that our customers love. Producing extreme beers is not in line with that mission.”
  • Nano: “We don’t have the time or resources to devote to such a project while we are tyring to get our dream brewery off the ground. We’re brewing in a yurt, goddammit. I made our labels with a stolen copy of PhotoShop.”

Good reasons, all. I suppose you could argue that there is no logical reason to try to produce such a strong beer, and plenty of reasons not to: you might fail, it’s expensive, and it takes focus away from brewing those money-making flagship brews. But it hasn’t seemed to have slowed down Brewdog. No other brewery has made such a concerted and focused effort toward the extreme beer segment of the market, and their growth figures in their Equity For Punks fundraising campaign tell the story:

I don't have an MBA, but this is good, right?

These extreme beers aren’t just another brew in the lineup; they’re research, development, and marketing pieces in a pint glass. Sure, Ford makes its money from mass-producing Fiestas and F-150s, but they also put out a Shelby GT500 from time-to-time to keep the brand vital and interesting.

This is a call to American craft brewers to take on the haggis-eaters at their own game. Just think of the publicity that would come with taking on Brewdog in a fermentation war! We can make it stronger. We have the technology. Let’s bring the title of “World’s Most Radical Brewery” back to the most absurd country in the world.

U-S-A! U-S-A!

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20 comments

  1. I’m actually of the categorically opposite mindset. I hate everything that Brew Dog represents. It is not what craft brewing is to me, and should thus be ignored. I wish their kitschy, gimmicky marketing and egotistical asshole brewers would be ignored by the public. Sadly, what they are doing is working. If I had to draw an analogy, they are US Weekly or The Inquirer, pandering to the masses with some piss poor products, while there are breweries out there like Deschutes or Russian River, who are The New Yorker.

    But, we never fail to take the bait, and we post blogs and raise hell about the controversy that is Brew Dog, when they should simply be ignored, and hopefully that would result in a plummeting of sales in the US, since the beer really isn’t comparable, in my opinion, to breweries even in my home community. They should be ignored. If they want the title of champion of the world’s strongest fermented beer, so be it. I won’t be purchasing it, getting on their web site, or doing anything to contribute to the betterment of their market share, because I feel that their product is inferior as is their egotistical approach to brewing. Eff them.

  2. Jeff- I used to feel that way, but their irreverence with this one has finally won me over. I haven’t had enough of their beer to draw judgment (just the Punk IPA which was shipped over the Atlantic which isn’t great for any beer). I’ve heard that their beer fresh at the brewpub is quite good, that they emphasize great customer service, and have really been the lone leader in promoting “American-style” craft beer in the UK.

  3. Baba Brewy · ·

    I see a company like Dogfish Head (we found this recipe buried in an ancient field in Mongolia and we recreated it exactly) taking the bait but I don’t think any other breweries care that much to produce the DeLorean of beers. I’d rather my beloved Stone, Sam Adams and Russian River not focus on creating novelty beers and rather keep doing what they are doing and do it well. Brew Dog has some solid beers but these monstrosities don’t prove anything and need to end.

  4. BeerBanker · ·

    Yeah, watching Sam C. chew up a load of corn and spit it out really classes up the US craft beer image. It’s just marketing hype, grow up and ignore it like you’d ignore a whiny 2 year old. BD is in a fundamentally different market from the US with totally different mindsets in their customer base and with totally different expectations from their brewers.

    I like their Double IPA, but am sick and tired of hearing folks complain about them. There’s too many damn fine beers brewed here for me to give a flip about some loudmouth brewery in Scotland.

  5. I also have no use for BrewDog. Their gimmickry was tiresome quite a while ago. I won’t drink anything from them, if only because it’s all so expensive in the U.S. and there’s a million better things to drink.

