When BrewDog announced, back in September, that they were planning a festival of beers made in collaboration with eleven different British breweries, it raised more than a few eyebrows. After all, back in 2009 when 5am Saint launched, they declared on the label “The UK beer scene is sick. And we are the fucking doctor.”* Well, here we are, four years later, and it seems BrewDog are content to share their surgery with almost a dozen of their peers; or rather, their dispensaries, as the collaboration beers were made available in their network of bars across the country this past Saturday. So what has changed?
*Or the original did, anyway – it was eventually toned down to ‘the UK beer scene is sick. And we are the cure’
Several things – firstly, and most importantly, BrewDog’s reach has increased enormously over that time. From being two brassed-off guys in Aberdeenshire, they now have a fleet of branded bars, a colossal new brewery, and several years of releases under their belts. Calling in favours wasn’t something they could do a few years ago; they simply didn’t have the credit. Now, having made beers with the likes of Mikkeller, Stone, Lost Abbey and Evil Twin, other breweries are far more likely to respond to any suggestive email that emanates from Fraserburgh – particularly now the goading on the labels has been toned down somewhat.
And this is the second reason – when I was up in Fraserburgh last month I put the infamous ‘doctor’ quote to James Watt, and asked him if he still thought it was true. Predictably, but truthfully, he replied that he did not – things have changed so much over that time, and he thinks British beer is far from boring these days. Fair enough – presumably this is why there are more home-grown partnerships for BrewDog, and despite the early intransigence, you’re now more likely to see the products of their peers alongside 5am Saint in the BrewDog bars.
The final reason relates to the bars themselves. Over the past year or so, the content of BrewDog’s blog has changed – moving over from abv-wars and CAMRA-baiting, to articles about the people who work for BrewDog, the staff who are employed in the bars, and the brewery workers in Fraserburgh and Ellon. Is this a sign of the maturation of BrewDog? Or merely a recognition that they are now much more than two blokes and a labrador? Both, I think. BrewDog’s best asset, by far, are its people – and this is why the collaboration beer festival was a great idea.
Each of the teams responsible for a BrewDog bar had the chance to visit a nearby brewery and come up with a beer, which they assisted on during the brewday. The eventual results were synched into the bars, and all eleven put on for the public at once – along with a multi-hop special brewed with the eleven brewers themselves. Four of those breweries actually pre-date BrewDog (by my count, Lovibonds, Fyne Ales, Durham and Arbor [just]), it would be interesting to get their viewpoint on how their beers have changed to fit into the Aberdeenshire outfit’s idea of collaborative partners.
Anyway, so what were the beers like? Well, some fared better than others. BD Leeds/Hand Drawn Monkey’s effort tasted like flat ginger beer, and Shoreditch’s collab brew with Beavertown reminded me of soured soy sauce. Aberdeen/Cromarty’s Black Rocker was almost there, just needed a little more oomph, as did Nottingham/Buxton’s black pale ale, which was hugely resinous, but with surprisingly little backbone. Newcastle/Durham’s Raucus Rubus tasted great, but was dead flat.
There were some absolute belters, though don’t get me wrong – the beer made by BrewDog Birmingham and Lovibonds was fantastic. A 5% lemongrass, lime, ginger and cardamom wheat, it had a great balance of lemon and lime, with a background hum of the spices. They were just outside the top two, however, which (for me) consisted of a Marmalade on Toast beer made by the Edinburgh bar and Tempest – which really did taste exactly like bitter Seville orange marmalade – and a humdinger of an Imperial Brown Coconut IPA made by Arbor and BrewDog Bristol, which took me back to a childhood of paper-bottomed supermarket macaroons.
The interesting thing about it is that pretty much everyone I spoke to had a different favourite. But then, that’s beer, I guess. The other thing is what the staff at the Edinburgh bar got from their brewing experience. Of course, BrewDog aren’t the only company to do this – the Hanging Bat regularly sends its workers to Alechemy to learn more about the processes and pitfalls of brewing – but it’s commendable of BrewDog that they have also adopted this strategy. After all, their barstaff are the first point of contact for many of their customers, and anything that helps their passion for beer should be encouraged – and that is why BrewDog’s new attitude will pay off…