Brew Britannia breweries

BrewDog in 2022: tarnished but complicated

The BBC has released a podcast series, The Good Ship BrewDog, which over the course of six episodes tackles everything from the bro culture at HQ to allegations of bullying and harassment.

This got us talking about BrewDog – what’s their status in the beer world in 2022? And why haven’t we felt moved to boycott them, or remove their bar from our Bristol pub guide?

It turns out we don’t have a neat party line on this and so, for the first time in a while, we thought we’d share something like the raw text of our debate.


My first question is why exactly the BBC is going into this level of detail about the running of one particular business. There’s some shocking stuff in the podcast but lots of it also just sounds like how a lot of businesses are run.


I guess it’s partly that it’s a BBC Scotland production. BrewDog is prominent in the UK and worldwide but in Scotland it’s a really significant business. But, yes, I agree that this does feel a bit unusual. Especially when you get five minutes dedicated to James Watts’s annoying ‘Imperial March’ door jingle.


Yeah, what’s the point there?


That he’s an autocrat who imposes his will, not a cool team player, I think. The serious stuff is serious, though. The story about the employee being refused a promotion because they thought she might be planning to have a baby– 


Terrible. As in, the very basics of running a proper, compliant business. Amateurish.


But they’d say – the documentary says this – that it’s just part of “cutting through the red tape”.


That’s where that whole anti-red-tape populism gets you: discrimination against women and minorities in the name of “just getting it done”.


So, why don’t we boycott them? I know a lot of our peers are of the view that enough is enough, cut off the supply of cash, stop buying their stuff.


I definitely think it’s time for the supply of free PR to be cut off, but that’s kind of happened, hasn’t it? When we wrote our chapter on BrewDog in Brew Britannia we felt quite out of step because it was pretty negative.


It was objective! But it probably did tell a more negative, questioning version of their origin story than was usual at that time. A lot of the same themes as in the documentary: they weren’t poor, they weren’t original, and they lied all the time. Some people were a bit irritated at us for being critical of BrewDog at all.


Until a couple of years later when, suddenly, we weren’t critical enough! The thing is, I would still rather have more BrewDogs than Heinekens in the market.


That’s a thing that comes across well in the podcast. There’s a clip of Pete Brown talking about how well the beers did in a blind-tasting back in 2007 or 2009 or whenever it was and it really reminded me how exciting Punk IPA tasted.


Still does. I’ll die on this hill. It’s a good beer, and consistently good. I’m always happy to drink it.


So, we don’t boycott them because, first, their influence has been, on balance, positive; and secondly, because the beer is good. Doesn’t sound super convincing.


In my day job [charity finance] I spend a lot of time thinking about environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing and reporting and it’s always a bit more complicated than “just divest”. You look at a range of things a business does. And individual things that they do badly might not be enough to make you withdraw support. Without in any way condoning James Watts’s behaviour, if BrewDog is genuinely doing the right things on the environment, you might say that gives them credit in the bank. I’m fascinated by their B Corp status.


Do you think B Corp might be forced to withdraw their endorsement of BrewDog?


I doubt it. They must have this with a lot of the businesses they work with. It’s about points and thresholds. And it’s been a standard line of attack from the right, and from lobby groups, to try to discredit things like Fair Trade.


We’ve found one exception, or one bad actor, so the whole thing is pointless!


Exactly. I’d rather have a system that’s imperfect but moves things forward, or shifts the window, than nothing at all.

A display of canned beer in a supermarket.
One of the first cracks in BrewDogs moral armour was its partnership with Tesco more than a decade ago. This is a dedicated, permanent display in a branch of Sainsbury’s in June 2022.


I do struggle with the hypocrisy issue. I don’t really care about companies selling out or selling up – we sort of know that’s the plan, or at least an option, for any serious growth-focused business. But BrewDog has been so insistent on the importance of independence, even after, it turns out, they were actively trying to arrange a sale to Heineken. That is a recurring theme of the podcast: that James Watt will say or do anything to move the business forward.


The podcast makes it sound as if he’s entered into a Faustian pact with the venture capitalists which is driving a lot of that.


Back to boycotting, though– 


Who else do we boycott? I try to buy from businesses I think are good, and making a positive contribution. I said I’d rather have more BrewDogs than Heinekens but I’d also rather have more Good Chemistrys than BrewDogs. But we live in the world we live in. We still use Amazon occasionally despite my best efforts. We still shop in the supermarket.


As it happens, we’ve haven’t been to BrewDog’s bar in Bristol for ages because–


Partly because we’re trying to support more local companies that we think are making a more positive contribution. But also – It’s always too busy!


This was a point Martyn Cornell made on Twitter…

…and despite the BBC coverage, despite the total disdain among beer geeks, the shine has not gone off the brand out in the real world.


Bloody hell, people love BrewDog on LinkedIn. I see James Watt is going to be on Steven Bartlett’s podcast soon.


He’ll have anyone on – Jordan Peterson!


