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.


  1. Having worked with physicists, I can be sure that by now the general theory of relativity would have been thunked up. Mind you, it's nearly 100 years since the crazy guy did. Even so, it is highly likely that physics would be some years behind without Einstein.

    So, good post, and I think you're generally right.

  2. This is a great piece and a compelling argument, though I feel the state of British beer before BrewDog's arrival is always depicted in a far more negative light than is actually the case. James and Martin very much took the American craft brew ethos (and quite a lot of their copy, word for word) and transplanted it to the UK, but they also took that same view of the status quo of the beer industry that surrounded them. The problem is that it didn't really fit - the state of independent brewing in the UK was far healthier than that in the US at the start of the craft beer movement. The UK's battle was fought in the 70s. And make no mistake, BrewDog's 'revolution' is tiny compared the the uproar against Watney's Red Label and its brethren, the fight that lead to the establishment of CAMRA. So much of BrewDog's rhetoric simply seems to be restating those calls to quality and craftsmanship of the 70s, just with key words changed, like 'kegs' for 'casks' and 'hops' for pretty much every thing else.

  3. I don't for a second want to suggest that BrewDog saved UK microbrewing, because I don't believe that. BrewDog arrived whilst the UK beer scenes waves was beginning to reach a crest. I also agree that CAMRA fought the big fight and without CAMRA, it's possible there would be no significant UK brewing industry.

    The influence that BrewDog have had, that I can see, is that they appeal to those outwith beer. People who would normally put zero thought in to what they drink. The fight for good beer was well won, critical mass achieved. What I think we're seeing now is a continuation to yet another tipping point. I think BrewDog could be starting to change things outwith microbrewing.

    I think this 'craft beer revolution' could be the start of something much bigger. I could be wrong, but I'm seeing some encouraging signs.

  4. What is also encouraging, is that others are following suit, doing things their own way, putting their own mark on things. Whether they would have done that anyway or whether the media appeal of that one brewery has opened a door to a new market and given other brewery owners more confidence I have no idea. I'm not overly concerned either, it's just good to see things changing. More bars taking good beer, more supermarkets seeking out a point of difference.

    Selling out or spreading the word? Amounts to the same thing really. More people drinking good beer

  5. "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. "

    I'd love to read that.

    Lots of people (all of us?) make purchasing decisions influenced by "image" (branding, marketing, hype, etc) Only an idiot would say otherwise. It's well established that our appreciation of a product is modified by our exposure to "image".

    I think we can see attempts to move to "edgy", "alternative" imagery all over "craft" beer marketing, some pre BrewDog, some obviously influenced by their work. (and drawing influence from the US sources, like, er Stone)

    Your question: if James Watt and Martin Dickie hadn't set out to do what they have done, would someone else have done it?

    I think the answer to that has to be a clear "Yes". A more interesting question might be: Is it a good thing.

  6. 'Beer is about taste NOT about image' was a comment on a blog by rhodeshannah and my immediate thought was 'sure, that's why a quarter of the planet answered the phone with WAAAASSSSUUUUUPPPP for 12 months'. I have a feeling it a was comment made by a staunch CAMRA officiando and born out of emotion rather than rational thought. May be beer should be about taste not image, but it isn't.

    Is it a good thing? Hmmm, I'll think about that

  7. I'm glad you did this.

    I think everyone agrees (secretly perhaps) what BrewDog did. It was good of you to sum up their 'effect' on the sector, because as the tide turns against them - which it is doing with increasing rapidity - it's easy to forget the positives they brought.

    But it's the 'here and now' that matters to most of us, and you seem to dismiss the significance of their place in present in your article, along with what happens them in the future.

    But the 'here and now' is what's causing all the trouble. Right here and now, we simply want them to calm down, shut the fuck up and brew beer. Its that simple. Yes, they've done a great thing by shaking things up, but now they're no longer shaking any more. They're just rattling, chaffing, and rubbing up the wrong way.

    It's all gone from 'cool' to 'cold.'

