Interview: Brewdog founders James Watt and Martin Dickie

Share this article

WANT to see where the strongest beer in the world is made? First drive to Fraserburgh, the bleak fishing port 40 miles north of Aberdeen. At the edge of town, turn left and head for the desolate industrial estate.

Ignore the discount carpet warehouse and park among the weeds and abandoned lorries. Note how the smell of hops mingles with the salt in the air. In the absence of corporate signage, this is what tells you that you have entered BrewDog territory.

Don't let the wheeling seagulls, making that plangent Sunday morning noise, put you off. Pick your way through the beer-puddled car park, loading bay, meeting room, past the canisters of carbon dioxide, boxes of 5am Saint destined for Ireland and casks of Hardcore IPA. Don't be alarmed. This is craft brewing in the raw.

Past the Portakabin office, beyond a kitchen in which The Young Ones would feel perfectly at home, lies the BrewDog executive suite. Martin Dickie and James Watt's lair, with its view of South Harbour Road, is not exactly the corner office of corporate fantasy but it is freshly painted (with the company's logo on the wall) and the floor is mercifully dry. There is even one of those smart white cupboards, in which most companies store printer paper, Post-it notes and pens. Theirs contains beer.

Lifelong friends Watt and Dickie started BrewDog in 2007 with their combined life savings of 30,000, a 20,000 bank loan and a business plan that was more creative writing course than Harvard Business School. From a site close to their homes, Dickie made the beer, Watt marketed it, and Bracken the dog kept them company and inspired their name.

They got off to a lumpy start. Strangely, the hostelries of the north-east were not impressed when two guys in trainers rocked up and told them that their beers were dreadful, they should bin the lot and stock their heavily-hopped, bizarrely-named brews instead. But while publicans in Peterhead and Ellon thought them certifiable, Watt soon realised that thousands of beer geeks with blogs, websites and Twitter accounts would welcome them as living gods.

BrewDog's message quickly spread among the world's microbrewery anoraks, specialist collectors and other booze hounds with laptops. Watt also figured out that newspapers have many blank pages to fill every day, and that lurid stories about anarcho-brewers making beer stronger than vodka and selling it in a stuffed stoat or taking it to sea in a fishing boat were just what they needed on a quiet Tuesday. The era of profits from notoriety – a bit like the Sex Pistols' cash from chaos but with an RSS feed – had arrived.

Four years on, BrewDog has 65 employees and a turnover of almost 7 million. It produces 660,000 gallons of beer a year, sold in Asda, Tesco, and Sainsbury's as well as their own bars in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and, as of last week, Glasgow. By autumn, they will have a bar in London. Come the end of the year, there will be one in Manchester and possibly another city as well. The company has outgrown its shambolic roots so completely that there are conditioning tanks full of beer outside as well as inside their buildings.

"We are completely at capacity," says Watt, the more talkative of the pair. "We could sell so much more beer. We've been pulling out of whole countries and cutting customers, just to try and keep some of the customers we have in stock." Brazil and Spain, national distributors WaverleyTBS and pub chains Green King, Moslon Coors and Punch Taverns will all have to do without Trashy Blonde and 5am Saint until capacity increases.

It shouldn't be too long. They have the site (a field outside Aberdeen), the planning permission and now just need a ton of cash to

build an eco-brewery that will allow them to produce five times more beer a year.

Turns out the guys who hired a dwarf to stand outside the Houses of Parliament holding a placard for a week – to campaign for the right to sell beer in two-thirds of a pint measures; they won – care deeply about trees and flowers. "The final goal," says Dickie, "is to have an energy-neutral place. We will generate more energy on site than we use in production. We'd like to put a turbine somewhere, although I don't think it will be on the site. We've also got a way of getting the effluent cleaned up, rather than sending it into Scottish Water's sewers for someone else to clean up. We'll be able to sleep well at night knowing we are making awesome beer and not affecting the environment."

The shiny new green facility will cost around 7m, which is quite a big ask when you are both under 30. (Watt is 29, Dickie 28.). If they can raise 2.2m, their retained profits and the bank should cover the rest.

