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.
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:
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.