Thursday 5 November 2009

Brew Dog At It Again?

I read with dreary, fatalistic resignation that James Watt, the High Priest of  Brew Dog, claims that CAMRA is the devil incarnate - "I blame CAMRA for single-handedly holding back innovation in British brewing says he in an American on line magazine, Full Pint. Com. 

Knocking CAMRA in this way was only a matter of time.  (His relationship with CAMRA in Scotland is one of mutual distrust as I understand it, with not all the wrong coming from CAMRA.) Putting that aside there is a little context within his comments which softens these remarks somewhat, in that he mentions CAMRA's emphasis on "focusing on too few beer styles". Fair point maybe, but really when you stand this on its head, too few beer styles originate from British Brewers. If you don't have innovation in brewing, you can't really pick up on these styles and comment or support them can you?  So really if you think about it logically, Mr Watt is actually complaining about the lack of imagination and vision, not of CAMRA, but of British brewing - of  his fellow British brewers really, though no doubt he'd argue that CAMRA encourages their staidness.  Rather more strikingly, James is complaining about the very gap in the market he is exploiting so successfully and on which he bases his future expansion plans.  Like his brewing, his reasoning is rather innovative when you examine it more closely. 

Now it has to be said that sometimes CAMRA doesn't help itself.  Image has always been a problem as we all know and CAMRA sometimes seems to tread the wrong line. Roger Protz recently wrote about how golden ales shouldn't be pushing "traditional" brown beers out, both on the bar and in competitions, but to my mind, the main innovation in British brewing is at that "pale"end of the spectrum, not in the brown session market. I doubt if Roger meant to come across as a stick in the mud - and reading his excellently favourable article in "Beer"about oak aged beers, he gave no such impression - but it allowed the anti CAMRA brigade to have another swipe. Another point and one I have made before, is that basically Brew Dog are a bottled beer brewer who do the odd cask (and do the odd cask very well). CAMRA members are pub goers by and large, so James is blaming an orange for not looking like an apple, to some extent at least. It would be nice to see James pushing the cask aspect of his business a little more come to think of it.

Going back to innovation, British brewers by and large are the most staid and conservative bunch you could ever meet - with of course, honourable exceptions.  (Try persuading a Regional Brewer to do anything different and you'll be met with hostility and usually condescension).  Even micro brewers, on the whole are brewing incredibly dull mainstream beers, again with honourable exceptions.  The real need for innovation comes at brewing level and one thing I think CAMRA should do much more of is to campaign seriously for that.  

CAMRA has been a bit too easy on traditional ale brewers in this country and at both local and national level, we should try and correct that. There is indeed too much emphasis on "boring 4% beers, with boring hops".  So come on brewers. Give the public 4% beers, but please give us choice too. Innovation isn't and shouldn't be the sole domain of  smart young things.  The market is changing and needs to be grabbed and reshaped.  CAMRA needs to embrace and promote both tradition and innovation.

And finally Brew Dog is establishing its niche and I doubt really if James wants too many other brewers to steal his clothes by out innovating him.  He wouldn't want to become mainstream, so maybe he should be careful that what he wishes for doesn't become "too" true.

See? I'm caught up in BrewDog whether I aim to be or not. Their stuff works on me too. They are part of the brewing and blogging scene now.


Anonymous said...

"Innovation isn't and shouldn't be the sole domain of smart young things. The market is changing and needs to be grabbed and reshaped. CAMRA needs to embrace and promote both tradition and innovation."

Too right. I wait eagerly for this to become reality. How will it happen?

The Beer Nut said...

On the subject of innovation, CAMRA insists that in order to be real, a beer must use "traditional ingredients".

Do they have an official list of ingredients which are or are not acceptable? How is a brewery to know when their being innovative pushes their beer outside of CAMRA's purview?

Tandleman said...

Ah! Well I do give some pointers in my missive, but I'll (rather loosely) paraphrase Karl Marx by way of a reply:

"The problem is not interpreting what is wrong with the world, but how to change it."

Thanks for being the first to kick off comments.

Curmudgeon said...

He sort of has a point, though – for many years, if you were a beer enthusiast in the UK, CAMRA was the only show in town, and it has to be said there is still a strong body of opinion within that organisation that dismisses anything not cask- or bottle-conditioned as "chemical fizz". Including, presumably, all of BrewDog's bottled output.

