ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Brewdog brings back real ale - sort of

The big announcement last week in the beer world came from Brewdog. So far, so normal. They like to do 'big announcements' on a regular, predictable basis.

I'm surprised they haven't brewed a triple IPA called 'Big Announcement' then done a big announcement about it, frankly.

But unlike most of the news coming out of Fraserburgh (or Ellon, or wherever it is they've had to relocate to now because they've increased another 300% in size in the last six months) this was actually important stuff.

Introspective and self promoting, obviously, because we wouldn't expect anything else from them, but important, paradigm-shifting news nonetheless. (And, yes, I am going to try to work a dig at Brewdog into every sentence, thank you very much!)

So, until last weekend I hadn't had a proper real ale from Brewdog for over five years. That's quite a long time in the world of beer. But a week or so ago, with considerable fanfare, Brewdog announced the launch of LIVE beer which, though they might not want to admit it, is the return to real ale that many of us have been speculating about since, well, since they stopped making it five years ago.

That last new Brewdog I had on cask was 'Punk X' - a prototype for the reformulation of their flagship Punk IPA which wasn't as good as the original. As beers go, it was perfectly alright but didn't bode well for the future when it was adopted as the official Punk recipe. Then they had that massive public spat with CAMRA, stopped doing cask altogether and began to expand exponentially into the craft-brewing giant that they are today, if 'craft-brewing giant' isn't a contradiction in terms, which it probably is.

I still give credit to them where it's due. I drink in Brewdog bars very occasionally. I rate their Nanny State very highly indeed. But I'm also one of their biggest critics after they deliberately turned their back on people like me who were once their biggest supporters.

Anyway, last week's announcement:

"This is not BrewDog doing cask beer again. This is BrewDog completely reinventing and re-imagining what draft real ale is for the better and ensuring a perfect pint every single time for the drinker. LIVE beer is about creating a whole new category, and a whole new perspective from which to enjoy beer."

Once you've waded past the self-aggrandising hyperbole, it turns out that they've started doing one of their beers in keycask. The session pale ale, Dead Pony Club, which has been around in keg and bottle for a while now (and which is not as good as the cask Trashy Blonde they used to do, obviously).

This pony ain't dead
They're claiming some revolutionary new techniques and technology, but it fucking well isn't. It's live beer in a keycask. Several brewers have tried this already. I consider this to be real ale, no question about it. So does CAMRA, incidentally, though this policy decision invariably led to confusion by some who interpreted this as all keykeg beer=real, which would be pure shitetalk.

(For the pedantic dickwads: I know very well that 'keycask' is an alternative branding for the 'keykeg' brand of membrane kegs. I use the term to refer solely to the use of keykegs for cask-style beer - e.g. free from force-carbonation and undergoing a secondary fermentation in the keg, like Brewdog are doing here.)

One of Brewdog's internal contradictions is that they absolutely idolise US Craft breweries to chronic masturbatory levels - and why not, there are lots of  truly awesome breweries over there - except that in the US, cask beer is seen as the most 'craft' craft of all and Brewdog stopped doing it, despite having a reputation for doing craft cask exceptionally well. James Watt must've lost hours of sleep over this.

And so, here we have the perfectly executed back-track. The mother of all get-outs.

Schrödinger's Pony

So, what's it like then, this 'Live' Dead Pony Club? Yep, another contradiction in terms. Brewdog are good at those, aren't they?

Well, it's a perfectly decent session pale ale. Drinks just like a cask beer in good nick, which, for me, makes it better than keg Dead Pony which I don't mind, but it always tasted like it belonged in a cask.

It's cool and refreshing with a piny hit from the Mosaic hops that doesn't overwhelm, and a little slice of citrus (I like a lot more in this style of beer).

But is it exciting? Is it in any way groundbreaking? Nope. Is it as good as some of the beers Brewdog were doing in cask from 2008-2010 when they were my favourite brewery in the country? It's better than the worst but not as good as the best of them.

In all honesty, I was just a bit underwhelmed, given that I've been waiting for this day for over five years. Brewdog's return to real ale should've been magnificent; blow-me-away-in-an-explosion-of-hops spectacular. Instead I got a pint of fairly pleasant session beer in a Brewdog bar in Soho that I wouldn't normally choose to visit, and no more than that. (For those who like to get indignant about such things, it's £5.05 for a 3.8% beer in what is essentially a tied house.)

So what's next?

It would be nice if Brewdog decided to offer their entire range in keycask, sorry LIVE beer form, but I can't see that happening any time soon. It would be seen as going back on the 'keg is best' mantra which has become something of a religion to them and their fans in recent years, and in any case, the branding and glassware is very much focused on DPC, suggesting that for the time being, this will be the only beer available in this format.

5 AM Saint would be an obvious contender for the next beer to do in this format, alongside Punk of course, and if they really wanted to win friends, how about Hardcore IPA, which was much prized in cask form when it first came out several years ago? We can but hope.

It's telling that they're using a keg tap style dispense rather than their hated traditional handpull (one does wonder whether young James had an unfortunate experience involving a roughly-inserted handpump at some point) but that doesn't bother me so long as it's not deceptive in any way. Plenty of good pubs including Pub of the Year contender the Pelt Trader don't use handpumps for cask beer.

I can see a sort of leftfield benefit arising from this, in that those who argue that (force-carbonated) keykeg is no different from real ale and it's just a case of 'method of dispense' will be forced to confront their flawed thinking head on. Brewdog are still selling Dead Pony Club on keg, and you can try a pint of each side by side. Yes, the two are really quite different. This whole 'real' thing didn't just exist in CAMRA members minds!

But it's a step in the right direction. Maybe in the future I shall have more positive things to say about Brewdog. After all these years, I'm still a shareholder...


  1. Hi Ben,
    just discovered this post I unfortunately missed when it was originally published.
    Has there been any development with this Live Beer from BrewDog since the original "big announcement". Couldn't find anything on the web apart from several initial publications from last year.
    Despite BrewDog being quite a popular imported beer here in Russia, local official distributors haven't heard anything about their "Live beer" either.

    1. Hi Yuri,

      Yes, Brewdog have continued with the Live Beer, typically doing one beer at a time for several weeks.

      Dead Pony was followed by Live 5 AM Saint, which was a lot like how this beer used to be on cask. More recently there was 'East Coast Crush' which was a decent beer in a hazy, hoppy sort of way, though had very little cask-like character.

      Given the globalisation of the Brewdog brand, I'd have expected them to export the Live range to Europe, so they may have deliberately decided not to do so.


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