Yeah, that bro-y capitalism thing still seems, unfortunately, to have further to run and that’s what puts me off BrewDog the most. That said, I just can’t see a positive in BrewDog crashing and burning. It’s not just about the loss of jobs. It’s the fact that the company is still doing some things that are positive. In particular, the environmental thing. Yes, it’s true to point to flights to Las Vegas as a problem, that hypocrisy again, but if you manage to create an enormous manufacturing plant that is genuinely carbon neutral, that is an impressive feat.


I guess you might say the important thing is to keep talking critically about BrewDog in particular, and ethics across the industry as whole.


Especially with people who aren’t totally immersed in the beer world, but are interested.


Blimey, like religious obsessives, knocking on people’s doors: “Can I share the bad news with you today?”


Ha ha, no, but just maybe gently correcting the narrative when you see it on social media or it comes up in conversation. BrewDog should not be a go-to example of how to run a business. James Watt should not be an aspirational business-bro pinup.


And there’s a lesson for drinkers, too – don’t hero worship these people. Don’t be a ‘fan’. You’re just setting yourself up to be let down.


But having said all that, I’m going to reserve the right to pop into a BrewDog bar every now and then if I feel like it, and to buy a can of Punk if it’s the best option available.

The Good Ship BrewDog is available on all major podcasting platforms and via BBC Sounds in the UK.


The Pros and Cons of the BrewDog Blueprint

BrewDog bar sign.

A challenge floated across our Twitter timeline today: can anyone really write objectively about BrewDog’s new ‘Blueprint’?

Well, we’re going to try.

The blueprint is a document which sets out their intentions for the next decade – a business plan, effectively, only simplified and given a heavy graphic treatment, as is de rigueur in the corporate world these days.

Before we get into dissecting what is there, let’s look at what isn’t: any evidence of contrition or regret for several years’ worth of clangers and crassness in the marketing. This is as close as it gets:

We have done some amazing things, we have taken some insane risks and we have always worn our heart on our sleeve. We know that we can always get better and we work towards that every second of every day.

There are people we respect who regard BrewDog as irredeemably homophobic, sexist and transphobic, and the Scottish Brewery has been given lots of chances to get this right but keeps failing. Nothing in this new manifesto suggests the management really understand those complaints, or that they intend to address them.

We think there’s a vague, implied desire to do better but until it’s been, say, a year without any spunking beer bottles or similar, who will be convinced by that?

Cask ale

After a couple of false dawns and sidequests BrewDog is going to start producing cask ale again. (Yes, cask is back from extinction for the second time this week.)

Pros: This sends a long overdue conciliatory signal; if cask is endangered and needs support, well, here it is; and DPC is a good beer, so if it ends up being an alternative to Doom Bar in mainstream pubs, that’s fine by us.

Cons: For breweries scraping by supplying the hoppy cask ale niche the re-entry into the market of a large, well-funded, commercially aggressive competitor is probably bad news.

Allsopp IPA

We’ve known about this for ages, and even suspected Martyn Cornell’s involvement based on whispers here and there, but this is the most detail we’ve had on the project. It sounds cool, and they’ll probably do a good job of it.

Pros: This is an important beer and being able to taste what we hope will be a serious recreation will be exciting.

Cons: Historical recreations aside, is this really the opposite of a trad brewers sneaky craft sub-brand? Will the packaging be sufficiently transparent that people buying it will know it’s from BrewDog?

Beer on TV

Beer Bucket List, in which Martin Dickie tours UK breweries, probably won’t be for us, but we can imagine it going over well with people a few notches less geeky than us. It’s simple, will be cheap and fast to produce, and sidesteps the issue that has scuppered successive attempts to produce The Great British Brew Off: beer is sloooooooow.

Pros: Beer on TV! And they’re using the opportunity to promote independent breweries, too.

Cons: But it’s also a big BrewDog advert, isn’t it?


As a team that is 50 per cent accountant we very much approve of the commitment to shorter payment terms for small suppliers.

There’s also a pledge to reduce plastic packaging, and a fund for investing in smaller breweries with a mission to promote inclusiveness.

Pros: This goes beyond posturing – it’s concrete and practical.

Cons: But it’s kind of the bare minimum really, isn’t it, for a firm that’s trying to reaffirm its indie cred. And we reckon the plastic reduction is being driven by the supermarkets anyway.

Supporting local breweries

There is a commitment to having local guest lines in BrewDog bars – a smart move to counter the impression that it’s a rootless chain. (Which it is.) There are also pledges to collaborate with smaller breweries – an interesting list which might be said to represent the current indie top table.

Pros: They don’t have to do this and it is something we’ve suggested larger breweries ought to do more of.

Cons: Who can tell what’s sincere and what’s about brand building at this stage; and it’s nothing they can’t withdraw from at the drop of a hat.


This is a weird one, and a bit of a surprise. We’ve wondered in the past whether there might not be more BrewDog branded bars not run directly but BrewDog but expected it to be via a bigger partner such as Greene King. Now, they’re offering Equity Punk shareholders chance to open BrewDog branded bars of their own, with training and support.

