Saturday, 20 August 2011

How to crowbar Einstein in to a beer blog

Last night I was at a beer tasting. We had lots of beer chat, talked about a lot of different things, discussed various breweries and their beers. At some point in the evening the dirty word came up, BrewDog.

Why is BrewDog the dirty word? Because as soon as it gets mentioned it dominates conversation because you can't just talk about the beer. Any other brewery that gets discussed is generally judged on the relative merits of it's products, BrewDog covers all bases and eventually every other brewery, rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, gets compared to them. It gets boring, it gets tiresome and yet it doesn't stop.

The context of this discussion, which lasted a surprisingly short period of time, was the influence of BrewDog on the UK microbrew industry. One of our drinking buddies said - and I'm paraphrasing here - that BrewDog's influence is negligable and that the techtonic shift we've seen in the industry over the past 18 - 24 months would have happened anyway. Which is why I'm writing this, because I don't think that's true.....

It's widely acknowledged (Well, I read that it is) in the world of physics that if Einstein hadn't come up with the Special theory of relativity when he did, it wasn't far off. Eventually, probably within five years, someone would have come up with that theory. By comparison, the general theory of relativity was a work of unique brilliance, a theory which changed how we see the entire universe and unified a collection of theories. It is entirely plausible that without Einstein we would still be waiting for that unified theory.

You're absolutely right, I can hear you already 'what the fuck does this have to do with beer and for the love of god don't try to tell me that James Watt is to beer what Albert Einstein is to physics'. Panic not, but the comparison was the first thing that came in to my head whilst I was thinking about that comment, 'If BrewDog hadn't done it, someone else would'.

It's easy to say 'It would have happened anyway' because it seems so obvious, because here we are now, and this is how things are. If my mum hadn't given birth to me someone else would right? Possibly, but that person would have a different make up, different characteristics. He would look different, think differently, act differently. He would be a human being sure, but not me.

I still find it hard to accept that if Einstein hadn't come up with the GTR that someone else wouldn't have, why not? Well, apparently my limited knowledge of physics doesn't allow me to fully appreciate just how brilliant Einstein's theory is. Equally I think that prejudice brought about by the constant marketing offensive (or as some people see it, offensive marketing) prevents people from truly appreciating BrewDog's positive influence on our industry.

So, beer and the UK microbrew industry. A change had been coming, much like the special theory of relativity, we'd seen a steady increase in US breweries in the market - and this is mostly about US style beers, there hasn't been a meteroic rise in sales of German or Belgian beers....yet! I suspect that's coming too, Belgian beers certainly - and the likes of Dark Star, Moor and Lovibonds have been innovating and creating new and exciting beers for many years. All great breweries making awesome beers, but none of them had come up with that 'general theory' that unifying equation that brought it all together. They aimed at and appealed to, beer drinkers, nothing wrong with that.

Dark Star were making diverse styles and being experimental, but had stayed away from kegged beer and didn't, and still don't, bottle much (with a lack of continuity in the branding between bottles and cask too). Lovibonds make keg only beers, unpastuerised and unfiltered, making them one of the most radical and progressive breweries in the UK, but their branding is in stark contrast with their product (the new 69 IPA branding an exception, and hopefully the direction they are moving in).

BrewDog came up with that unified theory and changed the way the industry saw itself, and more importantly how non beer people viewed the industry. Suddenly, to the outside non beer world, beer wasn't anything to do with beards, sandals, mud and sticks or 'real ale twats'. Beer was, all of a sudden, fucking cool.*

BrewDog made completely off the wall beers, they had complete continuity in their branding and the branding was stylish, brash, exciting and very 'unBritish'. They casked, bottled and kegged as soon as they could. In short they did everything other breweries were doing, but they put it all together and then they did something which I think makes them stand out from all the other breweries, and what makes me disagree with that assertion that it 'would have happened anyway'..... They told EVERYONE how good they were and how rubbish they thought other beers/breweries were. They broke the rules, it was ungentlemanly conduct. They actually said they were something very different and then went about showing how different they were. The industry was divided. Some hated them for it, but some loved them. I suspect those who hated them hated them because they knew they were right, and those who loved it were the ones who had known for while that this was something we badly needed.

It set them apart, and still sets them apart. It brought them plaudits and critics but most importantly of all it made people talk about them, and suddenly the UK beer scene was really exciting. It forced other breweries to look at themselves, it challenged other breweries to rebrand, to experiment and it opened the door to a new market for a lot of breweries. It encouraged many people to brew commercially too.

The biggest influence however, is the cross-over appeal. The non-beer people that BrewDog have attracted, that influence can't be over-estimated.  Before BrewDog, name a microbrewery who consistently made it in to the national newspapers, and I don't mean in some highbrow section in the Observer's good food guide supplement. It didn't happen, the interest just wasn't there. BrewDog made beer interesting to non-beer people and that is something that beer people seem to find difficult to grasp. They were (and still are) young, arrogant, intelligent, outspoken, pretentious, offensive and there is nothing the media likes better than a combination of all those things. They were newsworthy.
Now, since their meteoric rise, name another brewery who has stepped in to that sphere, who has seen the opportunity and made themselves newsworthy. There are none.

The BrewDog bars demographic are a good example of how this influence is spreading, look at what they sell. Are the BrewDog bars full to the brim with beer geeks desperate for a Cantillon Vigeronne? No, most of the beer sold, and it really is most, is BrewDog beer and it's being drunk primarily by people who are not beer geeks, but like the cool image and environment of the bars. So what, right? Well, when those trendy kids go and drink in a bar with no BrewDog but who might have a DarkStar cask on, or a Tempest, what are they going to drink? Will they pick a Carling or will be tempted to try something microbrewed? After all, they've had it drummed in to them by the BrewDog marketing machine that microbrewed is always better than mass made. I would expect them to go with the cool badge of the microbrewed beer, and that is why BrewDog will benefit the microbrew industry.

Sometimes you just need a catalyst. It doesn't actually matter how good BrewDog's beers are, or how sustainable their business model is, or what else they do from here on in. They changed things, they were the right difference at the right time and they continue to bring more new people to beer.

What the beer geeks have to remember is that the general public don't give a toss about the question marks over integrity, or consistency. They don't care about the hypocrisy of the marketing or the company propoganda. They don't care about selling out to Tesco and the anti-punk ethos of a company that claims to be punk in it's ethos. It's immaterial to them, they don't have those romantic notions of purity. They see a cool brand and they want to be associated with it, and if that brings more people to the world of microbrewed beer then I'm 100% all for it.

So the question was, if James Watt and Martin Dickie hadn't set out to do what they have done, would someone else have done it? The fact that not one brewery has tried to emulate what they have done suggests to me that they wouldn't have, and we'd still be waiting for that change.

*Example. My friend Zara is a graphic designer, she doesn't drink beer. She doesn't even like beer. She loves BrewDog. Someone wrote in a blog that beer is not about image, it's about taste. Bollocks.