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Cult breweries go global

It's strange and awkward—but also really useful.
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shutterstock_128086076 (1)One of the coolest new beer bars in Brussels sits in the shadow of an imposing Gothic church in Ixelles, in a neighborhood known for its posh bohemians. It used to be tougher and scruffier. Jean Claude Van Damme’s former gym is just over there.

The bar is called Aubièregiste. It’s a play on words — aubergiste means innkeeper. But see what they did there? Bière is in the middle. Some tricks are universal.

I haven’t been to the Aubièregiste yet but I look forward to it. Because inside every new specialty beer bar that opens these days — in Europe as in America — there is an education.

For example: Besides 80-plus bottled beers, this bar — beyond lots of comforting knick-knacks, exposed brick and timber frames — has five taps that feature choice Belgian producers like Dupont and Senne. One tap is for Duvel products. Lately that has meant Kansas City’s own Boulevard Tank 7. On draft in Brussels.

That might sound normal to you. To me, it’s weird. I grew up in Missouri. I blistered my hands on Boulevard screw caps. Later, my wife and I moved to Belgium at a time — nine years ago — when the Brussels’ beer scene was pretty static. For real lambic ,you had to know where to look. Saisons were rare, and IPAs were virtually non-existent. Now, you can’t avoid them. Hell, even InBev is making Leffe IPA.

And now, whoever lives in our former apartment can walk about 15 minutes to find a Missouri-brewed, American-hopped, Belgian-inspired farmhouse ale.

Weird times — but not that weird. Really it’s just businesses that are maturing, making money, and growing internationally, because they produce something useful. Making us happy with interesting beer, by the way, is one way to be really useful.

I know it’s not so sexy to talk economics when we’re fetishizing “craft” and “artisanal.” But that’s OK — there is still room for the small, sexy independents — more than ever, in fact.

To continue the story: My friends Simon and Jackie, dedicated beer geeks from London, took my nudging and went to the Aubièregiste last week. Walking in, one of the first things they saw was a chalkboard with suggested beers. The top five were not from Belgium. They were from the Scottish brewery BrewDog.

That would have been weird in Brussels a few years ago. Not anymore — in fact, finding BrewDog is getting less and less weird, less random all the time. It appears in virtually all of Europe’s cool beer bars alongside names like Mikkeller, Duvel, Brooklyn and Stone. In the better bars you also find plenty of local flavor, beers from smaller outifts, but you will also find those bigger, more familiar names.

BrewDog is known for its audacious marketing — remember the 55% ABV beer, stuffed into dead rodents?—but lately it is also known for growing. Its production has muscled up exponentially, and it keeps opening BrewDog-branded bars in new cities — there are 20 so far in the UK, eight or so in Europe, one in Brazil, one in Japan, and many more to come — including Brussels, Berlin and Rome expected later this year. (Notably, those bars all feature guest beers from other independents.)

Let’s not forget BrewDog’s planned production brewery in Columbus, Ohio. Or the TV show.

So, is BrewDog — which has branded itself “punk” from the start — becoming the “McDonald’s of craft beer”?

That’s how German blogger Felix Vom Endt recently put it. Those weren’t his words, exactly; he was paraphrasing the way some uppity geeks dismiss BrewDog for being big and, therefore — I guess — uncool sell-outs.

Then Felix translated, for German readers, a neat little blog post from BrewDog’s own website. It’s titled, “10 things you might not know about BrewDog bars.” You can read the original here. To sum it up: free wifi, well-trained staff, food, tasting samples and flights, discounts on takeaway beers, tasting events, board games, and — last but not least — dogs are allowed.

I’m not going to lie to you: I was on the fence, and that simple little post convinced me. Personally, I am not a huge fan of Starbucks: the coffee. But I am an occasional patron of Starbucks: the coffee shops. They’re just so damned useful.

Breweries are businesses after all — even the amusing little cult breweries, whether they grow or not. Most of them grow. And like all of us, maybe, they get to be cool for a while before they must wake up early, shower, shave, clock in, and make some scratch.

A recent comment from British author Tim Webb (with whom I wrote a book) crystallized this point for me: “Clever beer has outgrown its infancy and is becoming an attitudinally challenged adolescent,” he said.

“Just wait till it is a grown-up.”

One Comment

  • I have a love/hate relationship with BrewDog. I love some of their beers, and some are not good. I appreciate that they are always trying new things. They’ve done a great job helping grow the craft beer scene, especially in the UK. Some of their bars are fantastic (especially Shepherd’s Bush). However, when I went to Brewdog Tokyo, it was the most disappointing branch of theirs I have been into, and one of the worst craft beer bars I went to in Japan. One of the great things about other BrewDog bars is that while they of course sell BrewDog, you can find other local craft beers as well. In Tokyo, this was not the case. Nearly ever beer was BrewDog. I had expected at least a 50/50 split like I have encountered elsewhere. It felt far more like a chain than a positive contribution to the local scene.

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