Wednesday 29 April 2015

Two things BrewDog's not short of: ambition and excellent beer

With BrewDog's trademark hyperbole it was trailed as “something f**king spectacular”, but to many people the news that the Scottish Brewery has kicked off a fourth round of its Equity for Punks crowd-funding scheme will look more like evolution than revolution.

What's different though is the scale and ambition: the company is this time aiming to raise £25 million, more than five times what it raised in its last investment round – and way more than the £2.5 million that Camden Town Brewery raised in its recent crowd-funding campaign. It may even be the biggest independent crowd-funding scheme in the world.

And by crowd-funding it circumvents the restrictions it fears would come with venture capital or a stockmarket listing. “It's so we can continue making beer that's stupidly expensive to make, so we can continue making beer that's hopped to hell,” said co-founder James Watt at the project's launch in BrewDog Shepherds Bush, to cheers from existing EFP investors.

Some of the investment will go to expand brewing capacity. Work is about to begin on a £3 million brewery that will quadruple production volumes, and BrewDog has identified the site it wants for its US brewery, in Columbus, Ohio.

Then there is the sour beer project. At the moment, all the beers go through Ellon, either the main brewery or the 10hl pilot brewery that replaced the old Fraserburgh site (they kept the latter open for a while after opening Ellon in order to have somewhere to do small-batch beers. It proved too awkward working on two sites though, so it was replaced by a new pilot plant at Ellon). Clearly it's not ideal having sours and non-sours sharing a brewkit, so the answer is a new sour beer facility with its own brewkit.

Also on the wish-list is a distillery. Although the super-strong beers such as End of History and Sink the Bismarck were technically freeze-distilled, I understand they were declared as beers – like Eisbocks, I suppose. A proper distillery will allow them to produce whiskies, gins and the like – there's already other British brewers doing this of course, most notably Adnams. “We could distil Jack Hammer and add botanicals for gin,” said James. “It's easier to get distilling licences now than it used to be, it's still not easy though!”

And new BrewDog bars are on the way, both in the UK (including a new flagship in London's Soho and a mega-bar/restaurant in Glasgow) and abroad. There's almost 30 already, with a dozen or so more on the way. As to the latter, if you look at the company's map, there's bars in northern Europe and in Spain and Italy, but nothing in between, and that will change. Among those due to open later this year are BrewDog Brussels and BrewDog Berlin – the latter has been rumoured locally for some time now, but the story was that they were having difficulty finding a suitable site. They've found a site (Ackerstrasse 28, in Mitte) so it's now a licensing issue.

The company also would like to open a craft beer hotel in Ellon, not least to service the many visitors to the brewery. I'm not convinced James will get his semi-serious wish of having Punk IPA on tap in every bedroom, but you never know.

On the surface, the shares look like a good bet. Brewdog claims to be Britain’s fastest-growing food and drinks brand, opening 27 bars worldwide since 2010, exporting to 55 countries and employing more than 360 staff, which is about 358 more than in 2007. It just announced its sixth consecutive year of record growth, having increased its annual turnover by 64% to over £29.6 million in 2014, compared with £18 million in 2013. It expects turnover to exceed £50 million this year.

However, rather than pay a dividend, it rewards shareholders with discounts and invitations to its AGM – which as far as I can tell from past reports is basically a big party in a brewery. Given that you need to invest a minimum of £95 (that gets you two shares), and that to get the maximum shareholder discount of 10% in bars and 20% online you have to invest quite a bit more, you're going to have to buy a few thousand quid's worth of BrewDog products to get a return on your investment. (Fans don't find that difficult, of course, and some early shareholders have already covered their investment this way.)

The share price also values the company at around 10 times its turnover and 100 times its annual profit, which is pretty expensive by stockmarket norms. (And BrewDog got into trouble with the UK Listing Authority, part of the Financial Conduct Authority, by mistakenly claiming that UKLA had “accredited” the scheme, whereas in fact it had merely approved the investment prospectus.)

But to many Punk investors, all that misses the point. They believe in the company, they wear BrewDog shirts and hats, they cheer at meetings when James and Martin speak, and of course they enjoy its beer – as well they should, because despite (or perhaps because of) all that expansion, it remains excellent.

