Once known more for its stunts than its beers, the ‘punk’ Scottish brewer is now the UK’s fastest-growing drinks company. You have a problem with that?
In July 2010, a small brewery in the Scottish fishing port of Fraserburgh produced what was, at the time, the world’s strongest beer. Named after the Francis Fukuyama book that declared liberal capitalist democracy the peak of human political evolution, The End of History was, according to its makers, in a sense, the end of beer.
At 55% alcohol-by-volume, the brew, a “blond Belgian ale infused with Scottish Highland nettles and fresh juniper berries”, was stronger than most whiskies, vodkas and gins. It sold in a limited run of 11 bottles, each artfully stuffed inside a deceased wild animal – seven stoats, four grey squirrels – costing between £500 and £700.
One of the brewery’s two founders, James Watt, pronounced the drink “an audacious blend of eccentricity, artistry and rebellion”. In their “striking packaging”, Watt said, the bottles were “disrupting conventions and breaking taboos – just like the beer they hold within them”. Not everyone agreed. Although the stoats and squirrels in question had died of natural causes, the charity Advocates for Animals denounced “perverse” and “out-of-date shock tactics” that “exploited and degraded animals”. Alcohol action groups deplored a “cheap marketing stunt” that was deliberately promoting excess in a nation with a well-known drink problem.
Watt and Martin Dickie, who met at school and launched their upstart brewery in 2007, both aged 24, stood by their creation, which they had made in a local ice-cream factory by repeatedly chilling the brew and skimming off the ice to separate the water and concentrate the alcohol (which freezes at a lower temperature).
The End of History would clearly only ever be consumed in “very small servings,” Watt said. The brewery was simply showing people that beer could be something more than Stella, Carling or Tennent’s – that it could, in fact, be “something they had never imagined” (such as stronger than whisky). The company, he pointed out, also made a highly-flavoured beer with a very low alcohol content.
Besides, Watt could think of no better way to celebrate the lives of 11 fine specimens of dead British wildlife than ensuring that rather than being left to rot, their perfectly preserved corpses, stuffed by a master taxidermist from Doncaster, would be “forever cherished” by the buyers of what was without doubt the most expensive beer in the world.
The End of History happened six years ago. It was a gimmick, a stunt, obviously. It also, sort of, was not. The company that pulled it, BrewDog, is a serial offender: it has, among other antics, driven a tank down Camden High Street; named a beer after the heroin-and-cocaine cocktail that killed River Phoenix and John Belushi; projected naked images of its two founders onto the Houses of Parliament; brewed beer at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean; dropped stuffed cats from a helicopter onto the City of London; employed a dwarf to petition parliament for the introduction of a two-thirds pint glass; and released, for the royal wedding of 2011, a beer containing so-called natural aphrodisiacs such as “herbal Viagra”, chocolate and horny goat weed, which it called Royal Virility Performance.
BrewDog has described itself as a “post-punk, apocalyptic, motherfucker of a craft brewery” and urged its customers to “ride toward anarchy”. Its slogans include “In hops we trust,” “This is the revolution – so help me Dog,” and “Changing the world, one glass at a time.” It has a document that it calls its charter, which contains phrases such as: “We bleed craft beer,” “We blow shit up, and “Without us, we are nothing. We are BrewDog.”
BrewDog embodies, in short, much about modern life that many people love to hate, particularly online and almost certainly beneath this article: you don’t have to search far to find someone on the internet calling BrewDog “hipsters”, “pretentious”, “wankers”, “arseholes” or simply “full of shit”. In the small but passionate world of British beer nerds, few subjects arouse stronger feelings than BrewDog: “an instinctively repulsive … operation of expanding beards and stupidly named gaseous beverages”, as one blogger put it.
