Finally Fresh: Beers with James Watt of BrewDog

CANAL WINCHESTER, OH

Finally Fresh: American-made beers with James Watt of Scotland's BrewDog

INTERVIEWED MARCH 28, 2018
AT MRS. MURPHY & SONS IRISH PUB, CHICAGO

BrewDog is a name you know but likely haven't had in a while. Hailing from Ellon, Scotland, in the far northeast corner of the country, the brewery has been sending beer stateside for many years. It was unfortunate, however, that most Americans' experience with their typically hop-forward brews was less than ideal. Spending months in containers while crossing the Atlantic is not a recipe for success in a country saturated with beer options.

Enter BrewDog's newest outpost in Canal Winchester, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. With days old beer now readily available around the Midwest and beyond, the brewery now looks to make a second impression. Co-Founder James Watt is the face of the brewery in the US and is spearheading the suddenly fresh take on the brand he built from the ground up. Over pints of four day old, Ohio brewed, Juggernaut DIPA, we found out how he's managed to build BrewDog from a bottle of homebrew complimented by Michael Jackson, to a multi-billion pound, and still independent, brewing empire.

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We hear you started BrewDog after Michael Jackson tasted some of your homebrew and told you to quit your job. That's quite the approval.

Yea, we've still got the photo of that time we met him up in our offices. We'd been making beers at home in 2006. We got the opportunity to meet Michael at a famous beer pub in London. We let him taste our 8% stout that we'd aged in a whisky cask. He put his glass down, looked at us, and said, "Boys, quit your jobs and start making beer." We thought, fuck it, if Michael Jackson is saying that to us, let's do it! We got a £30,000 bank loan, cobbled together some savings, leased a small industrial unit, and set up with two humans and a dog.

And before your brewing days, you spent your days on a fishing boat...?

I spent seven years fishing. The north Atlantic is a tough place to make a living in January and February.

We can only imagine. So now BrewDog has a home in Columbus. That's gotta make a world of difference in terms of the beer in our glasses over here.

It's huge for us. When we used to send hoppy beers from Scotland to the US, I used to taste them and would just want to shoot myself in the head. They were terrible. $15.99 for a 4-pack of very old, oxidized hoppy beer that used to be good... there's no way you'd pay that as opposed to local. Then we had this huge carbon footprint, shipping big heavy containers of beer over the ocean. We actually pulled out of the US market for about three years, until we built the Columbus facility, just because we didn't want people to experience our beers that way. [Columbus] just made so much sense. Now it's fresh, it's local, and we have this amazing facility where people can taste what our beer is supposed to taste like.

Why Columbus?

It was about the same time our great friends at Stone were looking for an east coast facility. Columbus was their second choice, but they helped us a lot and shared a lot of their research they'd done there. I went there and just loved the city, the people, and the vibe there. I was only in Columbus for 24 hours and we decided to build this crazy thing. I got back, spoke to Martin [Dickie], and said, "You haven't been to Columbus, it's going to cost $30 million that we don't have, and don't know how we're going to get. We've got no idea how we're going to make it work, but we should definitely do it." He was like, "Ok." We did and we made it work.

Well at least now you know you can tell Martin anything and he'll agree to it.

Only the crazy things.

You've known him since childhood, correct?

Yea, we went to school together and were roommates in college.

After all these years, what's something that really annoys you about him?

Nothing... and that's kind of annoying. I feel like there should be something. We've got to this point where we've spent so much time together over the course of our lives — making a business, doing tv shows — we just know each other so well. We know the things that might annoy each other and it's just not worth it.

Speaking of TV shows, what happened to BrewDogs?

It wasn't so much what happened to the show, but what happened to the network. We made three seasons, 27 episodes, and then the Esquire network ceased to exist. The show will be back in September of this year, with a Columbus episode to kick it off.

Oh great, what network will that be on?

I can't tell you that yet... but definitely in September.

You did a lot of crazy things on that show, including brewing on top of a skyscraper in Chicago with Revolution. What was the most difficult brew you pulled off for the show?

Definitely the Michigan one, the Ice Bock we made with Founders. The ice on the top of the lake was about 2.5 feet deep so we had to cut through. I had to scuba dive and I get a little claustrophobic. I was under the ice, looking up at this tiny hole where the beer system came down. The dry suit I had was leaking, and the system wasn't working, so I had to be under there for much longer than I wanted to be.

That sounds miserable. No more ice dives for the new season then.

We're so excited the show is coming back. It was the 10th most illegally downloaded show in the US at one point. So people were watching it, just not on the Esquire network.

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Let's talk about Equity for Punks. You've said, "Our customers are complicit to our success." Why go the crowd funding route?

We wanted to build a new type of business so it was born a little bit out of necessity back in 2009. We couldn't get financing from anywhere. It was the global banking crisis, the economy was in a tailspin, and nobody wanted to lend money to small companies. So we were forced to come up with something different. Well we had these people who love our beers and are super passionate about what we do. Why not give them the opportunity to not only own equity in our business, but to come and join us in the journey and help us build what we want to build? We don't see them as investors, we see them as advocates, as ambassadors. As an amazing community that envelopes our business. They've come on that journey with us. It shortens the distance between ourselves and the people who love the beer we make. We now have 75,000 investors.

We don’t see them as investors, we see them as advocates, as ambassadors. As an amazing community that envelopes our business. They’ve come on that journey with us. It shortens the distance between ourselves and the people who love the beer we make.

