Words by Naeem Alvi - Photography by Roo Lewis

Founded in 2007, BrewDog are now the biggest independent brewery in the UK craft brewing industry. In Issue 3 of The Quarterly, photographer Roo Lewis, spends a day in the BrewDog pub in Shoreditch, London, to capture a glimpse of what makes them such popular watering holes. Here, The Quarterly’s Features Editor, Naeem Alvi speaks to Mark Hislop (BrewDog’s Sponsorship and Events Guy) about BrewDog’s ballsy attitude to marketing and their illustrious plans for the future.

Firstly, can you give a brief overview of what Brewdog is, and how it started, for those who haven’t heard of you? BrewDog is a craft beer brewery. We simply started out of a frustration at the lack of great beer available in the UK at the time. We quite cheekily blagged a loan, bought some second hand brewing kit and set up in that well known artisan production hub of Fraserburgh. It was our passion and a way for us to recreate the great American craft beers that we loved. Seven years on, we’re the biggest independent in the craft brewing industry in the UK. That passion has continued until today. We may be doing it on a much bigger scale but we’re still intensely passionate about the quality of our beer, that’s what we live and die by.

How did you first become involved in BrewDog and what interested you in becoming a part of the BrewDog effort to promote great craft beer? I worked in a bar in Glasgow called Blackfriars which was way ahead of the curve in terms of craft beer and one of our guys stumbled across James and Martin (James Watt and Martin Dickie, BrewDog co-founders) at a beer festival and went ape shit over how good the beer was. We stocked the beer from then on — the first bar ever I believe. The boys used to do all the deliveries themselves and James gave me a bottle of Paradox Coal Ila (A premium BrewDog beer matured in a Whisky cask) on one of those deliveries which blew my tiny mind. I joined a couple of years later when they opened the first bar in Aberdeen. I left a girlfriend and a good job to be bar staff in that bar, but I knew it would be an adventure and a lot of fun — and it certainly has been.

Since Brew dog’s humble beginnings in 2007, the company has expanded massively. What would you say has been crucial to this success? I think there have been two main factors. Our ability to cause a lot of fuss and attention with our marketing, attitude and the occasional stunt involving dwarves, boats or a tank. But that’s only of value as a way to get people to try the product. If that product doesn’t stand up to all the hype and bravado then it’s absolutely meaningless. The quality and boldness of our beers has been able to hook people on from the first taste and the marketing strategy has got a lot of young people to try more interesting beer. We’ve managed to create a market between bland mass-market lager and the stuffy old real ale scene with pictures of trains on it. We did something special by making ale irreverent and modern and appealing to a whole generation of people.

As an independent brewery, what’s it like having to compete with huge global beer and lager companies? It’s great because we really can’t lose. We’re standing at about 0.001% of the UK beer market after all our hard work and we’ve already got them worried. So vast is their empire and the lager culture engrained in the UK, that no matter how well we do we’ll always be fighting a bit of a David and Goliath battle, but that suits us. People’s eyes are opening and they now know what good beer tastes like and a lot of people will not go back to that mass market piss water ever again. Every one of those is a massive victory in our eyes.

And, what specifically do you differently to such companies? Well for a start we brew great beer. Our beer is always started with an end product in mind. We want it to taste a certain way and we try and build a recipe to achieve that initial idea. We do whatever it takes to achieve the best possible version of that idea, be it tons of expensive malt, excessive amounts of exotic hops, tayberries, cacao or two years in a whiskey barrel. Once we’ve created it and we’re happy we then think how much do we have to sell this for to make our money back? Someone like Heineken’s only thought is how can we make this cheaper and quicker and as profitable as possible, and still get people to drink this shit. That’s the main difference. The other is our engagement with our customers, from our social networking to our bar staff, we’re all incredibly passionate and eager to share that passion with other people whether they’re a veteran beer geek or a Stella drinker trying craft beer for the first time.