Pilot brew 008, aka Whisky Sour
At the Equity for Punks IV launch, we were offered what co-founder Martin Dickie called a “deconstructed Whisky Sour cocktail”. He explained that it started as a lactic-soured barley wine, “so it's massively sour, a tiny batch, brewed with a good bit of crystal malt for that marshmallow sweetness.” It was then laced with lemon juice, lime juice, vanilla pods and “a tiny bit of cinnamon” before being aged on toasted oak chips. The murky amber-coloured result was bizarre yet delicious  – sour and tart, but with hints of wine and oaky vanilla.

Also excellent at the launch were BrewDog's seasonal Alice Porter, a version of its Paradox Imperial Stout aged in Compass Box whisky barrels which came out at 15%, and Shipwrecker Circus, a barley wine brewed in collaboration with US brewer Oskar Blues. The regular beers remain good too, such as 5am, Jack Hammer, and of course Punk IPA. You see the latter all over the place now, but that hasn't stopped it being a fine beer.

So where next for BrewDog's beers? More variety for sure – James noted that one advantage of EFP and craft beer's growth in general is that “it's easier to sell new small [product] lines, because the audience is already there.” And he dangled a tantalising hint that the company might even consider a return to the cask ale market that it loudly abandoned several years ago, now that craft cask is fashionable again. As he mused, “When we stopped doing cask, the beer market was very different from today.” Interesting times indeed.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

What brings foreign brewers to work for Wetherspoons?

Earlier this year, craft brewers from around the world flew home after a week's brewing at some of Britain's oldest and most traditional real ale breweries. Last month, the fruits of their - unpaid! - handiwork went on sale at 950+ pubs around the country, as part of JD Wetherspoon's spring real ale festival.

And this was only the latest of several such collaborations, albeit one of the largest, with ten collaboration beers on offer this time. So what is it that attracts these successful brewers - all of them highly regarded at home, whether that's the USA, Australia, Spain or even Brazil – to come to the UK and brew cask ale for Wetherspoons? Especially when, while they get their travel paid for, they're otherwise working for free – it's a real busman's holiday.

Celebration time for the international guests at the Crosse Keys
Luckily, I had the chance to chat with many of those involved, both from abroad and their UK hosts, at a meet-the-brewers event hosted by Wetherspoons at its grand Crosse Keys pub in the City of London. For almost all the visitors, it was the opportunity to do something new and rather different, not least because many of them don't have any experience of brewing cask-conditioned beer.

“We do bottled-conditioning and kegs – cask beer is totally unknown in South Africa, it's a whole new experience,” said Brian Stewart of Shongweni Brewery, who brewed a cask version of his Durban Pale Ale at Batemans. “Some of the American brewers have gone back and started doing cask themselves. Others want UK exposure for possible future exports,” added Dave Aucutt of East-West Ales, who is the beer manager for Wetherspoons' real ale festivals (and is also the Dave pictured on the JDW Real Ale website).

Capacity counts

Then there are the volumes involved. To feature in a Wetherspoon's national festival, you need to be able to brew maybe 200 barrels of your beer. The guest brewers will typically have modern 10 or 20 barrel brewkits of their own, in gleaming stainless steel, so it is quite a thrill to come to a centuries-old family brewery with a capacity of maybe ten times that – and that leads on to the historical angle.

“It's a blast for them, brewing on older and more traditional plants,” said Simon Yates, assistant head brewer at Marston's. “It's the experience of doing something different, seeing a different brewery – we brewed with Hook Norton,” agreed Dave Edney of Australia's Mountain Goat Brewery, adding that you can't get much more historic than Hooky's Victorian tower brewery.

And of course there is Britain's world-class ale heritage more generally, which is way too easy for us Brits to forget, what with all the excitement over craft beers and so on. The fact is that all these brewers look to the British ale tradition for inspiration for at least some of their craft beers. For example, although Brian Stewart said that with South Africa being so hot, the main market is for “easy-drinking beers to watch cricket by”, and that he also brews German and American-inspired beers, his flagship Pale Ale is inspired by IPA dropped off at the Cape by ships on their way to India.

He added that he learnt a huge amount from working with Batemans head brewer Martin Cullimore. “Martin is like a walking encyclopædia on brewing and the technology,” he said. “I will take back a lot of understanding of the technology – he's a very good mentor.”