Nonetheless, for the past four years, this has been the fastest-growing food and drinks producer in Britain, and the fastest-growing bar and restaurant operator. Since it was founded, less than nine years ago, BrewDog has grown from two employees to 580. It has opened 30-odd highly successful bars – bare brick, exposed ironwork, spray-painted graffiti – across the UK, from Aberdeen to Bristol and Manchester to Clerkenwell. And there are 15 more around the world: Helsinki, Tokyo, Rome, São Paulo. Last year, the company’s sales grew by more than 50%, to £45m – more than half booked abroad – BrewDog now exports to more than 50 countries. Solidly profitable every year since its inception, BrewDog’s trading profit hit £5.5m in 2015.
For all the annoyance at their strategically deployed antics, BrewDog have built a hugely successful business on the loud and repeated pronouncement of their own authenticity: that all they truly care about is their beer. Their mission from the beginning, Watt told me last November, over a glass of the company’s flagship Punk IPA – the biggest-selling craft beer in the UK and Scandinavia – in the company’s bar in Shoreditch, has been “to revolutionise the British beer industry, and redefine British beer-drinking culture”.
Everything BrewDog does, he said with great earnestness, “is about the beer. Everything. We want to make people as passionate about great beer as we are. Change perceptions, challenge conventions, but do it on our terms. We’ve always said we’ll either succeed, or be some massive great crash-and-burn failure. But that’s fine, because the space in between is really fucking boring.”
This sort of overheated rhetoric is just the thing that gets Dickie and Watt called pretentious hipster douchebags on the internet. But BrewDog’s astonishing growth may raise the uncomfortable possibility that in an age of media-savvy and brand-sceptical digital natives, ostentatious displays of “authenticity” – known to some as acting like pretentious hipster douchebags – may have become a necessary condition for success. Is it possible that James Watt and Martin Dickie, who make something great but sell it with infuriating stunts and obsessive passion, might represent the future of business?
The moment that changed James Watt’s life – his beer epiphany, which he recalls with surprising (or well-rehearsed) precision – did not arrive in the most auspicious venue: “It was a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from the States, bought at Tesco’s in Stonehaven, to wash down some fish and chips. Just this total explosion, this bomb of flavour – this, like … awakening. And all around, industrial lagers and conservative cask ales, and nothing in between.”
Watt’s public persona is all up yours and in your face. In person, he is an affable, considerate, even a charming man, of little hair – aside from the mandatory five days’ stubble – and open gaze. For our second meeting, he had remembered (and served me) the bar food I had most enjoyed at our first. He talks a mile a minute in wildly over-egged adjectives and mainly looks after the business side of BrewDog: money, marketing, strategy.
Dickie, who has rather more hair and an altogether more measured manner, but otherwise resembles Watt so strongly the pair could almost be brothers, is mainly in charge of the brewing: devising new recipes and overseeing a small team of master brewers. Both are ridiculously, obsessively knowledgeable about beer and the brewing process. On a tour of the cavernous and gleaming BrewDog plant in Ellon, just north of Aberdeen, Dickie happily batted around terminology – IBU, ABV, pH, haze, present gravity, headspace oxygen – with PhD-level microbiologists working in the lab.
The son of an oil industry personnel manager and a primary school teacher, Dickie had not followed most of his school friends into engineering, but studied brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt university in Edinburgh, where he shared a flat with an old classmate from Peterhead Academy in Aberdeenshire, James Watt.
Watt and Dickie first began experimenting with their own brews because “basically, we couldn’t find anything we really wanted to drink”, Watt said. Back then, in early 2006, Dickie was working at a brewery in Derbyshire called Thornbridge, where he had just helped concoct a groundbreaking beer called Jaipur that would go on to win nearly 80 awards in its first five years.
What seems to excite Watt and Dickie about brewing – above and beyond their fanatical obsession with beer itself – are its sheer, unending possibilities. “What’s good with beer, compared to spirits, is you can try stuff and get an outcome really quickly,” Dickie, in jeans and T-shirt, told me on a dark December afternoon in the BrewDog Taphouse, a warm, shed-like bar conveniently attached to the company’s Ellon brewery, filled with dog walkers, office workers from a nearby business park, guys with tats and caps and girls in woolly hats.
