It’s been a while since the last BeerCast brewday; those semi-regular occasions when I have to get up earlier than normal, try to remember what actually happens when beer is made, and end up clambering in and out of slippery, steaming metal containers. Looking back, it was actually six months since our trip up to Black Isle, so it was long overdue for another day spent loitering in eyeshot of a hard-working brewer, wondering when the small green plastic spade would be handed over, those eyes suddenly sparkling at the thought someone else would be mashtun monkey for the day. So, anyway, around a month ago, an email arrived from James Watt of BrewDog, asking if I’d like to be part of a team of beer writers collaborating on a project with the Aberdeenshire outfit. Following Scottish beer, as I do, it seemed remiss of me that I’d never actually been up to see them, either at their original Fraserburgh home, or their recently-opened cathedral to craft in Ellon. So, I said yes, and last weekend found myself at the end of long journey, in ‘the broch’, where it all started.
It seemed very fitting that making a beer revolving around words was going to take place in Fraserburgh. Although I try to cover everyone and everything that’s happening in the blossoming Scottish brewing scene (79 breweries and counting), I’ve written more about BrewDog than any other brewery; 40 posts, in total (Stewart Brewing are next, with 27). I guess we all know why: stunts, marketing, great beer, conjecture, gimmicks, arguments, taxidermy. In short – there’s never a dull moment when it comes to ‘the Scottish brewery’ (as I have seen them referred, Macbeth-like, on a beer website I – typically – can’t now find the link to). Words are one of BrewDog’s most important trades. The beer, the bluster, the bravado – it all contributes to column-inches. And that makes reputations, builds brands, attracts shareholders, engages (or infuriates) consumers. It all adds up. And on that Saturday morning, it added up to me standing in the surprisingly small original brewery, looking at the sacks of malt for our brew, knocking back a coffee and blearily rubbing the eyes.
I was there with Rob Derbyshire from Hopzine.com, Shipley’s YouTube sensation – here loading one of the sacks of grist into the hopper to be juddered into the mash tun. James and the team at BrewDog gave us free reign over what to do – so we came up with an idea revolving around writing. Specifically, how to overcome the dreaded problem of the blinking cursor. A beer to get the synapses pinging when you need to write something, a lunchtime (or earlier) heart-starter to fire the brain up and unlock the fingertips. A 6.5% coffee and chocolate oatmeal milk stout. Sweet to pick up the tastebuds, chocolately for the sugar rush, and coffee to knock some sense into the cortex. And oatmeal because it’s Scottish. Plenty of different malts involved, hopped with Magnum to a reasonable IBU, and then layered with Square Mile coffee, lactose and 100% Venezuelan Black Cacao.
Following the mashing in, the real brewer – George, who was as patient with us as you can possibly get – cleaned down the copper and fermenting vessel #6, and we had an impromptu picnic in the sun outside. The long drive up the coast from Aberdeen had been grey and bleak, the 8am haar blanketing everything outside of about fifty yards. However, as we were grappling with the sacks of dusty grain, the sun appeared, and blazed away all day. I honestly never thought my first visit to Fraserburgh would give me sunburn, but there you go. This building on the left, by the way, is the original BrewDog brewery (the concrete one, not the corrugated one on the right). Since the Spring of 2007, that’s where it’s happened – aside from the beers contracted elsewhere, of course*. Brewing non-stop, round the clock until a few months ago, as you roll up outside, you really do think it must be round the back of this fish-processing lean-to, or whatever this is. But no, that’s it. It’s quite incredible.
*And more on that on Thursday, in a post about BrewDog’s new Ellon facility
After the move to the new plant, the old brewery is quite a strange place, almost a bit eerie. The tiny offices at the back sit abandoned, BrewDog decals and the like adorning empty rooms. There are two stores in between, used to house barrels filled with all kinds of ageing – the smell coming from some of them is incredible. Despite Ellon coming online at the start of the year, brewing still goes on in Fraserburgh – George is tasked with overseeing BrewDog’s small runs and unusual offerings – for example, a berliner weisse was happily conditioning away in one of the tanks, and tasting like it was very nearly there. James is very proud, I think, to show people where the company actually began, particularly given the place where they have ended up. BrewDog are sometimes accused of being grandiose, but when you speak to them about how far they’ve come in six years, they are anything but.
Fraserburgh is known for a few things – not all of them good – but fish is one that really stands out. Over the years, the industry has dwindled away from the North-East coast, leading to several of the less welcome issues in town, but without wanting to sound trite, the fish and chips there are amazing. It was great to sit outside the brewery with a box on the knees, watching the seagulls wheel around, frustrated. Just the other side of the coastal road, over a raised grassy bank, we could hear the sea picking up, despite the warm sunshine.
I needed a good feed, as it turned out, to build up the energy to shovel and scrape the grain from the mash tun. As ever, getting in was easy, the vertical press-up to get out less so. Half an hour inside the steaming tun is as good a sauna as you’ll get, and by the time I’d finished I felt like one of those oven-in-a-bag salmon ready meals. Anyway, it smelled fantastic, and I’m sure the beer will turn out to be a cracker. After some thought, we’re sticking with the writing theme and it will be called ‘Dead Metaphor’. As beer writers, buzzwords are becoming more and more ingrained in what we do – both used by us and debated (endlessly) on social media. A dead metaphor is a term or figure of speech that has lost its original meaning through overuse; and modern beer writing is full of them. We wanted to get it back to the most important thing of all: the beer. The beer is what matters, not semantics.
George getting to work on one of the added ingredients; the Venezuelan Black, which comes in five-inch cylinders of pure chocolate – like what happens when you try to make a chocolate mousse in a mug and it goes horribly wrong. Forcing them into a blender, carrot-like, helped (or it did if you held the lid down when the switch was turned on, ahem). But grating it like a block of cheddar was also the only way to get the stuff into small enough pieces to go into the boil. The coffee was also added at that stage; for our beer it was Sertão, from Carmo de Minas in Brazil – chosen to add a caffeine perk to the brew, but also because the toffee and chocolate notes would complement the lactose and the Venezuelan Black really well. The only thing left to do was drop the grated chocolate into the boil by hand.
Ah. Yeah. Hot steam, and all that.
Dead Metaphor will be launched officially at this year’s Indy Man Beer Con in Manchester, and subsequently in the home-town BrewDog bars of Rob and myself (i.e. Leeds and Edinburgh), before going on general sale in keg and bottle. Huge thanks to James, Zarah and Sarah for the invite, and to George, Steve and Stewart at the brewery for letting us get in the way. On Thursday, I’ll be putting up another pictorial post, about BrewDog’s hugely impressive new brewery, at Ellon.
UPDATE 19/09 – Rob has published his post on the brewday – check it out here