Friday 29 August 2014

Interview with Baron Dickie of Ellon

Article taken from (3rd March 2034)

The craggy mountains of Aberdeenshire are, as you'd expect, laced with the history of alcohol.  Most people would associate this area with whisky, the abundant water and cool climate being ideal for producing the water of life. But whereas you'd expect to find the master distiller of Glen Garioch here, discovering the retreat of a former craft brewer is a surprise.

Turn left at Inverurie on the A94, and you will eventually reach the village of Oldmeldrum. A place of stone built cottages and pebbledashed council housing, the last thing you're anticipating seeing on the outskirts is a large country house in the 2020s Brutalist Gothic Style. The only clue about the history of the occupant is the faded blue and slowly disintegrating sign depicting a stylised dog, topped with the distressed typography that was inexplicably popular back in the 2010s.  This is the home of one of the architects of the craft beer revolution, Baron Dickie of Ellon, best known as Martin Dickie from BrewDog.

Craft beer was the biggest thing to happen to the drinks industry back in the early 2000s. In many ways, it's influence was disproportionate to it's actual sales. But it's fair to say, beer would be very different today, some would even say extinct, if not for the influence of the Craft movement.

Viewing Lord Dickie today, it's hard to imagine him as the flat-cap wearing firebrand enfant-terrible of British Brewing.  Reposing on an antique Chesterfield, dressed head-to-toe in tweed, he looks every inch the middle-aged Scottish country gent. The flat cap remains, though these days it is a product of the Isle of Harris rather than a hipster boutique in Edinburgh's West End.

"How did we get into the 'craft beer' thing? Well, as we [Dickie and his former friend and business partner James Watt] saw it, there was a gap in the market. Beer was many things earlier this century, but fashionable it wasn't." explained the Baron, sipping on a fine China cup of Earl Grey.

"I was an assistant brewer at Thornbridge [a defunct, but much lamented craft brewery in Derbyshire] back in those days.  I'd created an India Pale Ale called Jaipur which had reasonable popular and critical success, I'd like to think."  But the brewery's owners were independently wealthy, and saw no need to change their rather staid, so Dickie saw it, ideas of beer in order to become more successful.

"I could have stayed at Thornbridge and churned out endlessly tweaked versions of Jaipur for the pub and festival market. I saw the sales figures and knew there was a demand.  But it didn't appeal much to me.  Where was the notoriety, I asked myself, in being one of many assistant brewers at a microbrewery in a country house in the middle of nowhere in England?  I needed to do something else."

The something else in question came in the form of James Watt, Dickie's old schoolfriend and erstwhile North Sea fishing boat captain.  "Jimmy was at a loose end," he explained "He knew nothing about brewing, but was savvy about money and marketing.  We decided to set up a brewery together.  It was either that or buy a trawler, and neither of us fancied that."

Setting up the brewery was one thing, as they did in the town of Ellon, Aberdeenshire in 2006, but how could they differentiate themselves from the ever-increasing numbers of microbreweries that were springing into existence in the late 2000s?  Watt and Dickie eventually hit upon the answer "Every man and his dog was installing brewing kit in his shed back then.  It was all that redundancy money and free time floating about.  All you needed was a basic technique and some New World hops and bang, there you were.  A lot of it was crap, but there was a lot of it.  We decided to take our cue from America."

Stone Brewery may not mean much to us now, but they were, in the parlance of the time, the edgiest craft brewer out there.  Even the straightest of their bottled beers gave an immense smack of hops to the face, and their packaging provoked and even outright insulted their customers. One bottle blurb shouted "This is an aggressive ale. You probably won't like it.  It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth".  

"We liked the sound of that.", said Dickie.

"I don't know how and when we came up with the name 'BrewDog'.  I think Jimmy's dog had just died, and it was on his mind.  It sounded catchy enough, anyway."  But where did the whole "punk" image come from?  They had the Dog, and they had the USA-style craft attitude, but why specifically "punk"?

"The way Jimmy and I saw it," explains Dickie "is that the punks, the original punks, back in the 1970s were few in number.  But they had massive publicity and influence that was really out of all proportion compared to how many of them there were.  What better way to get attention for a venture that would otherwise have been Craft Brewery Number 86 that year?" So, it actually was about attention-seeking, as some commentators back then claimed?  "Look, you could have hardly got two guys who were less 'punk' than me and James.  We were graduates in Brewing & Distilling and Economics & Law.  So in a way it probably was  an affectation, yes".

