Brewdog's First American Steps are Halting Ones

April 04, 2017

By Sarah Freeman, April 04, 2017

“You’re the first person to come in who looks young enough to card,” the bartender says to me as I eye the marquee-style menu board offering six house and six Ohio drafts. I slide my Illinois driver’s license across the bar and ask for a flight.

BrewDog’s Canal Winchester facility has been open a whopping two days and the 10,000-square-foot brewpub, dubbed DogTap, is already 75% full with mostly white, male, middle-aged patrons. It’s an interesting crowd for the brand that markets itself as the give-no-fucks leader of the “Craft Beer Revolution.”

But I’m not here to make snarky remarks about how my dad would fit in at this bar better than I do; I’m here to figure out what a Scottish brewery is doing setting up shop in the middle of Ohio.

Sarah FreemanEquity, wi-fi, a comfortable seat, and all the Punk you could want.

There are a certain amount of grumbles and eye rolls any time a successful brand announces its move to a secondary market. See: Lagunitas in Chicago or Guinness in Baltimore. For BrewDog – a brand that started in 2007 and quickly grew to one of Europe’s largest craft breweries, thanks to its crowd-sourced equity model – the move was a pragmatic one, as they eye the U.S. market as their next point of conquest. Insert dog marking its territory analogy.

“James and Martin have been looking for somewhere in America for a brewery,” Ben Stewart, BrewDog’s U.S. head of sales and marketing, explains. “Just in terms of fresh beer, it makes sense. To get the beer from Scotland to America, you’re talking four-to-five weeks.  So, your beer is already a month old by the times it arrives in customs.”

There’s a problem with this logic and it's the timeline. The brewery part of this beer mega-complex isn’t open. Isn’t even completed.

Sarah FreemanOver by the plywood that separates the finished from the unfinished, markers allow visitors to emote as they wait.

Upon my arrival to the facility, which sits 20 minutes outside of Columbus, construction workers moseyed at the edge of the parking lot adjacent to the recently delivered tanks. Upon completion, BrewDog’s U.S. facility will have the capacity to brew 640,000 barrels. For comparison, Great Lakes Brewing Co., currently the state’s largest brewery, produces about 150,000 barrels annually.

Early batches of Punk IPA will be brewed later this month, pending water and system testing results. Full production is still several months away, though. Once that happens, distribution will focus on Columbus and greater Ohio, with nearby markets such as Chicago to follow.

“Our immediate priority is Ohio,” Stewart says.” We’re going to be selling Punk IPA, which is our flagship beer, and Dead Pony Club session pale ale – I think that’s going to be a bit of a dark horse. It’s our second biggest selling beer, but a sessionable craft beer in the U.S. market is a really interesting one. Jet Black Heart, which is our oatmeal stout, we’re going to do in nitro cans. We’ve also got Elvis Juice, which is our grapefruit and blood orange-infused IPA. Those are the core four products we’re going to introduce.”

Back at DogTap, I’ve forfeited the romantic notion that I’ll be drinking beer made on-site. So, how does the Scotland-made stuff stack up and how will the eventually locally made stuff fit into the U.S. market? While BrewDog might be a craft beer pioneer in the UK, they are preaching to a more beer-savvy choir in the U.S.

Their initial lineup leads with Punk IPA, a textbook IPA made with six different hop varieties. Elvis Juice offers a citrusy alternative with lighter hops profile. Meanwhile, Dead Pony Club is a beer having an identity crisis. Its intense hop profile, inspired by West Coast IPAs, is jarring at first but finishes clean and, well, sessionable. I find my beer soul mate in Jet Black Heart, an oatmeal milk stout. Served on nitro, it’s a medium-bodied stout with smoke and chocolate notes. Overall, it reminds me why I love stouts, and if there’s anyone to do that, it’s the Scots.

Still, none of the beers are boundary-pushing – with the exception of 5 AM Saint, a complex red ale made with five different malts that give the beer a floral, fruity fragrance yet malty taste. When their team of U.S. brewers gets their hands on the five-barrel pilot system, beers of the more experimental variety should follow.

Sarah FreemanA look at their foundational offerings, with just a peak of that lovely amber at the bottom.

For now, the headliners are the only BrewDog beers on offer and are enjoyed by the likes of my neighbor at the bar, who comments, “What is a Dead Pony Club and why does it have less alcohol than a Budweiser?”

I give up. Luckily, the BrewDog won’t. In the U.K., BrewDog are pioneers of the craft beer movement. In the U.S., they are merely another player in a saturated market, and ride a fine line between craft brewery and big beer tycoon.

The team understands their audience will widely be made up of craft beer noobs and big beer converts, who might need a little crash course in the ways of craft beer. That’s why all of the DogTap bartenders a Cicerone certified beer servers.

“We have to educate, because craft beer in America is massive. People know what craft beer. It’s ten years ahead here of what we’re used to in the U.K.,” Stewart says. “In the U.K., people don’t know what craft beer is. We’re constantly educating every day in terms of why people should drink craft beer, never mind talking about freshness and the quality side of it. So, we’re very much prepared to have those educational conversations with people.”

Sarah FreemanCan Brewdog make the connection work?

That being said, BrewDog should fit nicely into the Columbus beer market as a whole, which already boasts its own notable, albeit small, breweries such as Hoof Hearted, Land Grant, Rockmill, Seventh Son, and Wolf’s Ridge, while attracting more visitors to the city via beer tourism.

“There was a lot of talk of Stone coming here two years ago” Jen Burton, co-owner of Seventh Son Brewing Co. as well as The Barrel and Bottle, recalls. “When that fell through, I think people were a little bit bummed, because Columbus is definitely on the verge of becoming a destination beer city. So, I feel like having BrewDog come and anchor it as a serious destination spot for beer geeks and beer nerds, who want to make an entire trip or weekend of touring breweries, it’s really good for Columbus.”

The recent announcement for plans to turn an adjacent parcel of land into the world’s first craft beer hotel slash sour beer production facility drives home that notion.

The DogHouse hotel will be a place for beer-curious to whet their whistles in more ways than one. In-room taps, in-shower fridges stocked with beer, beer-infused spa treatments such as a hop facial or malted barley massage, and hot tubs made out of reclaimed barrel staves are among some of the proposed amenities.

The project has already raised nearly $200,000 on IndieGoGo. If all goes according to plan, the hotel will open next year. “Forget Disneyland. This is the new happiest (or hoppiest) place on Earth,” the campaign reads.

But it’s difficult to dismiss the comparison between BrewDogs plans and an adults-only theme park. Their current plans also make you wonder about their future plans. Maybe, if the timeline on the first project had enabled them to start making beer as soon as they started making travel-sized beer soap, they might have had more to offer on DogTap’s inaugral day than imported IPA.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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