The discreet charm offensive of the BrewDoggies

Casks at the Fraserburgh breweryThere is, I suggest, a thick slice of what the Irish call begrudgery in the responses around the British beerosphere to the success of BrewDog. Here are these young guys, starting in their early 20s, who managed in a few years to build one of the best-known and fastest-growing breweries in Britain, worth on the order of £10m, in part through a series of stunts including reporting themselves to the drinks industry watchdog just for the publicity, selling beer at £500 a pop in bottles that had been stuffed into dead animals, and calling the Advertising Standards Authority “motherfuckers”.

Martin Dickie and James Watt now have their beers on bar and supermarket shelves not just in Britain but around the world, a growing and increasingly international chain of bars of their own, and even their own American TV show, FFS, now entering its second series. Uniquely among British brewers, Dickie and Watt have made a huge success of crowd-sourced funding, raising around £9m from some 14,000 customer-investors to fund their extremely impressive growth (that’s about £650 an investor, to save you working it out). Around 5,000 of those investors are expected to make the trip to Aberdeen this summer for the BrewDog AGM. You wouldn’t be the first to suggest that it’s Kool-Aid rather than Punk IPA they’ll be drinking.

While their fan base is clearly considerable, and happy to hand over lots of its cash, you certainly won’t search long to find vicious criticism of BrewDog on the web: “BrewDog are horrible marketing-type suit people who make terrible beer”; “a lot of juvenile rhetoric, devious marketing stunts and grotesquely cynical ‘punk’ references”; “There’s absolutely nothing ‘punk’ about Brewdog. We’re sick and tired of their shit marketing and faux-persecution complex … their beer is total shite.”; “shallow, arrogant hyperbolic fuckwits”; “Next to a genuinely class brewery like Beavertown or The Kernel, BrewDog are an embarrassment … Punk IPA – a truly dreadful beer … they’re a successful marketing company who happen to use beer labels as their medium, rather than a genuine craft brewery” – you’re getting the picture.

There is, of course, a simple answer to all that criticism: you say that, but you don’t have 14,000 investors and your own American TV show, and nor are your marketing tactics being used as case studies for other businesses.

I’ve had disagreements with BrewDog myself, but I’ve always thought that Dickie and Watt had no reason to care about what I thought, any more than they would be bothered by any of their other critics: if some people don’t like their beers and their marketing tactics, a more-than-sufficiency of others do. So I was surprised to be approached by the company and asked if I’d like to join nine other beer bloggers and writers from as far away as Finland, Norway and France to be flown to Aberdeen, taken round the 13-month-old Ellon brewery and beered and dined at BrewDog’s expense. Were BrewDog on a charm offensive? Apparently so: last week they flew up a load of journalists who had written about BrewDog in the past, for a similar jolly, which resulted in, eg, this review in the Morning Advertiser. But why woo me? According to Alexa, this blog ranks number 32,360 among UK websites: that’s really not very influential.

But, hey, I like looking around breweries at other people’s expense, even if it means having to get up at 4am to drive to Gatwick for a flight on the EasyJet red-eye. And yes, I was interested in meeting Dickie and Watt, probably the finest guerrilla marketers currently operating in Britain (and easily the best guerrilla marketers the British brewing industry has ever seen). I don’t know how much they actually spend on marketing, but I doubt it’s a huge amount, which makes their ability to generate column inches all over the world from apparently tangential events quite brilliant – come on, what other British brewer do you know who could get stories in newspapers from Sweden to Thailand publicising their new beer launch?

Stainless Steel for Punks: the lovely shiny kit inside BrewDog's Ellon brewery

Stainless Steel for Punks: the lovely shiny kit inside BrewDog’s Ellon brewery

Still, if it isn’t ultimately about the beer, what is it? And I have to say that I came away from Ellon having seen the shiny big new brewery, and the rather less shiny, very much smaller original BrewDog brewery in Fraserburgh, having tasted large amounts of BrewDog beer, having heard Dickie and Watt talk about their vision, and having been given an excellent beer-and-food matching evening at Watt’s Aberdeen restaurant-cum-arts venue Musa, feeling that the hype almost certainly was secondary: that for Dickie and Watt the beer definitely does come first, and the marketing is there merely to promote the beer.

