Following the brewday that Rob from Hopzine.com and myself had been on last weekend at the original Fraserburgh plant, we then travelled the thirty miles or so to Ellon, for a look around the new BrewDog brewery. It’s instantly, hugely different. Despite being in a dip in the road, the external tanks become visible pretty much once you’ve turned off the main road and passed the large Tescos. It officially opened on the 19th of January – one of BrewDog’s shareholders cut the ribbon – so has been online for only eight months. As such, everything roundabout still looks new, and in the process of bedding in. Around the back of the plant, a huge open-sided (for now) extension sits, indicating BrewDog are in no danger of resting on their laurels; as if that would ever happen…
Rob made an interesting point as we were shown inside the brewery: as you wander through the doors, you actually recognise the characters on the tanks. Since the brewery opened in January, so many photos of the painted shark and tiger have been reproduced on blogs and online media that seeing them first-hand gives you that niggle of familiarity you get sometimes at the back of the brain. Rob asked co-founder James Watt which one was supposed to be him – “Well, I like sharks,” he answered, with a grin. The final price tag for the facility we were standing in was over £7m, with over £2m of that coming from the Equity for Punks share scheme (the latest round of which hit a further £3m mark the week of our visit). With a lauter tun, whirpool, direct-feed grist, and jaunty undersea murals (painted by Fisher, from their Aberdeen bar), it really looks the business, and – as I may have mentioned – is absolutely massive.
After strolling around, with James pointing out all of the features, I think there are clearly two things he is most proud of at Ellon. One is the centrifuge – which has to be one of the largest in the UK – allowing the beers to be bottled without filtration. That hasn’t been without problems; James admitting that early runs either left too much sediment in the beer, or even added oxygen at the same time. Now, though, they are all happy with how the centrifuge is working, and the resultant beer at time of release. The other point of pride at Ellon is pictured below; the bottling line. It was a huge investment, but has dramatically improved the output of their bottled beers, and introduced another level of technology to the facility. Built in Bedfordshire by Enterprise Tondelli, it can fire 15,000 though an hour, which my rudimentary desktop calculator reveals equates to 250 per minute. That, is a lot of Punk IPA.
Speaking of Punk, James’s pained expression when the subject of the differing Punk IPA arises is clearly noticeable. Improving the consistency of their flagship is something BrewDog have clearly worked on, and been conscious of throughout. With the addition of the centrifuge, larger brewkit and the quality control introduced by the bottling line, James is confident that Punk is in a great place at the moment – and, more importantly, will stay there. Being a living product, all beer is variable, but a flagship exists to pull people in, and needs to be indefatigable. With that, he’s also understandably pleased to get production of their lagers back in-house. When the Fraserburgh plant was operating at full capacity, there was simply no tank-space to condition their 77 and Zeitgeist – but now, they have the room available again. Only a small fraction of BrewDog beer is now made elsewhere; an amount of Punk brewed at Thwaites for canning (presumably in case of emergency).
Being a big proponent of canned beer, I had to ask if they would like to take this in-house too, and of course they really would – it comes down (as ever) to money, and space. With Equity for Punks raising substantial sums, the second of those two issues is also being addressed. The colossal new warehouse areas are set to be completed at the end of October. When ready, the offices will be moved in, allowing the freed-up space to be converted into a visitor centre, shop, viewing platform, pilot kit, and multi-tap growler station and bar. The scope in all this is huge. James himself isn’t sure how many people will make the trip to Ellon to drink or buy growlers, but it’s something he wants to do; and feels he needs to do. Being openly influenced by the US Craft breweries, why wouldn’t you want a multi-tap bar on-site, to run tours, hold events, and wind-down after your shift? Heck, it’s the first thing I’d put in the blueprints.*
*Idea: Equity for BeerCasters
As we stood outside, craning necks up at the monstrous 400hl vessels, it really hit home just how big the Ellon brewery is, in terms of scale and future scope. Each one of these rocket-sized tanks could fit twenty batches of the brew we had just done up the road, at Fraserburgh. Twenty. Per tank. And more are on order. When you listen to James talking about the upcoming projects, that really isn’t surprising; the future beers and collaborations, the new markets for their products, the London brewing academy (which is still in the pipeline) and the network of upcoming BrewDog bars throughout the world. With Stockholm having just opened, and plans for Sao Paulo being announced the other week, he then reeled off a list of cities that they are interested in that would make Alan Whicker (RIP) blush. I wonder if the bars are now becoming the focus, rather than simple distribution. It could be.
You just can’t help but be impressed by all this. Yes, I still think the language used on the labels is ridiculous, but I can imagine this changing, before too long. BrewDog are progressing. Talking to James, he openly admits that they could have done some things differently, and that BrewDog, as well and Martin and himself, have changed dramatically over the last six years. Yes, he’s still irked about the GBBF’s rules and regulations, for example, but they are moving on from the CAMRA-bashing (which is now noticeably less evident than it used to be). I asked James about one of the more infamous quotes attributed to him – that ‘British beer is boring’ and he puffs out his cheeks. “Things have moved so fast since 2007, there’s so much going on at the moment,”. So, does he still think British beer is boring? “No, not at all!”
BrewDog are all about identity. It’s what pulls their legions of fans in, and what makes them splash out money on the share offerings. It’s also what pushes some people away, of course. As BrewDog increase in size, and move on, this punk identity and ‘us against the world’ mentality sits a little oddly when they are currently expanding throughout all corners of that world. As such, one of the other, oft-mentioned, sticking points is that why would a counter-culture organisation sell their beer in supermarkets? I asked James this, as well. “It’s such a small percentage of our overall sales,” he shrugs. “It’s all about putting good beer in people’s hands. Showing them there’s an alternative.”
That’s an answer I’ve heard before, but didn’t really appreciate what it actually meant – until (earlier that day) we’d met Steve up in Fraseburgh. He’d tried his first ever BrewDog beer from Sainsbury’s after becoming bored of their four for £6 bottled ales, and seen the BrewDog beers aside them on the shelf. After liking them, he went to work at BrewDog’s Newcastle bar, and with his background of home-brewing, eventually moved to Scotland, and now brews at their HQ. You never used to hear of this kind of thing – it was all bravado and the attitude, as BrewDog positioned themselves in the market. But just as the abv-wars and stunts are decreasing, their blog is now populated with the stories of the people involved in making BrewDog what they are. They’re a business, of course they are, but as they move forward they now seem to be projecting this very different, and very welcome, identity.
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. Thanks to James and the team for the tour, and to Zarah for permission to use the middle photo of the beer tasting – it was Cocoa Psycho from the tank, and it was fantastic.