And is innovation necessarily such a good thing anyway? Many of the producers of highly-regarded food and drink products have built their reputation by continuing to do the same thing well, year in, year out.

Tandleman said...

BN - Does it? There is all sort of shite in traditional beer. If it is written somewhere in CAMRA's tablets of stone, in must be in the small carved bits at the bottom. I'd say if it does exist, it is followed as much in the breach as the observance and therefore meaningless, as anyone who has been in a cask ale brewery will know.

Tandleman said...

Mudgie - If his point was such a good one, he'd have been better counselled to put it your way rather than his.

That wouldn't grab the headlines though.

Everyone in business, by and large needs to innovate.There are countless examples of those that do while maintaining the integrity of their original product. What makes brewers so precious they, on the whole, won't?

The Beer Nut said...

Maybe you can dig me out an official definition of the RA in CAMRA. The website says -- front and centre -- "Real ale is a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation."

If there's a different, more accurate, definition, I'd love to see it. Or do I have to be an Operating Thetan to learn such secrets :P

Tandleman said...

I refer my learned friend to the second part of my original response.

What is a traditional ingredient? Ask Ron Pattinson. He'll have a better idea than me or CAMRA. Don't even start on a definition of traditional.

It is in any meaningful respect, meaningless.

PS. I only know what it says on the website too, but the important part is "left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation."

Cooking Lager said...

I am happy to be corrected bit isn't the purpose of CAMRA to maintain a specific tradition of beer common before keg beers were developed, rather than encourage innovation? In more recent years, its members may very well be more beer enthusiasts than traditionalists (can you tell the difference just by looking at them?), but the core aim of maintaining a tradition remains. This will stifle innovation or at the very least limit its parameters. Considering Golden Ales to be a welcome innovation really amuses me. Innovation comes from 2 sources, the desire to make a better beer and the desire to better market a beer. You can denounce ice beer, citrus beer, smaller bubble beer as dreamed up by marketing men targeting younger drinkers that don’t yet like the taste of beer and really want alcoholic ribena. However Golden Ale is little more than an attempt to emulate lager, within the parameters of CAMRA’s beer rules, and as a product is more often than not bland and mediocre and lacking the character of a decent lager. It’s rarely a better beer than a common or garden pint of bitter. It’s certainly not an attempt to brew a better beer. If you look at the product ranges of many traditional German breweries you see the traditional beers sit alongside recent innovation more about marketing than product. Lighter and lower alcohol beers. It is no surprise that beer innovation tends to come from countries with little in the way of beer tradition.

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in what BrewDog believe that they are doing that is so innovative. Conditioning beer & cider in sherry / rum / bourbon / whiskey casks whilst not commonplace has been undertaken by brewers here in the USA for some years. Similarly use of New World / Antipodean Hop varieties. And even Youngs used to brew a Chocolate Stout when based in Wandsworth. So I'll continue to (by and large) enjoy BrewDog's range of beers, and like most other products ignore the advertising.

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in what BrewDog believe that they are doing that is so innovative. Conditioning beer & cider in sherry / rum / bourbon / whiskey casks whilst not commonplace has been undertaken by brewers here in the USA for some years. Similarly use of New World / Antipodean Hop varieties. And even Youngs used to brew a Chocolate Stout when based in Wandsworth. So I'll continue to (by and large) enjoy BrewDog's range of beers, and like most other products ignore the advertising.

Anonymous said...

PS was n't deliberately trying to hide my identity (MoleHA4) though I'd replied under my URL not having a Google a/c.

Mark Dredge said...

"The real need for innovation comes at brewing level and one thing I think CAMRA should do much more of is to campaign seriously for that." YES!

"The market is changing and needs to be grabbed and reshaped. CAMRA needs to embrace and promote both tradition and innovation." YES!

Well said.

The one riposte, more for argument's sake, he is talking to an American, trying to fit into, and have success in, the American market. Putting down the UK beer scene and bigging himself up for being different (for being in the American mould) makes him stand out. James is good at marketing.

Plus, the great British beers that we know about will be virtually unknown in the US because they are mainly local cask beers served in the pub near the brewery.

It's a shame he sounds anti-British beer, but it's an easy thing to say - I think there's more boring British beer than exciting British beer. But hopefully that's slowly changing.

Michael Smarte said...

