Brewdog and craft beer post-The United Craft Brewers

Brewdog hosted one of its regular media and beer blogger junkets last weekend, and I was pleased and surprised in equal measure to be invited along for what was a beer-soaked ride. The trip included a tour of the brewery and the AGM, but the Q and A with co-founders James Watt and Martin Dickie was most illuminating, as here we learned where Brewdog is at in its endeavour to define ‘craft beer’ post-United Craft Brewers.

Brewdog elicits much passion in beer geeks, both positive and negative. They have an army of ‘fans’ who support them as passionately as I do Celtic, evidenced by the whooping and hollering that greeted James and Martin as they took the stage at the AGM. They also have their detractors who point out the hypocrisy of a successful commercial business appropriating punk culture, and the gimmicks that inevitably backfire. Me? I was and remain ambivalent about the self-styled punks – on the one hand the frat boy antics frustrate me, while on the other Brewdog’s beers retain the capacity to captivate me. I’m not an ‘equity punk’, but I understand that desire to be part of something, the camaraderie of beer, and despite the flaws, only the most miserable curmudgeonly bastard would refuse to accept the positive impact Brewdog has had on the UK beer scene in the last ten years.

Getting back to the matter in hand, the Q and A began with a monologue from James on Brewdog’s raison d’être, a speech you can tell he’s delivered a thousand times. While he was generous with the clichés, one that had an air of authenticity about it and to which he returned to time and again was independence. He listed and lambasted those breweries that have sold out/up in the last year (let’s just say he and Jasper Cuppaidge won’t be meeting for a beer any time soon), and it’s this focus on independence (which ironically brings them and SIBA closer together than James may like to admit) that will be central to any attempt by Brewdog to take ownership of the term ‘craft beer’. Of course, an independent brewery can still make bad or tasteless beer, but flavour was never going to work in a formal definition of craft beer given its subjectivity. Surprisingly, Brewdog’s project is an international one, as James told us he and Martin are in talks with Stone Brewing in the US regarding it. Stone has obviously been a massive influence on Brewdog, but how any definition of UK craft beer can be arrived at between the two perplexes me. It would make sense if Brewdog had applied to the Brewers Association about an international membership, but just what is it and Stone brewing here? A breakaway global movement? Craft brewers of the world unite? Whatever they are up to, they’re no doubt set to throw a metaphorical hand grenade into the already volatile battleground of how to define craft beer. I also wonder where this leaves Brewdog’s erstwhile UCB partners. This Boak and Bailey interview with Magic Rock’s Rich Burhouse is telling, especially his comments on SIBA – was this a missed opportunity?

It was fascinating to spend time with the Brewdog team and army of ‘punks’; regardless of my misgivings it’s clear that these people believe in what Brewdog stands for, and however you slice it, Brewdog has made an indelible mark on the beer scene in this country, complimenting and bringing diversity to our already rich brewing history.

PS – Getting back to London, I asked James for an update on Dog Eat Dog, which is currently in ‘hibernation’ (a rare commercial setback for Brewdog). He told me they took on the site with a view to changing its licence to a bar licence, but were unable to do so, and a hot dog restaurant selling craft beer clearly didn’t work. It’ll reopen at an as yet unspecified date as a restaurant with monthly food pop ups, perhaps as an homage to the best pub in north London, The Duke’s Head in Highgate.

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