Brown's beer: How a small Scottish brewer is disrupting the market

In his first column of the year Pete Brown explains why it is that his Stella drinking mum has heard of BrewDog

If you ever read anything about beer at all, chances are you will have heard of Scottish brewer BrewDog. 

Let me put it another way: my mum lives in Barnsley. She has no interest in beer beyond the fact that I write about it, and a fondness for necking a few cans of Stella. And when I go home to visit, she’ll say, “I see BrewDog have been in the news again.”

It’s a remarkable feat for a brewery still shy of its fifth birthday (really, it is, if you’ve ever met my mum) founded and run by two blokes who are still (or were just recently) still in their twenties. 

BrewDog’s infamy is based on headline grabbing stunts and outrageous beers: they spent a couple of years in a race to brew the world’s strongest beer: Tokyo* was an 18% Imperial Stout that took on whisky and brandy and fared pretty well, but was still shy of the then record holder, the wonderful Utopias from America’s Samuel Adams. 

BrewDog soon trumped that with ‘Tactical Nuclear Penguin’ (32% ABV), a beer they recommended to be ‘enjoyed in small servings and with an air of aristocratic nonchalance. In exactly the same manner that you would enjoy a fine whisky, a Frank Zappa album or a visit from a friendly yet anxious ghost.’

“BrewDog’s arrival was thrilling for all who witnessed it, a breath of fresh air in an industry that needed to open the windows” 

Almost as soon as it hit the shelves, however, a German brewery trumped them with a stronger beer, so the boys responded in typical fashion with ‘Sink the Bismarck’ (41% ABV). 

When this was again beaten, BrewDog’s final word, appropriately titled ‘The End of History’ (55% - yes, 55% ABV) came packaged in the taxidermied bodies of cute roadkill.

These beers, along with such stunts as complaining to industry regulatory body, the Portman Group, about the label copy on their own bottles, upsetting large brewers by creating posters showing a bottle of BrewDog beer standing proud above the smashed remains of leading mainstream brands, their labels clearly visible, and hiring a punk dwarf to lobby Parliament, have gained legions of young beer drinking fans who view the founders – ‘Captain’ James Watt and head brewer Martin Dickie – as rock stars rather than brewers. 

They also upset the brewing establishment, but that was the whole point of course. 

But between the acolytes and the establishment, there’s the broader market of curious drinkers who want interesting beers – and people like me, who follow and commentate on the industry.

BrewDog’s arrival was thrilling for everyone who witnessed it, a breath of fresh air in an industry that needed to open the windows. But when every missive from BrewDog seemed to be another childish stunt, some people grew weary, and the backlash set in.

It’s been a couple of years now since that backlash, and BrewDog – though they would hate me for saying this and pricking their cool – are growing up. 

Behind the bluster, penguin costumes and sometimes very funny, sometimes smug YouTube videos, there are two very important things about BrewDog that many people forgot: one, Martin Dickie is an absolutely gifted young brewer, one of the best in the country. And two, James Watt is a natural and very clever entrepreneur.  

“With any business, the retail end of it is where you touch, smell, hear and see the brand as well as just tasting it. It’s where promises are broken and reputations made”

BrewDog have been very busy. They’re pioneering a radical new business model, ‘Equity for Punks’, which gives their fans a stake in the business and raises money for expansion. They’re selling 65 per cent of their volume abroad – surely a success story for British industry. 

In November they were named Scottish Business of the Year. And they’ve steadily been building up a chain of their own branded bars in key cities across the country. 

Just before Christmas, BrewDog London opened its doors in Camden (obviously), heralded by the boys arriving in an armoured tank (naturally). 

The opening night was a typically BrewDog affair – tutored tastings of the beer range saw James Watt throwing handfuls of barley, oats, hops, nuts and chocolate in the audience’s faces, and one beer that had to be tasted from behind a fetching leopard-print blindfold.  Many of those super-strength beers were available for sampling – in third of a pint glasses of course.

I’m glad London has its first BrewDog bar (there are strong suggestions it won’t be the last). With any business, the retail end of it is where you touch, smell, hear and see the brand as well as just tasting it. It’s where promises are broken and reputations made. And for any sceptic, BrewDog’s bars offer a pleasant surprise.

Broadly speaking, I’m an occasionally disappointed fan of BrewDog rather than a critic who occasionally, grudgingly admires them. 

But I’m in my forties now. I’ve got a bit of a belly, and while some beards are hip, mine isn’t. 

Before I first visited my first BrewDog bar, I suspected the place, its staff and clientele would be a little too cool for school, and I’d be conspicuous as an ageing square.

Not a bit of it.

Enter a BrewDog bar and you’re reminded that this is a company that is truly passionate about great-tasting beer, from the top to the bottom. Obviously their own brands are front and centre, but they also stock other interesting and eclectic beers that you’ll struggle to find in many other places. 

Yes, the staff are young and hip – but crucially, they are as friendly and welcoming as they are passionate about the beers they sell. That’s the thing if you’re a brand that makes people genuinely passionate – the ones that want to come and work for you want to live the brand, to manifest it and be a part of it. 

If you’ve ever been served in a pub by someone who is clearly bored of your presence, knows nothing about the beer they’re serving and feels perfectly comfortable projecting their boredom – in other words, if you’ve ever been in a pub – you’ll find the staff at BrewDog a wonderful surprise. 

There have been occasions – during a slow period, admittedly – when I’ve had different members of staff thrusting tasters at me, competing to try and get me to buy their personal favourite beers. 

On opening night, even the beardy old CAMRA man at the end of the bar, outraged because there were no cask beers available, later emailed me to say he’d found some of the stronger bottled beers to be wonderful. 

Whatever your tastes in beer, as well as being a fascinating business model and branding case study, BrewDog Camden is a brilliant addition to London’s pub and bar scene.

See you there.

BrewDog Camden is at 113 Bayham Street, London, NW1 0AG

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com.  He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

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