Shaken and Stirred
It seems a little churlish to visit a brewery and ask for a cup of tea. Having battled the elements along Fraserburgh’s esplanade to make it to BrewDog’s HQ on an industrial estate in sight of the North Sea, despite that inviting hoppy aroma, I needed to warm up and dry off with a softer kind of brew.
Once based in just a single unit, BrewDog recently ousted their neighbouring council offices (beer always trumps bureaucracy) to expand across three units and see further growth on the horizon. The plant is thronging with people – they employ sixteen locals full-time and, as director Martin Dickie points out, ‘there aren’t many happy business stories in Fraserburgh’.
Yet it didn’t always seem such a surefire winner. Martin – who studied brewing at University in Edinburgh where he met BrewDog’s Managing Director James Watt – was determined to channel his passion for beer into creating his own craft brewery rather than following the more conventional career path of working for one of the giant conglomerates. In April 2007, BrewDog was born and their signature beer, the fierce 6% Punk IPA, was launched on the world with a brazen statement of intent. ‘This is not a lowest common denominator beer’ is the label’s bold cry. ‘We don’t care if you don’t like it’. This was a company determined to set itself apart from both gassy, bland lager and the ‘paunch-and-beard-and-cableknit-sweater’ CAMRA-style image of real ale. ‘The British beer market is pretty stagnant’ says Martin ‘Most craft breweries are shooting themselves in the foot by producing exactly the same things – bitters and blondes at 3.5-4.5%. They’re all packaged with images of steam engines and things on the label – it’s not particularly inspiring to anyone under 50’. Asked if they were inspired by any UK beers, Martin plainly says ‘no’; rather it was the potent, complex beers of Belgium and experimental US microbreweries like Florida’s Dogfish Head and Stone Brewery in California which provided their role models.
But it was a frustratingly long struggle to get the market interested in something outwith the norm. James and Martin would stock up their car boots with cases, one heading north and one south, and try and get buyers to take a chance on a £30 case, sometimes only shifting 3 or 4 cases a day. To save shoe leather, they began sending samples to influential beer bloggers across the world – and their ecstatic feedback was the real turning point. They cracked the Swedish and US markets and, when they entered the Tesco Drinks Award in 2008 and claimed first through to fourth place, the UK trade eventually sat up and took notice.
Determined not to ‘clutter up the BrewDog brand’ they currently produce 6 core beers which are supplemented by seasonal specialities and limited releases. Taste often takes precedence over economy and they use US and New Zealand hops, much bolder, headier and citric than milder English hops, which comes at a price. ‘We don’t really seem to ever do things cheaply’ admits Martin. There’s a really giddy, playful side to their small batch experiments – past ‘mad professor’ efforts include cramming in nearly ten times as many hops than usual to make the super-bitter How To Disappear Completely and Atlantic IPA, which lived in oak casks on the deck of James’ dad’s trawler for a two-month trip around the North Atlantic, a journey video blogged for their website. The most recent is Zephyr, an audacious 750ml strawberry-infused Imperial Ale that’s spent the last 21 months in 1965 Invergordon whisky casks before being decanted into champagne bottles; just 100 bottles have been released – yours for £25 each, all profits to the RNLI.
Not everyone, however, is charmed by their enthusiasm for breaking convention. When they launched their 12% stout Tokyo as ‘aggressive’, press and alcohol awareness groups, blinkered by the a.b.v, heroically grabbed the wrong end of the stick and accused the company of encouraging irresponsible drinking. Anyone with common sense would see that a 330ml bottle being sold at £4 a pop (Oddbins will flog you 750ml of stronger table wine for that and give you change for crisps) is not going to be chugged back in bulk, but the kneejerk ‘blame the little guys’ reaction understandably depressed Martin. ‘The problem lies in large consumption of cheap beer’ he states, yet supermarkets that shift 8 cans of Carling for a fiver manage to escape blame. BrewDog ultimately want to educate the palates of drinkers, get their tastebuds out of their comfort zone and start sampling beers with friends, pairing it with food and saving the strong stuff for a special occasion – an ethos that surely stands more chance of countering people drinking themselves into oblivion than writing ‘Please Enjoy Responsibly’ as a microcosmic afterthought on whatever million pound booze campaign is currently plastered over the city.
Down in another industrial estate (this time Broxburn in West Lothian) is another recent addition to the independent Scottish drinks scene with a similarly evangelical pursuit of perfection. Whilst Scotland’s previous contribution to the vodka market seems limited to a quart bottle of Grant's that you’d take to a party you’re not that bothered about, Pincer Vodka is a swooningly stylish spirit operating at a whole other level. Created from Scottish mountain water, botanical and herbal infusions including wild elderflower and unfiltered grain (filtering destroying the subtlety of flavour), it is distilled to 38% – the ‘perfect’ volume for vodka according to Dmitri Mendeleev, the creator of the periodic table (and who are we to argue?).
But Pincer’s really eyecatching USP is that, thanks to its use of renowned restorative and detoxer milk thistle, it is the world’s first hangover-combating vodka – music to the ears of school night partygoers everywhere. The brainwave of former Glasgow architect Jonathan Engels, the prototype was road-tested by Stravaigin’s bar manager (and creator of the best Bloody Mary around) James Atkinson; once it got his seal of approval Jonathan knew he was on to a winner. Jonathan, however, can sympathise with BrewDog’s initial stalling – ‘nearly everything took at least twice as long, was twice the price and was twice as difficult as I would have imagined’ he admits. ‘The bottles arrived 8 months late...that wasn't a nice time’. Similarly, again, to the BrewDog boys, Jonathan decided to initially market outwith Scotland – ‘most drinks companies test out their new products in Glasgow or Edinburgh before launching in London, so we thought it was about time we tried the opposite’.
Thanks to strong branding and that creative, architectural eye – the bottle has a dark blue, vintage pharmacy vibe with trailing floral motifs – Pincer was soon in the hands of some of England’s most influential tastemakers. Sampling at the Free Range Art & Design grad show off Brick Lane, London Fashion Week and the Square Mile party atop of the Gherkin meant it rapidly became the buzziest spirit to mix with your slimline. Thankfully, it’s now available in home soil style bars, proudly nestling next to the Stoli at Glasgow’s Black Sparrow and Tigerlily in Edinburgh. Like BrewDog, Pincer is a company routed in Scotland but looking outwards – in a real ‘coals to Newcastle’ moment, they have recently had an order from the British Embassy in Moscow, creating interest in vodka’s spiritual home.
It’s a long way from a dreich Fraserburgh to Kate Moss’s martini glass, but these two cheerfully iconoclastic companies suggest the future of Scotland’s drinks industry is looking rosy.