And what of working with Wetherspoons? After all, while many British beer fans love 'Spoons' for its championing of craft real ale (and now of craft beer in general) at affordable prices – it planned to sell three million pints over the 17 days of its real ale festival – others regard it with horror. To them it's a beery McDonald's, a corporate monster undercutting 'real pubs'.

Clearer vision

Perhaps with the clearer vision that comes from not being so close to the topic, the visitors I spoke with were uniformly enthusiastic. “You get an email saying 'Come to Britain and brew one of your ales to be sold in 950 pubs'! How could you resist that? Sure, there's US pub chains, but it's not the same,” said Tyler Brown, who brewed a version of his Barley Brown's ESA at Marston's.

He added that while exploring Britain he discovered just how varied Wetherspoons can be. “In Edinburgh we went to the Alexander Graham Bell and then to the Standing Order. They're the same company and they have the same menus, but they have an entirely different clientèle.”

The host brewers were enthusiastic about Spoons too, though for different reasons. “You don't make a lot of profit [selling to Wetherspoons], but it does make one and it helps with your volumes, which reduces your overall malt bill and so on,” said Martin Cullimore. It's also great for the visibility of both your brewery and your beer, added Adnams brewer and quality manager Belinda Jennings.

And they were just as enthusiastic about the overseas collaborations as their visitors were. “The first thing is it's enjoyable doing something a bit different,” said Simon Yates. “A lot [of the guests] are not formally trained brewers, what's great is their enthusiasm and passion – it's very invigorating,” added Martin Cullimore.

In addition, while the guests may learn about cask conditioning and brewing in volume, the hosts learn too. “They're often more adventurous with ingredients, for example we might never have thought of using pink peppercorns,” said Belinda Jennings. She added that they could even rebrew some of their collaborations themselves – with the guest's permission of course.

Collaboration or copy?

Talking of which. are they collaboration brews or are they really just cask versions of the guest's original beer? “Sometimes the aim is to recreate the original as closely as possible, for example when we did Harpoon IPA,” said Simon Yates. “Others are interpretations, maybe they're not as strong as at home so they're better suited to pints rather than 12oz measures, such as the Devils Backbone American IPA we brew at Banks's.”

The festival included St Patrick's Day
Much of the time though, it's effectively a new beer – even more so in this festival, because the overarching theme was that all 50 festival beers would be brewed using only British-grown hops (which in practice meant English hops, because so little is grown in Wales and Scotland). Apparently there's now 27 or 28 different hops grown in Britain, ranging from established varieties such as Fuggles and Goldings to newer ones like Archer, Boadicea and Jester, and even English-grown Cascade. The festival beers featured 24 of them, as not all could be sourced in sufficient quantities.

“The beer will be different – it's our existing recipe, but the water is different, the hops are different, and of course cask conditioning is not the same as brewery conditioning,” confirmed Brian Stewart. This also lead Dave Edney to articulate the one big regret shared by the guest brewers, who were already heading home several weeks before the festival ales would be ready to sell. “It's a pity we can't taste the beer – it's a different yeast and water so it won't be the same,” he said.

As mentioned, one of the reasons for pairing the guests with experienced cask ale brewers is to help them brew their recipes in this new-to-them way. Unfortunately, while this concept usually works well – sometimes startlingly well, as with the more recent Caledonian-brewed Nøgne Ø Asian Pale Ale, or the Adnams/Rogue Brutal IPA earlier this year – I'm not sure that it meshed with the spring festival's theme of British hops. Of the international brewers' beers I tried, a couple were pretty good but most were only so-so.

I think that the problem was they were being asked to use unfamiliar ingredients as well as different processes. So where normally the host brewer can help adapt their recipe as needed, this time they were in effect creating a new recipe. Plus there was no time for test brews, so if neither the host nor the guest had brewed a similar combination before, then it's all educated guesswork.

But all in all, it's a brilliant idea. The brewers get to share ideas and expertise, drinkers get some new and hopefully top-notch cask beers, and horizons are broadened all round. That to me is a very large part of what modern (craft, if you like) brewing is all about, and I thoroughly applaud Wetherspoons for supporting and encouraging it.