Pros: More BrewDog bars in small towns, which we guess is good news for small town BrewDog fans; and these bars will probably be smarter and better run than some indie craft bars outside big cities.

Cons: It’s yet more high street homogenisation.

* * *

Overall, this blueprint reinforces what we already thought: BrewDog is an important presence in British beer culture, and always worth watching, but it becomes less human with each passing year.

If they really want to shore up their craft credentials, which seems to be at least in part the intention, then they’ll need to be a bit more radical than this. And, dare we say, a touch more modest.

News pubs

News, Nuggets & Longreads 29 September 2018: Runcorn, Rochefort, Rules of the Tavern

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past week, from PR disasters to art installations.

Last year Kirst Walker wrote up a pub crawl of Runcorn’s Victorian pubs with her trademark spark; this year, she notes plenty of changes, giving the exercise a certain academic interest as well as pure entertainment value:

Time for the Lion, where everybody knows your name! Last year’s winner was where we we would end the night once more. I didn’t double up last time but as we’d already had time bonuses, sambucca, and sandwiches I threw caution to the wind. Alan bought a round of pies like a freaking billionaire and we had a group de-brief with plans to repeat the operation next year on the same weekend… The Lion has lost much of its original room layout since it was refurbished and part of it converted into houses, but it’s still the type of traditional corner pub which is a hub for the community, and in my opinion it as better to try and save the pub than keep the entire sprawling space.

Price list in a pub.

We tend to ignore clickbaity brouhahas over individual expensive pints these days but Martin Steward at Pursuit of Abbeyness has waited for the dust to settle before reflecting on one such recent incident, producing a slow-cooked opinion rather than a flash-fried ‘hot take’:

The most remarkable thing about the price of Alesmith Speedway Stout Hawaiian is not that it is five-times higher than the price of Rochefort 10, but that it is three-times higher than Alesmith’s ordinary Speedway Stout… That premium buys you some toasted coconut flakes, some vanilla and some rare Hawaiian Ka’u coffee beans, which are indeed three-times more expensive than your bog-standard joe… If you can taste the difference after those beans have had beer fermenting on them, I complement you on your sensitive palate. If you think it justifies a 200% premium, I have a bridge to sell you.

bottled beer Generalisations about beer culture

Stella, Doom, Punk

A dog.

We had one of those moments this week that shines a light on the health of a brand: we saw BrewDog on the beer list at a new local cafe and thought, “Oh, it’s not really a beer place, then.”

It’s not as if we think BrewDog’s beer is bad. We spent a happy hour at its Bristol bar on Sunday and probably have a more positive view of Punk IPA than many of our peers. (It ain’t wot it used to be, and so on.)

It’s a sign that BrewDog beers have become one of the go-to cash-and-carry products along with Stella Artois and Doom Bar, which changes their status in the marketplace. (Here’s Pete Brown on Stella.) It is no longer a treat, no longer worthy of an appreciative “Ooh!”.

You might say this started years ago when they first turned up in supermarkets, or in Greene King and Wetherspoon pubs, and that’s probably true.

And we’re not complaining, really. After all this was the dream a decade ago — a supply of strong, bitter, furiously hoppy IPA on every street corner.

It’s just interesting to us that whereas once the presence of BrewDog on the menu indicated a beer geek working somewhere behind the scenes, it now means no such thing.

Belgium marketing News

News, Nuggets & Longreads 31 March 2018: Moorhouse’s, Memel, Mellowness

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past seven days, from ongoing developments in the discussion around sexist beer branding to the ever-expanding BrewDog empire.

Katie Taylor has an interesting run-down on Moorhouse’s rebranding exercise. Packaging re-designs are usually among the world’s most boring topics but this case sees a longstanding problem solved as poorly rendered ‘sexy’ witches in flimsy frocks are out, replaced by more abstract, modern designs that come with an unambiguous statement of intent:

“When I joined, Moorhouse’s was a strong brand, tied into the provenance of the local area,” said Lee [Miller] when I met with him a couple of weeks ago. “But we are guilty as charged. Our branding was indefensible and really could have happened sooner. What I wanted to make sure of was that when we did this, we did it right. I wanted Moorhouse’s to set out its stall, to bring in a new brand ready for the future. We hold our hands up.”

But the stuff about the temperance influence on their new range of beers is almost as interesting.

Illustration: lambic blending.

Returning to his favourite topic Roel Mulder gives us‘Eight Myths About Lambic Debunked’, with plenty of reassuring references.

Quite a lot is made of the fact that lambic is made out of wheat, today usually 30% to 40%. In the 19th century, that was even more: a 1829 recipe specifies no less than 58% raw wheat.[15]However, at that time all-barley beers were only just starting to gain popularity in Belgium. In fact, at the start lambic was quite modern for not having any oats, spelt or buckwheat in it…. only in the 20th century did it become special for not being an all-barley beer.

A reminder, this, that snappy stories and simple explanations in beer history are usually the work of storytellers and marketing people; the truth is almost always more complicated and, frankly, less fun.