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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

BrewDog's Atlantic IPA

[For an introduction to Scotland's BrewDog Brewery, start with this post.]

When BrewDog announced plans for Atlantic IPA, the detail that captured people's attention was the process: the brewery planned to send out a few casks on the family mackerel trawler in an effort to re-create the beers sent to India in the 18th Century. The fact that has captured our attention now is the price tag: $26 per 330 ml. (Or, as Bill amusingly calculated, a six-pack equivalent of $167.76.)

I was no different. When BrewDog sent out the press release announcing the beer (and offering to send me a bottle--which, needless to say, I accepted), I was so shocked that I requested confirmation. Yup, twenty-six bucks.

Can any beer be worth the price of a nice bottle of single malt Scotch?

As with so many things in life, this turns out to be the wrong question. The beer is compelling, strange, unexpected, unique. We'll get to the tasting notes in a minute, but very briefly, it is a fascinating beer. Of course, lots of beers are fantastic and at a fraction the cost. The mind immediately formulates the question like a math equation. My favorite beer is X. X is $9 a bottle. Is Atlantic IPA three times as good as X?

The better question is, knowing what the brewery went through to make this beer, what would you pay? Only seven casks were made, and of this, only 960 bottles made it to America. (Whether that's 959 after my bottle, I can't say.) But even that doesn't capture the the scope of things. Fortunately, there's a video that does. Have a look:

Ah, now it's clear. This was a crazy scheme of the kind that brewers are prone to conduct. It was far harder than they predicted and not apparently the process a brewery can implement on a commercial basis. It's a nutty, charming, crazy experiment, and seeing it on video, one I approve of. I am left with surprise they allowed any of this beer out of the country or, for that matter, out of the brewery.

Tasting Notes
To complete the sea-aging experiment, BrewDog found an old recipe--either 150 or 200 years old; their material quotes both ages. Given that agriculture has changed so much in that time (not to mention the earth's climate), I don't imagine that the beer they brewed tastes like the ancient inspiration. The brewery used ancient English hops, but probably only Goldings (born in the 1780s) date back 200 years. Fuggles, the other hop in the recipe, is also an old strain, but is about a century younger. Maris Otter is typically used to approximate historic malts--as BrewDog has done with Atlantic IPA--but I have no idea how similar it is to the malts of the early-to-mid 19th Century. Still, the recipe seems a worthy effort to replicate an old recipe given ingredients available in the 21st Century.

(Discussion point for homebrew masters and brewing historians. This recipe produced a beer of 8.5% alcohol and 80 IBUs. Do you suppose that a recipe translated directly across the board today would produce a beer of both lower alcohol and bitterness? I'm wondering if modern malt is more easily converted and if IBUs have crept up over the decades. It's possible that BrewDog adjusted for these changes, but I toss it out as a hypothetical, anyway.)

I poured out the beer, as usual, in the evening, when the light was crappy. My photos are not worth reproducing, so we'll have to rely on description. It pours thickly, but rouses a nice off-white head. The color is amber, as in the gem, with rich orange highlights. (At least, it does when you hold it in front of a light.) The nose is spicy and alcoholic, quite a bit like an English barleywine.

The flavor is unique. A triumverate of notes compete for dominance. Caramel from the malt, and the spicy, resinous hops--these are familiar and unsurprising. But then there's the salt, unmistakeable and insistent, like the brine in shellfish. As the beer opened up, the hops emerge in a fizzy citrus note (orange). The brewery's tasting notes offer "pine," but I think spruce, which has this citrusy quality, is closer to the mark. Perhaps due to the saline, there's a mild metalic note, like blood. I got a touch of vanilla as well, perhaps from the oak. I also got just a touch of char or smoke--probably the note BrewDog calls "tobacco." It finishes surprisingly dryly. For all the alcohol in the nose, the thick body, and the caramel palate, it's not a bit sweet.

I couldn't easily rate the beer, but if it were on tap in a pub, it would be the first beer I'd recommend. There's really nothing like it on the market.

Malts: Maris Otter (98%), amber malt
Hops: Goldings, East Kent Goldings, Fuggles
ABV: 8.5%
IBU: 80
OG 1.074 (18 P)
Availability: extremely rare (960 bottles), $26

"Worth" is not something we're used to assessing. In this case, if you judge the beer solely by what's in the glass, stripped of all other concerns, you'd conclude that, while interesting, it's hardly four or five times as good as world standards. On the other hand, these may be the last 960 (or 959) bottles of sea-aged IPA available for years or decades. Is it worth $26 to taste this salty, unique experiment? That's an altogether harder question to answer.


  1. Some guy mentioned that India Pale Ales were no longer en vogue. When is BrewDog coming out with a sour? :P
    The sea journey sounds like it added a bit of flavor, but how do you think a fishing boat in the North Atlantic compares to the journey of a supply ship sailing around Africa with the warmer climates? All in all, a noble experiment.
    I enjoyed the video and can only imagine the experience that went into making such a brew. Props for being able to procure such a rare beverage!

  2. I really enjoyed this beer. I got it as a freebie, and I'm glad I did, as I'm not sure I could justify spending $26 on it, even to myself! I'm sure they were selling it for a lot less on their site, but not any more it seems.

  3. Is it worth $26? Is a small piece of compressed carbon worth $5K? A willing buyer and a willing seller situation. I agree with NW Beer Lover that the North Atlantic and the Indian Ocean are far different environments and would have had far different effects.

    I think BrewDog has achieved just what they wanted: buzz. The "cask-at-sea" is a stunt by folks who have access to a fishing trawler. This hardly represents an ongoing approach to brewing. But, like you, Jeff, I enjoyed what they did and I'm all for stunts.

    At that price, I would be happy to enjoy a glass the way I get to enjoy old Bordeaux: when somebody else is buying.

  4. Another point worth noting is the way the kegs were stored. Cargo vessels generally didn't strap the goods out front where they were exposed to the weather. Also I agree with NW the climate factor is key here to. They didn't produce a true historical beer, they produced an extreme stunt beer.

  5. So I've got to it available anywhere in Portland?

  6. @anon:

    Don't hold me to this, but I was told by the local distributor of BrewDog products that we would be receiving some. I would expect it to arrive on the big "Christmas beer" delivery that usually arrives in late October or early November.

    Chances are it'll be a 1 case per store kind of deal, but at $26/bottle I'm not sure if I'd order more than one case even if I could.


    ~Chris @ Belmont Station

  7. Thanks Chris. I'll be watching Belmont's updates for arrival :)