“You can put in, like, twice the malt, four times the hops, whatever, and two weeks later, you know the result. Whisky, you have to wait years.” He fetched coffee – “Sacrilege, really, but there are times when only caffeine will do” – followed by a glass of the seasonal brew (Santa Paws; made with plums, dates, mixed fruit and a hint of star anise; unexpectedly drinkable). Outside, a gale howled in off the North Sea. Inside, Dickie talked history, and hops.
In 2006, Watt had lasted all of a month in a legal affairs job after earning his law and economics degree before fleeing to sea in a fishing boat. The last in a line of fishermen, his 87-year-old grandfather is still catching lobsters. “In the North Atlantic, in mid-January,” Watt told me, “you learn a lot of things about risk, fear, decision-making. Teamwork. It has influenced my attitude to business. We don’t do scared much.”
With Watt at sea two weeks out of four, studying part-time for his captain’s papers, and Dickie busy brewing “nice, boutiquey, hop-infused beers” in Derbyshire, the two school friends got together when they could. They made the kind of beers they liked and would want to drink, that not many other people were making, and in early 2006 they took one of them – an imperial stout they had aged in a Scotch whisky barrel – to London, to a tasting organised by the late beer and whisky writer Michael Jackson, who Dickie had met a year earlier through his work at Thornbridge.
“Flavour was everything to Jackson, he was obsessed by it,” Dickie said, reverently. “He wrote about it brilliantly; described it so … differently. He was a pretty incredible guy. Anyway, he tried this beer we’d made, and he said: ‘Guys, you need to give up the day job.’ That was all we needed.”
Beer has come a long way since an Italian medic, Aldobrandino of Siena, published his influential treatise on health and diet in 1256. Here was a drink, Aldobrandino argued, that “harms the head and the stomach, causes bad breath, ruins the teeth, and fills the gut with bad fumes.” (On the upside, he noted, it also “facilitates urination, and makes the flesh white and smooth”.)
It was clear by the late middle ages – across northern Europe, at least – that Aldobrandino’s views would not prevail. In Britain, the Low Countries, Germany, Scandinavia, beer became increasingly popular – partly because it is boiled during the brewing process, it was a lot safer than water. In Britain alone, we once drank 65 gallons per person every year; by the mid-1700s, major London breweries such as Whitbread and Truman were making a million barrels of dark porter beer annually.
But by the latter decades of the last century, beer was in a bad way. Traditional cask ale was vanishing from the country’s pubs in favour of thin, industrial bitters and fizzy, low-strength lagers. “Technology,” Watt told me in at the BrewDog bar in Shoreditch, “allowed the big beer companies to bastardise and commoditise their products like never before. They used advertising and big budgets to somehow convince people this bland, insipid parody of a product was what beer was supposed to be.”
The fightback in Britain began with the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), which held its first AGM in the Rose Inn, Nuneaton in 1972 and set out to save traditional cask or “real” ale from destruction. It laid down strict rules: living, unfiltered, unpasteurised beer, served from a traditional cask in which it had continued to ferment, could be called real ale. The vast majority of beer in Britain – chilled, filtered and pasteurised (to kill the yeast and extend the shelf life), injected with CO2 (to make it fizzy), served from a pressurised keg – could not.
In the otherwise empty basement of the Shoreditch bar, as Watt railed against the shortcomings of what, for reasons best known to themselves, most British drinkers still consider beer, we tasted a flight of five craft beers: a couple of BrewDog’s own, but also a selection from small, independent brewers around the country. (The company believes in promoting other people’s beer, not just its own.) Watt discoursed about each as a wine connoisseur might talk about a particularly fine vintage: nose, palate, aroma, finish. Once, and out of the blue, he asked the barman to do the same: “Can you just give us a bit of an overview of this one, then, tell us what it is?” It was, evidently, a test. (The guy seemed to pass: “Basically an imperial stout, Vietnamese coffee edition – comes in at 12.7%, strongest can we’ve ever done, in fact the strongest can in the world right now.” Then, with a flourish of which Watt himself might have been proud: “So, I guess, the king of the cans.”)
