In 2007 a new kind of brewery opened in Scotland. Two friends and fans of innovative American brewers like Stone and Dogfish Head were frustrated with the selection of beer available in their native Scotland and across the UK. They saw a land awash with watery lager and decided to do something about it. And so BrewDog was born and cofounders James Watt and Martin Dickie must be doing something right. Just two years later Brewdog is one of the fastest growing craft brewers not just in the UK but anywhere.
I spoke with Watt in autumn of 2009. Anyone who is familiar with BrewDog knows that the brewery has openly declared war on tasteless lager. I wondered how he felt about what could be called the other side of the coin in the UK beer market, the traditionalists.
Watt - The UK beer industry is quite stuffy, quite traditional, quite old fashioned. I think that just by virtue of the fact that we are doing something that breaks tradition, something edgy is kind of upsetting a few people.
Do you see any common ground with what you guys do and what CAMRA tries to do?
None at all. I think that CAMRA has held back innovation in the British brewing industry, and they're kind of focusing on a few key styles served in just one way and they focus on that too much. That just holds innovation back.
We took a lot of inspiration from the craft beer scene in America where there's so many guys who are just free to follow their muse without any tradition holding them back; without any kind of organization telling them what kind of beer to make. So we took a lot of inspiration from the spirit of innovation, enthusiasm and excitement in the US craft beer industry. We wanted to take that excitement back to the UK and do things that CAMRA would not get too excited about.
One of the reasons that myself and Martin decided to create a company at the age 24 was because what was available in the UK. I mean there was nothing between the kind of bland, tasteless, fizzy lagers made by huge multinational corporations and a few small very traditional, very folksy breweries making quite old fashioned beer with a focus on the traditional UK beer drinker which is a guy 45 to 50 with a beard, beer-belly, fan of just that whole thing.
What we wanted to do is we wanted to show them that we were clashing a bit and kind of give them a bit of an edge and a bit of life. Very much use the packaging and marketing that would move toward a younger more contemporary section of the market just to try to get other younger people passionate about good beer.
Are you very influenced by US craft brewers?
We took a lot of inspiration from a lot of guys in the States. Dogfish Head and Stone are complete idols of ours. In fact we just made a collaboration beer with Stone. The guys were here in Scotland just a few weeks ago which was amazing.
We take inspiration from what's happening [in the US] and very much put our own spin on it. I think in terms of what kind of beers we make we do a lot of things based in Scottish heritage like whisky. We have a beer called Dogma made with Scottish heather honey, California poppy, kola nut and guarana. And we do some unusual things with aging and beers in casks.
What is the Portman Group's problem with you?
The main issue behind it: we have an 8% stout called Rip Tide. On the packaging we described the beer as a twisted stout and according to the Portman group the use of the word "twisted" was going to be associated with antisocial behavior. Which we kinda took exception to.
The whole thing went on and on in the media and went up further for six months.
At the same time, for us it was quite serious but it also helped raise our profile. We'd just been going for a few months. This controversy and round about in the UK media certainly helped us kinda raise profile and create awareness. It got the name out there. It was even suggested at the time that we should be paying them for marketing.
Note: Even as I write this, the Portman Group is going after BrewDog again. They've joined with two other groups to try to stop or limit the sale of BrewDog's new Tokyo, a stout with 18.2% alcohol.
I'm not much of an expert on whisky except that I drink a lot of it. Scottish distillers seem to have a great deal of pride of Scottish barley like on Isle of Islay and like that. Do you put that kind of thought into your malt?
Yeah, definitely. We don't get the peated malts that they use in the island whiskies but we use some of the same varieties and the same suppliers. We use Scottish malts as much as we can.
The beers we make are such a wide variety that we can't get all the malts from within Scotland. We've got some specialist things that we get from England and Germany. But Maris Otter is the base of most of our beer and we manage to get good Maris Otter from a site in Scotland. That makes about 90% of what's in the vat of all the beers that we do.