Beer Arms Race

BrewDog's James Watt and Martin Dickie

In the beer worlSamuel Adams Utopiasd for sometime, there’s a been a healthy competitiveness between brewers that often aids in the evolution of styles, flavor preferences, and brewing techniques. This natural progression found in most facets of life keeps things interesting and can help extricate us from the doldrums of boring conventionalism. With modern craft brewing we’ve witnessed this manifestation on a variety of fronts. Perhaps most notable was the Boston Beer Company and Dogfish Head’s race for the strongest brew. Utopias or World Wide Stout? The debate of what constitutes a beer, how it should be brewed, and what ultimately discerns it as the strongest remains a hot topic of debate. Was Sam Adams’ Utopias “cheating” by using spirit soaked barrels and not being carbonated. The idea of charging in excess of $200 for a bottle of the Utopias troubled some folks. And even the $10 a bottle price tag of WWS turned off many craft beer people. And another question, was the whole thing a gimmick? Perhaps, but it made for a fun discussion at a beer store or at a Beer Advocate tasting. It bore into the minds of beer geeks around the world much the same way the macro lager breweries have tried to under-carb one another for their audiences.

Now there’s a new arms race of sorts being waged betwixt Scottish entrepreneurial brewery BrewDog and Germany’s Schorschbräu. Known for their innovation as much as for their gimmicky, snotty marketing presence as they are for their controversial envelope pushing, BrewDog captured the craft beer world’s attention three months ago by announcing their sole entitlement of having brewed the “world’s strongest beer” through a comical, cutesy, lighthearted video. The beer named Tactical Nuclear Penguin claimed to surpass Schorschbräu’s record of 31% ABV reached in 2008. According to a video disseminated on Vimeo and YouTube, TNP weighed in at 32% ABV. In this video, founders James Watt and Martin Dickie dress as penguins and speak of their accomplishment achieved through barrel aging  and iced distillation.

On the same day as BrewDog’s release of TNP, Schorschbräu announced they had also produced a beer reaching 32% ABV. No clever video was released, just a statement on Schorschbräu’s website’s homepage:

November 2009:

The Latest Addition to Our Collection – Again The Strongest Beer in the World!

Through our combination of traditional brewhouse work and a rarely used method for producing ice bock supplemented by extended cold-lagering (a minimum of six months), we now have produced a beer with 32 % alcohol by volume. This is yet another percent above our previously held record.

Brewed Strictly According to the Reinheitsgebot, the German Purity Law

To top that jab back at BrewDog, a month later, Schorschbräu again announced a beer of astounding alcoholic proportions. This time, an eisbock that clearly set them apart from the pack:

Schorschbräu 40December 2009:

A historic month with, once more, an unbelievable Beer-Record!

Accepting no limits we have set a new beer-record with amazing 40% Vol.

You can find the results on the download-area.

Three days ago, the BrewDog boys put themselves back in the news, again upstaging and out-boozing their German nemeses. Another supposed world record beer at 41% ABV was unveiled by the Scottish Brewer. As expected from these publicity happy lads, a video to accompany it was unveiled. In the video, Watt and Dickie were at it again, this time with all guns a-blazing. Mocking Hans Albers and Wolfgang Borchert of Schorschbräu by employing traditional German stereotypes and tongue and cheek humor, BrewDog’s new beer took big swing at their rivals to the east  by naming the beer Sink the Bismarck.

Named for an British war film from 1960, the joke caused much uproar and controversy throughout the brewing world. The World War II incident in which the incident of the German ship known as Bismarck sank claimed nearly 2000 lives. Some folks took this to heart and pointed the finger at BrewDog for lacking social sensitivity. It was pointed out earlier today on Twitter by Eric Steen of Portland’s Beer and Sci-Fi site that BrewDog were getting a lot of anger targeted at them for their handling of the situation and the name of their new beer. For a couple of twenty-something brewers who market their product as “Beer for punks,” the surrounding controversy came to us as no surprise. After all, controversy sells. The reaction we caught wind of via Steen was on the Glaswegian beer blog I Might Have A Glass of Beer in which the author short post simply reacts on the same day as BrewDog’s Sink the Bismarck video release:

National stereotyping? “Sink the Bismarck”? In the twenty-first century? Is that the best they can do? Really?

