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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Brewdog Sink The Bismarck - World's Strongest Beer

Towards the end of last year, Scottish brewery Brewdog released an ice-distilled beer called "Tactical Nuclear Penguin". With an ABV of 32 per cent, it broke records and made headlines across the main stream media.

Shortly afterwards, German brewer Schorschbrau announced Schorschbock, a penguin beating Eisbock of their own that weighed in at 40 per cent ABV.

Today, Brewdog announced "Sink the Bismarck!", a 41% beer that snatches back the title of worlds strongest and, unfortunately, appears to say a lot about the Scottish brewery all at the same time. The announcement will provoke the media, Brewdog lovers and haters and Schorschbrau alike. For this reason, I've stayed away from the reaction until I have chance to think about and put down my own thoughts.

To prevent any confusion, I'll say now that I'm a big fan of Brewdog. I buy and drink their beers a lot, and I highly rate the vast majority of the beers they produce. When Tactical Nuclear Penguin (TNP) was announced, I saw it as another boundary pushing beer. The ice-distillation technique is not new, embracing that style and producing something unique and delicious at the same time is exactly what Brewdog have been about.

You can argue that TNP wasn't a beer and that by distilling a liquid in any way, you create a spirit or liqueur. But, frankly, who cares? Who cares if the result is interesting, thought provoking and delicious. Who cares how the ABV has been reached, or indeed what the ABV is? It's a nice novelty to try the worlds strongest beer, but that's all it is ... a novelty.

So why is it then that Brewdog bother to up the ante and produce a beer that's 41 per cent? Is it because they think their core customer base is bothered where the world record sits, is it because they think it will steal more headlines and create worthwhile publicity, is it because they genuinely believe that an ice-distilled IPA is a flavour experience that the world needs?

Everything from the way this beer has been hinted at, announced, timed and even named, suggests that the driving force behind its creation is nothing more than childish one-upmanship. A desire to stick one finger up at Schorschbrau and say "anything you can do, we can do better". It smacks of the exact same attitude that lead to Brewdog reporting their own product to the Portman Group, a move that resulted in criticism from even the most hardened of Brewdog supporters.

Without being closer to the brewery, it's impossible to cast judgment one way or the other, without making assumptions. Without knowing first hand what the thought process was behind the creation of Bismarck, all you can do is assume. I could assume therefore that Brewdog were inspired by Schorschbrau to make a world record breaking beer, in a style that has never (to my knowledge) been attempted before. Setting out to make a boundary pushing beer, with the bonus addition of being able to win back the world record. The two aren't mutually exclusive. The marketing campaign could be an unfortunate misjudgment, that distracts from the original goal.

Intentions aside, the end result is the same. The marketing and naming of this beer has been pretty badly misjudged. "Sink the Bismarck!" as a name is, quite frankly, a bit naff. The press releases and videos reek of an ego-centric product, more interested in a petty competition than the customer. I honestly believe that the vast majority of the customer base Bismarck is aimed at, couldn't care less about the world's strongest beer. Why then use this as the main focal point of the product?

It's difficult to disagree that a quadruple hopped, 40 per cent IPA is something you'd like to try. Despite this, at £30 a bottle I didn't buy TNP and at £40 a bottle, I most definitely won't buy Sink the Bismarck!. I appreciate that the process and ingredients involved, must make this an expensive beer to make, but the price tag is just too big.

A final point to consider is around bottle closure. One of the most consistent criticisms of TNP, that I personally read, was around the crown cap used to close the bottle. 300ml of a 30 per cent ABV drink is just too much in one sitting. If TNP had been closed with a swing top or replaceable cork, it would've made it a lot easier to consume over a prolonged period of time. Despite this consistent comment from consumers, Bismarck appears to be closed with a crown cap! If today's announcement is about innovation, creativity, outstanding beer and the people that devote so much time, effort and money to drinking it, how was this over looked?

There's a distinct possibility that Bismarck is an astonishing beer. I for one would love to try it, but will probably never get the chance. It's just a shame that some elements of this Brewdog release appear to have been quite badly misjudged. Imagine an alternative Brewdog announcement today, one for an ice-distilled IPA , at 41 per cent ABV, called "Tactical Punk". The attached marketing being something along the lines of "Strong competition is healthy. Punk spirit will always be best". How different would the reaction be?


James, BrewDog said...

The idea of an IPA as strong as whisky is something we have been fascinated by for some time. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to a beer launched 2 weeks ago, this has been 5 months in the making. Double IPAs rock, we wanted to try and crank the speakers up and rock out a quad IPA. IPA amplified if you will.