At about the time Camra was getting under way in the UK, beer on the other side of the Atlantic was in an equally parlous state. There, an unholy trio of identikit brewing giants peddling variations on a Budweiser theme dominated the market. “There’s an American beer ad from the 1980s,” said Watt, “that pretty much sums up everything that went wrong with the beer business, all round the world: ‘Coors Light. Everything you want from a beer – and less.’”
With no real tradition of cask ale, the independent US brewers who set about challenging the status quo took another path, reviving long-forgotten beer styles after their own fashion and – crucially – using American, usually west coast hops, rich with heady, intense, bitter flavours and powerful aromas of citrus and pine resins all but unknown in Britain. They called what they were making “craft beer”.
At the end of 2006, Dickie followed Michael Jackson’s advice and quit his day job at the brewery (which also meant moving back in with his parents). Watt stuck with the fishing, to keep some money coming in. The pair pooled their minimal savings, negotiated a £20,000 bank loan, bought a pile of second-hand brewing equipment and rented, recalled Watt, a dilapidated unit from Aberdeenshire council on “this dystopian industrial estate, in between a needle exchange and a guy who promoted himself as the godfather of carpets”.
They were part of the vanguard of a remarkable renaissance in British brewing. In 2002, the British chancellor, Gordon Brown, introduced a progressive beer duty, which slashed the tax paid by British brewers who made fewer than 3m litres of beer a year. Almost instantly, the number of small new beer-makers began to climb.
Often born in garages or kitchens or spare rooms, Britain’s new-wave pioneers – Meantime, Magic Rock, Camden Town, Kernel, Beavertown, BrewDog – are among some 1,420 breweries now operating in this country, more than 100 times as many as there were in 1970. And rather than to the purists of Camra, it was to the anything-goes craft brewers of America that many turned for their inspiration: to exuberant beers with exotic ingredients (chilli, honey, chocolate, hemp, mustard, even myrrh), but also to hip design, guerrilla marketing and social media savvy. Over the past two years alone, an average of nearly three new breweries have opened in Britain every week, brewing an ever greater variety of styles: bitters, porters, stouts, pale ales, milds, pilsners, bocks, brown ales, lagers, altbiers, weissbiers, gueuzes, saisons.
Watt and Dickie’s first brew was a strongly-hopped India pale ale, a style formulated in the early 1800s to weather the sea voyage to India, but which had become, by the 1970s, “just a lacklustre 3.5% beer; a marketing term”, Watt said. “The American new-wave guys – Sierra Nevada, Stone, Dogfish Head – had taken it on, using west coast hops. We wanted to put our own spin on it.” They called their brew Punk IPA, in the hope it would blow up British beer-drinking in the way punk once blew up popular music.
For their recipe Watt and Dickie looked to the Antipodes. Nelson Sauvin is a so-called triploid variety hop, first developed in New Zealand and released in 2000. Some describe its oil profile as fresh crushed gooseberries; others say they get more passion-fruit and tangerines. The hop has, in any event, a distinctive tropical, white-wine fruitiness reminiscent of the sauvignon blanc grape, for which it was, indeed, named. “That was the difference,” said Dickie. “That was what made this beer special.”
BrewDog’s first two batches of Punk IPA failed; the first because a phone, a thermometer and a set of car keys ended up in the mash, and the second because Watt and Dickie had bought dirt-cheap garden hose for their brewhouse and the whole brew tasted, “like, really strongly, of plastic”. The third, however, worked. “We knew,” Dickie said, “it was awesome. Now we just had to convince enough people they should feel the same way.”