You expect racist crap like this from Shepherd Neame, but I thought BrewDog were above that. Lame.

There is a slightly tenous link to strong beer: Winston Churchill, who gave the order to sink the Bismarck, was the person for whom Carlsberg Special Brew was first made. It’s not recorded whether there was enough alcohol in it for him.

The title of this post is simply “Pathetic” and show Watt and Dickie in their sailor garb from the video. A slew of comments on this hot button topic led us to a mixed bag of interpretations. Some thought it was tongue and cheek and that many people were acting hypersensitively to the ordeal. Some felt that this was a pitifully uncalled for attempt at rabble-rousing and attention getting. Some were a mix of the two while others used the opportunity as an excuse to go after BrewDog for making overpriced, mediocre, or gimmicky beer. One anonymous commenter covered an array of feelings on the topic by stating:

I have to admit I really like and admire the boys at Brewdog for what they’ve achieved, and Im not paticularly concerned at the name they’ve given to this beer. Its politically incorrect sure, but its meant as a joke, and if we can’t make jokes about things that happened over 60 years ago we’re in a bad way.

That said, who cares about this new beer? TNP was great publicity, quite clever in the brewing technique, amusing Penguin outfits and just generally a bit of a giggle. This is an ego trip, and a relatively pointless one at that. They make some truly fantastic beers, which you can actually drink. I don’t want to sip my beer in a spirit sized measure, if I want a spirit sized measure, I’ll drink a spirit.

They are on the verge of going just a little too far. I hope the next headline I see from them is ‘Brewdog make worlds best tasting beer, its 5.5%’

A thread on Beer Advocate’s website was explosive from the get-go as well, leading to a lengthy explanation from Watt himself. Watt begins with:

With this launch, we wanted to have a little fun with what we are doing. We are sometimes guilty of pushing publicity stunts too far, but this was very much about having some fun. In-fact, since December we have no longer had a PR agency as this is not part of our strategy this year. The whole thing was meant to be a little bit punk, a little bit fun and a lot self depreciating. The video thing was very tongue in cheek.

Watt then goes on to justify BrewDog’s actions by blaming Schorschbräu for the unfolding of events (sort of the old ‘but he started it’ defense).

Schorschbrau also riled us for 2 reasons. When we launched Penguin they tried to steal the show with a beer which they may launch, someday somewhere in the future. We had a beer on the market and they had something they were going to make. Secondly they contacted us and tried to sell (yes sell!) us their secrets of brewing high ABV beers. Consequently we wanted to playfully poke a bit of fun at them.

In the rest of the statement it Watt talks about the pride he has in his product and the work that goes into trying to create the best possible and distinguished beer BrewDog can make. He also tackles the criticism of the hefty pricetags on their beers by pointing the finger at the United States’ three tier distribution system.

We realize we have had issues with our beers in the US market. We have worked on pricing and are doing all we can here. We get paid $0.75 for a 330ml bottle of DIPA. It is the freight, killer exchange rates, import, tax costs combined with the margin multiplying effect of the US 3 tier system which means our beers are expensive in the US.

OnWoolpack Inn Brewer Dave Baileye commenter was Dave Bailey brewer and owner of Cumbia, England’s Hardknott Brewing and the Woolpack Inn, a sister pub to Oakridge, Oregon’s UK-inspired Union Local 180 Brewpub (180’s owner and brewer Ted Sobel cut his teeth at the Bailey’s pub). In his brew blog, Bailey reveals an interesting perspective regarding BrewDog’s marketing of their 41%-er:

BrewDog of course use various interesting and sometimes controversial tactics in getting themselves noticed. I’ve always been quite tolerant and even pleased about their tactics. I like their off the wall approach and anti-establishment ethos….I loved the idea of them making the strongest beer in the world and their willingness to regain their record when a German brewery snatched it from them…

I’m going to digress, but in a way that will be completely obvious very quickly. My father is still alive and a fact that most of the time I’m very pleased about. He was born in 1938, just before the start of the Second World War. He was evacuated from his home in Bexley Heath, just outside London, during the early part of the war but was allowed to return home towards the end. Unfortunately, Mr Hitler decided to send over a V2 rocket that exploded very close to the front of my Grandparents house – my Grandmother and my father were there at the time.