  6. @ Jeff Peters

    I would disagree with your comments on the beers we brew. We won the gold medal for Imperial India Pale Ale at the 2010 World Beer Cup, and the Gold Medal for Barrel Aged catagory in the previous WBC. We also have some very highly rated beers like this one http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/brewdog-abstrakt-ab04/130879/

    Compared to the US, the UK is pretty much a dessert (with the notable recent exceptions of Kernel, Magic Rock, Thornbridge and Dark Star) for progressive craft beer, dominated by monolithic lagers and generic boring ales

    For us, everything comes back to one overarching ambition and to one guiding light: to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are. We want to show people there is an alternative to monotone corporate beers, introduce them to a completely new approach to beer and elevate the status of beer in our culture. Drinkers in Scotland are constrained by lack of choice. Seduced by the monolithic corporate brewers huge advertising budgets. Brain-washed by vindictive lies perpetrated with the veracity of pseudo-propaganda. They can’t help but be sucked down the rabbit hole. We are on a mission to open as many people’s eyes as possible. This is what motivates us and this is why we love brewing progressive ales. Whether it is wrangles with industry regulators, pushing the boundaries in high ABV brewing, smashing bottles of generic beer with a baseball bat or doing a Saturday morning tasting at a local street market. We live and breathe craft brewing and everything we do comes back to aspiring to brew world-class ales and striving to instigate a local craft beer revolution.

    At times it may seem like BrewDog are shouting too loud, however the unforgiving territories of windswept North Scotland have a lot in common with the landscape that greets any UK craft brewer – We’re simply shouting loud enough to be heard. We want to put craft beer on the map and show people how rewarding and amazing proper beer actually is and to redefine people’s perceptions of what beer truly is. We feel that by causing controversy, unsettling institutions and really pushing the envelope we can raise awareness for craft beer in the UK and get more dispassionate consumers starting the journey to towards becoming bonafide craft beer aficionados. The simple fact that we seem to generate headlines makes people aware that there is an alternative approach to beer.

    Keep on rocking in the free world,

    j

  7. James,

    Thank you for appearing here, but I still have to disagree wholly. Here’s why:

    — You’re not “converting any new drinkers” with the likes of Ghost Deer. English, Irish and Scottish drinkers who have been drinking pale lager all their lives will never be walking into the BrewDog pub and saying “I think I’ll have some of that there deer head beer. $100* for a glass? Sounds perfectly reasonable to me!”

    *This is a joke, as I’m sure it’s probably even more.

    — You would argue, then, that this is what your other products are for, but the funny thing about those other products–we don’t ever hear anything about them over here, and I can only presume it’s because they haven’t blown anybody’s mind any more than all the great American craft beers out there. Presumably you do sell them, as you’re famed for your Blue Line of Sales that perpetually goes up and to the right, but you certainly haven’t been selling them to me, here in the U.S.

    — Why? Because when I walk into my local package store, I see six-packs of 5.6% abv Punk IPA on the shelf for $15 or more, and bombers pushing $20. You have to understand that I can get the BEST IPAs IN THE WORLD for half that price. It is just difficult to imagine what could even motivate me enough to throw down the money for your product. Ordering from the BrewDog website is obviously no better—there, a sixpack of Punk IPA will cost you $28…not kidding…and that’s BEFORE shipping.

    — The only things we ever hear about BrewDog, then, are these ridiculous gimmick brews. The thing about them, though, is that they might as well not even exist. None of us folks, for instance, on this board discussing BrewDog, will EVER try a sample of Ghost Deer, even if it’s on our craft beer bucket lists. It raises the classic question: “If a craft beer is brewed in a forest and there’s nobody there to drink it, did it actually happen?”

    — What they all come off as being, then, are grandiose, attention-grabbing chicanery that other breweries simply don’t feel the need to stoop to. Believe it or not, you’re not the only Scottish craft brewery that is rising up through the muck of uncaring lager drinkers; you’re just the most irreverent. I’ll never argue that the way you market is unsuccessful, as your sales figures speak for themselves, and I’ll take it at face value when you insist that your overly expensive base beers are something special, but with each new gimmick I see you more and more as simply the Sam Calagione of Scotland, making self-satisfied beers that are weird for weirdness sake. Of course, if BrewDog is staffed by the kind of people I imagine it to be, then that statement would probably be taken as a compliment and not an indictment.

    Still. Don’t you have an polar icecap beer to make, and a unicorn to hunt down so you can stuff the resulting “imperial mild” up its ass to dispense? It could be called “Mild as a Unicorn’s Asshole”.