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Hamburg's nice and nasty surprises

We're in Germany around easter, and last week allowed a trip into Hamburg for two beery events. First was the weekly Open Bottle at the Craft Beer Store in Sternschanze – this is a weekly free tasting of a new beer, sometimes from the adjacent Ratsherrn Brauerei and sometimes from elsewhere.

This one turned out to be a chance to catch up with Ian Pyle, the Bavarian/American/British-trained brewmaster who runs Ratsherrn's pilot brewery, and to sample something unexpected: a cider that he calls Appelwien – that's Apfelwein in the local Plattdeutsch (Low German) dialect. He was also pouring Steuerbord, his new dry-hopped Pils.

Ian noted that Appelwien was fermented from Holsteiner Cox and Boskoop apple juice, which was supplied unpasteurised by a local producer Leev, and used wine yeast – he doesn't want wild yeast around his brewery! He said he wanted it to be more along the lines of Normandy cider than British scrumpy, although there was no French-style maceration, which sweetens the brew a bit more. And although the apple varieties used are better known as eating apples, he said the juice is actually slightly more acidic than that from bittersweet British cider apples.

The result is very drinkable, with a fruity nose that has almost a white wine character, and a dry-sweet tangy body. I found it a little sweet in the finish, but Ian said the residual sugar level was actually pretty low, so maybe it's just my preference for bone-dry perries!

So what's it like switching from beer to cider-making? “It's easy for a brewer, although there's a lot of best practice to learn and you need to select your ingredients and your yeast carefully,” Ian said. He did small trial batches using three different apple juices and three different yeasts before settling on the Cox/Boskoop pairing with Muller-Thurgau yeast.

Steuerbord was quite a different proposition. Dry-hopped or late-hopped – Hopfenstopfen in German – with Opal, Saphir and Smaragd, it was aromatic, dryish and crisp, but with surprisingly little bitterness. Ian said that the hops were almost all whirlpool additions, as he wanted to emphasise aroma over bitterness. The crisp dryness comes more from it having a very low residual extract (ie. most of the sugars are fermented out).

Overall it had a slightly biscuity character, and I picked up hints of peach and lemon, plus a faint salty and flinty mineral edge. It's an intriguing beer that shows just how varied Pilsners can be, at least when a brewer bothers to try something different from the generic Bitburger/Krombacher/etc style.

The evening's second event was Reinheitsverbot (which approximately translates to "beer purity banned"), a beer launch at a bar not far from the Reeperbahn that's trying to build itself as a craft beer venue. It's a regular introductory evening for their beers of the month, albeit without the free tastings. I was looking forward to it as they were easter beers I'd not tried before – or I was until I walked in there, and discovered it was one of the few all-smoking venues left in Germany (pubs often have a smoking room, but the main bar will be smoke-free).

Worse, there wasn't any ventilation and although the place had just opened for the evening and I was the only non-staffer in there, the ashtrays were still full. It stank as if they wanted it to stink (which of course they didn't – see below). I felt physically sick and did something I've not done in a while – turn on my heel and leave. Quite apart from not wanting to end up smelling like an ashtray myself, trying to taste decent beer in such an environment would have been a waste.

On the plus side, heading back earlier than planned meant I was in time for dinner and some extremely nice red wine, so the evening was still a win.

Update... I've had an email from Erin, one of the Reinheitsverbot organisers, who tried to comment here but couldn't for some reason. I misunderstood the nature of the place: they run it as a bar only from Thursday to Saturday, she says the rest of the time it's used by the restaurant upstairs as a smoking lounge (!), so it was the upstairs staff who'd not cleared up. The evening crew had only just come in they'd not done it yet – I arrived a few minutes before 8pm, thinking that was simply when the introductory event started, and only realising once I got downstairs that 8pm was actually the bar's opening time for the evening.

She adds, "Neither of us are smokers; we would also prefer better ventilation and fewer cigarettes in our work space. But this is a neighborhood bar in St. Pauli, the red-light district, and every bar we've been to in our neighborhood allows its guests to smoke. I would like to see our bar be non-smoking until 10:00 p.m., but again, the restaurant opens before the bar does, so that's not a possibility."

I guess that shows how long it is since I (once) went drinking around the Reeperbahn! It's a shame, because I still very much like the idea behind the bar/event. Maybe it'll be better during the summer – Erin says when the weather's nicer, people go outside to smoke instead of downstairs.