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Food + Drink


Penguins, Stoats, and The World’s Strongest Beer


Since James Watt and Martin Dickie started their small craft brewery in northeast Scotland in April 2007, they’ve become the target of a number of choice epithets. Various Scottish organizations have called BrewDog “irresponsible,” “grotesque,” “abhorrent,” and “perverse.” The eminent English beer writer Roger Protz has even branded them “ego-maniacs.”

But the best word to describe the upstarts from Fraserburgh (near Aberdeen) is “irreverent.” Not only are they developing a reputation for brewing wildly unconventional beers, but along the way, they’ve become masters at winding people up. “We deliberately do things that we think are fun which no one else is doing,” says Watt, the brewery’s managing director – or, as he calls himself, “Head of Stuff.”

Among the fun things that he and brewmaster Dickie have been doing are: making beer with shortbread and toffee (a recent collaboration with Indiana brewers Three Floyds); dressing up in animal costumes sourced from eBay for bizarre YouTube marketing videos; offering two free beers a week for life to anyone who, at the opening of BrewDog’s new bar in Aberdeen later this month, gets a tattoo of their logo; battling a German brewery to see who can brew the world’s strongest beer; and winning that war, this July, with The End of History, a 55% ale whose bottles are nestled inside stuffed roadkill – stoats and squirrels – dressed in miniature formal wear.

For this latest feat, they incurred the wrath of both alcohol-awareness groups and animal-rights activists. Watt is unrepentant: “The U.K. beer market is dominated by monolithic, multinational, faceless corporations,” he argues, “and they make such god-awful, industrial, liquid cardboard beer. We felt by doing something provocative, controversial, taking how beer’s enjoyed and packaged to its absolute limits – we could make a stand against generic beer.”

He and Dickie, friends from secondary school, started home-brewing together in 2005, when Watt was working on his father’s fishing boat. The following year, Dickie met noted beer journalist Michael Jackson in London and gave him one of the duo’s beers; Jackson was so impressed, he suggested they quit their day jobs … which they did.

“We were 24 years old at the time,” recalls Watt. “We cobbled our modest life savings together with some bank loans – we went in there with a shirt and tie on, and they gave us a little bit more money.” They bought second-hand equipment, leased industrial units, named their company in honour of Watt’s father’s chocolate Lab puppy, and started brewing beer that they term “aggressive” and “assertive.”

Their marketing was similarly bold, and soon they fell afoul of The Portman Group – a “sensible drinking” organization that, as Watt points out, is funded by large drinks companies. “These industry bodies can’t bite the hand that feeds them, so they’re picking on a small, niche artisanal producer,” grouses Watt. He has a point: large brewers make, but don’t advertise, cheap, high-alcohol beers for the Scottish market such as Tennent’s Super Lager and Carlsberg Special Brew (both 9%); even though such chemical-laced drinks are popularly nicknamed “tramp juice,” they’re absent from the Group’s critiques of British binge-drinking.

When Watt and Dickie brewed a small-run, expensive, and all-natural 18% stout last year, the Portman Group banned it, apparently because of its label text (which reads, in part, “Everything in moderation including moderation itself”). This decision was, Watt argues, “almost like blaming a Michelin-star restaurant for an obesity epidemic.” BrewDog responded by brewing a 1.1% beer called Nanny State – and then turned around and started making the strongest beers ever. Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a 32% stout, was frozen and concentrated at an ice cream factory at “penguin” temperatures; Watt and Dickie promoted it last November by wearing penguin costumes in an online video.

Blogs around the world loved the clip, and although it provoked a degree of outrage in the UK (Protz, editor of the Good Beer Guide, blasted them for playing into “the hands of the yellow press, ever anxious to give beer a bad name”), the brewery’s profile continued to grow.

“When you go to social media,” says Watt, “it’s not about how much money you have; it’s about how clever, how engaging, how risky your content is. It’s about your ability to shorten the distance as much as possible between yourself and your customer. That’s an area where we can not only compete with the big beer companies, but I think we can consistently beat them.”

BrewDog beers are now available in 23 countries, including Canada. Those to be found in Ontario – at selected beer bars and through private order – suggest Watt and Dickie are making a virtue out of their disdain for tradition. The brews range from the pugnaciously hopped Hardcore Double IPA to the more sessionable 5 A.M. Saint (an amber ale with surprising notes of pineapple and chocolate) to the complex but supremely mellow Paradox, aged in whiskey casks and to be served at room temperature.

And yet, one market remains difficult to crack: Scotland itself. Watt’s explanation? Their beers “tend to have a little bit too much flavour.” Even CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale that has supported many small UK brewers and pubs, has turned its back on BrewDog: “We offered to pay them to take our beers at the Scottish beer festival,” says Watt, “and they still refused. Apparently it’s ‘not traditional,’ whatever the hell that means.”

But there is, at least, a hard core of followers in northeast Scotland for these self-styled “punk” brewers: it seems a “frightening” number of people have expressed interest in getting BrewDog tattoos in exchange for free beer. Even Watt hasn’t gone so far as to brand himself with his own logo – at least not yet. “I think I’m going to have to get it before I can force other people to, so I may be in the queue too.”

— Originally published in The National Post


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