If you're looking for a bit of attention, hiring a dwarf dressed as a punk to brandish a placard outside Parliament is a decent place to start. And James Watt, founder of BrewDog, Britain's most talked-about brewery, is certainly looking for attention. This is the man who has brewed the world's strongest beer on three separate occasions (the most recent, "The End of History", came packaged in either a stuffed stoat or grey squirrel and weighed in at 55 per cent alcohol), who regularly lambasts his fellow brewers – and who is now committed to changing the way Britain drinks.
Hence the dwarf (better known as actor and entertainer Nick Read). Watt and partner-in-crime Martin Dickie's current bugbear with the British approach to drinking is the fact that it's illegal to serve beer in three-quarter-pint glasses in pubs, but their disenchantment runs a lot deeper than that. "We want to change the British mentality about beer," he says. "We've got to get away from that 'knocking back a pint' approach. You know, that 'drink eight pints, fall over and have a kebab' thing, which is a lot of people's idea of a Saturday night. We have got nothing but contempt for the current state of the industry in the UK. There's no choice at all: you go into 95 per cent of pubs in London and you get the same God-awful beers. It's our mission to change things – and have a little bit of fun along the way, too."
Dwarfs, stuffed stoats, dressing up as a penguin: it certainly sounds like fun. But Watt, whose brewery is in Fraserburgh in Scotland, can be deadly serious when it suits him – like when the subject of Camra, the pressure group founded to promote cask ale, is mentioned. The Scotsman believes Camra holds back innovation in the UK; he takes his inspiration from the US, where a wildly innovative new breed of brewers have revolutionised American beer.
"We wanted to get away from that Camra thing," Watt says. "I've been to a few Camra beer festivals in Scotland and I wanted to shoot myself after 10 minutes – there were bagpipes, it was so clichéd and stuffy. When we set up the brewery in 2007, we couldn't find any beers that we liked in the UK so we were making our own beers at home, but also buying a lot of American beers online. They aren't constrained by the tradition of the UK – they're bold, they're edgy, and they were making beers from the full spectrum, with full flavour."
Watt prefers to see his beers served from a keg than a cask, an approach that brings him into conflict with many of the craft brewers who have sprung up across the UK in recent years. "We want to get beyond the people who currently drink good beers in the UK," he explains. "We want to convert fizzy yellow lager drinkers into craft beer aficionados. The easiest way to do that is with keg – if you give them a cask ale, it's so alien, it's much warmer and it doesn't have the nice mouth feel. Keg is much better for the beers we produce."
So what do these innovative beers taste like? The first thing to note is the variety of beers produced by BrewDog: while so many British craft breweries restrict themselves to three or four beers, all between 3.5 and 5 per cent in strength, BrewDog is almost recklessly open-minded, with an emphasis on beers with a big, bitter hop character.
Its flagship beer, Punk IPA, is typical, though it's put somewhat in the shade by Hardcore, which, the BrewDog boys boast, "has more bitterness than any other beer brewed in the UK". One sip and you can believe it. Arguably more interesting is Paradox Smokehead, a complex and satisfying imperial stout which is matured for six months in whisky casks.
Further along the complexity scale are the "Abstrakt" brews ("beer is art," claims the project's website), which BrewDog began producing earlier this year. The third, AB:03, gives you an idea of what it's aiming at: it's an imperial ale aged in whisky casks with strawberries and raspberries.
And then there are the three super-strength beers, which have gained BrewDog so many tabloid headlines. It started with Watt and Dickie wanting to claim the world's strongest beer title in 2009 from German brewers Schorschbräu. They produced Tactical Nuclear Penguin – weighing in at a relatively measly 32 per cent – before the Germans hit back. BrewDog then produced Sink the Bismarck! (41 per cent) but Schorschbräu once again went a little stronger. That led to The End of History, which may have settled the debate once and for all.
Watt rejects the notion that this may make people take his brewery less seriously than it deserves. He points out that its beers sell around the world – in fact, it sends 70 per cent of its beers overseas. "We're not worried about people not taking us seriously," he says. "The last two years, we've won gold medals at the Beer World Cup in Chicago, which is the biggest beer competition in the world."
Some people, he concedes, may know them only for the promotional things they've done – "but if we hadn't done that, those people wouldn't have known us at all, so I'm glad that people know us for something. We're happy to take the criticism, just as long as we can open up a debate and change people's perceptions about what beer is."
Plenty of criticism has come from the Portman Group, the big brewery-funded organisation that encourages responsible drinking; BrewDog responded to one attack with a 1.1 per cent beer called Nanny State. More recently, Watt wanted to have a tattoo artist at the opening of the brewery's first bar in Aberdeen. "If you got a tattoo you'd get free beers for life," Watt sighs, "but the licensing people quickly put an end to that."
Undaunted, Watt aims to keep on producing the sort of beers he'd like to drink – and annoying the sort of people who get in his way. "We're definitely going to continue as we have been, causing a bit of controversy," he says. "We will be very disappointed in ourselves if the beer scene in the UK is not totally different in 15 years."
Ale alchemists: other new brewers
Brewer Alastair Hook's first project at the Meantime Brewing Company when it opened 10 years ago was a Viennese-style lager, and his most recent is London Lager, the culmination of a quest to produce a quintessentially English lager. In between, he's brewed more different styles than anyone else in the UK, including one of the finest India Pale Ales you will taste.
A Little Italy
Thornbridge's Jaipur – an IPA – is probably the most fashionable beer in the UK at the moment but it's far from the Derbyshire brewery's only great product. Brewer Stefano Cossi is responsible for Bracia, brewed with chestnut honey from Italy, which might just be the best beer in Britain.
A Little Moor
When Justin Hawke came to England from California, he was so disappointed with the cask ale he tasted that he set up the Moor Beer Company to make his own. Since taking over a Somerset brewery in 2007, he's produced any number of fine beers but most interesting of all must be Fusion, an old ale aged in cider brandy barrels that tastes like Christmas pudding with brandy butter.
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