So BrewDog claims that CAMRA is to blame for "focusing on too few beer styles"? In that case, I look forward to the day when BrewDog start producing beers other multiple variants of IPA and Stout.

Tandleman said...

Cookie: Innovation just means "The act of introducing something new."

That could be anything really. As comparing golden ales with lager - no - not really. Ron P has already exploded the myth that old style beers were dark. Innovative - depends on whether there is something new in it or not.

As for CAMRA, yes, a difficult line to tread. Thanks for appreciating that.

Mark: Good point about audience. I was thinking of mentioning that, but James isn't so green as to overlook how that'll play at home.

Michael: Ouch!!!

Tandleman said...

Moley: True is that.

Neville Grundy said...

Even with 105,000 members, the number of CAMRA members per pub in the UK is under 2. That means that nearly all real ale is chosen, bought and drunk by non-members. These drinkers aren't sheep; most don't read CAMRA announcements, buy the Good Beer Guide or go on the website. They just drink what appeals to them, and their choices are determined by brewers.

CAMRA simply does not have the power to control drinkers' tastes and choices in the way Brew Dog suggests, and as a member, I wouldn't want it to. As for CAMRA's influence with authority, even its much-vaunted super-complainant status got nowhere with the OFT.

CAMRA can't determine what beer styles brewers may choose to make any more than they were able to turn back the tide of keg beers, ersatz lagers and smoothflows. If I'm wrong, how come smoothflow and lager are still so prevalant?

I think CAMRA still serves a useful role, or I wouldn't be a member, but I do believe some hostile brewers and beer bloggers find it a useful whipping boy. I suppose that exaggerating CAMRA's power, even in a derogatory manner, is a sort of compliment, but one based on a misunderstanding. CAMRA tends not to correct this misunderstanding because to do so is to admit it doesn't have as much influence as some people think.

Tandleman said...

Good points RedNev.

Velky Al said...

"I think there's more boring British beer than exciting British beer."

The same can be said about Czech beer in many ways. Go in to any of the pubs with multiple taps in Prague and you will see a rank of pale golden lager, with maybe a dark lager or a weizenbier chucked in for diversity's sake.

Wurst's Doppelgänger said...

Many traditional British Beers are boring because they've been introduced to air for several days.
Condition is gone, vinegar notes arrive. I'd really like to see Brewdog promote Proper Real Keg. Proper Real Keg could be the savior.

Tandleman said...

I think they probably do Sausage, but I haven't seen any. And agreed you don't want oxidised, "days on" beer with vinegar. Certainly not.

NAM said...

Wild stab in the dark - I suspect Brew Dog would like to see a much larger market in bottled beer as that seems to be their strength so, in that sense, the comments to a US publication perhaps relate to the more vibrant market for bottled beer found in parts of the USA. A much larger premium bottled beer market in the UK would, I'm sure, do Brew Dog very nicely. I don't suppose the odd export would harm them, either.

moleha4 said...

Having had more time to reflect, a personal opinion is that Fraoch is perhaps the most unusual beer to have been brewed in Scotland, though I believe that it was sourced from an historic recipe, so it was something different as opposed to completely innovative. Church End brewed a Chili & Garlic special for Tamworth BF one year. Steered well clear of that! Innovation may not always be a good thing. Perhaps it is the "cutting edge" image as much as the beer that is being promoted by BrewDog. Cynical MoleHa4.

The Beer Nut said...

"Steered well clear of that! Innovation may not always be a good thing."

Huh? If you didn't taste it how do you know it wasn't brilliant?

rabidbarfly said...

I find it odd that you say Brewdog is a bottle brewer, where did you get this idea? I have had numerous casks from them in the past and will continue to get them in the future.
As far as the innovation of other brewers goes, knowing the man well enough, i'm sure James would embrace any forms of innovation from any other brewers. Frankly I'd quite like to see some more innovation myself, there are signs of development out there but not nearly enough. I'm not entirely sure I blame CAMRA for the stunted growth of the british brewing scene, but I don't see enough difference in the many wholesalers I use to the point where i almost don't have to look at the lists much anymore. Boring.
Out-Innovating Brewdog? Frankly I dare other brewers to try!

Tandleman said...


Well apart from the obvious push of bottled beers against cask, what percentage of beer is actually cask? I don't know but I do know they have diverted supposed cask beer to bottle at the disadvantage of cask customers. Maybe a bigger brewery will change that?

