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Interview: James Watt and Martin Dickie, Brewdog

James Watt, left, and Martin Dickie have grown Brewdog into a major player. Picture: Contributed

James Watt, left, and Martin Dickie have grown Brewdog into a major player. Picture: Contributed

  • by DOMINIC JEFF
 

After all the radical marketing and outlandish business tactics from Scotland’s craft beer bad boys, expectations were high that Brewdog’s headquarters might turn out to be something of a wild and bohemian place.

In fact, the company’s purpose-built base on an Ellon industrial estate is a scene of quiet efficiency, with a sense that everything is in its rightful place.

The firm’s founders, James Watt and Martin Dickie, have driven Brewdog’s growth at break-neck speed over the past six years, and the key to their success is the way their talents and interests have dovetailed and complemented each other.

Dickie, a trained brewer who plied his trade at a Derbyshire start-up for two years before going into business with Watt, sums it up: “I’m responsible for production and James is in charge of all the other things. That’s one of the best things about it.”

The old school friends’ double act has even made it onto the small screen in a United States television series that saw them visit breweries across America and concoct beverages in unusual locations. The programmes – which surely boosted Brewdog’s sales in the world’s most-established craft beer market – may yet air in Britain if producer Esquire TV can sell them to a UK channel. A second US series is already being discussed.

Clearly at home on the factory floor, Dickie explains the workings of the brewing process, from the towering malt and water silos outside, through a series of gleaming steel fermentation vessels and back out into 30ft storage tanks on the other side of the building.

The flow of fledgling beer from one vessel to another is controlled from a computer, but more traditional methods are still practised as staff take it in turns to experiment with small batches in a bid to find the next winning recipe.

Dickie also delights in the bottling system, the biggest single investment in Brewdog’s expansion. As bottles of his original Punk India Pale Ale (IPA) – still by far the firm’s biggest seller – shoot through a series of machines at a rate of 250 a minute, he drops a couple of empties on to the conveyor belt to demonstrate the system’s ability to spot a dud.

Only a few years ago he was bottling Punk himself with a hand-operated machine. Amazingly he used to manage 250 in an hour, but that still made for a long day when orders had to be filled.

The brewery at Ellon, built partly with money raised from customers and fans in three groundbreaking crowdfunding exercises, is a little bigger than Dickie originally envisaged, but he always had something like it in mind – and he had hoped for even faster progress.

“It was always our plan to have a system like this,” he says. “When we started out, we reckoned we could get it in year three, but it took us until year five.”

The equipment has already allowed Dickie to tweak his IPA recipe, giving it more bitterness and dry hops, and he has a shopping list of further add-ons that will allow more twists and turns to his beers. He admits that some of his tactics aren’t exactly cost-effective.

“Pouring £12,000 worth of hops into a tank of already brewed beer doesn’t make much economic sense, but it’s how I like the beer,” he says.

Dickie’s taste for hops already means that Brewdog is a major buyer to the relatively small industry that supplies the prized flowers, using as much as a brewery ten times its size. But, as Watt explains, the pair have always trusted their own tastebuds when it comes to running the business.

“Everything we do from a beer perspective is selfish – we want to drink them ourselves,” he says. “We were determined, even if we failed, we would fail making beers we wanted to drink.”

It also pointed the way to expansion – faced with a lack of craft beer pubs in their home city of Aberdeen, Dickie and Watt opened the first of what has become a fast-growing chain of Brewdog bars. Last week they opened an outlet in Sao Paolo, Brazil, while a chain of specialist off-licences is also being launched this year.

The idea may be simple, but the rate of growth has been made possible by Watt’s bold approach to financing. In business circles, the company is as celebrated for its three “equity for punks” offerings that saw thousands of beer drinkers buy a share of the firm, which all came with additional benefits such as discounts and exclusive parties.

Watt, who studied law at Edinburgh University, drives the financial and logistical side of the business and reckons a lack of formal training helps.

“We just make it up as we go along,” he says. “We didn’t know how stuff was supposed to be done so we just went ahead and did what we thought.”

In his office at the front of the brewery – soon to be converted into a “tap room” as staff move into the larger warehouse being finished next door – he is also relaxed about following his instincts on international expansion.

“For us it’s just exciting to go places and see people getting passionate about what we do,” he says.

Such is his appetite for business that Watt thought nothing of investing in a restaurant “as a hobby” in 2009 – well, there was nowhere quite catering to his tastes in the Granite City. But then, as he sees it, taking a punt may be less risky than playing it straight.

He says: “We are always happy to take a gamble. I think in today’s marketplace playing it safe is a bit of a risk as well.”

30-second CV

James Watt

Born: Aberdeen, 1982

Education: Law and economics, Edinburgh University

First job: Postman between school and university

Car you drive: Old pick-up truck

Pet: A golden labrador named Simcoe. One day, hopefully, a shark.

Favourite music: Radiohead

Favourite beer: Punk IPA

Can’t live without: Ambition

What makes you angry? A lack of sandwiches.

Best thing about your job: Dressing up as Darth Vader every second Tuesday to lead team yoga sessions in the car park.

Martin Dickie

Born: Aberdeen, 1982

Education: Graduate of the International Centre for Distilling & Brewing at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.

First job: Flipping burgers at McDonalds while at school.

Car: I ride a white bicycle.

Pet: Dr Gonzo, a golden retriever.

Favourite music: The shipping forecast on Radio 4.

Favourite beer: Jackhammer.

Can’t live without: Sponges

What makes you angry? Smurfs

Best thing about your job: The people.

 

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