Mixing water, malt, yeast and hops with a liberal splash of punk spirit, BrewDog is on a mission to cure the ills of the commercial beer market. Richard Holmes caught up co-founder, James Watt, to find out why an independent brewery in north east Scotland is shaking up the establishment...
“A long overdue antidote to the swathes of mass-marketed brands and fizzy, yellow lagers polluting the palate of beer drinkers.” Reading BrewDog’s marketing bumph, you’re left in no doubt of its views on the mainstream beer market.
But although the brewery has a punky, irreverent attitude, creates drinks called Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Trashy Blonde and has a name inspired by a labrador (described as its ‘head taster’), the firm is deadly serious about creating high quality craft beers.
Founded in Fraserburgh, Scotland in 2007 by friends James Watt and Martin Dickie, BrewDog is now Scotland’s largest independent brewery. Its beers can be found on the shelves of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda, and are available in 27 different countries.
Last year, James and Martin jointly won the Young Business Leader of the Year Award in the Scottish Leadership Awards, to add to their previous triumphs in the HSBC Start Up Awards and National Business Awards in Scotland. And their Hardcore IPA won Gold at the 2010 Beer World Cup in Chicago – “a huge accolade” according to James.
BrewDog is now making inroads into the licensed trade. In April, it opened its sixth bar, on Newcastle’s Dean Street, following successful launches in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Camden and Nottingham over the last two years.
“Newcastle was the busiest opening day we’ve had to date, we were very happy with how it went,” reveals James. “We love the city – it has a good beer culture.”
So why did James and Martin, both 24 at the time, decide to launch a brewery? “It was just a case that we couldn’t find beer we wanted to buy, all the beers were the same and no one was focused that much on taste, quality and flavour,” explains James, who says that the pair were inspired by a new wave of craft breweries, such as Stone, from the US west coast. “We quit our jobs, got a bank loan...and started making beers!”
BrewDog takes pride in using simple, natural ingredients, with water, malt, hops and yeast at their core, and rails against the ‘junk’ used by mainstream, industrial brewers.
The hops, it says, act as a natural preservative, so there’s no need to filter or pasteurize its beers to achieve a longer shelf life. And the brewery only uses brown glass in the bottling process – the wavelengths of light which penetrate clear and green glass cause beer “to become old, skunky and off very quickly”.
BrewDog may be independent and flying the flag for high quality beer, but that’s where the similarity with many UK microbreweries ends. “Small beer companies in the UK tend to be quite stuffy and old fashioned,” claims James. “We wanted to get away from the CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) thing and do something a bit younger, a bit edgier. Something that was more ‘punk’ in terms of our packaging and positioning.
“Our flagship beer is called Punk IPA and we like to think our beers have the same attitude to the incumbents of the beer market that the original punks had to pop culture. A modern day rebellion against beers that are bland, tasteless and mass-produced.”
The brewery has certainly rattled a few cages. The 2009 launch of Tokyo, an 18.2 per cent stout, saw the company slammed by Alcohol Focus Scotland – BrewDog responded by saying that people would appreciate its flavour more and so drink less of it.
The brewery’s Sink The Bismark, incidentally, is the UK’s strongest ale... at 41 per cent.
The company also successfully campaigned for the right to sell beer in two thirds of a pint measures, or ‘schooners’, which BrewDog believes can be better suited for certain craft beers. A 300-year-old law was overturned in the process.
And when, in the midst of a recession, the brewery needed to raise additional finance, it launched an innovative, IFA approved fundraising model: Equity For Punks.
Investors – and the firm has many fans – could buy shares in BrewDog via its website, and by the close of 2011, nearly £2.2 million had been raised, with 7000 shareholders registered. James describes it as BrewDog’s “best moment so far”.
But in the early days, the brewery had to work hard to convert drinkers to its beers.
James recalls: “The biggest challenge was trying to convince people that there was an alternative to the mainstream beers that dominated the market, and they could drink beers for the experience and the flavour, not just the effects.”
But according to the co-founder, by opening up its own bars – which sell the brewery’s own creations – BrewDog has helped to overcome this mindset: “We want to get people excited about the quality, the diversity, the way that hand made beers are put together.
"The bar in Aberdeen (which opened in 2010) was a way to communicate with people, to let them enjoy the beers and learn about the beers. That is why we are expanding that side of the business."
He concludes: "We make sure all the bar staff are passionate and evangelical about beer. The whole reason we exist as a company and everything we do just comes back to one overarching mission: to make people as passionate about craft beers as we are."