Wow, that's impressive. What do you say to people who say that equity investment is selling out?

For me, the big beer business is responsible for the bastardization and commoditization of beer. They had almost destroyed the industry. Their intentions when it comes to the industry are very clear. Craft beer was born out of the revolution against that. It's the complete opposite of that. So for big brewers to buy the breweries that were formed as a revolution against them, just makes no sense. It's like Darth Vader adopting the Little Mermaid.

You also don't hide the fact that your ultimate goal is to go public.

Yea, we want to go public, we're a business. We would only list a smaller portion of our company publicly so no one could buy that and assume control. We want to give the people who have invested in us an exit via a public listing. I think we would be a very alternative type of public company that didn't play all the games the analysts expect us to play.

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How many BrewDog bars are there around the world?

There are now... 52 I think.

What about the beer? You've done some... can we call them gimmicks? Things like highest ABV, most expensive beer ever, and so on. How do those come about?

Oh you can call them gimmicks if you'd like. Most companies are scared to take a stand. We just say, what the hell, this is something we want to do. In the UK, craft beer is about 2.5% and back when we started it was less than .5%. So we had to shout really loud to be heard and make a point. Unless we did things like make the strongest beer on the planet and package it in taxidermy, and making beer at the bottom of the ocean, nobody would have listened. It made front page news in the UK and shocked people into thinking beer doesn't need to be Stella, Heineken, or Budweiser. There's this other side of beer.

We also have our first sour beers coming out in about two weeks time. I was at Wicked Weed right before they sold to AB. I tried the beer and said I wasn't going to leave until I hired the person who made it. It took me two days but we got Richard [Kilcullen] to come to Scotland.

[It] shocked people into thinking beer doesn’t need to be Stella, Heineken, or Budweiser. There’s this other side of beer.

Can you talk about your relationship with CAMRA?

I think CAMRA did some good work in the 1970's and they haven't changed a tiny bit since. There are some cask beers we quite like, but the rules that CAMRA try and stick to almost no longer make sense. I think they lost touch. For me, it's about good beer.

Are there American craft breweries that you take influence from?

Definitely. I remember picking up a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at a supermarket and it just blew my mind. I'd never had anything so hoppy. That was what started me on my beer journey. It was the beer I tried to copy with some very old cascade hops when I started making beer at home. Then I visited Stone, and they've been a massive inspiration to us too.

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You've recently reapproached your brand identity. What was that process like?

Our old labels were kind of classic. We just didn't feel it was reflective of the beer anymore, rather more where we were in 2007. We worked with a letterpress studio in Manchester. All the text we use is wood and metal die cut letters. All of our identity comes from that. We wanted to make the packaging made in a way that was as crafty as the beer.

And you gave away a million beers recently correct?

Yea, that sounds like a stupid thing to do right? But we wanted to take a massive gamble to try and change people's perception of craft beer in the UK. Once you taste a craft beer, it's really difficult to go back. We wanted to put our money where our mouth was and try and change the UK beer scene forever. We decided to give a million beers away, so that's ongoing at the moment.

What's your background on Chicago? What do you know about the scene here?

My favorite beer name, from pretty much all time, is from Chicago. Pipeworks Ninja vs Unicorn, is just a phenomenal name for a beer. I love that beer too. There's just a great beer scene here. It's such a cool city, and such a big city as well. So many of the best places in the country to drink beer are in Chicago. Places like Map Room have been amazing. The consumer in Chicago is really well educated which just makes it a great market to do business in. We're just really happy our beers are being made a few hours away now rather than flying across the ocean.

You've said, "Don't start a business, start a mission." Is that a pointer for small business owners?

Hell yea! For us, we measure success by how many people are passionate about good beer. Our mission is to make other people as passionate about good beer as we are. That's what guides everything we do. When it comes to making beers, we don't care how long it takes or how expensive the ingredients are. We don't care how expensive the equipment is. We just want to make the best beer we can — beers we love. We want to share that passion with as many people as we can. And that is the only thing we're setting out to do. It's been that mission from day one.

We had to shout really loud to be heard and make a point.

If you hadn't made that leap into beer, what would you be doing right now?

I think I'd still be on the fishing boats. I loved it, all my family are fisherman. My grandfather is 90 years old and still goes out everyday and catches lobster. I love the ocean, I love being on the boats. I thought I was going to be doing that my entire life, until I found myself consumed with this beer passion.

What's something that isn't widely known about you?

One of my favorite ways to unwind after a long day is to drink some whiskey and make some Star Wars lego while listening to Radiohead. I've got 80% of the Death Star made at home, but my daughter keeps dismantling it as fast as I can put it together.

If we came for a drink at your house, what would we be drinking, aside from BrewDog?

I would be making you some bourbon cocktails. A clinically classic bourbon Old Fashioned or maybe a whiskey sour. In terms of beer, I've got quite a bit of Cloudwater from Manchester. They're doing some phenomenal things. I really like Omnipollo and the Kernel. I just love their single hop pale ales. Then maybe some US beers as well if they're fresh enough. Or maybe some big imperial stouts as well. I'm a massive fan of the Speedway Stouts and all the spins on that.

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Photography by Kevin Schmalandt of Lakeshore Beverage, for The Hop Review

Thanks to James for taking an hour out of his one day visit to Chicago to chat. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter and look for BrewDog's Midwest brewed fresh beer at local bottle shops and bars.

 
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Beer & Branding: 
BrewDog