Opinion: The Road Back to BrewDog

Sitting in the newly-opened BrewDog York this week on the historical Micklegate, taking in the decent atmosphere, enjoying a good array of beer styles and cheap, tasty food, I couldn’t help but think that, only a few short years beforehand, I would have quite likely have taken one look through the window at the exposed pipe-work and plasterboard on display and then turned my nose up at going in at all, no doubt high-tailing it elsewhere. This isn’t, I hope, because I’m just a bit of a beer snob – hopefully the article to follow will bear me out on that one – but it’s certainly the case that my journey from scoffing at BrewDog to rating them actually rather highly has taken a fair few years.

What was my problem in the first place? Well, I’m not sure how to pin that one down, but certainly my first exposure to a brand promoting itself as ‘beer for punks’ felt like an odd fit, given their presence on the stock market and later, their successful deal with one of the world’s biggest supermarket chains. (I am aware that the argument is for allowing the customers to co-own the business, and I get that, but my honest initial reaction was to say some rude things about punk, though I won’t sport with your patience with that rant just now.) One of my next early impressions of the brewery came via some of their notorious huge-strength beers like Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a beer with a staggeringly-high 32% ABV which is apparently best enjoyed as something more like a brandy than a beer, for obvious reasons. It was a talking point, sure, but unaffordable and unaccessible to many folks, so a talking-point and a talking-point only it remained. Even other infamous BrewDog beers like Tokyo, with its ‘mere’ wine-equivalent 16.5% ABV, had only drifted onto the periphery of my knowledge when I saw a guy getting one bottle bought for him on his stag do by a bunch of mates treating it as a rite of passage, brow-beating him to knock down the whole thing in one go. Caveat emptor, and all that.

But he was an adult; after all, people cheerfully mess themselves up on mass-produced beers which may be closer to 5% but, when you neck twelve of them during the course of an evening, will potentially do you an equivalent amount of harm. My first impressions of BrewDog beers based on the above may, I admit, have convinced me that they were gimmicky. However, when BrewDog locked horns with the relentlessly-dreary UK alcohol watchdog, the Portman Group – who challenged BrewDog over allegedly breaking the alcohol marketing code with their Dead Pony Club beer – the response given by brewery founder James Watt was irreverent enough to raise a smile, whilst BrewDog’s issues with this hypocritical organisation (or the Orwellian-sounding ‘responsibility body’, in Portman’s own parlance) are completely legitimate. Unswayed by the regular hounding they got from PG, BrewDog did make a beer called Nanny State, too: it’s still tastier than the Carlsbergs of this world, one of the conglomerate companies who co-fund the Portman Group. I’ll admit, BrewDog were starting to sway me by this point. And to add to that – being shunned by CAMRA seems to do an up-and-coming brewery far more good than ill these days, especially if said brewery has the nous to use social media to highlight the differences in outlook between old and new. Perhaps BrewDog’s outlook wasn’t so bad after all…

So, after a period of time trying, and liking a few of their beers, visiting a few of their premises (ShuffleDog Leeds is fab, by the way) and slowly coming around to the fact that I might have judged too soon, it was a massive boon to see that, in common with some other breweries like Mikkeller and Stone, BrewDog make their beer recipes available. The only real difference is that BrewDog’s are all available for free download, which is very helpful for those like us at The Drunken Goat who are now taking our first tentative steps in brewing our own beer. No brewery is under any obligation to do this sort of thing and could pull the whole ‘secret recipe’ shtick quite easily, so we really appreciate the sentiment, and I’m sure lots of other home-brewers do too. After all, you have to start somewhere.

It seems that not everyone is quite on board with BrewDog as of yet, though. This brings me neatly to the end of this full circle – back to York, where, as you reflect on the well-behaved punters, some sitting, many stood around the bustling bar, it seems odd that some people were prepared to fight tooth and nail to stop any of them being there at all. Whilst Micklegate is something of a hub for some of York’s best bars (up against some pretty solid competition throughout the city, I might add,) most of the rest of the businesses on the street have had no major truck with another bar opening up. This might be a little bit of solidarity on their part: York City Council have in years past agonised over late licenses for certain Micklegate premises where there never seems to be one jot of trouble, whilst modern-day thunderdromes like Popworld seem to get away with anything. Or, maybe pub managers in the area are just somewhere between indifferent and even pleased to have BrewDog in the vicinity. Not all of them, though, are prepared to be civil: a local restaurant owner from The Rattle Owl recently even went so far as to hire a private detective to scope out some of BrewDog’s other bars, on the prowl for evidence of drunken behaviour which could be used as evidence against them gaining a license in York – a campaign which, happily, failed.

This kind of precious, excessive and underhand approach hasn’t exactly done said restaurant any favours, of course, but does at least illustrate that plenty of people still have massive misconceptions about beer, brewing and BrewDog itself, taking it as far as a court of law. Leaving aside the point that the restaurant in question serves cocktails and sells wines, and has now applied for an extension to its own premises on Micklegate, it’s settled in my mind that BrewDog have every right to be in York, and have conducted themselves well throughout the whole lengthy affair. I still don’t know about the whole beer for punks thing, but I’m happy to side with the devil’s advocate here. Over the past ten years BrewDog have earned the respect they have, and even if you don’t list their beers as your personal favourites, you should at least appreciate that their presence has been an important part of the craft beer explosion which has made beer better for so many of us, here in the UK and worldwide. I have no qualms about wishing them all the best and I don’t mind admitting I was wrong.