I think what probably finally persuaded me of that was discussing the brewery’s “hop cannon”, which fires 20 kilos of hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks, as BrewDog’s take on dry-hopping. Each 600-hectolitre conditioning tank gets 600 kilograms of dry hopping. The hidden cost is that 600kg of dry hops will soak up 20 per cent of the beer in the tank while it is releasing all those yummy resins and flavourings. That’s 120 hectolitres – 73 barrels – of beer that has to be, effectively, thrown away (although those used hops get used by the farmers of Aberdeenshire to fertilise their fields). In other words, BrewDog wastes (if you want to look at it like that) more beer a week than many other micros brew. If you’re prepared to sacrifice a fifth of your production to ensure you don’t sacrifice any of the taste you’re after, hey – you’re putting the beer first. And I have to say that I didn’t have a bad beer on the trip, while at least one, the new AB15, a 12 per cent abv imperial stout with added salt caramel, aged in both rum and bourbon casks, was exceptional, a lovely salty-sweet brew with huge depth of flavour.

The mural on the wall of the Ellon brewery lab office

The mural on the wall of the Ellon brewery lab office

The new brewery may have wacky murals and exhortatory neon slogans on the walls, but its kit smacks of no-expense-spared: the brewery lab has a machine that will check the precise levels of diacetyl in the beer, for example, which saves on the time and trouble of having to send samples away for analysis and speeds up decision-making on whether a beer has reached maturity. A new water treatment plant has been installed, which will allow precise levels of oxygen to be maintained in the brewing water. BrewDog is the biggest buyer of Nelson Sauvin hops in the world. The brewery can currently produce 100,000 hectolitres of beer, with room to expand to 250,000hl – 150,000 barrels. In the new warehouse, pallets are stacked with ekegs and bottles to be shipped to more than 40 different countries: Greece, Sweden, Thailand, Belarus and so on. “Their beer is total shite”? I’m sorry, sir, there appear to be an awful lot of people who don’t agree.

Photo Gallery

Martin Dickie, beer evangelist, loving hops and living the dream

Martin Dickie, beer evangelist, loving hops and living the dream

BrewDog's head brewer, Stewart Bowman, with obligatory American Brewer's Beard

BrewDog’s head brewer, Stewart Bowman, with obligatory American Brewer’s Beard

The CO2-powered hop cannon, which fires 20kg of dry hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks

The CO2-powered hop cannon, which fires 20kg of dry hops at a time into the beer conditioning tanks

Draining yeast from a fermenting vessel

Draining yeast from a fermenting vessel

Among the fermenting vessels at the Ellon brewery

Among the fermenting vessels at the Ellon brewery

Safety for Punks: the emergency eyewash station at the BrewDog brewery

Safety for Punks: the emergency eyewash station The brewer’s sink at the BrewDog brewery – see comment below by MikeS for a fuller explanation

More underwater-themed murals for punks ...

More underwater-themed murals for punks …

A warning against the sharks of the brewing world, perhaps ...

A warning against the sharks of the brewing world, perhaps …

Personalised viewing port on a copper at the brewery

Personalised viewing port on a copper at the brewery

Where the Bismark is sunk: James Watt shows off the freezer container where beers such as Sink the Bismark are freeze-distilled for months to get to the high levels of alcohol required

Where the Bismark is sunk: James Watt shows off the freezer container where beers such as Sink the Bismark are freeze-distilled for months to get to the high levels of alcohol required

Two of dozens, at least, of former whisky, bourbon and rum casks at the brewery, filled with maturing beer

Two of dozens, at least, of former whisky, bourbon and rum casks at the brewery, filled with maturing beer

The bottling line

The bottling line

Beer in the warehouse, waiting to go abroad

Beer in the warehouse, waiting to go abroad

Breakfast Stout in the BrewDog tasting room

Breakfast Stout in the BrewDog tasting room

Chandeliers for Punks: bottles hanging from the ceiling in the BrewDog Brewery reception

Chandeliers for Punks: bottles hanging from the ceiling in the BrewDog Brewery reception

Delivery vans for Punks: outside the Ellon brewery entrance

Delivery vans for Punks: outside the Ellon brewery entrance

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25 thoughts on “The discreet charm offensive of the BrewDoggies

  1. Excellent report, nicely balanced. From a North American vantage point, I’d say these guys took the West Coast Stone-style irreverence and ran with it. In fact they outdo anything we have when it comes to the flash and froth (sorry), but in general the beers are very good. Punk IPA is a classic American Pale Ale/India Pale Ale, an Anchor Liberty Ale for our time (while the elder remains very valid on its own terms).

