Signifiers

Born To Survive – On Brewdog’s Beginnings, Growth and Coming to America

“Fuck no.” Earlier that day, an assembled throng of beer bloggers, writers and communicators had learned that industry giant SAB Miller had purchased London’s Meantime Brewery. One of our group decides to ask Brewdog Co-Founder and Managing Director James Watt, who is sitting before us, if he’d ever do the same. In a split second he’s on his feet and lunging towards us. “Fuck. No.” He repeats himself to reiterate his point. Critics may frown and say that the Scottish Brewery has lost the punk ethos that it was founded upon, but Watt still seems to be bursting at the seams with it.

Back in 2007 no one had heard of James Watt or his business partner and Brewdog co-founder, Martin Dickie. The pair became friends while at High School in Peterhead, a fishing town in the Northeast of Scotland. Watt himself comes from a family with a successful trawler business. As students, the pair shared a flat in Edinburgh and while Watt studied Law and Economics, Dickie attended the prestigious school of brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University. 

Everyone has got an opinion about us and it’s not always positive, but I think it’s easy to hold that opinion from a distance
— James Watt

For a time they went their separate ways and Dickie secured a job at a new brewery called Thornbridge based in Derbyshire, England. It was here that Dickie, along with his colleague Stefano Cossi, developed a recipe for an IPA called Jaipur. With its 5.9% ABV and modest 55 IBU’s it may seem tame to some American palates, as it does to many in Britain today. By now, Jaipur is an accomplished beer in its own right, but perhaps more importantly it became the prototype for the beer that Brewdog would build its brand upon — Punk IPA.

While at Thornbridge, Dickie was able to experiment with his recipes and play with new world hop varieties that inspired and excited him, such as the scarce New Zealand hop Nelson Sauvin. In 2005, at a showcase of Thornbridge beers in London, Dickie had the fortune to meet the esteemed, late beer writer Michael Jackson. After tasting his beers, an impressed Jackson gave Dickie the words of encouragement he would need to start his own venture. It clearly had an effect, as in 2006 Dickie quit his job at Thornbridge and moved back to Scotland. Here, he and Watt began homebrewing, while at the same time developing what would turn out to be an incredibly successful business plan. 

We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. I prefer to concentrate on our successes rather than our failures.
— James Watt

After cobbling together their savings along with a loan from the local council, Brewdog opened for business on a small industrial estate in the town of Fraserburg in November 2006. Founders of well-established US breweries have often remarked that their beers were inspired by trips to traditional British pubs and their first taste of ‘real ale.’ It seems in some way fitting that around three decades since the US spawned what we now know as "Craft Beer" that our roles have reversed. Drawing inspiration from breweries on the US West Coast, most notably Stone Brewing and Ballast Point of San Diego, Brewdog began to develop the kind of hop forward beers that in 2006 were almost unheard of in the UK.

When it launched, Punk IPA was a riot of mango, grapefruit and pineapple flavours. I remember my first taste of it on cask at a pub in Hammersmith, West London and thinking that I was finally tasting a British beer that’s as good as those I drank Stateside. It wasn’t just their beer that borrowed its ethos from San Diego’s finest though. Their label copy bawled with arrogance: “It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to appreciate the depth, character or quality of this premium craft brewed beer.” It bore more than just a hint of resemblance to the marketing spiel of one Stone Brewing Company. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Greg Koch embraced Watt and Dickie’s emulation and became a friend and mentor to the fledgling Brewdog. 

This style of in-your-face marketing gradually began to turn young, impressionable drinkers away from mass-produced Euro lagers and on to something with real flavor. But it wasn’t appreciated by all of the UK beer scene. In 2011 after initially agreeing to showcase their beers, the Campaign for Real Ales (CAMRA), and their Great British Beer Festival focused on cask-conditioned ales, rejected Brewdog and informed them that they would not be permitted to serve keg beer. Brewdog’s reaction was the type that their followers had become accustomed to. They rejected cask conditioned beer altogether, instead choosing to focus solely on keg. This was almost unheard of for a small British brewery — cask beer was a microbrewer's lifeblood — but Brewdog were no longer a micro and were already beginning to open their own chain of keg only, US inspired bars.

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Brewdog were now growing at an exponential rate and despite investment from San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company they were still not making enough to sustain this growth. Watt and Dickie had nefariously wrangled themselves a deal to stock their beer in the UK’s largest chain of supermarkets. They were unable to produce the massive volumes of beer required and so began contracting some of their production to one Meantime Brewery of London. They needed to build a new brewery and they needed to raise cash fast. In a post-recession market no bank would fund them and so they decided to look elsewhere for investment, their fans. 

Thanks to its aggressive and attitude-driven marketing, Brewdog had built an army of passionate, evangelical craft beer drinkers that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. The concept behind a scheme named ‘Equity For Punks’ was that anyone could invest in the brewery starting from as little as £95 ($150). Perks ranged from lifetime discounts in its bars to cases of limited release beers delivered to your home. It was a resounding success and soon work began on building a new brewery at a five and a half acre site in the town of Ellon, a few miles north of Aberdeen. Equity For Punks, which is now open for a fourth round of investment, has since gone on to become one of the largest and most successful crowdfunding schemes in the world.