I have very fond memories of my paternal grandparents. My Grandmother in particular was a very fun loving person. She told me the story one day of the V2 rocket and how my father was in the back room at the time. He got covered in soot as he was sat in front of the fire and the shock wave travelled down the chimney. I laughed at this, only to be severely chastised for finding it funny. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered my Grandmother had been seriously injured by broken glass from the explosion as she was in the front room at the time. I didn’t find this out until after my Grandmother had died. I can never go back to her and apologise for laughing.

I am young enough to have not been affected by the war. I am old enough to have learnt from many people who did suffer as a result of the war just how terrible it was. The sinking of a German boat, with 2,200 people on board, of whom nearly 2000 died, is a tragedy that may well have been a justifiable event in the circumstances, but it is no joke.

I am embarrassed and deeply sorry that I re-tweeted the news of the new record this morning. I only noticed that BrewDog had broken the record again, I had not realised what the beer was to be called.

I have no more to say on the matter.

Bailey’s sentiments are well received, and obviously to those afflicted by war, the joke is never one worth saying. Understandably, the old formula for humor we heard somewhere was: Tragedy + time = comedy. Still, perhaps it is more immediate to folks like Bailey and an older generation who lived close to the monstrosities of war. Perhaps BrewDog’s young brewers are too far detached from the realization or perspective in their actions. Many Gen X’ers or even Baby Boomers understandably don’t realize the magnitude of WWII. On Bailey’s blog, Watt reiterates much of the same as what he posts on Beer Advocate’s forum. Accepting criticism without offering an apology, Watt states:

Sink! is about having a carbonated 41% beer which has all the classic IPA components. Kettle hopped, dry hopped then freeze hopped (yes, freeze hopped with Chinook!) for a deep fruit, resinous and spicy aroma. A full out attack on your taste-buds ensues as the incredibly smooth liquid delivers a crescendo of malt, sweet honey, hop oils and a torpedo of hop bitterness which lasts and lasts. Four times the alcohol, four times the bitterness and 4 times the hops!

Was the name a little misguided? Perhaps, perhaps not. Calling beers names with WWII themes, battle ships or indeed film names (as is the case here) is nothing new at all and Three Floyds Grosser Kurfuerst a very recent example from another craft brewer. We love the Bismarck film and thought the name was a good fit for the beer. I accept the criticism here and with hindsight it was maybe not the right call to make. We are still pretty young and learning all the time. The beer was named after the 1960s film!

So what’s your take on all of this madness. Our biggest disappointment in all this is that no sample has arrived at our doorstep. On top of that, we are pretty certain the gimmick with BrewDog takes precedent over the beer itself. While we appreciate extreme beer, are tolerant of snarky humor, and respect clever marketing techniques, we’ve yet to wet ourselves over any BrewDog beers thus-far. We find them to often be unbalanced, lacking complexity, and trying too hard to be shocking. Moreover, considering the price tag of Watt and Dickie’s beer, no matter what that is attributed by we’re fine sticking with the beer from right here in Beervana. Still, BrewDog, we salute what you are doing in your area where boredom is king.  We’re not so impressed with you or Schorschbräu constantly trying to topple the other’s tipple alcohol-wise, especially when you’re freezing the beer to do it. Still, we love to drink beer and beverages likened to beer, so if you’d like to try and expand our horizons and wow us with your self-inductions into the alcohol of fame, feel free to send us a bottle so we can decide for ourselves.

Read more on this topic here at the BBC’s website.

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