Entirely authentic it may not have been, but BrewDog was extremely successful from a standing start.  Based on it's three basic beers, the red ale 5AM Saint, the American-style ale Dead Pony Club and the India Pale Ale Punk IPA, Watt and Dickie became the most visible manifestation of the new UK craft brewery movement.  The Baron continued "Those three made the most inroads.  We did a few beers that were reasonably successful too, like Hardcore IPA which was Punk but with more alcohol, and Libertine which was a stout with some other stuff.  But our three classics were the ones you could buy in your local supermarket."

"We also did other brews which were strictly for publicity purposes.  Someone once said these were 'bullshit beers' and to be honest they weren't far wrong.  When you use ice-distillation to make a 48% abv beer, or stick a limited edition bottle inside a dead squirrel skin it's only going to be for promotional purposes, isn't it?  Jimmy cooked up some bumph for the press about pushing back the frontiers of craft experimentation, but I don't think anyone really believed it."

With national distribution of it's beers, an ever-expanding chain of craft beer bars and almost constant press coverage, by 2014 the world seemed to be BrewDog's Oyster Barrel Conditioned Stout.  Where does Lord Dickie think it all started to go wrong?

"To keep up with demand, we'd opened a newer, much larger brewery next to the old one.  We kept the old one for experiments and tours to show bloggers and trade people how weren't the typical microbrewery, but in the end we closed it and sold the land for development.  I think the soul of BrewDog began to die at that point."  Indeed, with it's capitalisation by share issues, expanding turnover and profits and increasing presence via shops and bars in major cities, the "beer by punks" image was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

Dickie goes on "Looking back, I can see it was inevitable.  The whole thing was so easily thought up and put together that it was only a matter of time before other breweries started to copy us like we did to Stone.  The Hardknotts of the world and all those places that grew out of railway arches in London.  They wanted a piece of the action too."

And then the great 2016 Hop Crisis arrived.  There were so many craft breweries putting so many New World hops into so many beers that demand for them vastly overstretched supply.  Prices of such craft staples as Cascade, Citra and Centennial doubled.  Then trebled and increased four, five and even six-fold.  A lot of breweries went under at this point, or switched to much-maligned English-style ales.  BrewDog at this point was big enough to absorb the costs, but their shrinking margins made them vulnerable.

What happened next is detailed by Lord Dickie.  The sorrow in his voice is unmistakeable.  "In spring 2020, we had a big offer from Diageo [a producer of spirits with a large presence in Scotland at the time].  They'd seen the increase in interest in craft beer and were worried they'd missed the boat.  There was only so much you could do with a brand like Guinness.  It was a very large offer.  I was minded to accept, but Jimmy wanted to carry on doing the publicity stunts.  We fell out, to put it bluntly.  Diageo made such a good offer to all those small shareholders that I conceded defeat, and James sold up in disgust."

"Diageo made promises about keeping the integrity of the company intact.  Of course, they didn't keep them."

Fourteen years later, the former BrewDog Brewery, now Diageo Brewing Plant North East Scotland 2, makes lager mainly for the Scottish market.   You can still see Punk IPA and 5AM Saint at your local supermarket, but they are made elsewhere, contracted out to medium-sized breweries in England.  Dickie himself is lost to the brewing industry "I tried to get back in, but the bottom had fallen out of Craft Beer market by that time.  Fashions change.  I had this house built, and retired to it to gaze wistfully out to the North Sea."

"I'm glad I did it.   It was short-lived, but we had fun and made some money.  For a while, the world knew who James Watt and, yes, Martin Dickie were."

Postscript : After the publication of this article, a friend of Baron Dickie's contacted the author.  We will let their words speak for themselves :

"We've been worried about Martin for a while.  He kept talking about being yesterday's man and how nobody was interested in him any more.  But your article gave him the biggest fillip he'd had in years.  People were paying attention again! I'm not saying anything, but we did find a brewing equipment catalogue on his coffee table last week...."

For Boak & Bailey's #beerylongreads

Saturday 23 August 2014

Beer and Food Matching Fanny Style

This is my attempt at one of those "foodie" posts that beer bloggers make to make it look as though they're not bizarre drunks express their culinary prowess and show they're not one-dimensional as far as degustation goes.