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way,” remarks Watt to the assembled group. I immediately jump on this and ask him which of these mistakes he regrets the most. “I prefer to concentrate on our successes rather than our failures,” he says with a knowing smile, dodging the question effortlessly, almost politician-like in his cunning. The soft-spoken Watt can seem a little pensive but carefully absorbs each question fired at him and takes plenty of time to consider his answer before speaking. In contrast, Dickie, who prefers to let his partner do most of the talking, is relaxed to the point of looking exhausted. This isn’t surprising—the pair have been traveling around the world filming season three of their own TV show, Brew Dogs, on top of running what has now become the fastest growing food and drinks company in the UK. Adding to this, both Watt and Dickie have recently become fathers.

We’re presented with Brewdog’s latest beer, Born To Die, an 8.5% Double IPA that proudly bares the beer's drink-by date in large typography at the center of its label. It’s a riff on Stone’s immensely popular ‘Enjoy By’ series and, like much of their activity, is done so with Greg Koch’s blessing. Brewdog now exclusively distributes Stone beer in the UK but they still wanted to be able to offer an incredibly fresh, hop-forward beer to their customers that hasn’t been shipped halfway around the world first. The beer is boisterous and nuanced at the same time, waves of mango and pine aroma can be taken in from a foot away. Its massive bitterness is hidden by lashings of dry hopping. It’s not as sweet as Enjoy By, instead having a bone-dry finish that’s characteristic of British interpretations of American IPA. 

With Equity for Punks we’ll be able to build a world class distillery and start producing our own vodka, gin, and eventually whisky.
— Martin Dickie

Overlooking the 100 Hectoliter brewhouse is their mantra, lit in giant neon so you can see it from wherever you stand: “Love Hops and Live the Dream.” Every spare inch of wall and even the tanks themselves are a canvas for eye-catching graffiti. There are sharks, sea monsters, and cats in military uniform standing to attention. To some onlookers it may appear brash, pointless or even juvenile but if you look a little closer, a passionate story reveals itself. Every drop of spray paint on the walls is meant to drip with an energy and permeates the brewery’s staff and every drop of beer.

“Every penny that gets invested by our Equity Punks goes straight back into the brewery and towards making better beer,” Watt tells us before we’re led on a tour of the brewery. Amid the neon and graffiti is a vast network of steel and chrome. Hidden amongst an increasingly large army of various pipes and tanks a centrifuge whirrs away. A bottling line throws off Punk IPA at a rate that would be commonplace in many American craft breweries. Here in the UK, this kind of volume for such a young brewery is genuinely astounding. Brewdog has spent so long attempting to emulate the American craft breweries they idolize that they’re beginning to look just like one.

Where the main brewery is a hive of activity, not just brewing, but buzzing with contractors beginning the construction of a brand new, 300 Hectoliter brewhouse, the barrel room is a place of relative tranquility. We’re met by Cellar Manager John Allen in an off-site warehouse that contains some 300 plus barrels of aging beer. Allen and Dickie siphon a beer from a bourbon cask, a strong golden ale that’s been in oak for three years. It stuns me with its Oloroso Sherry-like quality and leads me to ask Dickie about his next project, opening a distillery.

“Distilling has always been my main passion,” he says. “With Equity for Punks we’ll be able to build a world class distillery and start producing our own vodka, gin, and eventually, whisky.” In addition to the distillery their ambitious plans include opening their own hotel and heading to the US to build a brewery in Columbus, Ohio.  

With Equity for Punks IV, plus further considerable investment from Anchor, Brewdog are pushing to raise the funds that will transform them into a truly global brand. In craft beer, that means having a strong, visible presence in the US. Brewdog already has strong links with many US breweries including Stone, Oskar Blues, and the aforementioned Anchor, but in order to put more of their own beer into US hands they’re determined to start brewing Stateside. But why Ohio? 

“Within 500 miles of Columbus you’ve got half the American population, so distribution-wise it makes a lot of sense,” Watt explains. “We wanted to go East Cost because it’s easier for our staff to get to from Scotland and it’s slightly less saturated with the type of beers that we make.” 

You get the sense that Columbus is only the start of Watt’s plans for Brewdog in North America. You only have to look at their rapid expansion in Europe to see how this could pan out. A decade from now you could well be sat in a Brewdog bar on the Californian coast, sipping a fresh Born to Die IPA. 

 “Everyone has got an opinion about us and it’s not always positive, but I think it’s easy to hold that opinion from a distance,” Watt says. Soon, the US will get to form an opinion of its very own. No longer will Brewdog be judged by the tired imports gathering dust on liquor store shelves, but by fresh, exciting beers being brewed on home soil.

Here in the UK, we are regularly the victim of tired imports, a shipment of five-month-old beer from 21st Amendment and Deschutes being a recent example. Despite the beer's age, UK beer lovers still relished the opportunity to taste Brew Free or Die and "Fresh" Squeezed IPA, because American craft beer is so highly regarded over here. Brewdog have been excited to do the same, desperate for their brand to be successful in the US, just as its breweries have been here in the UK.  

Has the US already had its fill of the brash, in your face marketing schemes that Brewdog has built its brand on though? America’s craft beer market is considerably more mature than that of the UK and Brewdog, both in terms of scale and culture, and many upstarts are tempering their aggressive language and striving for sophistication and artistry instead. More than ever before, Brewdog may well have to balance their passion with poise. 

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis is a British beer writer and photographer based in London, England, giving GBH a unique perspective on the British Craft Beer scene. He is the creator of Total Ales

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