It was tough going. They filled bottles by hand, sometimes through the night, catching a few hours’ sleep on sacks of malt in the brewhouse, Dickie told me. They criss-crossed north-east Scotland in an ancient Fiat Punto and an even older Skoda pickup, flogging their beer on farmers’ markets and offering it to bars and pubs who showed “zero interest in a 6%, heavily hopped IPA with a really big and different flavour”, Dickie said. “We … Well, we made no money. It was hard.”
But less than a year later, BrewDog had won its first major contract – a weekly order to supply Tesco with twice the quantity of Punk IPA it was then capable of producing. Watt and Dickie had entered four of their beers in a competition run by the supermarket chain: the prize for the winner was a place on the shelves in every one of its UK stores.
“In a blind tasting by a panel of people who knew something about beer,” said Dickie, still savouring the moment, “we came first, second, third and fourth. Yeah. It felt pretty amazing.”
Opinions of BrewDog tend to go one of four ways. The evangelists think the company can do no wrong. The haters cannot get past the relentless self-promotion, and loathe everything BrewDog stands for. The compromisers argue that yes, they might on the whole be happier if BrewDog toned down the language and cut the stunts, but hey, they brew such great beers you have to forgive them. “Buy their Beer and Not their Hype,” as one beer blogger put it.
The final group, let’s call them the sceptics, reckon the beer and the hype are, in fact, inseparable. BrewDog’s particular form of hype, they argue, is such an intrinsic part of the package that without it, we probably would not see – still less drink – the beer. Jon Kyme, a thoughtful small real ale brewer in Ulverston, Cumbria, is one such sceptic.
People “like to identify strongly with something; hang their identity on it”, Kyme said. BrewDog has set itself up – brilliantly – to embody that identity: young, hip, rebellious, championing quality, battling a mediocre status quo. In fact, Kyme said, while the brewer undeniably makes good beers, there are lots of people pushing the craft boundaries at the moment and “very few are making beers that are vastly superior to anyone else’s”.
And that, he reasoned, is why the hype is so crucially, critically important to BrewDog: “In a sense, it’s their main product. It’s only in the hype that there is an absolute, quantum gap between BrewDog and the rest. Their entire existence, basically, is marketing.”
“They brought something new and original to a sector that has been quite … traditional,” said Mike Benner, the softly-spoken head of Siba, the British Society of Independent Brewers, a man who was often on the receiving end of BrewDog’s weaponised ire during his 10 years as the chief executive of Camra. “They’ve made headlines. They’ve been hugely influential; no doubt.”
Even the sceptics tend to concede that Watt and Dickie – antics be damned – have helped cultivate a new generation of adventurous beer drinkers, many of them fired by intense loyalty to BrewDog. Other beers have customers, but BrewDog has fans. In 2010, the company leveraged the intensity of its supporters into a new financing model, raising crowdfunded capital without having to bend itself to financial targets set by banks or investors.
Gautam Bhatnagar, a London IT worker, is one of 40,000 people who, in exchange for discounts in BrewDog’s bars and online shop and an invite to the annual AGM – a beer and music-fuelled knees-up attended last year by 6,000 shareholders – have spent at least £95 on two BrewDog shares in the company’s record-breaking Equity for Punks crowdfunding scheme. (The fourth round, in 2015, raised £5m in 20 days, which was what prompted Watt and Dickie to drop those stuffed “fat cats” onto the City.)
“I bought in,” Bhatnagar, a serious amateur investor who has managed a sizeable portfolio for several years, told me in a Mayfair coffee shop, “not just because I really like their beer – though I’m in a BrewDog bar twice a week and I’d probably make my money back on the discounts alone. I looked pretty carefully at the numbers, and it seems a very reasonable proposition. The valuations aren’t crazy. Sure, no one’s going to become a millionaire overnight. But long-term, there’ll certainly be profit for investors.”
