Saturday 8 November 2014

Evolution Not Revolution

The silhouette of Dogfish Head founder, Sam Calagione stands before me addressing a packed out Duke's Brew and Que. I've admired the Delaware brewery since my first taste of their 60 minute IPA a few years ago and for the first time in a long while I'm drinking this beer again. It doesn't pack the hop hit that I remember experiencing the first time I tried it but my palate has changed a lot since that first taste. While my tastes may have changed my level of respect for Dogfish Head has not. They have changed the way the game is played since they came along back in 1995. They changed it with malt and hop behemoths such as 90 minute IPA and beer/mead/wine hybrids such as Midas Touch. The room laughs in unison as Sam remarks about the first time he sold cases of a sour beer that his customers then sent back to the brewery, as they thought it was infected. As a brewery Dogfish Head have often been imitated but never emulated. 

It's hard to imagine that the London of five years ago didn't have The Kernel, or a single Brewdog bar or even The Euston Tap. Sure we had The Rake but for a north Londoner like myself it was hardly worth the trek on a Friday night when you could barely squeeze through the door into the tiny and often overcrowded bar. London's incredible beer scene now feels so natural, almost like it has always been this good. I genuinely find it difficult to remember what my beer drinking life was like before Beavertown Gamma Ray. 

Brewdog have a huge amount to answer for of course, they rode in on the backs of mechanised steel horses baying for a beer revolution and, well, they got one. It could be argued that many breweries from all over the world inspired Britain's craft beer revolution but Brewdog, they were the ones who took the scene by the throat and threatened it to change or have its lights punched out. This approach is now often imitated by both younger and established breweries who are deeply entrenched within the trail that Brewdog blazed. It's cute that many brewers feel they need to continue to push this message of change, this battle call for revolution but as I sit eating my crab mac and cheese paired exquisitely with Beavertown Earl Phantom, a lemon and Earl Grey tea Berliner Weisse, it feels like the revolution has already been won. 

We have reached a point where you can buy Punk IPA in Tesco, Lagunitas and Sixpoint imports sit proudly in the fridges of 900 plus Wetherspoon pubs and Britain's best breweries such a Beavertown, Buxton and the original revolutionaries Brewdog are creating some of the best beer in the world. Even the legendary Sam Calagione seemed shocked at just how far we have come and how fast. Now we are creating new legends of our own. If 2014 is the year craft beer went mainstream in the United Kingdom then where do we go next? Over the next few years we will continue to see new breweries spring forth and some will fall by the wayside but our best will need to kick on and continue to grow, just as Dogfish Head have done before them in the United States. 

North London's Beavertown are one of a handful of young British breweries that have what it takes to take up this mantle and push on. It's hard to imagine that just four years ago they were brewing on a four barrel kit in the kitchen of their sister restaurant Duke's Brew and Que, especially when standing next to the eight mammoth sixty barrel tanks in their new facility. Their core beers are tightly dialled in, their seasonal releases are rarely short of brilliant and most importantly they're getting more and more people excited about beer, including those who previously had very little interest in it.

It might seem arrogant to host a five course dinner and charge seventy-five pounds per head for the pleasure of experiencing it but the sold out restaurant in front of me says otherwise. Each course is thoroughly delicious, immaculately presented and the beer pairings perfectly thought out. People cooed over the beetroot infused scotch egg with hollandaise and bacon dust matched with Beavertown's new blackberry Gose. The rich panna cotta with Courage imperial stout was a treat but it was the trio of beef rib, brisket and pork rib with silky smooth Smog Rocket porter from the cask that impressed me most of all. 

We all listen to Sam speak with open ears and open hearts. Beavertown owner and founder Logan Plant works the room and engages with his customers expertly, as he always does. We're even treated to a few words from Wells and Young's Christopher Reid, whose pride of having a relationship with Dogfish Head is apparent. Many may not have been won over by their disappointing collaboration, DNA but at the very least they've listened and have now changed the recipe. They are trying to make it better and openly admitted that it's not really a beer aimed at the ardent beer lover. We learned of the beer that Dogfish Head and Beavertown collaborated on earlier that day, a botanical infused Londonerweisse that also involved the talents of the three month old East London Liquor Company. The beer should be ready and available in a couple of weeks time but some is destined for barrels and won't see the light of day for a good while yet.

It may have left me drunkenly fumbling in the dark for my indigestion tablets, nine beers and five generous plates of food will do that to the best of us, but this evening was nothing short of exceptional. This represented more than just a meeting of minds, more than just a business finding new ways to reach its customers and satisfy and entertain them. This was a nod to both British and American brewing tradition and to its bright future. This was a brewery, not even five years old, pushing forward, kicking on and transforming into something better. The time for revolution is over, now is the time for evolution, not revolution. 

