Wednesday, 8 December 2010

BrewDog AGM part two

BrewDog; they have said that cask beer is not a very useful way of introducing people to craft beer and that the future of craft beer is keg. Quite bold, and the comments have upset a few in the beer world. Myself? I'm getting to the point of being ambivalent about backing particular types of dispense. It's beer for goodness sake, is it good or bad? Filtering, bottle conditioning, cask and keg, all have various advantages and disadvantages. I do understand BrewDog, a lot as it happens, and my trip to Aberdeen at the weekend only filled me with renewed purpose both in terms of my own brewery and the greater good of the beer world. More on this later, specifically I want to look at BrewDog as a brewery and a rapidly expanding business, how they see themselves and why I don't think they are wrong, at least in terms of how they grow and what they want to do.

Perhaps part of the problem for BrewDog is that Fraserburgh is a difficult place to get to. Sure, the locations of some other Scottish breweries are equally, or perhaps more difficult to get to. To become as successful as these guys have, from such a location, requires some creative marketing. Some seem to be jealous of this, which is such a shame. The reason I realise why they need to be so controversial is that very few beer writers can pop in and have a look at what they do. Beer writing tends to be London centric, with some outposts in places like Sheffield. We set off from Cumbria on Friday about 5pm, and apart from a couple of beers, a sleep and breakfast we did very little other than travel to get to Fraserburgh by 4pm the following day. Sure, the roads were a little wintry, but I wasn't hanging around, considering.

BrewDog brewery is not flash; Unless you define flash as having cylindrical conical vessels. There are quite a few of these nice shiny fermentation-conditioning tanks, but other than that the whole operation is quite like a brewery in a shed. However, many breweries remind me of collections of various bits of stainless steel in a shed. It's just the size of the shed and the capacity of stainless that changes.

I digress. When we got to the brewery the team were mashing in Rip Tide. 1¼ tonnes of grist go into this brew. Seeing as it was late in the afternoon it was obvious that brewday was not going to end at any sensible hour. It turns out that the last time the brewery doors were locked was 1st January and the next time will be 24th December. 12 hour shifts are worked by the team to keep production going and virtually all corners of the building as well as outside are used to house tanks. It's not difficult to imagine that this is a £4M per annum turnover operation.

Stuart, who was showing us around, pointed out that the brew-house itself contains little in the way of automation; this makes the whole process quite labour intensive. The advantage is that they have the flexibility to make beers from 0.5% up to 18.2%1 which would be virtually impossible to do if the plant was a modern automated plant. Even when they build the new brewery, which will be closer to Aberdeen, they intend to keep the old plant to enable them to continue to brew more experimental and specialist beers.

Stuart talked quite passionately about the whole brewing process, about how they experiment with different yeast strains, a significant amount of dry hopping and avoid the use of additions that they feel are inappropriate. He talked about filtration. BrewDog do filter all their beers. They used to filter down to a 0.45 micron sterile. This ensures a long shelf life due to the removal of all possible contaminants. It also ensures that the beer is absolutely crystal bright. The problem with such aggressive filtration is that flavours and colours are stripped countering some of the advantages of the massive levels of dry hopping2.

These days they filter at up to 8 microns, "As rough as we can" Stuart says. I always wonder why it is not possible to just leave beer in the conditioning tank until all the particulates drop out. It seems that this is not fast enough without using some form of finings3, which BrewDog see as an unnecessary chemical addition. Filtration, in their view, is a purer method of dropping beer bright.

Cask beer is generally not suitable for vegetarians4. BrewDog want to make beer more accessible to people. In their view, excluding a significant proportion of the population is unacceptable. With chill filtered keg or bottle beers they can be enjoyed by many more people.

Long discussions ensued about yeast and dry hops in the bottom of the tanks, and how they are removed, how long the beers were left in tank, how long Paradox was left in whisky casks and many more details that really wouldn't interest the reader. Or perhaps they would, but as my memory is crap and I never write stuff down, I'd be making up the detail if I tried to write it up. It came across very clearly that the team have a passion that runs right through. They care about what is produced and express disappointment when an experiment turns out not to have enough of BrewDog about it. Perhaps they have got DAIPA in Tesco, but they still care a lot about their beer. And still the brewers are happy about DAIPA; it's all very well working for a small artisanal brewery, but even better when you work for one that the regular Tesco punter might have heard of.

Around 2/3 of the inside space is taken up with bottling, packaging and dispatching. There was very little in the way of casks ready to go, although I know that there is still a significant amount of cask beer produced by the brewery. Most of the product that was ready to go was in the form of keg or bottle. Whatever the reader thinks of BrewDog's attitude towards beer that is not "real ale" it seems to be doing them all right.