  8. Kid:

    -Getting extreme beers in newspapers and TV is one method of exposing people who don’t know about craft beer to a world outside fizzy lagers. It’s is a long-tailed way of getting people to try something new, the efficacy of which is impossible to measure. You may not like the face of craft beer they are projecting, but they are trying. To say Brewdog’s efforts have not converted new drinkers is asinine.

    -To get to Illinois, Brewdog is shipping WAY long distance and tacking on God knows what in shipping, taxes, and import fees. The price you don’t pay for Brewdog beers 4000 miles from where they are brewed is totally irrelevant to this discussion.

    -“The only thing we hear about Brewdog is ridiculous gimmick brews” What do hear about most other breweries? Unless you’re subscribed to their blog or follow beernews.org closely looking for new releases, we hear nothing. They all make beer. What do you want them to say?

    -They are the only Scottish craft brewery you, I, or anyone in the states can name.

    In conclusion, the point of my post was a wish that some of our domestic craft breweries would embrace the extreme offerings and irreverence that Brewdog use to market their products; I think it’s fun and refreshing. I have no idea what the point of your rant was, if not to listen to yourself complain. Go have a beer and relax.

  9. Kid – these are our domestic prices.

    £1.49 is standard retail for a bottle of Punk IPA in the UK.

  10. £1.49 for a 330ml bottle. Basically, they’re Stone rip-offs.

  11. I don’t think we get to just write off the U.S. price point. I had a few stouts from Dublin’s Porterhouse Brewing recently in Chicago, for instance, quite a lot cheaper on draft than you can find BrewDog going for in bottles ($4 I think?), and draft in a bar typically carries its own markup. Plenty of foreign and international brewers manage to land their offerings on this shore without the same degree of upcharge. Even most of the trappist breweries have all their offerings available here in Illinois for substantially less.

    Here’s what they’re going for in central IL: I was wrong about the BrewDog six-packs, those don’t exist here. It’s $10 for a bottle of Punk IPA, which for reference is what stuff like 120 Minute IPA or World Wide Stout go for here. It’s $12 for 12 oz bottles of their more premium brews, although I’m not sure which ones those are. The package store manager just told me that they’ve all been on the shelf for 6-12 months, including the hoppy beer. He also told me that they won’t be getting any more once these ones go.

    “Some of their oak aged stuff is kind of cool, but I can’t imagine who would pay this price for the everyday offerings,” he said. “I personally don’t think it’s worth the money.”

    So at least I’m not the only one to think that way.

    As far as the conversion argument goes, you can make the argument either way, and I know precisely what you mean when it comes to getting the name out there, but I truly and honestly don’t believe that brews like Ghost Deer and End of History help new people who DON’T drink craft beer get into it. If anything, I think if you take some guy sculling down pints of lager in the pub and tell him about this beer, it simply reaffirms his opinion of craft beer and real ale as being something for fruity, hoighty toighty yuppies, which naturally is the last thing that we want.

    Sorry to bitch, but I honestly don’t like their brand of marketing. I’m sure that’s very apparent.

  12. James, what are you’re thoughts on Fuller’s (Gale’s) Prize old Ale, J W Lees Harvest Ale etc? Apart from being boring breweries that brew boring brown ale for boring, sad, gullible plebs that aren’t perhaps ‘Punk’ (Jeez!) enough to drink you’re guff.

  13. Herr Hordeum · ·

    James,

    Thanks for commenting on the site. I for one, will stick with drinking mostly local here in the American heartland (I’ve never even seen BrewDog in a store here), but next time I’m your side of the pond I’d love to try some.

    You state:
    “Compared to the US, the UK is pretty much a dessert”

    Are you implying that the US is the main course?

    Also, I’d like to suggest an extreme stout that is somehow packaged in a Direwolf skull.

  14. I’m much more sick of people whining about BrewDog than anything that BrewDog does themselves. I really don’t care about the gimmick beers, but on the other hand, I probably never would have heard of them without those gimmicks, and that would be a shame, because I was completely blown away by Devine Rebel (which, granted, is a collaboration) and I probably never would have bought that otherwise.