As for out innovating Brew Dog, that was kind of the point I was making.

Michael Smarte said...

Out-innovating BrewDog? How about out copying Stone instead?

ZakAvery said...

@rabidbarfly - I'm fairly sure that BrewDog's output is about 90% bottled, with the remainder split about 50/50 cask and keg. I can't remember where I read this recently, but I'm sure that's right - perhaps James or Martin will correct me.

Tandleman said...

I'd guess that's right, but bottling will be contracted mostly and will take priority I suppose.

Steven Green said...

I am a CAMRA member, and I think we should change CAMRA's main objective to ensuring there is a choice of good quality beers readily available, with an emphasis on locally produced beers made with good quality ingredients. And to try and prevent the big multi-nationals from monopolising pubs with poor quality lagers made of cheap adjuncts such as rice.

If some of those styles are not suitable to be served live from secondary fermentation as is the case with beer styles that must be matured and lagered, then that should be accepted as part of that style.

Even in the case of a 'real ale', I don't see any problem serving it under CO2 pressure from a keg in some situations if the alternative is flat vinegar. I brew my own 'real ale' at home and this is how I serve it from a Corny Keg. Since I can take weeks or months to drink a batch it would not make sense to serve it otherwise.

In Oxfordshire we have the Cotzwold Brewing Company, Lovibonds in Henley and Pitstop Brewery which all are innovative in their styles of beers, not just sticking to boring 4% bitters. Pitstop is considered real ale, but the other two make beers that are served in keg... however the quality and innovation is there and should be recognised and encouraged by CAMRA.

Even if someone does not like traditional bitter, it is better for them to be drinking a Cotzwold lager made with care and attention locally with good quality ingredients and some taste than a pint of Fosters made in a factory somewhere.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of fanning the flames, could correspondents cite examples of 'boring' and 'interesting' beer. I very rarely find any of the former, but perhaps that's because I'm picky about the pubs I drink in.

Brian, follower of Deornoth.

Anonymous said...

The British brewing scene is showing some signs of waking up to innovation with the likes of Brew Dog and Thornbridge. But in my opinion are some way behind the US craft scene which puts big robust flavours from a huge range of hops to fore, hops really are the jewel in the crown of the US scene which is the fundamental difference between the UK and US.
The UK suffers from what I like to call 'club mentality' whereby clubs & pubs around the land became used to fairly bland easy drinking poorly hopped brown beers. The UK is still suffering from this 'cloud' which is just showing chinks of light breaking through it in the form of brewers who are not afraid to innovate and use hops and other ingredients to make their beers real quality. I do honestly think we are seeing the marvellous array of world hops coming to the fore in British brewing and the slow death of the 'Brown Beer' and yes it has been a stalwart of the British brewing scene but change is afoot and it's time to embrace it not shun it, because the end result is a world class, high quality, innovative brewing scene which creates trends instead of following them! It's time for CAMRA to put their own house in order and embrace the sea change that is coming because if they do they will go from strength to strength.

Sid Boggle said...

This point about the audience for James Watts' comments, and his frank admission of the problems BrewDog has had with price and quality control in the US, are to me, quite important. Anecdotally, many US drinkers have been put off by excessive prices and spoiled beer, so if BrewDog's future success is to be defined by how it can grow exports and sales to this market, then I'd like to see how they plan to recover the ground lost. His comments on not knowing the logistical problems that need to be taken into account lack credibility - I don't believe they would have taken on such an undertaking without working with a local distributor/importer. This equity and investment programme probably has some targets to do with growth in the US. Have BrewDog offered answers?

I'm also slightly fed up with only one other brewer (Thornbridge) being mentioned in the same breath as BrewDog. What about Dark Star? They've defined a credible and consistent core range and continue to offer a huge range of interpretations of styles from round the world. They might be the exception that proves a rule to do with CAMRA, but my thinking isn't quite up to it this early on a Sunday... ;-)

Unknown said...

I like it when I can agree in part to everybody.

CAMRA is partly responsible for lack of innovation. But to claim "single-handedly" is just wrong.

Yes the brewers are partly to blame, but also presumably the brewers are making beers that the majority of customers want.

Finally, using lots of interesting hops makes beer expensive. Too much worrying about the price of beer drives down the use of exciting hops.