Serious Eats: Drinks
Beer on TV: We Chat With James Watt of the New Show Brew Dogs
There's no denying it: craft beer is huge right now. The once-niche beverage is an increasingly mainstream product and craft beer can be seen just about everywhere these days. This fall, James Watt, Martin Dickie, and the team behind the new show Brew Dogs are bringing it to your television, too.
Tomorrow, the new Esquire TV network will premiere the show, which follows two quirky brewers as they tour the US making unusual beers in even more unusual locations. The show stars Watt and Dickie—the founders of BrewDog, the Scottish brewery most known for wacky marketing, packaging beer in rodents, and for producing the world's once-strongest beer. In the series, the guys visit seven different breweries across the US to meet up with fellow brewers to make experimental beers on trains, boats, and atop mountains.
We had a lot of questions, so we checked out a rough cut of the premiere episode and spoke with James Watt to learn more:
In the first episode, converting 'craft beer virgins' and giving some screen time to local San Diego beer plays a central role. Is that a theme that runs through the whole series and would you say that it's representative of a mission for the show?
Yeah, completely. Each episode is based on a different city, and in each of the cities we take a look into local beer culture. Each has such an amazing, diverse, exciting beer scene, so we got as involved in that as we could. It's also part of our mission to make as many other other people as passionate about craft beer as we are, so we do beer tastings in unusual places. In San Diego we did a beer tasting in an old folks' home.
During the show, you worked with Stone Brewing Co. and Sam Adams, plus Deschutes in Oregon. Are you able to tell us which other breweries you visited?
Hell yeah! So we started off in San Diego, and we made beer with Stone. This was cool because Stone inspired us so much when we started up our own brewery back in Scotland back in 2007, so to go there and hang out was awesome. In San Francisco, we made beer with the legendary Anchor, perhaps the people that kickstarted the whole West Coast hop phenomenon. We did something quite cool... So San Francisco is famous for steam beer, so we wanted to make a steam beer, but we wanted to do something quite unusual with it. We captured fog using fog nets in the Marin Headlands. We got 15 gallons of water that we used to mash in with, and we fermented it in an open coolship on the roof of Anchor. Once we made the beer, we used a technique called hydrodynamic cavitation to turn the beer back into a fog—back into steam—so people could actually inhale the steam beer.
Did any of the beer flavor come through in that, or was it more of a crazy experiment?
So much beer flavor came through. So much of what we taste comes from what we smell, so it was interesting to smell the beer turned into steam with all its flavors, and then to let people taste the beer side by side with that.
Then we went to Seattle and made a beer with Dick Cantwell at Elysian. Seattle's famous for coffee, so we wanted to make the most caffeinated beer that had ever been made. We made an imperial stout but we used chocolate from a local artisan chocolate company. We roasted our own coffee to add to the beer, so we made a classic, big imperial stout with loads of coffee and with loads of chocolate in it.
Then we went to Denver, where we made a beer with the guys at Oskar Blues. So much fun to hang out with those guys. We made that beer on top of Mount Evans and we heated the hot water, the mash, and the wort using only the sun. No solar, no propane, no gas, nothing. What we did, we had these big lenses, and we just used these lenses to focus the sun's rays onto our vessels. That's what heated the beer, so it was a fun way to make a batch.
From there we went on to Philadelphia where we hung with Bill Covaleski of Victory and we made what we hoped would be the ultimate American beer. We made it on the 4th of July on an Independence Day float in Potsdam.
You seem to be consciously trying to push the boundaries of what beer can be. While I appreciate that, it seems like a lot of people online have been throwing out the word 'gimmicky' about the beers themselves. Do you have anything to say to respond to that?
Yeah, definitely. We love to push the boundaries. We love to challenge peoples' perceptions about what beer is—about how it can be enjoyed—get people thinking about beers in slightly different ways. We feel like doing things that are a bit wacky or a bit unusual will get people that are not necessarily beer geeks per se excited and interested about beer and thinking about beers in slightly different ways. We love to have fun doing what were doing. We're doing some unusual things, sure, but it's all been about making fantastic beers as well. I think the fact that we've done it in unusual locations using slightly different techniques is going to hopefully open the eyes of people watching the show to this whole world of craft beer that they never knew existed.
I suppose you kinda have to tell your friends about the vaporized beer you drank that day.
Yeah, exactly! So it's a bit fun, it's a bit quirky, it's a bit irreverent, but hopefully it'll make for much more interesting TV, the fact that were doing these quite outlandish things.
Did any of the beers totally flop?
No, none of them totally flopped. Some of them were better than others. The one we made with Stone—we used the worlds hottest chile in it—that's a 2 million Scoville chile. It was interesting. It was definitely not something you could drink too much of, but some of the beers were fantastic. The imperial stout with Elysian was phenomenal. The Berliner weisse that we made with Deschutes—we made our own syrup for adding to it—was absolutely phenomenal as well.
How did the show happen? Was it your idea, was it the network's?
Well, it kinda spun out of our video blogs. We do a lot of video content for our own website. A TV production company had seen these video blogs, so we got together with them. We put together a pilot and we showed it to a few networks. This network seemed to like it and seemed to not have too much of an issue with our Scottish accents, so yeah, we went ahead and put together the show.
I was wondering about the accent thing. You guys did a great job of enunciating.
Yeah, a lot of the times we were told to go slow—turn down our accents a little bit—otherwise we would have had to use subtitles.
The San Diego episode has a major segment about pairing. Is there an element of beer with food in every episode?
Yes, and that's something we are massively passionate about. We want to show people that the stylistic diversity within craft beer gives you much better potential to put together amazing beer and food combinations than you have with anything else. To go all the way from a hoppy, bitter IPA to a light, zesty, effervescent saison to a decadent opulent imperial stout to a sour, tart, acidic lambic beer to a comforting, malty, Scotch ale—all these different flavors give you so much potential to do awesome things. So in each city we go to, a good part of the show is dedicated to pairing beers with food. We've done that with everything from oysters to doughnuts to molecular gastronomy. It was so much fun.
You guys made beer in some compromising situations. Did you have any dangerous situations arise from, say, trying to mix boiling wort and rafts as you did in the Portland episode?
Yeah, definitely. So the beer that we made in Portland, the cooling didn't work. I had to jump off the raft with 15 gallons of boiling wort, sort of relying on the Willamette River to cool it down. The beer that we made in Boston—we made it on a tall ship. Having 15 gallons of very hot liquid on a boat in the open seas without splashing, scalding, burning ourselves was definitely tough. In each episode we made the beer in quite a challenging way, so we had to come up with some quite inventive solutions such as jumping off the side of the raft and taking the wort with us.
Given the opportunity, would you do a second season? If so, is there any place in particular you'd like to go?
I would love, love, love to do a second season. There's so many places we just couldn't get to that I'd love to go. In the second season, we'd love to go and hang with Garrett [Marrero] out at Maui [Brewing] in Hawaii. We'd love to do something with Three Floyds. It'd be so much fun to go up to Alaska. We'd like to go to Florida to do something with Cigar City. Hopefully, if enough people watch season one, we'll get to do a season two. There's an endless list of people that we'd like to go visit—places we'd like to go and beers that we want to make.
About the author: Mike Reis is a Certified Cicerone. Follow him on Twitter @beerspeaks or find him behind a pint near you.