    BrewDog in business terms is reminiscent of some of Richard Branson’s tactics, the brash and out there style. It’s good, it adds colour and they’ve had an undeniable influence. My only comments qua the brewskis: hold the salt caramel, great Impy stout doesn’t need it.

    Gary

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  2. I’ve had a few of their beers. I wouldn’t call them shit but I have had considerably better. Very non-balanced. Particularly the Hardcore IPA. If your wife is cooking something you don’t like and you don’t want to piss her off, take a few sips of this before the meal or if the meal really sucks, drink this during the meal. It will wreck your palate and you won’t taste anything but bitterness.

    I’ve had the Dead Pony a couple times. Once it was really good the next it was fairly unbalanced and the bitterness and cat piss and vegetative taste overpowered the beer which is a Session Beer. Could of been a difference in handling or ambient climate at the time it was shipped over on the boat. Dunno. One reason I stick to USA brewed beer. Not because I’m ‘Merican but because we have absolutely great brewers here.

    This is a very good article though although it sounds like the free trip somewhat swayed the write up. It comes across like a tour guide was recorded during a tour and transcribed into the article. I’ll give Brew Dog props though. They must be doing something right to sell all that beer.

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    • It’s an extremely impressive-looking brewery, and as a business graduate I do actually admire the marketing, and also their growth. I haven’t liked all their beers, but the ones I tasted on the trip were, indeed, all good. “It comes across like a tour guide was recorded during a tour and transcribed into the article” – really? We’ll have to disagree on that one, I’m afraid. Trust me, if I was going to do fanboy, it would be much more over the top.

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  3. An American television show requires only someone willing to demean themselves and act the fool while making the viewer feel superior. I cite “Honey Boo Boo” and “Duck Dynasty” as evidence.

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  4. I find this a useful reminder that if you don’t have the quality product, you’re screwed. But also, if you don’t have marketing, no-one will hear about it. Marketing can be stealth, or in your face, or corporate bullshit, but it seems that you have to include it in a major way in your business plan.

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  5. All that beer wasted in soggy hops from the hop cannon makes me weep! My solution? Press the beer out of the hops, distill it (or have it distilled for you – they’re in Sweaty Sock land after all!), and voila – marc de biere! My idea – bagsy bottles 1-12!

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      • You say that like it’s a bad thing!

        Warming to these guys myself. They’re not “punks” by any means, nor are their creepy Apple-like cult fanclub, but there are some thoroughly decent beers in the range (the Old World Imperial Stout springs to mind). The new shop in London is rather special too.

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  6. Say what you want, if you like it or not, their marketing have worked.
    But marketing insures in my opinion just the first sales, the drinkability insures a re-buy from the consumer. Which I think BrewDog have.
    I am not very impressed with their guerilla marketing, which made a huge brewers accomplishment to make the highest alcoholic beer that was naturally fermented in the world, into a stupid marketing gimmic. It seemed to me a bit undignified. But like you said, they don`t care about one single individuals thoughts in cases like this, neither should they.

    I have a huge respect for what they have accomplished, and what they are still doing to create new craftbeer drinkers, and that is to me the most important thing.

    I enjoyed reading this post, as I do with most of what you write. I am sure you now have set the bar from this visit with this post, and I look forward to seeing what our Swedish and Norwegian beer writers post.

    Cheers from Norway.

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    • The punk thing makes more sense if you think in terms of Malcolm McLaren rather than Crass or Black Flag – there’s the genuine desire to radically reignite a culturally moribund scene that conveniently just happens to coincide with an opportunity to sell an absolute shedload of Product.

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      • This was also going to be my comment. “There’s absolutely nothing ‘punk’ about Brewdog”. There is. Their product isn’t as inept as Sex Pistol’s music, but they’re equally good at making noise and get noticed :)

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        • Since beer and rock and roll go together, permit a dissenting view: Never Mind The Bollocks is one of the great albums in rock history. The guitars are very well played and produced, the singing was revolutionary for the time and very good for what it was, and the rhythm section is just fine, Steve Jones did much of the bass work anyway, apparently. The lyrics and melodies are hardly amateurish. I would rate no other punk band as good, and the much-lauded Clash, say, deserve the inept epithet far more than the Pistols. (Train In Vain was good though, they had learned a bit by then).