It's my parents' 40th wedding anniversary in a year.  And what better thing to do than lay-on a 70s-style buffet to take them back to their youth.  But where do you find such...umm...interesting recipes?  Fanny Cradock was notorious for such over-decorated, garishly coloured and pretentiously named creations, and thankfully someone else is going through her works so I can see the results without having to try them myself first.

I saw a photo on Flickr, and decided to attempt the dish myself.  As far as I know it has no name, but I (and Google Translate) call it "Oeufs bleus avec mayonnaise à la moutarde et le poivre de Cayenne"


Hard boil six medium-size eggs. Drink a can of Dead Pony Club while waiting.

Cool eggs in ice water bath. Use any excess ice for a large gin and tonic.

Shell eggs and cut in half. Put yolks on a separate bowl. Be careful not to get bits of shell or yolk in G&T.

 Put eggs in blue coloured water. Have an Adnams Innovation while you're waiting for them to blue up.

Mix up yolks, Mayo, cayenne pepper, mustard and salt until creamy. Best put the drinks down too.

If you find they're still not blue enough after 45 mins, play the ukulele at them until they are.

 As blue as they'll get. Celebrate with another Dead Pony Club.

Stick all the yolk Mayo stuff into the piping bag and finish off the Dead Pony.

Pipe the mixture into the blue egg halves. Make sure you have a double whisky available to steady your hands and nerves.

And there you have it. Blue Evil Eggs. Thornbridge Jaipur garnish optional.

Thankfully, you'll now be so drunk that this will look like a good meal.

To be honest, I didn't really like the texture of these much. Needs to go with something crunchy to offset the slight rubbery nature of the eggs and the gloopiness of the filling.  But they'd  look perfectly at home in a gaudy technicolor 70s buffet.  Thankfully, Fanny Cradock is now dead, and cannot eviscerate me in public for poor piping technique.  Next stop - Green Mashed Potato!

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Ain't that Peachy Keen

This town ain't no good for a girl or a boy
Are more people visiting pubs during weekdays. I mean, are they REALLY?  The Morning Advertiser seems to think so. People seem to eating out as a family more often. And offers and events are apparently drawing people to the pub on what would otherwise be quiet days. I personally have seen no evidence for this, so I decided to test out this theory on a Monday here in Preston.

Pub #1 - around 3pm. The local Wetherspoons. A smattering of customers. Big group of drinkers in the middle, but mostly couples eating meals. Probably counts as reasonable trade on Mondays. If the above hypothesis is true, a Spoons would be the most likely place you would see it in action.

Pub #2 -  4pm. Historic pub owned by family brewery.  About four customers and two staff, one of whom seems to be shifting about a massive CRT TV for no discernible reason. The very fact you can do this in a pub as narrow as this shows how few customers there are. The beer I'm drinking (or at least attempting to drink) is closing in on acetic, which probably isn't helping the pub's cause.

Pub #3 - around quarter to 5. Recently refurbished free house on the outskirts of the town centre. Three people in here, me included. I stay for a while, but I am the only person who has more than one drink. 

Back to Pub #2 - 7:30pm.  Bar area now occupied by four sixtysomething alcoholics alternately finding events hilarious or slumping morosely into their pints. I choose a different beer this time, which isn't vinegar but is less than inspiring. As is the company and the conversation. Back home it is. It's not even 8pm.

So, not a very convincing demonstration of increased trade outside typical hours. In fact several of the pubs precluded me testing this, as they remained steadfastly shut. One had it's door still closed at 4pm, despite advertising an opening time of 11:30. Another, which certainly was open on Friday, never actually opened at all.

It could be that Preston, in the immortal words of Pamela Blue, is as dead as the flies on the wall. It's also outside term time, which wouldn't help as the students from the exponentially expanding UCLAN will mostly be out of town. But would anyone, save for a really special event, actually choose to drink in a town pub early in the week?

If you want to feel miserable, then OK. This is for you. But if you want anything approaching a good time, then stay at home and watch satellite TV with the beverage or substance of your choice.

Sunday 10 August 2014

News In Brief

Brewer Travels Across Atlantic
Different from regular Greene King, honest
 The Milkwaukee-based American chain bar company, Loefflen-Wetter plc. has recently started a program where British regional brewers are imported to US crafty brewers to make versions of their dogwash to sell to unsuspecting American drinkers.  It was reported that last week Henry Blandswill, head brewer at Greene King, arrived in California to brew an IPA clone at Stone Brewery. "Gee, man," said one bemused Stone assistant brewer "this beer certainly challenges my conception of IPAs. We asked Henry what hops he wanted and he appeared not to know what they were."

