Saturday, February 13, 2010

Irritating, arrogant marketing, but good beer!

Beer: Punk IPA (tagline: "post modern classic pale ale")
Brewery: BrewDog (Aberdeenshire, Scotland)
Type: IPA
ABV: 6%

Craft breweries, despite generally having more flavorful and diverse product, are like saplings in the rain forest. (Hear me out...I was watching a David Attenborough nature special and the simile works perfectly. Trust me.) As soon as their lives begin, they are at a colossal disadvantage: there's very little sunlight to be had at the bottom. Overshadowing everything they do are the giant tree macrobreweries that have firmly established their dominance over the forest. These breweries have had several decades for a head start, and get all the attention and nutrients they need to maintain their hegemony. In order to survive, the craft brew saplings have to find a way to get their little ray of exposure at the top, all the while competing with other saplings who want the same thing. Some piggyback on the giant trees and gradually force their way to the canopy, while others have to make their own path, all the while they have to make sure they aren't eaten by caterpillars. I'm not sure what caterpillars are supposed to symbolize, but on the TV this caterpillar it totally destroying a fern, and it's awesome.

One common method for craft brewers to get badly-needed attention is through unique, powerful, and sometimes controversial marketing techniques. These are the brewers that claim to cater to an extreme, dissatisfied consumer, and promise to provide a quality, super-awesome beer alternative. In the mid 90's, there was a brief craze for such "extreme" brews, and most of them didn't do so well, despite having ridiculous names and prudent product placement. Why? Because their beer tasted like swill, or their marketing techniques were ignored by the increasingly wary consumer. Although it's very difficult to predict how a consumer will react to your advertising (why did "Head On" succeed, but "Snakes on a Plane" did not?), brewers can always control the quality of their brews. If you're going to take the aggressive advertising road, you should at least back up your claims with good product. BrewDog is a good, recent example of this.

As their website suggests, BrewDog is a brewery for punks, whatever the fuck that means. The bottles look like something that you'd find at West49; aggressive, boldly coloured, but with that naturally-faded look that screams skateboarder chic. Even the logo looks like it could be found on skater apparel. Their brews all have ridiculous names that supposedly cater to a twenty-something, snowboarding crowd, like 'Trashy Blonde' pale ale (tagline: "you know you shouldn't"), and 'How To Disappear Completely' dark ale, a name which derives from a Radiohead song. To nobody's surprise, BrewDog's gotten into a bit of trouble over the years through its marketing tactics. Britain is particularly strict about prohibiting beer advertising that mocks or offends certain consumers, and BD got nailed for its light ale, which they derisively called 'Nanny State', and forced them to rethink their naming. As far as "extreme cred" is concerned, BrewDog's was validated last year, when they released 'Tactical Nuclear Penguin' (I'll admit, I like that particular name), a strong ale that measures in at a whopping 32% alcohol, making it the strongest beer in the world available for sale. Think about it: a third of that bottle is pure alcohol. Holy. Fuck.

There's a certain hipster arrogance about BrewDog that comes across both on the website and on the bottles. On the Punk IPA bottle, for instance, you will find a little speech on the label, which spouts the following sentiments:

"This is not a lowest common denominator beer. This is an aggressive beer. We don't care if you don't like it....It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to appreciate the depth, character and quality of this premium craft brewed beer...Just go back to drinking your mass marketed, bland, cheaply made watered down lager, and close the door behind you."

I kind of want to fly to Scotland just so I can hit the guy who wrote that in the groin. Unless that's too "conformist" of me...

The guys on the website ( kind of look like the douchebags who would spout this kind of arrogant, pretentious crap, which I know isn't a great sentiment on my part, but it's true. Look at the penguin guy; don't you just want to hit him? At the very least, however, the guys behind BrewDog look like they genuinely believe in their marketing approach, and therefore I will admit that this isn't just a stupid gimmick by members of the board who are trying to be "hip" and appeal to that "18-30 demographic." It may piss me off, but at least they're honest.

Despite the aggressive, in your face, non-conformist, emo marketing, BrewDog has a pretty good reputation in terms of quality. It's won several awards in national and international brewing competitions, and holds some pretty good grades at RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. After sampling their Punk IPA, I have to admit, it's pretty damned good.

It pours a surprisingly light, opaque yellow hue, very light in the typical IPA colour spectrum. There's a bit of head, which survives as a ring throughout the session, and it accompanied by a few, persistent flecks of lacing. The nose is of juicy hops, but the whole thing is undercut by a sweet, almost tropical fruit scent that really threw me for a curve. Impressive, but it could have been a bit bolder to be in accordance with my "taste and sophistication". The taste is well-hopped, as an IPA should be, with a solid, light malt foundation. Pronounced grapefruit, mango and pineapple notes as well, which is a bit unusual in the IPA world, but it works quite well here. Full-flavoured, yet very drinkable and refreshing. The mouthfeel is spot on for an IPA - well carbonated, and with a slightly creamy consistency. Really good stuff, actually; I can see myself downing a few of these bottles in an evening.

I've gotta hand it to BrewDog. Even though they have one of the most off-putting marketing campaigns in the brewing industry, they back up their claims with a tasty, well-put-together brew. I can certainly respect that, even though I'm still tempted to pick up that plane ticket to Scotland and deliver a much-deserved spleen punch to Johnny Non-Conformist. Still, this is certainly something other craft and micro brewers should learn from; if you're hoping to make it up to that canopy, you'd better have a good reason to be up there. (Grade: B+)

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