Biting the Dog

Is BrewDog the real deal, or just a glammed up boondoggle from Scotland?

We asked founder James Watt to set the record straight.

Now that BrewDog has finally opened up their ballyhooed Canal Winchester operation, some people in the craft brewing community have been grumbling. The beers aren’t blowing anybody away, and with so many craft brewers readily selling out to the highest bidder, it seems like merely building a brand is a successful business model. That’s all well and good, but a company with BrewDog’s money, and international clout could disrupt the fragile balance of the craft beer community. All things considered, it’s hard to dismiss the emerging doubts as petty jealousy. So, why not take an opportunity to hit up James Watt on the heels of BrewDog’s grand opening?

The North American Project is impressive in scope and scale, and it would appear that this is just Phase One. We’ve heard about the hotel, and judging by the lego model in the lobby, it seems like the production facility might grow as well. Is that subject to evaluation, or are plans already underway?

We have all the plans ready and the permits are filed. We’ll be breaking ground soon, and plan to have the hotel open next August. We’ll also have extra space for warehousing, and expanding the brewing program.

How has the market changed from when you first started planning this project? More than a few brewers invested heavily into regional and national distribution, only to see the market shift to favor hyperlocal brewers. How does BrewDog protect its investment with the paradigm shifting so quickly?

Sales have slowed a bit over the last two years, but we’re not discouraged. Craft Beer is still growing. People still want to drink beer and have a great experience. There’s still room to expand the market, so we’re going to brew the best beer we can, and follow through with our plan.

Now, we’re going to get bloody here, but there are some misgivings deep in the craft beer circles that BrewDog might be more committed to building a multinational brand than they are to craft beer. It’s genuine concern, not just jealous sniping. To be fair, not too many people have drawn any conclusions, but cautious optimism is giving way to some trepidation. What would you say to people who have doubts? Is this about the beer? Or the brand?

We’ve built a strong following through our Equity for Punks program, but the beer is the brand– the beer always comes first. Our facility is built to brew great beer. We have invested in the best equipment, and the best people. Our brewmaster, Tim Hawn, came from Dogfish Head. We have a great laboratory in Canal Winchester, and we plan to brew some pretty adventurous beers, including some sours. We hired Richard Kilcullen from Wicked Weed, who were brewing some of the best sours in the world (before being bought up by Inbev). We just started brewing, and getting our standard beers where they need to be. We’ve had a few issues, but we want to brew the best beer possible. Everything we’ve done is built around that. There’s more to come, but the beer is always first, and you’ll always see that.

One of the things reinforcing those doubts for a lot of people is your aggressive market saturation plan. That might seem like the wrong word, but with the tap room being what it is, and talk of a hotel, along with locations in Franklinton and possibly the Short North it seems like you’re being very aggressive. This multi-unit approach might not be problematic in other parts of the world, but in the US, this model doesn’t seem to work in the craft beer marketplace. Do you know something we don’t, or is BrewDog looking to create more space for itself outside of the traditional craft beer niche?

This is a model that has been very successful for us around the world. People enjoy the experience of visiting our pubs, and the pubs lead distribution. A lot of care goes in, and each is its own experience. We have the tap room at the brewery in Canal Winchester, and the pub in Franklinton coming along. We’re looking at the Short North, but that’s going to be all for Columbus.

That actually brings us back to your beer. Now that it’s fresh, I can say that it’s quite good, but as craft beers go, I, and many other grizzled craft beer veterans just don’t feel like it can displace craft beers that are already out there. Punk is a drinkable IPA, perhaps a bit light for that style, but it’s not going to make people forget about the IPAs currently offered by a number of local brewers. Speaking honestly, the only beer in your portfolio that stands out in its category is probably Dead Pony Club. Should we see that as a indication that BrewDog is looking more at the “Entry Level” craft beer consumer? Are you more focused on chipping away a bigger chunk of the Macro Market than you are offsetting competitors in the craft genre?

We’re not out to displace other craft brewers. We certainly feel that the market can grow, but the beers we’re brewing right now are definitely what you’d call accessible. Jack Hammer is a bit more aggressive and should appeal to the sort you mentioned. Then, as we get settled, we’ll produce geekier offerings, with sours, barrel aging, and some of those high gravity beers. We’re just getting started.

And of course, in the U.S., the craft beer industry is different from any other in the sense of competition. Craft Brewers see themselves as united against the larger macro breweries. Nobody takes delight in succeeding at the expense of another craft brewer, and even long time veterans like Jim Koch, Sam Calagione, and Ken Grossman will insist that craft can’t survive if brewers lose that sense of camaraderie. It seems as if their practices reflect the rhetoric. Is this still a valid business model? Can BrewDog succeed adhering to such an ethos?

We love that culture. That’s what got us into brewing, and that’s what we’ve been trying to build in the UK. It’s why we opened a brewery in the US. We believe in the craft beer community and. we’ve been collaborating with US Craft Brewers all along. Stone, Anchor Oskar Blues, Dogfish Head…we’re looking forward to building those relationships with brewers in Ohio now that we’re getting our beers in order. We want to expand that craft market, and take a little more of a share away from the big boys.