Founded in Scotland in 2007, BrewDog Brewery has brought an outlandish punk sensibility to the world of craft beer. Their beers have held (often briefly) the title of “world’s strongest beer” several times, and their marketing has been loud, in your face, and borrowed trouble with the authorities in the UK. Lately they have been making a big push into the Japanese market, with a brand new beer bar in the trendy Roppongi area and a presence at the Keyaki Beer Festival. Despite that push, it is rare to see imported craft beer outside of the Tokyo Megaplex. So imagine my surprise and joy when I saw four of the BrewDog mainstays in my local import store.
A few years back there was a good-natured but intense competition between Brewdog in Scotland and Schorschbräu in Germany over who could brew the strongest beer in the world. Beer as we know it is usually between 4-9% alcohol by volume. Most mass market beer these days is around 5%, with some craft beer styles like Imperial IPAs and Imperial Stouts pushing into the 9%-12% range. Rarely you will see a beer that is a little stronger than that, but to get beer above about 15% requires a lot of extra work. Both Brewdog and Schorschbräu used the eisbock method of freeze distillation to make intensely alcoholic beers that blew right by that 15% mark. By storing the beer below the freezing temperature of water but above the freezing temperature of alcohol for weeks a brewer can filter the water ice out and concentrate the beer.
Using this method Schorschbräu produced a 31% ABVeisbock in 2009. BrewDog took up the challenge with the limited edition Tactical Nuclear Penguin weighing in at 32%. That record lasted only a few weeks before Schorschbräu struck back with their already prepared 43% version saying “’cause Frankonian men don’t dress like girls.” A few months later saw the Scottish reply with Sink the Bismark at 41%. After a bit more back and forth BrewDog created their final volley, The End of History clocking in at a whopping 55% ABV. Only 12 bottles were produced, and each was packaged in a taxidermied animal. Why would they do that? At that point the question is probably why not? However, The End of History was not the end of the race, with Schorschbräu claiming the title with a “beer” that was 57.7%. Keep in mind that your average bottle of tequila is a mere 40% ABV. The absolutely final word (so far) in this race to the top seems to have fallen to a newcomer, Brewmeister, also from Scotland. In November of 2013 they released Snake Venom, which is a mind blowing 67.5%. At that point you could share a single bottle with the entire bar and everybody would have a very good time indeed.
While BrewDog was chasing the title of World’s Strongest Beer, they were also brewing a diverse and interesting line up. Though even in their day to day brewing a penchant for high ABV was noticeable. One of their core range is Tokyo*, an 18.2% oak aged stout that was the strongest beer brewed in the UK when it debuted. Putting a beer that strong into a normal bottle sold at normal retailers got BrewDog in a lot of hot water in the UK. The brewers got to deal with regulatory investigations, lurid headlines, and breathless news interviews about this new apex in British binge drinking culture. They even had some trouble in America because there was concern that people would be confused about the “geographical origin” of a beer called Tokyo* that also said “product of Scotland.” So in the States it is now called Tokio*. As their official response to all the furor BrewDog produced a heavily hopped 0.5% beer called Nanny State.
Putting aside world records and all the rigamarole, how is Brewdog’s every day beer? I found Punk IPA, Hardcore IPA, Dead Pony Club Pale Ale and 5 A.M. Saint Red Ale at my local Yamaya import store. Overall I really enjoyed all four of the beers. Punk IPA is the standout, and BrewDogs’ flagship beer. It is a delicious American style IPA with hearty hops and a nice malt backbone. The Hardcore IPA was rather like the Punk, but moreso in all areas. It had more hops, more malt, and more alcohol. It was still quite drinkable, and the fact that there are now two world class India Pale Ales available a few blocks from my apartment is something to be celebrated, I assure you. I love hops, and there are not many hop forward Japanese beers that are widely sold outside of festivals and specialty bars. Dead Pony Club was interesting, and tied rather neatly into last weeks blog post about Session IPAs. Dead Pony Club packs a nice hop punch into a low 3.8% ABV that is the polar opposite to all those World Record chasers. Unfortunately the low malt levels really impacted the body. The mouth feel is very watery, so the end result is rather like a very hoppy Coors Light. That said, by the end of the beer I was ready for more. It might prove to be a nice go to when I want a beer or two but don’t want a big buzz. Rounding out the four was 5 A.M. Saint, and it might be my favorite. This red ale proved to be nicely balanced between caramel maltyness and citrus hoppiness and was highly drinkable. I finished the glass much quicker than I had intended. It went down quite smoothly indeed. I expect I will be buying all four of them as often as I can. Unfortunately, so far only those four out of the seven core BrewDog beers have shown up near me. The expanded core range, as well as seasonals and guest beers, are available at the BrewDog Bar in Roppongi, so I hope that I will have the chance to try the Tokyo* Stout, Dogma Scotch Ale, and Libertine Black IPA sometime soon.
Have you tried any BrewDog beers? What do you think? Tell me about it in the comments!
While we were at the Keyaki Beer Festival, we filmed a short video. Check it out here!