Last Week's Sunday Time's BrewDog article
From The Sunday Times's by Gillian Bowditch:
James Watt, the 26-year-old co-founder of Fraserburgh brewery BrewDog, has a clear recollection of his first encounter with alcohol. A former Scottish junior swimming champion, he was 14 and competing in Edinburgh when his roommate smuggled in two bottles of Hooch, the alcopop of choice in his day.
“We drank a bottle each. Then we decimated the hotel,” says Watt matter-of-factly. “The curtains came down and we broke a bed. I was banned from swimming competitions for the next six months and had to pay for the damage.”
It’s an image that will feed the preconceptions of BrewDog’s many critics, who believe that when it comes to alcohol, Watt is still as irresponsible. BrewDog, whose products include Punk IPA, Trashy Blonde and Hardcore IPA, has managed to ferment a row with everybody from the local council to the Portman Group, the industry’s self-appointed watchdog.
Earlier this year, the microbrewery launched Tokyo*, said to be Britain’s strongest beer, with an alcohol content of 18.2%. One 330ml bottle contains the equivalent of six units of alcohol. Such was the outcry, it could have been heard half way across the Atlantic. The health lobby condemned the beer as “deeply irresponsible”. BrewDog’s response was to launch Nanny State beer, with an alcohol strength of 1.1%. Watt posted a picture of the chief executive of the Portman Group on the BrewDog website, alongside a look-alike picture of Gollum from Lord of the Rings.
Then there was the infamous Speedball beer, named after the lethal cocktail of heroin and cocaine that killed the actor John Belushi. It was outlawed by the Portman Group for breaking the industry’s code of conduct. No sooner had that battle been resolved than there was a tussle over the marketing of Punk IPA. “This is an aggressive beer. We don’t care if you don’t like it,” reads the label.
The company, established two years ago by Watt and his childhood friend Martin Dickie, is currently embroiled in a row with the local authority after importing two large tanks onto land outside the brewery without planning permission.
“We work on the principle that it is much easier to seek forgiveness than ask permission,” Watt says.
Given the publicity, I am expecting to find a cross between Johnny Rotten and The Terminator when I arrive at the grey, functional sheds that are home to Scotland’s most notorious start-up. Watt, in ripped jeans, skinhead haircut and shemagh, does not disappoint. But far from being a hop-headed punk, it’s clear from the start that he is incredibly switched on. A straight-A student, he studied law and economics at Edinburgh University, while Dickie studied brewing at Heriot-Watt.
“We want to elevate the status of beer,” says Watt, talking 600ml to the pint. “Beer in the UK is almost a dirty word. People go out and drink 10 pints of some cold, industrially brewed, fizzy nonsense, eat a kebab and call that a Saturday night. We wanted to change people’s perceptions.”
Perceptions have certainly been changed, though not necessarily in the way Watt intended. There is, however, no escaping the fact that BrewDog is achieving what the combined forces of the world’s biggest brewers have not. It is shifting the demographic for beer-drinking into a younger age group and opening up a new market for a drink that has been in decline for decades. The problem with appealing to younger drinkers, however, is the risk of appearing irresponsible, particularly in a community such as Fraserburgh, where drug and alcohol misuse is endemic.
Watt points out that BrewDog was the first drinks company publicly to back the Scottish government’s minimum pricing proposal for alcohol. He insists he is as keen to tackle binge drinking as the politicians and believes minimum pricing and improved education are the answer. How does he justify the 18.2% Tokyo* brew?
“It wasn’t about creating an 18% beer just for the sake of it,” he says. “A stronger beer gives you a much bigger canvas to work with. We added a chocolate malt, cranberries, jasmine and we aged it in toasted French oak-chips. If we’d done all these things on a beer at 6%, it would have collapsed under the weight of these flavours.
“We made a tiny batch. It took a month to ferment. We had to add sugars and yeast every four hours. It was like having a baby.. A 330ml bottle of Tokyo* costs £9.99. You can buy a bottle of vodka cheaper than that. Tokyo* was only for sale on our website and in two speciality shops in the UK. It was for connoisseurs. From the way they spoke about it, you would have thought it was on sale at every corner shop for pocket-money prices.
“The Portman Group is funded by the big boys to look after the interests of the big brewers. They should be going after the big guys who sell 24-packs in the supermarkets for £9.99.”
Whatever his critics think of him, Watt certainly doesn’t lack bottle. Last week he realised his most ambitious project to date with the purchase of a derelict pub in Aberdeen. It will reopen in February 2010 as a BrewDog establishment, selling only the firm’s beer. It is the first in a chain that BrewDog plans to roll out nationally.
For a company that has a turnover of £1.8m, it sounds like heady stuff. It would be easy to dismiss Watt’s ambitions as just the beer talking, but BrewDog has already attracted backing from Tony Foglio and Keith Greggor, the drinks industry veterans who turned Skyy Vodka from a start-up to a multi-million-pound brand. Foglio and Greggor took a 12.5% stake in BrewDog for £600,000 in May and have been instrumental in developing the brand in the US.
Watt’s enthusiasm, audacity and his incredible knack for marketing are more than just froth. BrewDog’s rapid growth is due in large part to his unorthodox methods.
After six frustrating months trying to sell the beer locally and being knocked back, Watt and Dickie targeted export markets .The beer geeks loved the product and blogged about it extensively. It meant that when Watt went knocking on distributors’ doors, the market was already seeded and the product took off. It helps that their beers have won a clutch of awards.
“Everything comes from our passion for beer,” says Watt. “Everything comes back to what’s in the bottle.”
Brewing was not the obvious first choice of career. Like many of his Fraserburgh contemporaries, Watt was destined for the sea. His grandfather is a lobster fisherman and his father, Jim, owns mackerel and herring trawlers. Watt first went to sea at the age of six. He took his teddy with him and was mortified when the fishermen found it. But it was the start of a love affair. He worked in an office for just two weeks after graduating, then quit and worked on boats, earning his captain’s certificate. He still goes to sea for 10 weeks every year and employs several crew in the brewery.
When BrewDog created its India Pale Ale, Watt decided to authenticate it by putting it on a trawler and taking it to sea for six months. “India Pale Ale was shipped here,” he says. “The movement of the ship oxidises the beer. It tastes authentic, the way IPA should taste.”
A natural risk-taker, he doesn’t think about the dangers of going to sea. “If you thought about that you’d never do anything,” he says. “You’d never get in a car. It is dangerous, but I’ve grown up with it. If you grow up here, you just get used to it.”
Watt and Dickie, who had been friends since school, had shared a flat at university, where they experimented with home brews. It was a chance encounter with the late whisky and beer critic Michael Jackson that led to the founding of BrewDog.
“He took one sip of our beer and advised us to give up our jobs and open a brewery,” says Watt. “So we did.”
But despite his close relationship with his father, Watt was determined to make his own way. “I was keen that he didn’t invest,” he says. “This is our thing and I think we are clever enough to make it work by ourselves.”
He’s probably right. He certainly doesn’t need to be on a boat to make waves.
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- Yes I am a close friend of James and he is a lightweight!! Nag13.11.2009
- Trashed a room after one bottle of alco-pop? Light weight! Ed13.11.2009