On Saturday June 19th I held a little BrewDog beer tasting. The tasting list was, in my opinion, impressive. We sampled the 10 brews pictured below, from left to right – they’re ordered by %ABV. The beers range in strength from a mere 4.1% for the Trashy Blonde through to a whopping order-of-magnitude increase to 41% for the Sink the Bismark.
So, what’s this “BrewDog” you ask? Well, they’re a relatively new brewery up in Scotland, situated in the almost-crazy north of the UK, close to Aberdeen (well, close by Australian standards). They do things a bit differently compared to your typical small British brewery. We’re not quite talking “real ale” here, certainly not in any traditional sense. What we have here is a micro modelled a bit more on the US style, more so than is comfortable for some in the CAMRA scene maybe. That said, BrewDog do release some of there beers in cask form, the Hardcore IPA from cask is one of the best ales I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy.
What people know BrewDog for mostly seems to be crazy-strong “beer” and ostentatious marketing. This is unfortunate, because they make some excellent beers that stand up perfectly well on their own beery merits. Of course, you’ve got to get people’s attention somehow – and the BrewDog guys seem to be good at that! As for crazy beers, the 4.1% Trashy Blond isn’t crazy at all, it’s an great beer and I’ve been told it’s sublime from cask. (The Live and Let Live in Cambridge sold a whole firkin in a single weekend, most of it on Saturday.) The 4.5% black lager, Zeitgeist, is crisp and refreshing as a chilled beer. Many of the stronger beers are no crazier than good Belgian ales, Bashah at 8.6%, two imperial stouts at 10%, and Devine Rebel at 13.8%. Sure, things do get a bit silly north of this point. But even the 18.1% Tokyo!* is distinctly beer, it is possibly my favourite brew – to enjoy in moderation! These are just a few from the wide variety of beer you can get out of the ‘dog.
OK, intro over. Pop along to the BrewDog website if you’re keen to know more. So, back to that beer-tasting lineup…
- Trashy Blond – 4.1% – Blonde Ale
- Zeitgeist – 4.9% – Black Lager
- Bashah – 8.6% – “Black Belgian-Style Double IPA”
- Paradox – Isle of Arran – 10% – Whisky Cask Aged Imperial Stout
- Paradox – Smokehead – 10% – Whisky Cask Aged Imperial Stout
- Divine Rebel – 13.8% Barley Wine (yes, that’s how they spell it…)
- Abstrakt – AB:02 – 18% Imperial Red Ale
- Tokyo!* – 18.1% – Vanilla Oak Chip Aged Imperial Stout *
- Tactical Nuclear Penguin – 32% – (Imperial Stout!?)
- Sink The Bismark – 41% – (IPA?!)
(* It’s Tokyo star, by the way, not Tokyo-asterisk, or Tokyo-there’s-a-footnote.)
I’m afraid I didn’t really gather detailed feedback on the beers. There was a plan to do so, but really we all just wanted to get on with imbibing and enjoying. The main idea was to expose some people to beer they wouldn’t normally try, and that we did!
The Trashy Blonde and Zeitgeist were the only beers served fridge-chilled. (I think the Bashah works well either way, as does the Devine Rebel.) Both went down well, with little comment. The black larger attracted the most interest, and was labelled Schwarzbier by our token German.
The Bashah was appreciated, but didn’t seem to burn much of a memory into peoples’ minds. I was reading out the labels on the beers prior to tasting, as they’re quite entertaining, and the Bashah piqued some interest from its rambling and “meaningless” blurb. I think the actual beer may have been a let-down for some in contrast to the theatre of the label text.
Next came the Paradox imperial stouts – it seems that these have left the most indelible impression upon the audience. Even now, several weeks later, people mention the Isle of Arran as a favourite if I ask about the beers. If people in the group were to buy and drink any of the beers by preference it seems it would be the Isle of Arran. It has the particular distinction that it was enjoyed even by those who normally don’t drink beer at all. One description of the Arran was “nice combination, extravagant adventure.” The Smokehead, on the other hand, seems to have been less to people’s tastes. I got the impression that there was a feeling of being smacked in the face with, well, smoke. Smokehead is certainly an experience for the uninitiated. The thing is that that initial hit of smoke is mainly in the aroma; but, while distinctive, it comes across in a more mild manner on the palate. Personally, I’m a lover of single malt whiskies and thus might be less sensitive to the smokier flavour in this beer than some. Those who appreciate whisky appreciate the Smokehead I think.
