There 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?
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 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.