Fraserburgh is cold. The wind whips off the North Sea in a salty smack that hits you like a brick wall. The waves are grey and angry and it doesn't take much imagination to feel for those that earn their living from it. BrewDog Fraserburgh isn't at all what I'd been expecting. In an old, rickety looking warehouse, surprisingly still standing against the sea front elements is, what was until recently, BrewDog Central. Their brewery and offices. It is hard to believe. Inside on a wet concrete floor a few stainless steel brewing vessels remain, the main kit having been whisked off to the spanking new brewery at Ellon, 27 miles away. While you do get a bit of a Ghost Town feel, there is nothing sad about Fraserburgh. It has two (very hardy) permanent staff here and they still brew, store and mature beer. And Boy are they enthusiastic about it.
James Watt you can tell is still proud of it. It all started here and from this spot, BD bluffed, begged, borrowed and outrageously gimmicked their their way to the success they have now. James, himself a veteran of the chilly seas outside (he was a trawlerman) tells us and reminds himself of how it began. Of the way they contracted for a million bottles without a bottling line, of the struggle for money and always the belief that the vision he shares with friend and business partner, Martin Dickie that selling better beer to people, beer made in their own vision, was something they were simply going to do. As we pondered all this, we supped a wonderful Passion Fruit Sour, so clean, yet so redolent of the fruit itself , that the sourness was an almost unnoticed counterpoint. So beautifully balanced at 3% I had two. A Jasmine IPA followed, straight from the conditioning tank. It was still being dry jasmined and had some time to go, but it was distinctive and different.
We (journalists and bloggers) had started earlier with a tour of the new stainless steel cathedral that is Ellon, on an industrial estate between Aberdeen and Fraserburgh. The kit, designed mainly by Martin Dickie and funded by "crowd sourcing" is state of the art and purpose built. Steel piping snakes along the walls, it wraps itself around fermentation vessels, mash and lauter tuns, conditioning, CO2 and glycol tanks. We dodge outputs from the centrifuge as it spits out spent yeast and trub (they believe in clear beer here). We climb stairs, inspect a state of the art lab, watch hypnotised as the bottling line cleans, labels, fills, caps and nudges the bottles on their way to packing. They seem almost human as they queue to meet their transport to any one of the 30 or so countries they could end up in, patiently waiting in line, then rushing forward, eager to be next.
The brewery is still being tweaked. Engineers are moving kit, but the business continues unabated. The staff seem at ease in their job and there is an easy egalitarian feel about the place. Martin shows us a small pilot plant where a brewer is busy putting together her own recipe. Someone asks what her normal job is. "Oh" he says vaguely, "anyone that works here and wants to know more can have a go at brewing" he remarks. And adds "Who knows? It might well end up as a production beer". We enter a vast warehouse, only just handed over from the builders a few days ago. Mountains of kegs, keykegs, bottles, products marked for export and all kinds of sundries fill the place. On the far side a veritable distillery of whisky, bourbon and rum casks sit in serried rows, full of maturing beer. Bottled beers and kegs imported for their own bars are there too. This is a big operation, but Martin tells us, they have room to expand. James tells us later that they will do.
It is time for a drink and a chat. After all we are invited there to see what's behind the facade. To be charmed after some bruising encounters. To scotch some myths. We start, where else with Punk IPA, fresh as a daisy, with Seville orange, peaches and tropical fruit, it gets universal approval. Then Jack Hammer, straight from the conditioning tank, all big C hopping, but with cask like mouthfeel as it hasn't yet been brought up to bottling carbonation. It is 7.2% but tasting nothing like it. No jaggy alcoholic edges in this beer. Dead Metaphor is quietly coffeeish, with chocolate and subtle smoke. Not overdone as some are, it is as smooth as a baby's bum. AB15, an imperial stout, has spent time in both rum and bourbon casks and has vanilla sweetness, with a touch of rummy raisin. We are told to expect salty caramel and popcorn, but advised it was more of an impression than a taste. Whatever; it was a beer you'd imagine yourself sipping, late at night, from the depths of a deep armchair, in front of a dying fire. Rich and contemplative.
Questions and answers follow as we sip. James tells us all that it has been a struggle to get where they are and you can believe him. Anecdotes flow about the early days when money was tight, contract deadlines tighter and brewing capacity tighter still. There is still a revolutionary zeal in there, but behind the hype there is an undoubted pride and a determination to brew good beer. They believe in training, in educating customers, they talk of new openings, company ethos, getting better at what they do, but they come back to the same theme. They don't care what it costs, but they want to brew beer that stretches, that challenges, but which tastes good. They want to educate the public and give staff professional beer qualifications. One proviso is repeated. If James and Martin don't like it, it doesn't go on sale. We talk about hops. This is everyone's favourite subject. Facts and statistics fly around.I write them down conscientiously, but what it boils down to is an infeasible amount of hops per hectolitre, in many varieties, for one of which (it may have been Simcoe*) BD is the world's biggest user. I ask about cask beer. James is somewhat reticent about it, but doesn't rule it out for the future. That's good, particularly as they are looking at having more session beers and they did make very good cask indeed. At least he didn't laugh me out of court.
Later we meet at BrewDog Aberdeen, their first bar. It is very pubby in fact, apart from the rather stern line of grey keg fonts watching over proceedings. The staff are enthusiastic and (even though they didn't know I was a guest) keen to explain in a very non condescending way about the beers on offer. James is pleased about that when I tell him later, but in fairness it has happened to me before in other BrewDog bars. Nor do I recall there being a Captain Haddock like beard in sight, which does set them apart too. But in a good way. We ate in MUSA also BD owned. The beers are good and we are talked through them, not by James or Martin, but by various BrewDog managers. This came as a complete surprise to at least one and it compounded a sense that the employees are all fully on board.
So why was I there? Firstly because I was invited, but secondly because I was invited by James with whom I've sort of clashed swords with before. Why were we invited? Officially to show us the new brewery and how it is going, but I think the unspoken sub plot was so we could see there is more to BD than a dead squirrel and ridiculously strong beer. I got the impression that rather like Ryanair's Michael O'Leary, there will be a slightly different public face - this is a big serious business now - but innovation, quirkiness and downright cheek won't be far under the surface. After all this is a young company run by young people with fresh ideas and a happiness to cock a snook at things. James and Martin are understated bosses, but they know what they want and how to bring their own people along with them which can never be a bad thing. Both are impressive in different ways, with James shyer and more thoughtful than you might imagine and Martin the brewer and engineer, getting the brewery as it should be. Hopefully too there will be great quaffing beer and maybe even a return of cask, though I won't be holding my breath. You can bet too that there will be a lot more to hear about in the next few years and loads of interesting beers from this shiny new brewery. Was I impressed? You bet I was. Was I wrong? In many ways yes. Things are often a lot clearer close up. But you know, I don't think that matters so much as the fact that these guys are beer people through and through and unafraid to say so. Beer people, even when they don't brew cask are invariably impressive. It was good to hang out with them for a bit.
At MUSA, while I particularly enjoyed the Jura Riptide, who could fail to like a beer with "Hello My Name is Vladimir" complete with a label featuring Mr P.
Disclosure: BD paid for and organised our visit.
* Simcoe was mentioned, but it was actually Nelson Sauvin
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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