Punks Not Dead: James Watt of BrewDog

Punks Not Dead: James Watt of BrewDog
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Special thanks to BrewDog Hong Kong for providing arrangements and interview venue.

From two men and a dog in 2007 to a globally renowned craft beer brand and an employer of 750 people today – not to mention its crowdfunding army of 50,000 “Equity Punks” – Scotland-based brewery BrewDog has always marched to the beat of its own drum. Founded by James Watt and Martin Dickie (who both legally changed their names to “Elvis” in October in response to a lawsuit over their Elvis Juice IPA), the brand is fast approaching its tenth anniversary, with a huge celebration for 8,000 people planned at its Aberdeen headquarters. On a recent whirlwind visit, James (sorry – Elvis) sat down with us at BrewDog Hong Kong for a pint and a candid chat.

So your name is really Elvis now?

For the moment – but I’m under intense pressure from my grandmother to change it back. [laughing] So pending the outcome of the legal case, it may or may not go back to James, but for the moment I am officially an Elvis – Elvis “Captain” Watt. Martin went for Elvis “Duke” Dickie.

Have you had other legal challenges like that in the past?

Quite a few. We don’t mind too much; we stick to our guns. As a company, we’ve never given a damn what anyone thinks or what we’re “supposed” to do – we just like to do our own thing and hope it works out for the best. We like to take a few risks, wear our hearts on our sleeves, make some beer and have some fun.

Introduce yourself in four words – and tell us how BrewDog got started.

Beer-loving sea dog. [laughing] Before I started the business, I was captain of a North Atlantic fishing boat – the North Atlantic in January is a tough place to making a living. During that time, I discovered Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. My first sip, I was like, “What the hell’s this?” and then my second sip, I just completely fell in love. That was the beer that we attempted to make at home; we got homebrew kits and it was about ten batches before we made anything drinkable.

In 2006, we got to meet Michael Jackson, the legendary beer expert. We let him try a stout we made in our garage on our 50-litre kit – he tasted it and told us to quit our jobs and start making beer. So we thought fuck it, if Michael Jackson is saying that to us, let’s do it! We were 24 years old, got a £20,000 bank loan and had about the same in savings. We got some second-hand stainless steel tanks and cobbled it together ourselves. Our water tanks were actually plastic tanks from the local garden centre because we had no money at all – this was ramshackle DIY [do-it-yourself], seat-of-the-pants, bootlegged-together stuff.

We made our first beer in 2007. Our mission when we set out – still our biggest mission today – is to make other people as passionate about fantastic beer as we are. It feels like yesterday that it was two humans, one dog and a cobbled-together pile of old junk!

The beers you brew often push the envelope, to put it mildly. Any standouts?

We’ve made beers at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean, on a NASCAR speedway doing over 100 miles an hour… Some of our standout beers that we’ve made have to be our really strong beers: Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Sink the Bismarck and of course The End of History, a 55% beer packaged in taxidermy. That last beer was very much designed to broaden people’s horizons and shock people into thinking in a different way – that beer doesn’t have to be a light, mass-market industrial fizzy lager served in a pint glass.
Recently, we’ve done a couple of collaborations with Omnipollo from Scandinavia – we’ve actually got a Raspberry Smoothie IPA in our tanks at the moment. We’re also building a sour beer facility just across the street and pumping the wort under the road, with foeders and all that.

You’re quite notorious for all the edgy marketing stunts over the years.

Driving a tank through the High Streets of London, throwing stuffed cats out of a helicopter over the Bank of England… all these crazy things we’ve done, some people like them and some don’t, but this is a business and we’ve got to raise awareness. And I think the people that don’t like it are those who think craft beer should be this tiny club – like when everyone loves a band until they get too big and then they don’t like them anymore. We’ve got a blissful disregard as to what people think; as long as we love the beers we’re making and having fun, we’re pretty happy. If you don’t get people to dislike you, then you won’t get people to passionately fall in love with you, either.

How do you see Asia developing for BrewDog?

Japan was one of our first markets. Our initial export strategy, because we couldn’t get any time off, was to send beer to places we wanted to visit – and it was as simple as that! [laughs] Like, “I want to go to Tokyo! Let’s send beer and take it from there!” But I think Asia is a truly exciting beer scene – it’s definitely in its emergence and we’re excited to be part of that wave.

Tell us about your book Business for Punks.

Well, we almost fell into the philosophy I outline in Business for Punks accidentally. When we set up, we had no idea how to run a business, how to manage people, how to distribute beer, any of those things… That worked in our favour because we didn’t know how things were meant to be done, so we just did them in our own way and on our own terms. Everything was on the line for us, so we had no option but to make it work.

The biggest thing we took from punk was that deeply ingrained DIY ethos – being reluctant to depend on anyone for anything, learning the skills we need to do things ourselves. You can only defeat the system if you can live outside the system – that’s the punk influence on our business. We took independent bank finance; we didn’t sell out to a bigger company. We’ve got a community of 50,000 “Equity Punks” – so we’re owned by people who love the beer as much as we do, which means we don’t have to compromise.

We’ve seen a spate of brewery sellouts in the past couple years. What do you think about that?

The mega-international global beer corporations over the last 40 to 50 years have destroyed the very essence of beer. They’ve turned something amazing into a lowest-common-denominator commodity by taking the taste, the flavour, the value out of the experience. They’ve dumbed it down and spent billions of dollars on advertising trying to convince people that this insipid fallacy is what beer actually should be.
Craft beer started as a revolt against everything that mass-market industrial beer stood for – it’s a complete antithesis, focused on the quality, the people, the beer, the flavour, the ingredients… Those two things are just so, so opposed. It’s like Darth Vader adopting the Little Mermaid – they’re that far apart from an ideological perspective.

Do you think the term “craft beer” is still worthwhile today?

Less and less. For me, where we should shift our focus is towards “independent craft beer” – you have all these arguments about what’s craft or not, whereas independence is black or white. We see things like the Brooklyn-Kirin deal, where they bought a stake of 24.5% just to stay under the Brewers’ Association definition in the US of 25%, which is as cynical as it is ill-conceived. Independence has got to be where companies like ours hang our hats.

Where do you see things heading in the beer scene?

Longer term, I’ve got no idea. We get to decide the beers we make, how we make and sell them, and how we treat our staff – everything else is up to the market. As long as we’re making beers in the right way and focusing on our people, I don’t care what size we are. Wherever we get is where we’re supposed to be. I barely know what I’m going to do in five weeks’ time, let alone five years!

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