What do you think attracts so many people to BrewDog pubs around the world, when other places might be cheaper or more readily available? Well there’s obviously the beer selection, between our draft, guest draft and the bottle range it’s harder to find a better selection anywhere. There are other craft beer bars around which all offer a great range too but I think we take the service and the knowledge side much more seriously. All of our staff have to gain a certain level of beer knowledge before they get behind the bar. We also regularly fly Ray Daniels over from America so our staff can sit the cicerone exam, that’s the equivalent to sommelier for beer. So we know our shit basically. We also manage to keep that knowledge in check and never get snobbish, that’s more important than the knowledge if you ask me. We were all lager drinkers in ignorant bliss at one point and laughing at someone who wants a Fosters isn’t going to win him over, and it makes you a snobbish prick in a lose-lose situation.

“We don’t have the millions big brewers have to market their beer so we’ve had to be clever getting the word out and we’ve managed that through guerilla war style marketing.”

As an independent, you must be able to take much bigger risks in terms of branding and public perception, as in the case of that beer line you launched to draw attention to Vladimir Putin’s recent actions in Russia. Do you think that’s what drives people towards BrewDog? Yeah we can upset people a bit more, but it’s always in jest. We don’t have the millions big brewers have to market their beer so we’ve had to be clever getting the word out and we’ve managed that through guerilla war style marketing. It’s certainly worked immensely well but it has resulted in a section of people thinking we’re juvenile and attracted some negativity at times. But I think those people forget how massively the odds are stacked against a wee brewery from Fraserburgh and that it was entirely necessary. Now we try and use our standing and media presence to do positive things like hello my name is Vladimir. We hope it’ll make a difference for the gay community in Russia and if it ruins a day for Vlad, it’s worth it. At the very least, it shines a light on how ridiculous those views are. I’d also point out how unlikely a lager brand would be to support gay rights.

Can you explain how Equity for Punks works? And why it’s been so popular? Equity for punks was our way of growing the business by inviting our biggest fans to invest in the beer and brand that they love.  We could have gone to some evil corporation or one of them big greedy banks that did so well to destroy our economy but we thought why not invite actual human beings to invest instead. We’ve raised over seven million in funds to build an amazing new brewery and grow the company. In return the shareholders get discount on beer for life, online and in our bars, they get exclusive offers on all our new releases and they also get to attend our amazing AGM, which is a mixture of music festival, beer festival and business talks. It’s pretty epic.

What do you think the future holds for craft beer and BrewDog? Craft beers on the up and up, when we started we were quite rightly scathing of the beer market, and in a lot of ways we paved the way for people to be able to make stronger, happier and more exciting beer and to be able to keg it. That has revolutionised beer in the UK. Keg beer can be sold in the condition the brewer intended it to be drank in, pubs don’t have to worry about it going off, and customers get consistently great beer. There’s now loads of amazing breweries in the UK, about 20 in London alone and we’re all working together to open people’s eyes and turn them away from the big guys. If you look at the US, the craft scene is massive and still growing and I think we’re going the same way. I think BrewDog will always have an important role in the market here and recently we’ve turned into more of a support network, we stock other breweries in our bars and help them get to market in places they otherwise may not get to.

How does one BrewDog pub interact with another? As in, are you all part of the BrewDog community, or does one pub operate as a standalone with its own charms and nuances? Well, we do all work together and communicate, and there are obvious consistencies but we try to let the teams put their stamp on things too. When I started we always sent staff to the new bars to open them and there was this consistent progression of all the staff and that meant there was always a strong link. With 14 bars and more on the way including Tokyo, Delhi and Sao Paulo that’s going to be a new challenge to keep that same feel in all the bars but one I’m sure we’ll find a solution too.

What do you think is wrong with today’s beer and lager industry? And what should be done to improve things? Well, we’re pretty positive about it all, the craft beer scene is really good at the moment and it seems every month we find someone else doing something great.  We’ve had our issues with cask ale and lager but they are what they are and they will always be there for people who don’t want big bold flavours. We wish that wasn’t the case but some people just like things simple, bland and uncomplicated. I mean Michael Bublé sells out fucking stadiums so there’s always a market for that kind of inoffensive pointless trash — same thing with beer.

The full BrewDog feature is available exclusively in Issue Three of The Quarterly.


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