          The use of notable social phenomena to make business seem new and relevant is age-old. Hippie fashion, which seems to recur every second year, is an example. There is nothing wrong with this, that’s how our system works. Better than a command economy telling what I can buy. BrewDog can lay more claim though than many others to borrowing something of the spirit of punk, which was inclusiveness and giving a voice to people out of the mainstream – their crowdfunding techniques were an example, self-serving of course as almost every human endeavor is.

          Gary

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            • Thank you Martin, and I wasn’t the right generation either. I was 26 when Never Mind The Bollocks came out, a little old for yet another encounter with rock greatness. But the first time I heard that record I said, this is superb, this will be remembered 40 years hence and I was right. Just as an example of John Lydon’s depth, listen to the actual lyric of No Feelings – it isn’t about the Queen, it isn’t about politics, it isn’t about class or getting zonked on a “new drug”: it is about basic morality. Not to take away from the other things he did, but right there you see the measure of the man, a mere 18 or so when he laid it down. He can do all the butter commercials he wants, he deserves the payday he never got when he should have.

              Gary

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  7. Despite what anyone may say about their products you’ve got to admire Brewdog’s sheer balls – and be grateful that they’re encouraging new punters to dip a toe into the world of “craft” beer (…and no, I don’t want to have *that* argument, either…)

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  8. I’m just starting to learn a bit more about these guys and their brewery. I’ve obviously heard of them. You’d have to live under a rock not to have, but have never dug in for my own personal education. Now that their beers are reentering the Portland market due to their expansion, plus the fact that they were here filming for their show, I’m adding them to the drinking rotation. For me that’s the real test, the beer, as I think it is for you as well. Yesterday I had their Libertine, marking the first time I’ve tried one of their beers. It was not short on flavor, that’s for sure. I’ll be posting a review of it eventually.

    Great write up of your adventure, sounds like a fun trip and a great opportunity.

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  9. The quality of their beer is generally pretty good imo, but that kind of misses the point. The thing that really matters has been their ability to get the craft beer message across to a young, mainstream audience. They blew a hole into the mainstream through which other craft breweries are still only just sticking their heads.

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  10. Good write-up, Martyn – I read yours, Adrian’s and Tandleman’s stories with interest. I was invited on this trip too, but couldn’t get the time away from work at the moment. Would I have gone? Yeah, why not? BD still manage to stir discussion like no other brewery in the UK, judging by comments on here and other blogs. I really don’t see anything wrong with inviting press/bloggers to ‘media days’, and it’s not as if 90% of other breweries do it, too. I think the cynicism stems from BD’s past PR efforts, and that this new ‘cuddly’ approach seems like an about-face. I see it as partly that, partly the business growing up. As you rightly state, BD are – like it or not – a hugely successful company. Bars, year on year profits, leading the wave of turning younger people onto beer (which I really think they do). And to top it off, decent beer – although that wasn’t the case for a little while a few years ago, when the growth was clearly out of control.
    I don’t think some quarters will ever see them as legit for personal – even cultural – reasons, but they do produce consistently good beer compared to some other ‘sacred’ craft set-ups. This new openness (which, by the way, has always been there – I’ve never been met with anything other than openness when dealing with BD or their staff) is simply the start of the next phase of BD development….pulling away from ‘Punk’ and concentrating, perhaps – hopefully – on brewing good beer and bringing it to their audience.
    Interesting stuff.

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  11. Pingback: Cervejóide #42: Crowdfunding, Dia das IPAs da Colorado, Lager em Barril de Whisky e mais… | Factóide!

  12. Interesting, indeed.

    Late to the party here, but one clarification (pun intended) on a photo caption:

    The “eye wash station” is actually a brewer’s sink and is part of the brewhouse. The angled bit on the right is part of the plumbing between the lauter tun and the brew kettle. The round sight glass is backlit so the brewer can judge the clarity/color of the run-off. The faucet allows the brewer to pull a sample of the run-off to test its gravity or pH. The vertical stainless bit on the left is a water bath to cool the wort samples quickly in order to get a hydrometer reading.

    And, like any horizontal surface in a brewery, it quickly becomes a catch-all for lots of other random bits!

    Regarding the loss of beer from dry hops: While it is true that dry hops absorb a lot of beer, a brewery of BrewDog’s size and technical sophistication undoubtedly uses a centrifuge to reclaim a good portion of that beer.

    Cheers- Mike

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