Fraserburgh’s BrewDog are without doubt one of the most adventurous brewers in Scotland, a fact that earns them a huge amount of publicity on beer websites and blogs. However, they back this up with a variety of good beers – Hardcore IPA made it into our Beer of the Year Show for 2008, we’ve also written about Cult Lager and it’s replacement 77 here on the BeerCast. Never ones to rest on previous achievements, the Aberdeenshire duo have steadily pushed out new beers over 2009 – and we recently got the chance to sample two of those newer brews. As ever with Brewdog, they certainly generated some strong feelings.
First up was their self-styled ‘Imperial Mild’ – How to Disappear Completely. Casual drinkers selecting it on the basis of the 3.5%abv will be in for a severe shock (which one imagines is exactly what BrewDog would like) – this thing is a monster. Mash-hopped, then wort-hopped, and then dry-hopped, How to Disappear Completely reaches an astonishing 198 IBU’s (theoretical IBU’s, as this high we’re off the scale). A hop monster, it’s a great idea – an Imperial IPA without the 8%+ abv. Many times on the BeerCast we’ve tried a bitingly strong beer and just wished it could be that flavourful but at session strength.
Unfortunately, this beer is not it. After a lovely strong hop aroma and inviting dark golden colour, the taste is frightening. “It’s insanely, insanely bitter – it just completely messes you up” says the tasting notes on BrewDog’s website – and I’d say this (unusually for them) was something of an understatement. When the smell is the best thing about a beer, that’s not a good sign – How to Disappear Completely is empty, unbalanced, and ultimately undrinkable. It’s spoiled by the agonisingly bitter aftertaste. Other brewers (most notably California’s Stone Brewery) use similarly aggressive warnings about how unpalatable their beers are, only you can at least force them down, even if you don’t enjoy the bitter bombs. This one is a great idea, but so acridly bitter and unpleasant I ended up pouring it down the sink.
Next up was the culmination of a real experiment in brewing. Atlantic IPA (8.5%) is the first genuine sea-aged IPA produced since the days when they actually were shipped to south Asia. As usual for BrewDog, it’s a fantastic idea – and as usual, they aren’t shy in letting us know – “…a project which is typical of the scale, audacity and boldness characteristic of BrewDog in its quest to take the UK beer industry by storm, [Atlantic IPA is] one of the most ambitious brews by any drinks brand in over 200 years”. The IPA in question was bottle-conditioned for two months aboard a mackerel trawler in the north Atlantic, re-creating the maritime influences of the old-time pale ales lost to history.
They have a point in some respects, as co-founder James Watt reasoned – “Today the term IPA has lost its meaning and UK brewers mainly use it to describe beers which are neither particularly hoppy or high in alcohol, Duecher’s IPA [sic] at 3.8% being a prime example of the complete butchering of the style. It’s sad to see the great IPA heritage in this country come to stand for nothing more than a sparingly hopped low ABV blonde session ale.” Brewing has indeed moved on and forgotten the historical aspects of the IPA style (in the UK, at least). But the real ale drinkers do enjoy the balanced hoppy new generation IPA’s, and they aren’t really ‘butchering’ the style any more than brewers who have stopped charging different amounts of shillings for their barrels of ale.
Anyway, Atlantic IPA really sits up and demands to be noticed, largely due to the best label I have ever seen grace a beer bottle, from a beautiful commissioned drawing by Johanna Basford. It also makes an impression on the wallet, weighing in at a hearty £10 a bottle. You’d expect a pretty special beer to result from that price tag – and thankfully that’s what you get. It pours with a very strong chestnut brown colour, giving an indication of the strength from the alcohol and the conditioning. The smell is fantastic – pruney, malty, hoppy, ethyl alcohol pushing through – it’s a great beer to savour before you even start sipping.
The taste is bitter at first, to be expected with the hops and alcohol. There follows a brief but very welcome syrupy sweetness, before the aftertaste of further bitterness takes over. It’s fascinating, the sugary middle – almost like a strong alcoholic nectar – bookended by a bracing bitterness. More prunes and alcohol come out in the taste, and after a while I remembered where I’d sampled a similar beer – it reminded me of Sinclair Orkney’s Skullsplitter, which is no bad thing. Whether this is a resurrection of a lost brewing style, or just another BrewDog barleywine in a different (and striking) bottle is a moot point, but Atlantic IPA is really worth trying. Just get someone else to buy you one…