Disclosure: I was invited to this evening as a guest of Beavertown but I don't think that influenced my opinion of it. 


  1. Good post Matt. I think DFH relationship is a sound move by Wells & Young. While some regionals have taken to creating misleading 'craft' brands and flogging bland wolf beer in sheep's clothing, they've forged a partnership with a genuine craft giant. Only good can come of that relationship longer term in my view.

    Your point "It's cute that many brewers feel they need to continue to push this message of change, this battle call for revolution but as I sit eating my crab mac and cheese paired exquisitely with Beavertown Earl Phantom, a lemon and Earl Grey tea Berliner Weisse, it feels like the revolution has already been won." is an interesting one. Maybe in London it has been won but nationwide it doesn't feel like it has. It's gained enough momentum for the regionals and big boys to take notice but there's a long way to go before we can crawl the pubs of the High St in Anytown, Somewhereshire and experience the choice and diversity you now can in London and some other large cities. Long live the revolution. It still has work to do.

    1. Thanks Andy, I agree that there's more to come from the Dogfish/Wells partnership, starting with a steady supply of core Dogfish beers from January.

      I think you're right that the revolution still has some work to do but all of the groundwork is in place. In the past 12 months I've been to Leeds, Manchester and Cardiff and seen thriving beer scenes and similar things are happening in Bristol, Brighton, Liverpool, Newcastle... the natural step is for this to permeate past the commuter belt especially as young professionals choose to move out of the cities over the next decade. The hard part is over.

    2. No, you can line me up with the "maybe in London" part as well. I'm in Cambridge, which has a fairly young, affluent and cosmopolitan population. A year or so ago we got a local "craft beer bar", and there was much rejoicing. But it's pretty standard to go in there and find that, out of ten keg lines, they've got about four "craft lagers", one dark beer (almost always Camden Ink), and about five assorted pale / golden ales of which one or two if you're lucky might break the 5% barrier. This probably makes commercial sense for them - realistically, they've got to cater for the Friday-night-after-work crowd as well as the beer geeks - but I'm basically unlikely to find anything experimental or "imperial" on tap anywhere in town.

      This is a first world problem, clearly, but my point is that it's one thing for "craft" to permeate out to the commuter belt and small towns, and quite another for it to do so without compromising so much of what it is that it just ends up just being a buzzword attached to some posh lagers and trendy design. If we actually want the option of properly diverse beers to be more widespread then we've still got a bit of shouting to do.

    3. I think you'll see a big change in Cambridge in a short space of time, if one pub opens with a 'craft' selection then the next one that opens will have to be even better to bring in the punters. Plus you've got the fantastic Bacchanalia off license to keep your fridge at home stocked with some good stuff!

  2. Good read Matt. I found the price tag a barrier - people will make the "supply and demand" argument but that never sits well with me. A regular, less expensive 3-course beer and food pairing at Duke's would be great, and I know Draft House do something similar. At the same time Sam Calagione isn't going to pop over every month and I understand this was a proper "event" (but one still unattainable to me personally).

    I was up in Glasgow last week and the change there too is palpable. I went to Munros on Great Western Road for lunch and ha d a great wheat beer from Six Degrees North near Aberdeen, and the new Drygate Brewery has "vibe", as well as an awesome bottle shop. Also, you will find Harviestoun and Williams Brothers as well as Brewdog beers in every local supermarket. As tabamatu says above, outside London and other cities options remain limited but in Glasgow and London at least I think you're right - the rebels have won.

    1. Thanks Peter, I think we'll see more similar events next year but hopefully some will be in a price range thats accessible to a larger group of people. This really was a special event though and believe that people definitely got their money's worth.

      Glasgow sounds excellent, all being well I'll be visiting in January and Drygate is very high on my list of places to visit.

  3. On the "overgrounding" of craft beer: it's another Aldi Scottish beer festival just now - forty-seven beers featured from breweries the length and breadth of the country, most of whom would count as micro and quite a few who self-identify as craft. That's in addition to the fifteen or so craft beers usually stocked. In my local Aldi that's usually half a dozen Williams Bros; plus sundry Black Wolf/ Innis and Gunn/ Inveralmond/ Brewdog. If only the pubs near me were anywhere near catching up.

    (Drygate is a treat: out on the deck I almost thought I was in Prague - not least due to the very Eastern-bloc tower blocks opposite.)

    1. Sounds like a good selection! I'll be in Glasgow in January - really looking forward to checking out Drygate!