    Hardcore IPA and Tokyo are solid beers. (I just had a really bad bottle of Brewdog Storm, but there may have been mitigating circumstances there). I see several other beers they make that I’d be interested in trying.

    They’re a bit expensive here in the states, but I tend to enjoy their beers, and from what I’ve heard, I can sympathize with their need to shake things up because the general UK market seems rather conservative. My guess is that those of us in the US are just collateral damage!

    In terms of the original post, I disagree a bit about the local/artisanal/nano arguments, if only because in a world with 1700 breweries, some breweries are going to have to find a way to differentiate themselves somehow. And some local/artisanal/nano breweries might not want to stay that way forever. So no, I don’t really want to see our beloved breweries taking on BrewDog, but I don’t see any reason why a new or small brewery couldn’t do so in an effort to make a name for themselves!

  15. Herr Hordeum, I think the “dessert” typo stems from the fact that James simply copied and pasted his response from the BrewDog website (where the typo has been been sitting uncorrected for over a year). Snarky as that may sound, I actually VERY much appreciate his willingness to challenge some of our readers’ beliefs by commenting on this article. We love hearing directly from brewers, particularly when we may or may not have correctly interpreted their intentions.

    Last year, I got the ball rolling on the BrewDog-bashing when they released the End of History. To be honest, my biggest complaint was not wanting to think about roadkill while drinking a beer. The Baron made an impassioned defense of the brewery’s avant-garde style which changed my mind a bit and, for the most part, we’ve left them alone in the interim. The development of Ghost Deer will obviously create a new firestorm of criticism and I think Slouch’s approach to the “controversy” is the right one. Rather than turning BrewDog into a whipping boy again, he’s trying to understand the machinations behind the gimmickry. While James’ rebuttal may be lifted wholesale from his site, I think there’s a lot of truth in his statement. It’s impossible to truly compare the US and UK beer scenes right now and in order for your “voice” to be heard in the UK, you really DO have to shout a lot louder.

    The biggest drawback, as has been noted in the comments, is that BrewDog’s marketing ploys seem to have alienated a fair percentage of American Aleheads. However, since that’s not really BrewDog’s market, I’m not sure it matters. Plus, even in America, rabid beer snobs like us only make up a tiny (though growing) percentage of drinkers. There will always been strengths and weaknesses of any marketing campaign. BrewDog is clearly willing to sacrifice the hardcore beer snob segment of the population in order to gain some notoriety and get their name out there. It may frustrate some Aleheads, but it’s obviously a very successful business model for them. And while I suppose you could argue that a company that focuses too much on marketing is on a slippery slope to Anheuser-Busch territory, I’m fairly certain that BrewDog is in no danger of becoming an evil, soulless, multi-national corporation.

    As far as I’m concerned, if BrewDog wants to keep cranking out some weird shit every few months to remind the populace who they are…hey, more power to ‘em.

  16. Gimmicks aside, producing a 30% ABV all-fermented beer is a time-consuming, risky, and technically impressive endeavor. For more Ghost Deer fun, there is some discussion in the comments on the Beervana blog about how they reached that number, some footage of the the beer being poured on Youtube, and Kid Carboy admitting that he’s wrong on Reddit.

  17. [...] wheat beer prowess to create a whole new beer style. I also recently noted in our coverage of the BrewDog Ghost Deer release that it seems the increasingly bitter-centric American palate is luring traditional [...]

  18. [...] added to beer like endives, beef hearts, and civet poop. Hell, one brewery is serving beer out of a deer head. It’s mind-boggling and exciting and overwhelming and frustrating and thrilling all at once. [...]

  19. Slouch, your sign-off has never been more appropriate.

    As to the content of your article, I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with you. I may never sample a BrewDog beverage (I doubt they ever make it to the west coast, and I have yet to make it to Scotland), but if they’re making some fine craft beers in a place where those are few and far between, I have no problem with the brewers challenging themselves to exploring the fringes of extreme brewing, and leveraging that experimentation into a (clearly kickass, if somewhat controversial) marketing campaign.

    James, thanks for joining the discussion in person!

  20. [...] *Though there are exceptions. Hello, BrewDog. [...]

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