Dayton, Ohio barfly Buddy Griddleburner Jr. said from his beer encrusted stool in his local L-W bar while swigging down his eighth Miller Lite "Good to know you limeys can make tasteless crap too. Uncle Sam's influence is alive and well."

Beer Location Shocker
It actually happens, you know

North-Western family regional brewery and suppliers of cardboard-based beverages Lehybisons have this week been embroiled in scandal.  After bribing an agency drayman with a double whisky, our journalists revealed that Lehybisons beer is actually brewed on the the brewery premises rather than being contracted out to Marstons or Everards.  On being asked to comment, Managing Director Louis Lehybison-Smythe told us in his best Eton tones "We were hoping this wouldn't get out, but we would like to reassure our customers that the quality of our Real Ales has in no way been changed by brewing them here, rather than paying someone else to water down their Best Bitter and putting a different pumpclip on it."

A creaking septuageniarian CAMRA spokesman told Seeing The Lizards "It's the end of Regional Brewery practices as we know it.  They'll be bringing back Red Barrel next."

Meet The Brewer Event Goes Wrong
Crafties on the rampage, Wednesday

Idolatry-crazed Crafty Hipsters were left disappointed last Wednesday night at a Meet The Brewer Event at the Drowned Rat, Islington.  Expecting to try a selection of keg IPAs, Imperial Stouts and Saisons from Camden brewer Random Brick, they turned up to find that no beer was actually available.

Said brewer, Damien Fixedgear opined through his heavily tattooed beard "I'm sorry, dudes.  I've spent so much time on Twitter, Facebook, redesigning my labels and marketing stuff and preparing Meet The Brewer Events that I've not actually had time to brew any beer."

As the crowd started sullenly muttering they were going  to another Meet The Brewer event at the Keg Nozzle four doors away, Fixedgear said "Just to let you know, shares in Random Brick are available at £100 each. If I raise enough cash, I may be able to hire another member of staff.  I certainly wouldn't spend it on marketing bullshit or anything...."

The night was saved.  Many shares were sold.  And dozens of humulone-maddened idiots discerning beer lovers were delighted to have been part of the True Craft Beer Experience.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

The Community Doesn't Care

Community local, yesterday
I'm sure you know the drill by now. Evil Enterprise or Pusillanimous Punch decide your local pub is no longer viable. So they run it down and put the landlord on notice. You don't approve of this, as it's where you go to avoid the wife and family. Thankfully, the government is (sort of) on your side.  You can declare "your" pub as an Asset Of Community Value. This, if nothing else, buys you 9 months. But not the pub itself, as the hideous PubCo will ask you to pay over the odds for it.

CAMRA trumpets the success stories that somehow occur through this process. There's a whole article about it in the latest edition of BEER. What you tend not hear about is the failures. The stories that get a paragraph article in the Morning Advertiser and disappear from the home page in a couple of days.

Mostly, it seems to be that most misunderstood institution "the community local" that's most affected by this. In many ways, it's symptomatic of the death of community in the UK. If people were using these locals, then there'd be little incentive to close them. As I've said before, in ye olden days (up to 1990 or so), people HAD to go to the pub for entertainment as there was very little else to do. Other humans, amazing as it may seem today, were the most interesting thing available. And what better place to encounter them than at the pub, where copious amounts of alcohol would make even the most tedious bore tolerable.

Nowadays, the average young (and even not-so-young) male has Sky Sports, Spotify and streaming internet porn.  He doesn't have to deal with god damn people to avoid the crushing boredom of post-work existence. A few cans in front of the TV and computer suits him fine. So now the out of town local without a decent food option is deserted.  Sad. But thems the times we live in. Sorry, Barbara Streisand, but people don't need people any more.
Misanthropic drunk in empty pub, yesterday
The only pubs that are reasonably succesful are in town centres, where they are generally "sought out" rather than "dropped into". Sure, the clientele tends to be beer fans, asocial misfits and general weirdos. And alcoholics. But business is business.  What they have in common is they're there for the drink, not for people.

"Community" is slowly receding into the past in the UK in the 21st Century.  Misanthropy and misunderstanding are the default interactions between people. Suits me fine, as I'm a complete and utter bastard. But it bodes I'll for certain previously cherished social institutions.

If you don't need people, why would you need a local pub?