Julie Tucker
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Entrepreneurs: How BrewDog started from nothing

BrewDog is an award-winning Scottish craft beer company founded in 2007 by Martin Dickie and James Watt. Arguably the most famous craft beer brewers in the world, they operate 50 bars across the UK and 24 international bars.

In 2008, BrewDog was presented with the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust and the Tenon Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the National Business Awards for Scotland. Its Paradox Grain beer won a gold medal in the wood and barrel-aged strong beer category at the 2008 World Beer Cup, while its Hardcore IPA won gold in 2010 in the Imperial IPA category.

In 2018, the company announced its plans to build a $30 million brewery and tap room on an 11,000 s.q. metre site in the Murrarie Metroplex in Brisbane, Australia.

How did it begin?
BrewDog was founded in Fraserburgh by Watt and Dickie, who met at school and then shared student digs at Edinburgh. Watt read economics and law, and Dickie studied brewing at Heriot-Watt. Reportedly the first microbrewers in Scotland, they launched their company when they were both 24.

Dickie said they had always had a mantra of “them and us”, seeing themselves as the lone and rebellious independent, against the boardroom ethos of most major breweries.

They launched their company in a small industrial unit, where the company founders, accompanied by their pet dog, worked tirelessly to get it off the ground. Dickie described the business as “myself and James and a dog” – hence the company’s name of BrewDog. Their premises were “cobbled together” with whatever equipment they could afford.

The founders admitted their first year of trading was extremely tough. In 2008, their small brewery was struggling. The company founders were selling their US-style craft beers at farmers’ markets from the back of their van.

Their first beer was Punk IPA, which kick-started the company. A light, golden classic, it had bursts of caramel and tropical fruit including pineapple, grapefruit and lychee, with a bitter finish. However, business wasn’t great, and they began missing payments on the £20,000 bank loan they had secured to set up the company a year earlier. Watt said they were selling only a couple of cases on a good day, so they were losing money.

Gradually, they introduced further beers to their range, including Dead Pony Club, Indie, Lost Lager, Clockwork Tangerine and Jet Black Heart Nitro, to name but a few.

They entered a selection of their beers in a bottled beer competition launched by Tesco supermarket and won first, second, third and fourth places. Watt said their secret was never to lose faith in what they were doing, describing their attitude as “stupidly ambitious”.

How did they grow?
They went to Tesco’s headquarters in Welwyn Garden City and the supermarket bosses said they wanted to put BrewDog beer in 500 shops, purchasing 2,000 cases a week. Watt said, “No problem,” but in the back of his mind was the worry that the company comprised two guys filling the bottles by hand!

Tesco wanted the first delivery in four months, but when Watt and Dickie asked for another bank loan for £150,000, to expand production and install a bottling line, they were turned down, due to late repayments on their existing loan.

Determined to succeed, they went to another lender and managed to negotiate what they described as an “amazing deal”. This enabled them to expand their brewing facilities and supplying Tesco with Punk IPA beer was the start of their amazing success. The beer was a big hit and other supermarkets began ordering it as well.

Fast forward to the present day and BrewDog is now valued at £1.8 billion! It continues to supply multiple supermarkets, including Tesco worldwide. The company has gone from strength to strength, making and shipping craft beers to 60 countries across the globe. It is now based at a new, bigger brewery in the nearby town of Ellon.

What makes BrewDog stand out?
The company founders’ entrepreneurial spirit has helped to rocket BrewDog to success. In 2011, they offered crowdfunding shares totalling £2 million, equating to 8% of the capital of the company, to raise money.

People who bought the shares received other benefits, such as discounts in BrewDog bars and when they purchased the beers online. They were also invited to attend the annual shareholders’ meeting.

Dickie and Watt have dreamed up many headline-grabbing marketing stunts over the years. They describe BrewDog as a “post-punk, apocalyptic, craft brewery”, telling their customers to “ride towards anarchy”. Its slogans include, “Changing the world, one glass at a time.”

Publicity stunts have included spoofing the iconic Guinness surfer advert by wearing a horse costume and playing in the sea at Aberdeenshire and in a local swimming pool. Controversially, they chartered a helicopter and flew across London during their crowdfunding bid to express their opposition to “fat cat” bosses. They then dropped embalmed cats from the air, each of which was attached to a copy of BrewDog’s crowdfunding “Equity for Punks” prospectus.

They said afterwards it was a symbolic stunt that reflected the end of the fat cat. It received some negative publicity when it was described as the “weirdest publicity stunt of all time” – but it also received plenty of media attention!

Outrageous marketing campaigns
Never afraid to court controversy, Dickie and Watt posed in drag in a red light district as part of their “Don’t Make Us Do This … Equity for Punks” funding campaign.

They took a swipe at politics when they protested again Russia’s ban on “homosexual propaganda” prior to the Winter Olympics in 2014, by launching a new beer dubbed, “Hello My Name is Vladimir”.

In 2011, they took a different slant on the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton by launching a beer called “Arise Prince Willy”, which was advertised as “stirring the loins of newlywed princes”.

They also drove a tank through Camden in north London as a publicity stunt to raise funds for the brewery.

Whatever they have done has turned to gold and even negative publicity has turned into good publicity, in that it has raised the profile of BrewDog.

Charitable activities
Despite their reputation as the hell-raisers of craft beers, the founders launched the BrewDog Foundation in 2017. They have pledged to donate millions of pounds to support charitable causes throughout the world.

They say they’re “on a mission to change the world of beer” and want to help “change the world at large” at the same time. They will donate money every year to charitable initiatives and have invited prospective recipients to apply for funding.

Despite their vast wealth, Watt and Dickie insist they haven’t sold out to the mainstream establishment. They have recently enjoyed making two series of the TV show, Brew Dogs, for Esquire’s US cable channel. Sales of their beers in the States have doubled since the series was first aired.

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© Russell Hart / Alamy Stock Photo

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