    Yes, let us never forget the role they have played, but let us not pretend cool things stay cool forever. Tis the nature of the fashion beast that moods change and people move on.

    They need to do that, because the mood is changing and people will continue to move away if they don't change their approach.

    If they really are radical, then they need to find a radical change. And fast.

    They did change things, but if they want to remain part of the new environment they created, they can't keep kicking the place up and expect to remain welcome.

    Maybe they need to evolve from revolutionaries into gurus. The respect is still there, so why not exploit it. Far more than Einstein, I'd say these guys should thinking of themselves as the Beatles - and having now arrived and changed the way of things, they should be thinking in terms of 'influence' rather than 'insurrection' from here on.

    The revolution was a success. But it's over. They didn't decide that. So the rest of us are doing it for them. It's what they do next that will define their legacy.

  8. Very interesting point indeed!

    Although, I wasn't dismissing it, I just didn't address it. The blog was about answering the question rather than focussing on what is happening now or in the future.

    I think the 'backlash' is greatly exaggerated. Sure, the beer geeks are all bored to tears of them, but they aren't aiming at the beer geeks anymore, they've gone for the mass market, and the mass market consumers are less preoccupied with the do's and don't's and unwritten rules of the brewing fraternity.

    It's gone from 'cool' to 'cold'? They've just racked up over a million quid in investment for essentially worthless shares in less than 3 wks. The bars are flying. Turnover continues to increase at an exponential rate.... That suggests to me that things are still moving very much on an upwardly trajection.

    It might be boring for those of us who have been watching for a while, but there are still plenty of people who have no idea of the company. To those people, this is still very new and very cool.

  9. Having spotted the BrewDog branding on the clothing of the gent on your website's header picture - I reckon I might be banging my head against a corporate wall here.

    But let's just say this. I'm talking about a brewery's manufactured attitude becoming increasingly irritating, and you're telling me how fat their wallets are getting.

    I think that pretty much says it all about BrewDog and everything they're about. If the numbers are good - it's working!

    That's genuine corporate talk.

    Their beer is fabulous. It's presence is welcome on the market.

    But their 'attitude', different and fresh at one time, is becoming tired. Naff. Predictable.

    S'up to them to decide whether to listen to 'the beer geeks' as you call them. But those geeks have evolved over recent times. Many (though admitedly not all) of the 'new wave geeks' actually have recent haircuts, lean bodies, and fairly fat wallets of their own.

    Many of us don't wear brewery branded cardigans, he quipped, with almost BrewDog-grade phoney insouciance. (My genuine opinion is that the guy in your header looks just fine in that finely crafted garment, but to say so wouldn't be 'cool')

    I'd say the 'geeks' are merely closer to coalface, hearing, seeing and feeling stuff a few beats ahead of the masses. And BrewDog know this. Why else would they keep them so close at hand.

    I think you're right that they can get away with it whilst the audience is still growing, but sooner or later they're going to have to tweak the formula. The reaction among the 'true fans of beer' is one that will merely repeat itself in the mass market if they learn nothing from what's been said.

    The most successful companies are nearly always the best listeners.

    So far, all BrewDog have done is shout.

  10. Haha, the picture is of me whilst I was a sales manager for BrewDog, and you certainly are not beating your head against a corporate brick wall.

    We had this conversation the other night, and the geeks (people like me and you I suspect) put them in to a position whereby this next transitional phase could happen.

    I do know what you mean though, the approach to retain sustainability of the brand will need to change because there is the ultimate danger of being a fad. In which case the drop could be as rapid as the climb.... People will only be 'told' for so long, and the customer is a very fickle creature!

  11. Interesting post Chris. This sums the general argument nicely... I think the responses even Evin on twitter, suggests most agree with you. The desire to really create a brand, under The moniker craft beer, and use that as a central force was the one thing they did differently. I still they that if it wasn't brew dog it simply would have been someone else, but then maybe not or the scale or with the same success as Brewdog. Sometimes it is as much about luck and being in the right place at the right time, which they were, than anything else. Would this strategy have worked ten years ago? I wonder where this will lead too.