BrewDog: from ‘punk’ brewery to beer behemoth | Food & drink industry

Ten years ago, barely anyone had heard of BrewDog, the self-styled “punk” brewery founded in Aberdeenshire and named in honour of its co-founder’s chocolate labrador.

These days, it is a beer behemoth with 2,000 employees, annual sales of £215m, more than 100 bars in far-flung cities such as Tokyo, Brisbane and Berlin and its own hotel where the taps dispense draught ale.

Its flagship label, Punk IPA, can be found on the bar in pubs around the country and on the shelves of most major supermarkets.

Backed by a cult following of 130,000 small crowdfunding shareholders, known as “equity punks”, BrewDog has grown at a rate of knots to become the standard-bearer of the so-called “craft beer revolution”.

Amid the hundreds of innovative startup breweries that have emerged in recent years to challenge global purveyors of mass-produced lager, such as Carlsberg and Heineken, BrewDog is by far the most successful.

But its rapid growth, fuelled by controversial publicity stunts, has often tested the company’s adopted image of the plucky challenger upsetting the corporate apple cart.

And by co-opting the word “punk”, BrewDog left itself open to charges of being anything but.

In 2017, the Guardian exposed how BrewDog’s pitbull lawyers aggressively pursued two small businesses that it felt were infringing on its intellectual property.

One of its targets was a venue in Leeds that had plans to open under the name Draft Punk, the other a family run pub in Birmingham that had wanted to call itself Lone Wolf. BrewDog already had a spirit under that name, but decided to drop the case after generating negative publicity.

Its co-founder James Watt hit back angrily via a blog and his Twitter account before eventually issuing an apology.

Later that year, the sale of a 22% stake to a private equity firm raised fresh questions over whether BrewDog was really standing apart from the corporate world or had begun to join it.

Undoubtedly, BrewDog does things differently, openly denouncing big beer companies, inviting its equity punks to raucous, beer-fuelled annual meetings, and loudly engaging in progressive issues such as climate change and LGBTQI+ rights.

But some of its more eye-catching gestures have done as much to amplify the BrewDog brand as to garner attention for good causes.

A so-called “transgender beer” raised money for LGBTQI+ charities but drew criticism from Stonewall for the language used. A “protest beer” mocking Vladimir Putin’s homophobia deployed uncomfortable tropes about homosexuality.

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Pink IPA – a mock “Beer for Girls” released on International Women’s Day 2018 and supposedly intended to challenge stereotypes, went down like a cup of warm ale. It merely gave fuel to the “BroDog” moniker that some on social media already using for the company, whose senior team is 72% male. Watt conceded that the idea had been “lost in translation”.

Other stunts have appeared crass without any apparent ethical upside.

In 2015, intending to send up their own crowdfunding efforts, Watt and co-founder Martin Dickie filmed themselves begging and posing as sex workers. Thousands of people signed a petition calling the caricatures offensive.

A web page launching BrewDog TV adopted the style of a pornography site, complete with beer-themed film titles such as Two Amateurs Go Brewdogging. Some of the beer industry’s most respected female figures did not find the joke at all funny.

Then there was the time BrewDog hired a dwarf to advocate for two-thirds pint measures, or used taxidermy animals in kilts to market what it claimed was the world’s strongest beer.

Watt has found himself apologising for stunts more than once – but with the benefit of the attention they generated already banked.

Allegations of poor conditions experienced by the staff who helped BrewDog achieve its extraordinary growth may be harder to spin.