To find that hefty sum without selling out to the man, BrewDog is selling shares. Lest anyone accuses them of taking the suit route, it's not called a share issue but "equity for punks", a chance for their "fans" to invest in the company. It is going well: they have raised 650,000 in five days. Their first share issue, in 2009, took four and a half months to get to that figure.

Equity for punks is central to what Watt, a law and economics graduate, calls his "alternative business model", to sell more beer without selling out the BrewDog ideals. "How can a young company grow exponentially when it's tough to get finance from the banks? We don't want to sell our souls to venture capitalists, we don't want to go down the institutional investment line. This way shortens the distance between ourselves and the people who enjoy our beer. It builds a culture and community round what we do, based on giving the people who enjoy our products a stake in the company."

This doesn't, says Watt, just create capital but also brand ambassadors and is much more fun than an ISA. Take the AGM. Last year's, held in Fraserburgh at the height of the winter whiteout, attracted around 100 hardy shareholders. The legal business was wrapped up in ten minutes, leaving the rest of the day free for "sampling" the product.

Shareholders also get a lifelong discount in the newest part of the BrewDog empire, its bars. These are, says Watt, part of his and Dickie's selfish agenda. "They are somewhere we'd want to go. The whole thing's selfish. We make beers we want to drink, our bars are places we want to hang out."

The bars share the "we're only here for the beer" ethos that runs through the company. Dickie explains: "Everything is reclaimed or second hand, so the whole focus is on the product. It's the opposite of a style bar where they spend 6m on the fit-out and serve the same shit as they serve next door."

Watt sourced sofas from charity shops and board games from eBay. There are no televisions and no "football nutters". The staff all spend a week at the brewery to see how the beers are made (and to learn, after they have cleaned the mash tun, that washing glasses is not so tough after all).

This means that, when punters wander in, the staff can set them on the path to righteousness. "They'll tell them, sorry, no Tennent's, but we have 77 Lager, made with whole leaf hops, have a taste of this. A couple of months later we'll see them drinking Hardcore (a potent 9.2 per cent ABV IPA] or Tokyo (the notorious stout that, at 18.2 per cent ABV, is the strongest beer in the world]," says Dickie.

Watt jumps in: "It ties back into our mission, to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are. Beer's got such a bad reputation in the UK. The scene is dominated by faceless, generic, monolithic, multinational corporations who make pathetic, fizzy, yellow, insipid cardboard, then spend a lot of money on marketing to try and pass it off as beer.

"Our beer is not designed to get you drunk cheaply. It's designed to get you excited about the flavours and the experience, made with the best possible ingredients ."

Warming to his theme, Watt turns to the Campaign for Real Ale. "Camra (who have cancelled BrewDog's stall at their annual festival due to serving rules] are single handedly responsible for holding back innovation in British beer in the last 40 years. With an overbearing emphasis on such a narrow and boring spectrum of beers, Camra think beer has got to be served by cask, somewhere between 3.2% mild and a 4.5% bitter. Camra is staid, it's tacky, it's conservative, it's old fashioned, it would put your grandparents to sleep. I'd gladly line up the whole lot of them and fire cans of punk off their heads".

BrewDog is, in many ways, the logical extension of Dickie and Watt's student flats, where they first tried to recreate American microbrewery Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale in a demijohn in the cupboard. They are the worst-paid people in the building, taking salaries of 15,000 a year and investing the rest back into the company. It's just two years since Watt has been able to give up his other job, as a trawlerman.

They always planned to start a business together. Watt can't remember the last time they fell out. He points at Dickie, who today is keeping his long fringe out of his eyes with a hairband. "I can't remember having an argument or serious disagreement about anything."

When they have a quiet Sunday, they come to work and make beer together.

Why this need to keep pushing the hoppy envelope? Watt is clear: "Beer's been around for 10,000 years. We want to show people a new way. It doesn't have to begin with Heineken and end with Stella." n

www.brewdog.com