This year, helped by more than £10m of new cash raised in a few months from the latest of these crowdfunding campaigns, BrewDog will open a brand new brewery on its current site in Ellon, boosting capacity fivefold. It is also opening a whisky and vodka distillery on the same site, and building a major new production facility in the US – its biggest export market, where Watt and Dickie are the stars of an extreme-brewing reality show called Brew Dogs, which follows the pair around America as they visit craft breweries and make beer using outlandish ingredients ranging from a lobster to the world’s hottest chilli.
In a move that has not received quite so much publicity, BrewDog also takes £200,000 out of its profits every year and gives it to startup breweries. “We mentor them, donate equipment,” Watt told me. “Is that a gimmick? Yeah, a lot of people do see us as stunt merchants. That’s their prerogative.”
In its brief history, BrewDog has upset, variously and sometimes repeatedly, rival breweries, drink industry associations, health organisations, the Advertising Standards Authority (for a blogpost advising drinkers of one of its products to “let the sharp bitter finish rip you straight to the tits”), even LBGT groups: last summer, it released No Label, the world’s first “non-binary, transgender beer” – half-lager, half-ale and brewed with hops that had “undergone a gender change”. Profits went to charities working with LGBT people, some of whom did not fully appreciate their struggle being used to sell beer.
The first in BrewDog’s long line of highly publicised spats came early in the company’s life, and set a pattern for what followed. In 2008, shortly after two BrewDog beers had won medals at the Beer World Cup, a biennial US-based affair known as the Olympics of the beer world, Britain’s self-regulating alcohol industry watchdog, the Portman Group, took umbrage at the language on the Punk IPA label.
Specifically, Portman – which was formed by the major drinks companies to promote responsible drinking and responsible marketing – disliked the phrase “an aggressive beer”, arguing that the word “aggressive” was “more likely to be seen applying to the drinker, rather than the drink”. BrewDog was ordered to change the branding of Punk IPA and two of its other beers, or retailers would be told to stop selling the offending bottles. The dispute quickly caught the eye of the media – with, perhaps, a little helpful prodding – and the minute it was resolved, BrewDog launched a new beer called SpeedBall (the name for a combination of heroin and cocaine), gleefully labelling it a “class A strong ale” with “a vicious cocktail of active ingredients”. It was banned almost immediately, generating more publicity. BrewDog renamed it Dogma.
The following year, Portman banned BrewDog’s 18% Tokyo Imperial Stout, amid shock-horror headlines about its strength – a single bottle, one tabloid noted, “contains six units of alcohol, the equivalent of THREE PINTS of normal strength beer”. In response, the company unveiled a 1.1% ale called Nanny State.
These duels were, on one level, a game. “I would like to issue a formal apology to the Portman Group for not giving a shit about today’s ruling,” Watt posted on BrewDog’s website in 2014, after Portman declared the language on another label, for a 3.8% west coast-style pale ale called Dead Pony Club – was likely to incite antisocial behaviour. (The offending phrase was: “Drink fast, live fast, sleep late and rip it up down empty streets.”)
On another, they were not. In his basement bar in Shoreditch, nursing a glass of Born To Die (“Thirty-day shelf life; huge, huge hop aroma, way more bitter than Punk IPA; almost resinous on the tongue; it really hammers those bitter alpha acids – aggressive, assertive, palate-cleansing, refreshing”), Watt flatly accused the Portman Group of “acting like a thinly veiled cartel. They have a vested interest in making sure their member companies entrench their market position.” (The Portman Group has consistently said it acts only to uphold its industry code, which is aimed solely at ensuring responsible drinking and drink marketing.)
Up in Ellon the following month, Dickie took a different tack. The 18% Tokyo Imperial Stout, he said, was a unique beer produced in very small quantities. “We made one tankful, maybe 500 bottles. We sold 450 abroad – so there were, like, 50 on sale in the UK, at £18 each. To claim that’s going to promote excess and irresponsible drinking … Seriously? What about the brands selling 24 cans of lager for a tenner? That’s excess.”