I'd really like to return to the brewery sometime and muck in with these guys. I'm not sure I could contribute to their beer in the way the breweries they collaborate with do, but I know I'd get something out of it. Here's hoping. But we had to leave, we had a party to return to in Aberdeen and it was an hour away. When we got back we had to check into our hotel. The next post will hopefully be about the BrewDog Bar and their sister restaurant Musa. And most importantly, how I see their craft keg fitting, or not, with the rest of the beer market.


1Actually, the highest ABV they have fermented was about 23% but it was not really a saleable product. This, if I understand correctly, was later freeze distilled to make The End of History. Having tasted that beer it does just show that the technique of making Eisbocks might have a few applications. The End of History is a beer that was truly tasty in a liqueur sort of way.

2As far as I can work out, from the memory of what I was told, dry hopping is often at a rate of around 1kg per hl. That, I think, is what I would term "kick ass" hopping. This of course is after similar amounts have gone into the boil. Twice.

3For my bottled beers I use auxiliary finings in the conditioning tank and chill the bugger as much as I can. The yeast flocculates naturally leaving the beer bright enough that reseeding with yeast is required for bottle conditioning to occur. Auxiliary finings are good at removing chill haze providing the beer is cleared at a low temperature, i.e. 2 degrees lower than expected serve temperature. Is this an unnecessary chemical? I believe it to be mineral based and therefore inoffensive to vegetarians and vegans.

4Nearly all cask beer requires Isinglass for it to clear to a brightness acceptable to most drinkers in a reasonable time period. Isinglass is made from fish guts making cask beer unsuitable for true vegetarians. It surprises me how many people don't know this. I know that some cask beer drinkers are happy to overlook this for the joy of beer. If I were a vegetarian I would also overlook this for beer, as well as bacon, sausage, steak, roast chicken, gammon, kebabs............


Phil said...

"Nearly all cask beer"? The Marble seem to have it cracked. (They did go hazy for a year or so when they went vegan, but it comes out clear now.)

StringersBeer said...

Dave: You'll know (of course) that our genuinely cask-conditioned Stout and Dark Country are unfined and suitable for vegans.

Some breweries, Outstanding, Marble, and others, manage to send beer out unfined, but which will drop reasonably bright within reasonable time - of course some of this beer is racked pretty near bright anyway, being (I guess) tank rather than cask conditioned.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments, I think the question of unfined cask beer is a subject for a whole new blog post.

I do however concur with your comments.

(Although I didn't KNOW Stringers did beer suitable for vegans, but it comes as no surprise. (Why do we have to say vegetarians AND vegans?? (Vegan being a subset)))

StringersBeer said...

There's quite a lot of "vegan" cask ale about - I should also have mentioned: Belvoir, Buxton, Magpie, Spectrum, Springhead - I'm sure there are many more. Frankly the Keg = Veggie / Cask = fish murder line is a bit of FUD from the BD boys.

I rambled on about it a bit here. It's worth noting (and I did) that a fair few bottled beers and wines have had some animal product treatment also.
Time was, kegged beers might have used isinglass as a filter aid... I don't know if this is still done.

I'm not vegan (I've never even been to Vega), although I did live the lifestyle for a short while - which tends to mean no milk, honey, leather or pets - as well as not eating meat.

The less strict, who'll call themselves vegetarian (perhaps 5% of the population, not including those who'll eat the less attractive animals), would probably feel a bit funny about the idea of processing beer with fish products.

I suspect most people wouldn't give two hoots.

Unknown said...


I do not think it's FUD. I am just about to go and read in detail what appears to be your rather excellent post on the subject. However, it does seem to me that true vegetarians shouldn't be drinking most cask ale.

I don't really get vegetarianism, to be honest, although many people who I respect, and that includes the very good people at Stringers, are vegetarian, and I support their right to be so.

Discussion to be continued no doubt.

Unknown said...

Last year, I emailed a bunch of breweries re. animal finings in their beer. Many were fine in bottle form, a few in keg (most actually doing cask or bottle) and a couple doing vegan casks. It was interesting that several brewers regarded finings more as a "necessary evil" than an intrinsic part of the beer. There were also places willing to do unfined casks for festivals etc. But the general impression was that cask = fish guts.

That said, I'm off to the Euston Tap tomorrow as they've had 3 Marbles on cask plus 9 international keg taps that are vegan. has details of reactions to the "is your beer animal-free" question - Stringers doesn't appear to have an entry on there yet though.