the maverick brewery completely lived up to their global reputation, James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, initially took the high road then immediately hit the low road when he responded “we believe in freedom of speech and artistic expression. We don’t believe in mindless censorship. As for the ASA – those mother f*ckers don’t have any jurisdiction over us anyway.”

Alert market watchers noted this controversy conveniently occurred just before BrewDog launched the latest tranche of Equity for Punks – basically, a ingenious scheme where people can buy into the brewery directly. For some reason, BrewDog has had problems dealing with banks (and indeed most authority figures) since they were founded in 2007 by two 24-year-old Scots. Their operations have been characterised since day one by bold beers and even bolder marketing strategies.

On the same day the New Zealand beer community was debating whether the new Tui billboard “Fifty Shades of Brown – Yeah Right” [1] is “too edgy”, it is worth considering even a partial list of BrewDog’s stunts, pranks and campaigns. 

They have repeatedly tried to brew the strongest beer in the world, at least one of their beer names made fun of a German warship being destroyed, beer has been packaged in stuffed stoats, dogs have been dressed in sailor suits, brewers have filmed themselves naked in an ice cream factory, the founders have projected nude images of themselves onto the Houses of Parliament, they hired a punk dwarf to lobby politicians, they have picked numerous fights with CAMRA, [2] they used social media to force an apology from a drinks giant who pressured a charity not to let BrewDog win a competition, they offered a Viagra beer to Prince William just before the Royal Wedding, and issued a special Olympics-inspired beer, “Never Mind the Anabolics”, which contained eight ingredients banned for professional athletes. [3] However, at least a percentage of the profits for that last beer went to a good cause. [4]

Given their passion and prowess at self-publicity, it is not surprising that more people forward me stories and links to BrewDog than any other brewery in the world. [5] The company is widely hailed as a successful business, moving rapidly over six years to having a new brewery, 135 staff, a multi-million pound turnover, a new way of raising money (Equity for Punks) and even some profits. 

However, there have always been strong debates about their deliberately controversial approach. Does the marketing detract from some very good beers? Is the PR covering up for beers which wouldn’t stand on their own merits? Was controversy the only way a small brewery could get a global profile (and sales)?

Ross Burns, writing on Caliberi blog, asked “BrewDog: controversial content marketing or strong brand voice?” He noted:

“The fact that BrewDog managed to generate publicity off the back of the [ASA] complaint at exactly the time when it launched a second share issue for those interested in owning a part of the company will not have harmed its “Equity for Punks” campaign – in fact, quite the opposite no doubt.

I would argue that this is in fact not an example of controversy at all, it is simply a company sticking to its carefully constructed brand voice. Any switched-on modern company knows that a consistent brand voice is essential, particularly in a world where we communicate through so many media channels. BrewDog refers to its customers as “punks” and has grown rapidly by giving fans a strong identity (some have even had the BrewDog logo tattooed on themselves). The original text on the website and Watt’s considered response to the ASA was simply on-brand.”

Although the article is older, Andy Crouch’s piece – Manufactured controversy and radical traditionalism of BrewDog – is thought provoking and, in my opinion, still accurate. [6] He argued:

“Welcome to the new age of beer, one where a combination of electronic discussion boards, passionate beer enthusiasts, and extra discretionary cash fuels a global clamour for niche better beers. BrewDog is finding that the world is no longer a series of isolated beverage markets but that beer geeks across the planet constitute a profitable, viable market.

BrewDog has clearly modelled its operation on the in your face promotional philosophy employed by Stone Brewing.  Stone has long attempted to court controversy or achieve public attention by setting its efforts apart from other breweries through bold and boisterous bravado. Its provocatively worded labels, written by Koch, stand as a testament to the brewery’s public relations effort.”

Crouch even provides a side by side analysis of the “radical and boastful” beer labels for Punk IPA and the classic Stone Arrogant B*stard Ale bottle label. The similarities are striking and beyond contestation.

On a less profound but no less interesting note, Crouch also recorded that co-founder Martin Dickie “brought the knowledge of beer to the venture, having studied brewing and distilling at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh and spent two years as head brewer for the upstart Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire… On the opposite end of the ledger, Watt brings the passion for marketing, sales and promotion to BrewDog’s operation. Watt has a curious background for someone in his position as managing director, having studied law and economics at Edinburgh University, followed by a lengthy stint working on a herring and mackerel trawler run by his father.” 

I did not know that last fact this morning.

Malthouse currently has four BrewDog beers available, two on tap and two in bottles. That includes one that even BrewDog itself has currently run out of – Libertine Black Ale (7.2%). This is a heavily hopped Black IPA described by the brewers as “wickedly decadent black beast of a beer that has been hammered with the epic Simcoe hop.”  It makes generous use of Caramalt, Cristal and Carafa malts, and a pile of US Simcoe which brings in fruity aromas, flavours and a bitter finish that many will be surprised to find in such a dark beer.

BrewDog 5am Saint (5%) continues the hoppy theme. It is a full bodied red ale (Maris Otter, Caramalt, Munich Malt, Crystal and dark crystal malts) which is then repeatedly lashed with hops, late hops and “bucket loads” of dry hops. The hop blend includes Amarillo, Simcoe, Cascade, Centennial and our own Nelson Sauvin.  The BrewDog crew are big fans of what is becoming New Zealand’s signature hop and it appears in a number of their brews.

Calling itself a “Post Modern Classic Pale Ale”, Punk IPA (5.6%) is another brew to use Nelson Sauvin hops and one of the only BrewDog beers to ever reduce in alcohol percentage after public pressure. It is assertive – not aggressive – which contributes to a nicely balanced IPA (for those that like that sort of thing).

For those wanting a bit of hop imbalance, try BrewDog Hardcore (9%), a hugely hoppy brew I previously described as being “as subtle as a Glasgow Kiss but much more enjoyable.” The brewers note that each bottle contains six hop cones from one of my favourite American trios – Centennial, Columbus and Simcoe hops.

Next time we drink to the heart-warming optimism of the Australian sports media who claim to have statistics showing that Quade Cooper is a “better tackler” than Richie McCaw.

[1] Overseas readers may need some context – the Mayor-elect of New Zealand’s largest city, Len Brown, has been caught up in a sex scandal about which way too much information is emerging. Readers who don’t know what Fifty Shades of Grey is are probably beyond help.

[2] Admittedly, given the wildly different styles of CAMRA and BrewDog, getting into fights is probably not exactly difficult for either side to do.

[3] In a release, BrewDog names the ingredients as “creatine, guarana, lycii berries, kola nut, Gingko, matcha tea, maca powder and steroids,” though the publicly released batches did not contain steroids for exciting legal reasons.

[4] Albeit the money went towards “a new surfboard for surfing dog called Abbie”, a move which BrewDog described as “an added snub to professional sports sponsorship.”

[5] This phenomenon is not unique to me among beer writers.  A 2012 Malthouse blog post was titled “Why Pete Brown’s Stella Drinking Mum has heard of BrewDog”.

[6] Not least for the title – which is awesome. That is why it appears at the head of this post.


Beer Writer
Beer and Brewer Magazine


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