Schorschbrau also riled us for 2 reasons. When we launched Penguin they tried to steal the show with a beer which they may launch, someday somewhere in the future. We had a beer on the market and they had something they were going to make. Secondly they contacted us and tried to sell (yes sell!) us their secrets of brewing high ABV beers. Consequently we wanted to playfully poke a bit of fun at them, hence the name and the silly little video.

This is very much about the beer itself though. Penguin divided drinkers, the whisky influence and the power of Islay whisky flavours too much for many drinkers. Sink! is about having a carbonated 41% beer which has all the classic IPA components. Kettle hopped, dry hopped then freeze hopped (yes, freeze hopped with Chinook!) for a deep fruit, resinous and spicy aroma. A full out attack on your taste-buds ensues as the incredibly smooth liquid delivers a crescendo of malt, sweet honey, hop oils and a torpedo of hop bitterness which lasts and lasts. Four times the alcohol, four times the bitterness and 4 times the hops!

Here is the review from the blogger to taste it so far (www.heavyhops.com ): 'Simply wonderful. There was no other first thought that popped into my head....I just wanted to get up and dance about the room. It was perfect, bitter concentration with a healthy dose of malt, sweetness and alcohol kick. THIS DOES NOT FEEL LIKE 41%.Its oh so very hoppy.

Mark said...

Thanks for the response James. As I said in my post, I couldn't pass comment on the thought process behind the beer, without making assumptions. For that reason, I avoided doing so.

The things I said about the marketing and naming etc, I still think are valid. Feeling a bit done over by Schorschbrau is more than reasonable, and I can understand why you feel like you want to take a humorous dig back at them.

I wish a bit more of the comment you've posted above had made it into the press and marketing for Sink! The stuff about being interested in a quad IPA, basically taking what you've done in the past and ramping it up to it's limits, pushing boundaries. That's the stuff that I want to know is driving Brewdog, that's the reason I invested in Equity for Punks. Reading/hearing about Sink! today, I couldn't help but get the feeling it was all about one-upmanship.

Like I said in my post, I think some of the press and marketing around Sink! was a bit misjudged, but that doesn't necessarily say anything about what the intention behind producing the beer was.

I've no doubt that Sink! will be a great beer but at £40 it's just a bit too pricey for me.

musters said...

Here is the review from the 1st blogger so far who has no intention of ever tasting it ever (http://forthewaywelivetoday.blogspot.com/2010/02/sink-bismark.html): "Simply shit. Shit idea. Shit marketing. Tastes Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit."

KEVIN! said...

I think there's a better question that this type of beer makes us ask: What is beer?

Is it beer because it has hops? I have sleepytime tea with hops in my pantry right now.

Is it a beverage that's made from barley? Clearly not.

Is it beer just because it's a fermented hops and barley mixture? I'd say yes. Does beer have to be carbonated? I wouldn't put that restriction on it, necessarily.

But I think when you distill it, either through a refraction still or you use an ice method, it's no longer beer. It's a spirit made from beer.

Calling this stuff beer is disingenuous at best. I think this contest of "world's strongest beer" was silly 15(?) years ago when Sam launched Utopias, and I think it's silly now. Especially since this Brewdog stuff is not beer.

Mark said...

Kevin, you're right. It does raise the question around what beer is. The fact that we're talking about it now, shows that Brewdog are provoking thought about beer, and that can only be a good thing.

I don't think the question has been asked of Sink! because that conversation was at the forefront when Brewdog released TNP. It's a strong argument to say that when you distil something, you cease to make beer. At the same time, Eisbocks are not a new style and have always been accepted as beers in the past.

I think an interesting point about Sink! is that it does have a lot of the flavour profile of an IPA. It might be spirit strength but when you taste it, you think beer.

Thanks for reading the blog and commenting. :)

Unknown said...

Spirit or Beer?



I cant wait to try batch 6.

sbaclimber said...

I just tried Sink the Bismark at the local Bierfest here in Leipzig, Germany, and was very very very impressed!!!
I was initially skeptical of the whole freezing process to produce a strong beer-based product, but it has produced an excellent product, IMO. For anyone who enjoys a truly hoppy beer, it is a dangerous drink. The 41% abv is there, but absolutely perfectly balanced with the light maltiness and fruity bitterness of the IPA.
Well worth a try if you have the chance (without having to pay for a whole bottle)!!

Mark said...

There's "truly hoppy" and then there's Sink! :P

I tried some a while back and put some thoughts here.

I had some again recently and I think it's better now it's got some age to it. The hop has died off a bit and the result is a slightly more drinkable, balanced drink. I think it's a cool experiement but it isn't something I could drink a lot of, or indeed drink often.