But the scandal of its banning, Dickie would concede, did generate amazing amounts of media coverage: “Pictures of James in the Sun – ‘If Britain has a binge-drinking problem, blame this man’ … It meant we could explain what we were trying to do, talk about the six months it took to ferment this beer, do some evangelising.”
In 2009, the veteran beer writer and Camra grandee Roger Protz, who edits Camra’s annual Good Beer Guide, tartly labelled Watt and Dickie “lunatic self-publicists” and “over-inflated ego-maniacs”, unleashing a long-running feud with the custodians of real ale that resulted in BrewDog twice being excluded – for reasons still disputed – from the organisation’s Great British Beer Festival.
Camra’s campaign was about preserving a great British tradition. It focused, necessarily, on the past. It has been a success; more than 11,000 real ales are now brewed in the UK, accounting for more than 8% of a beer market that has shrunk by a third overall since 1980. But if Camra saved good British beer, many millennial beer drinkers (as likely, now, to be female as male) might also say it stifled it. The rebels of the 70s are now the reactionaries. For young beer drinkers, real ale is, on the whole, what dad drinks.
Many craft beers, including BrewDog’s, do not qualify as real ale under Camra’s strict criteria simply because, although some are served from casks, most come in kegs, bottles and cans, and with added CO2. Passions on both sides of this debate can run high. But for a thrusting young company eager to blow up a traditional market but without anything much in the way of an advertising budget, it seems no controversy – courted or not – that allows you to play the plucky but oppressed newcomer, eager only to get on and do your thing, will do you much harm.
In May 2012, BrewDog was voted Scottish Bar Operator of the Year by the members of the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII). Just before the ceremony, an unidentified staffer from Diageo, the international drinks giant that sponsored the event, allegedly informed the organisers that no further backing would be forthcoming if the award went to BrewDog.
Amid scenes of high farce – the company that was declared the winner declined to collect the award after it saw BrewDog’s name already engraved on the trophy – the multinational was forced to apologise. But BrewDog got to denounce Diageo as “a band of dishonest hammerheads and dumb-ass corporate freaks”, and to affirm that the incident showed “just how scared and jealous the gimp-like establishment are of the craft beer revolutionaries”. Within a few hours, its Twitter hashtag #andthewinnerisnot was trending around the world.
If some of these controversies were thrust upon BrewDog – who cannily took full advantage – others turned out to be rather more cynical. A few months after the spat over the high alcohol content in BrewDog’s Tokyo Imperial stout, it emerged that just one complaint from the public had led to the Portman Group ordering retailers to cease stocking the beer. It had been lodged by a Mr James Watt.
In November, the newly opened BrewDog bar in Soho hosted the launch of Watt’s book, Business for Punks: Break All the Rules, the BrewDog Way. Much beer was drunk, many speeches were made, brimming glasses raised to a company whose success had plainly served all who were present.
Joel Rickett, the book’s publisher at Penguin, told me: “They really are for real. At first, you know, you think they’re just the ultimate hipster company. But then you see they’re not hipsters at all. Nothing like it. You think they’re pulling all these stunts. Then you see it’s not an act. None of it.”
After several hours in their company, it was still no easier to reach a definitive verdict on Watt, Dickie or their unruly creation. They know, clearly, a great deal about beer, and they make it very well, in new and interesting ways. In person, they are civil, engaging, fervent and genuine. And sometimes, at least in public, they do really act like wankers.
Earlier this month, Watt went on a BBC2 programme called Who’s the Boss – in which the staff of a company vote on the hiring for a new job. Unfortunately, Watt decided none of the candidates were suitable for the job (a new area manager for the company’s bars) and attempted to change the position halfway through, with disastrous results. Twitter erupted, as usual: Watt was described, with great schadenfreude, as a “professional arsehole” and the company as “neither controversial or edgy – embarrassing and lame”. (Watt later tweeted: “Well. That was a bit of a disaster. Being completely uncompromising when it comes to recruiting is great for a business. But bad for TV.”)