Sadly the Abstrakt AB:02 and Tokyo!* didn’t attract much comment. These were both last-minute additions to the line-up. AB:02 because I’d ordered 6 of them and felt like I could sacrifice one to the tasting. Tokyo!* because one of the tasters, by sheer coincidence, was wearing a Space Invaders t-shirt! The back of the Tokyo!* bottle includes the text: “This is a beer inspired by a 1980’s space invaders arcade game played in Japan’s capital.” (Damn! Now I have one on my desk and I have to try very hard not to drink it!) I have to say, parting with a Tokyo!* is difficult, I really do love this stuff. (Note to self: order more!) Unfortunately it is also on the pricey side, for beer. But realistically the Tokyo!* is certainly in no less a league for flavour and enjoyment than an equivalently priced wine! (In quid-per-millilitre we’re talking about a roughly £20 bottle of wine.)
After the heady 18.1% experience of Tokyo!* came a smack in the face with a Penguin. This was actually my first taste of the Tactical Nuclear Penguin, something I’d call not-quite-beer at a whopping 32% ABV. What they do is explained on their blog (watch the video), like applejack – or scumble (“it’s made from apples, well mainly apples”) – they freeze the water out of the drink thus increasing the ABV. The general feedback was quite positive, with the main word in use being “smoke”. However, like the Smokehead, the smoke is more upfront on the nose than on the palate – and less upfront than in the Smokehead. TNP and Smokehead are quite different drinks of course, one a beer the other, in my opinion, a beerish spirit. I’d say it is certainly rich and caramelly, with a touch of smoke, quite a caramel sweetness too, not just caramel flavours. I’m a whisky drinker, one keen on smoke and peat, and the hint of that whisky cask in the TNP works quite well for me. It isn’t for everyone though, a fellow beer and BrewDog advocate describes TNP as “a cheap gimmick” – harsh!
The grand finale was, of course, Sink the Bismark. The experience of the TNP, as good as I think it is, actually pales against Sink the Bismark! The TNP steals character from whisky, that’s the first thing to run through my mind on tasting it, and I appreciate that. The STB is 100% its own unique drink. It’s rarefied essence of hop. It’s a total hop explosion. It’s like having your tongue bashed flat with a bale of hops wrapped around a brick – but in a good way. There’s something special about this STB, it is a drink that surprisingly has merit and value outside of the sensationalism around the crazy idea of a 41% ABV “beer”. This is spirit of hop, perhaps we could call it hopsky? The reaction around the table contained a fair amount of surprise I think. Nobody knew what to expect from this, and nobody was expecting something that was so interesting and enjoyable. The choice quote that puts forward the STB over the TNP was: “Amazement at the quality of STB, not a cheap gimmick like TNP. Maybe that’s just my preference.”
I have another bottle each of STB and TNP and I’m not sure what to do with them. They’re quite something, the STB especially so. I think I’ll be putting them aside, perhaps for at least a decade. Something to crack open on my 40th birthday?
In the end I think it was the Paradox – Isle of Arran that hit a sweet spot in experience, flavour, and strength. It seems the clear favourite from conversations had since the tasting. I myself would rather sip Tokyo!*, but I’m also quite happy with a glass of the Arran in my hand. And I think the Arran may represent the best value for money as a total beer experience. (I note that James Watt’s new venture(?) Musa Aberdeen has an Arran crème brûlée on the menu – I’m intrigued!)
My personal summary of the beers I enjoy the most is: STB and TNP are very rare treats for special times. Tokyo!* is a grand drink to be reserved for moments of decadence. Isle of Arran is a decadent and enjoyable weekly nightcap drink, like a great whisky. And Zeitgeist is my BrewDog session beer, though it does battle in my life with the Bashah – which looses out only in that it is too strong to drink much of on a regular basis.
Finally, the BrewShrine…
Disclosure: Kathlene and I are BrewDog punks, we have one pair of shares between us – it’s a bit of a lark. I was drinking and enjoying BrewDog beer prior to “buying in” of course. We bought in because their innovative Equity for Punks IPO scheme was interesting. Nothing at all to do with the 20% shareholders discount, honestly! ;) We’d have to spend quite a lot of money on beer to break even on cash. Good thing that wasn’t the point! (That said, if BrewDog survive for the long-haul I expect we will break even eventually!) Mainly it is fun. Being a shareholder is fun, you get to see the news first in the shareholders’ forum, get early access to special beer releases, presumably there may be AGMs (which would rock, I’m sure.) Shareholders may even be permitted to pop into the brewery, by advance arrangement… I can vicariously live the dream of being a brewer through these dudes, that’s what I’ve bought in to.