It all started with a message in my inbox. If emails had a tone, this one would’ve been a whisper.
“Hey, there’s something happening at the bar tonight. You should come.”
This was intriguing enough to merit a follow-up phone call. It was from my friend Jackie Zhou, owner of the Beer Nest, a small bar nestled in the heart of Shanghai. Shanghai was where I lived before Colorado, working as the editor of Hops Magazine, China’s first English-language beer publication. If anything ever mixed business and pleasure, it was a job at a beer magazine.
This was back in 2010, when craft beer was relatively new to China and just starting to get its foothold. There were less than a handful of microbreweries in Shanghai, and only a few bars where you could get anything other than a Tsingtao or Corona. Jackie’s bar was a bastion of good taste in a sea of watered down adjunct beers. If you were going to find a specialty beer in the city (and one that wasn’t smuggled back in the suitcase of a friend who had just been abroad), then you’d most likely find it at Jackie’s.
On this particular day, Jackie invited me to an exclusive tasting event to be held at his bar. When I arrived that evening, it was to find Jackie shaking hands with none other than James Watt, one of the originators of Scottish-based brewery BrewDog. In addition to a small cadre of followers, Watt had brought along a furry friend and “The End of History.”
“The End of History” was, at the time, the beer with the world’s highest percentage alcohol by volume (ABV) — 55 percent. BrewDog only produced 12 bottles of the product and housed each one within the taxidermied body of a little rodent. They were all named, and while I don’t remember what he called this one, it was wearing a little kilt. The rodent had been on the road with Watt for a while, visiting a whole list of countries. Now, it was here in Shanghai, sitting less than two feet from me.
As I stared into its beady little eyes and tried to figure out whether they were following my every move or if it was just a trick of the light, the group chatted in the way that only a gathering of beer enthusiasts can. Watt told us about what it was like getting BrewDog started, meeting the infamous beer expert Michael Jackson before he passed away, and getting his seal of approval.
Next came the anticipated tasting, each of us getting just enough for a mouthful. With a single bottle retailing somewhere above $700, I tried not to think about the monetary value of the liquid sitting in my glass, and took a sip. BrewDog describes it on their blog as a “blond Belgian ale infused with nettles from the Scottish Highlands and fresh juniper berries.” My very first thought was that it didn’t taste like beer at all, but rather a uniquely flavored hard liquor. That said, it wasn’t bad, although I certainly couldn’t have kept an entire bottle to myself, even if I had the funds.
Since then, BrewDog’s fame has only grown, thanks to its delicious products and its bold, take-no-prisoners marketing style. “The End of History” was actually the final result of an ABV war between BrewDog and Schorschbrau, a German brewery. The two traded back and forth, starting with BrewDog’s 32 percent Tactical Nuclear Penguin and ending with Schorschbrau’s 57 percent Finis Coronat Opus (The End Crowns The Work). Others then went on to fight for the crown, with the most recent victor being Snake Venom, a whopping 67 perent beer from Scottish brewery Brewmeister.
I’ll admit the name is cool, but unless they wrap it up in an actual snake, I think BrewDog still wins at packaging.
The BrewDog guys have gone on to do a lot of things, including recently starring in their own TV show in which they travel around America and talk craft brewing. All this fame has had an impact in China as well, where their beers are sold. A brewer friend still in Shanghai posted on Facebook recently about a fake BrewDog bar found in Changzhou. Stores falsely purporting to be related to famous brands (such as Apple, Nike, Prada, etc.) are not uncommon in China. This friend also posted a quote from Watt about the incident:
“At the moment I am bemused, kinda happy, a bit flattered and simultaneously terrified. Like a French foie gras goose.”
It just goes to show that there’s a lot going on in the world, particularly in the craft brew world, and it’s best just to keep your eyes open. You never know when you might stumble across a 50+ percent ABV brew, or get a text to hang out with an alcohol-toting rodent in a kilt.
And while it was great to have the opportunity to drink one of the world’s most alcoholic and expensive beers, what I really remember and relish about the night was the sense of camaraderie. There we were, people from all corners of the earth, gathered together in a dimly lit bar in Shanghai, rubbing shoulders, sipping on a crazy Scottish beer and sharing stories. That was the best and most important part. And I bet by the end of its journey, that little kilted rodent had plenty of stories of its own to tell.