Watt’s wife, Johanna Basford, whose rise has neatly paralleled his (she is the author and illustrator of a phenomenally successful series of adult colouring books that have so far sold 15m copies) also told me at the launch: “They work harder than anyone I know. James, yes, he does think a bit differently from normal people. He’s not … troubled by self-doubt. But it does all come back to the beer, you know. It’s not for show.”
BrewDog has “this strategy, their so-called punk philosophy,” Mike Benner told me later, on the phone. “But their values are really, genuinely impressive. People want to work for them. It’s not just fluff.”
At the other end of the country, a few days later, in the original and first BrewDog bar, on Gallowgate in Aberdeen, barman Dave Bruce, 32, said he had spent 18 months trying to get a job there. “Actually,” he said, “this is a special company precisely because it gives a shit. Everything it does is about its beers, and its people. OK, it’s a bit over the top sometimes. But I’m super proud to work here.”
In 2014, BrewDog became the first hospitality company with a national footprint to become a living wage employer. The company also rewards, with a pay rise, everyone who passes the beer professionals’ exams run by the US firm Cicerone. (The top grade, Master Cicerone, involves 12 hours of essays plus a blind tasting of 100 beers; nine people in the world have passed it, and two of them work for BrewDog.)
But Business for Punks’ advice on marketing is revealing. Since these days you “cannot control your brand, only influence people’s perceptions of it”, Watt writes, “in today’s interconnected digital world, full of savvy Gen Y consumers, every single thing you do is marketing.” Not having a budget for it is “not a problem. In fact, it’s a massive advantage.”
Traditional advertising is dead, and in any case unaffordable for a small company (“You’d be better off blow-torching your cash,” says Watt). Mass media is “as ignorant as it is irrelevant”. New media is where it’s at. People, Watt writes, “want genuine, they want quality, they want passionate, they want real, they want integrity”. In short, he argues, in the modern era, “The only way to build a brand is to live that brand. You have to live the values and the mission, then let the customer decide.”
But there are signs the BrewDog brand may be growing up. There has not been a serious row with the Portman Group for more than a year now, and relations with Camra appear to have returned to an even keel. (“There’s a place for all good beer, and there are some fantastic cask ales,” Watt told me, diplomatically. “Craft beer isn’t a revolution against real ale.”) Craft beer has, also, become big business – it is even included by the Office of National Statistics in the basket of goods used to calculate inflation in the UK – and BrewDog’s success may mark the end of its angry teenage years, or at least the end of an era in which ostentatiously antagonising the drinks “establishment” was vital to its continued growth.
Which is not to say that it shies away from every fight. In May last year, the world’s second-biggest brewer, SAB Miller, bought Meantime, which began life in 1999 in a flat in Greenwich. Months later, the world’s largest drinks company, Anheuser-Busch InBev – having recently announced plans to take over SAB Miller in a deal worth $70bn – announced that it, too, was buying into the UK craft beer boom, adding to its mighty stable of mass-market brands such as Budweiser, Stella and Beck’s the rather more niche brews of the Camden Town Brewery.
BrewDog, which also sells what it considers the best of many other small, independent craft breweries in its bars, promptly dropped Camden Town. But in true form, Watt didn’t let it go quietly: the BrewDog bar in Camden posted a video on Twitter of a barman pulling the listing for Camden Town lager off its beer list and tossing the letters on the floor. “We will not,” Watt declared, “sell beers made by AB InBev. And BrewDog will never sell out to some monolithic drinks giant. Not ever. Mega corporations care about costs, market share, dividends, valuations. They don’t care about beer.”
Fazit: Hipster oder Bierverrückte - das ist hier die Frage.