OPINION: Character assassination at BrewDog destined to happen

By Pete Brown, beer author

- Last updated on GMT

Looking back at James Watt's time at BrewDog

Related tags Beer Brewdog Craft beer

There’s a story – one of many – that’s central to the BrewDog mythology.

Back in 2007, when no one knew who they were, BrewDog entered a competition for a listing in Tesco. Its four beers came first, second, third and fourth.

BrewDog was still brewing in a shed, and there was no way they could meet the volumes they were now committed to. Founders James Watt and Martin Dickie drew up a business plan for a new brewery, took it to their bank and asked for a loan. The bank laughed in their faces. So they went to another bank across the road, and lied, “Our bank just offered us this deal. Can you better it?” They got the loan. Built the new brewery. And never looked back.

It's a story Watt tells often. And I know it was true because I was one of the judges in that competition. We tasted them blind. We had no idea they were all from the same brewery. We just knew all of them tasted nothing like any other beer in that competition.

I mention this because beer, like music, has a tendency to first dismiss commercial success – “I preferred their earlier stuff” – and then to rewrite history – “They were never really that good to begin with, were they?” Whatever we beer snobs like to tell ourselves, in the early days, BrewDog’s beers were stunning.

That was Dickie’s contribution to their astonishing success – he was and remains one of the best brewers in the country.

If Dickie brought the beer, Watt brought the chutzpah, the attitude, the barefaced, ballsy brass neck to walk across the road and lie to a new bank.

Character played

Three years later, I was in Scotland with two other beer writers, creating and brewing our own BrewDog beer. The brewery had just opened its first bar in the centre of Aberdeen, and the evening had reached the point where we were using Punk IPA as a palate cleanser between headier beers. 

James Watt was behind the bar, holding forth. BrewDog had recently stopping brewing cask ale, and in Watt’s view, this meant the entire cask category was dead, because all cask ale was rubbish.

“James, you know that’s not true,” I said.

He lowered his voice and leaned in. “Yeah but Pete, you know I have to say it.”

I realised then that there was James Watt, the man, and James Watt, the character he plays. I don’t know him well enough to spot where the overlap is. But Watt the man is much shyer than the character he plays. When he plays the role, it gives him freedom to be controversial, bombastic and outrageous.

The man playing the role knew his character would shock the beer industry to its core. And while I never liked or agreed with every stunt BrewDog pulled, the industry needed that shock. It was complacent, backward looking and declining. BrewDog was not the first modern craft brewer in the UK (I’d suggest Roosters, Dark Star and Dickie’s former employer Thornbridge got there first) but BrewDog made the impact. Many who condemn Watt today wouldn’t be in this industry without him.        

The problem inherent in Watt’s strategy is the very nature of punk. If it’s true that all political careers end in failure, then all punks end up selling out. Punk is a short, sharp, shock. It’s not meant to last.

Impressive growth

BrewDog’s growth was impressive. But the strategy seemed to be growth at any cost. Inevitably, the culture began to crumble.

The stunts soon started to look tired, and increasingly they misfired. 2018’s “Pink IPA” was well-intentioned​ but clumsily executed, and seemed to mark the final split in the relationship between BrewDog and the craft beer bubble.

I suspect that by this point, Watt didn’t care. When I helped an advertising agency pitch for their business months later, their marketing department (Watt was never present) told us that their main competition was now Carling.

The real issue was internal though. By now, BrewDog was a huge multinational business employing thousands of people. It’s standard practice in business that when a start-up reaches this stage, the entrepreneurs hand over the reins to the administrators. A different skill set is required. Without it, staff became increasingly vocal about how poorly they were being treated, both within the organisational culture, and by Watt personally.

Watt has vehemently denied all the allegations made against him regarding his treatment of people and his management style, but there are an awful lot of them, and they just kept coming.

If the company is to sell or launch an IPO, the character of James Watt is no longer the right star of the show. The point is, BrewDog doesn’t need a star in that role any more. The character of James Watt was too big and well known to change. It had to be retired.

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the man who played him. But expect his next role to be quite different.

Pete Brown is an award-winning writer who has penned 12 books, focusing mainly on beer and the pub trade.​​

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