Declaration of independence

04 September, 2008

From radical marketing to controversial brewing methods, Nigel Huddleston talks to the microbrewers with a difference who refuse to sell out

Visit the website of Scottish microbrewer BrewDog and instead of the usual banal company history, you get a manifesto.

"Beer was never meant to be bland, tasteless and apathetic," it declares. "Our beers are in no way commercial or mainstream."

It goes on to describe the company as "a beacon of non-conformity in an increasingly monotone corporate desert ", before invo king the legend of David and Goliath and the 17th -century philosopher John Locke.

"Most of it's just nonsense that comes out of my head,"

says managing director James Watt, but it's helped BrewDog become part of a core of new operators threatening to change the face of British microbrewing through a mixture of youth, irreverence and bare-faced cheek.

Family-owned Otley Brewing of Wales is another. It may not have the same in-your-face attitude as BrewDog, but it's still intrepid in its approach, calling its coriander and orange peel-laced beer O-Garden, and sticking it in a bottle with a huge white "O" on a black background, making it a sure-fire seller should Stevie Wonder ever walk into your shop looking for a bottle-conditioned ale. Never has beer labelling been so attention

seeking.

BrewDog was founded by former fisherman Watt and head brewer Martin Dickie - both still only aged 25 - just last year, and they quickly rolled out a portfolio of beers based on classic

styles, but with extra energy and pizzazz.

The range includes the "post-modern classic" Punk IPA, "twisted, merciless" Rip Tide stout and a "laid back" amber beer called The Physics.

On the face of it, the whole thing looks like a brewing industry equivalent of a situationist prank hiding not much in the way of substance, but where BrewDog really scores is that its beers are packed with aroma and flavour; more balanced than

the Independent and as moreish as Othello.

BrewDog has already made a big impact, with specialist beer retailers around the country keen to give them listings and reporting the build-up of an enthusiastic fanbase.

"We take inspiration from anything and everything that's cool, vibrant and a little bit edgy," says managing director Watt, who lists his dislikes as Cher, people who describe themselves as "mad", and clichés.

"We take a lot from the US craft brewers who are much more adventurous in their beer styles and seem to be

more open-minded when it comes to naming and marketing.

"Most Scottish microbrewers are just a bit too traditional and dull, and are appealing to middle-aged men with beer bellies and sandals."

BrewDog's ballsy approach has got it into trouble with the Scottish health lobby and red-top press who took issue with its 12% abv Tokyo, reported to be the UK's strongest beer, conveniently ignoring its niche market and prohibitive £4-a-bottle price tag.

Watt points out that the product is being sold only through BrewDog's own website and that there are

just 300 bottles available.

"It's not like it's going to be in every corner shop and supermarket," he says.

It's also worth pointing out that while some big brewers play ball with deep-

cut supermarket promotions, none has done more to get people paying more

for beer than BrewDog, with its £40-a-throw limited -edition version of Paradox stout, aged in a Bowmore 1968 whisky cask.

Otley's approach is more like a mature dog against the Scottish brewer's excitable puppy - but it's certainly a lively springer spaniel compared to the established micro-industry's well-trained labrador.

Its initial O is key to the beer range, with regular cask ales under names like O2 and OG, while O-Garden takes its place in a list of cask seasonals that includes Amarill-O (an American hop variety) and O-Ho-Ho.

Along with O-Garden, flagship golden ale O1, Dark-O stout and award-winning barley wine O8 have found their way into bottles.

"We set out from the beginning to make things look different because everyone else is going down the old-fashioned route," says managing director Nick Otley, who set up the company with cousin Charlie and nephew Matthew three years ago, initially to make beers to sell in the family's own chain of pubs.

"O-Garden is a bit tongue-in-cheek

but we're not encroaching on anything Hoegaarden is doing. It's hard work being in the brewing business, so you might

as well have a bit of fun while you're

doing it.

"We thought it was about time we got

a younger audience on board with ale, and women as well, and the best way to do that is to look a bit vibrant and happening."

Otley is also breaking the rules with routes to market . It's one of few brewers to spurn the advance of Tesco and Sainsbury's and has launched its own website,

realbeerbox.com, to sell and promote 100 bottled beers from Otley and other small producers.

"Independent shops are really all we'll sell to," says Nick Otley. "We don't like what the supermarkets are doing in making brewers work for nothing and cheapening the product.

"As long as we're making money we're not losing anything and we've the satisfaction of knowing that we're not selling out."

As brewing manifestos go, it's one that's worth voting for.




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