The Rise Of BrewDog And What It Means To ‘Sell Out’

James Watt and Martin Dickie founded BrewDog back in 2007, in Scotland with a desire to do things differently.

“We were bored with the industrially brewed lagers and stuffy ales dominating the UK market,” Watt says, “and decided the best way to work around this was to brew the beer that we wanted to drink.”

Seems easy enough, right? What started as a hobby in Dickie’s mom’s garage became a full time job because of a chance encounter with the late, great beer writer, Michael Jackson. “He tried our beer and told us ‘Boys, quit your jobs and start brewing.’ The rest – as they say – is history.”

In the beginning, they brewed tiny batches of beer, filled the bottles by hand, and sold their beers at local markets across Scotland and out of the back of a beat-up van. By 2008, the business seemed poised for something bigger and people felt it — the duo was able to score bank loans for tanks and a bottling machine. Now, the garage is a distant memory. BrewDog has a brewery in Ellon, Scotland and they’re about to build a second brewery and “beer hotel” in Columbus, Ohio. The brand exports to 60 countries and has 50 global bars.

“The mission is still the same as it was that first day in the garage,” Watt explains, “to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are.”

That raw passion is why many people were surprised when Watt and Dickie recently announced that they agreed to sell 22% of the company to TSG Consumer Partners (the parent company of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Sweetwater Brewing Company). Craft beer purists believed that the craft beer pioneers were “selling out” — a phrase that is slander in any creative endeavor, but especially in the craft beer community.

Over the past few years, renowned breweries like Goose Island, Ballast Point, and Boulevard have all been purchased by giant conglomerates. Recently, Devils Backbone, the most popular craft brewery in Virginia wasn’t even allowed to attend a craft brew festival (that they were throwing) because they were in the process of being purchased by AB-InBev. Fans feel squeamish about all of this. How can craft brewers champion the indie spirit when they’re funded by massive conglomerates?

Watt insists that this notion is wrong-headed. He sees it more like a big movie company investing in an indie at Sundance, calling the TSG cash infusion a “launch pad.”

“What people see as selling out couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.“Other great craft brewers like Stone Brewing Co. and Dogfish Head have also taken on minority investment deals, which are very similar to the deal we’ve just concluded.”

Dickie and Watt still have control of the company and remain its largest shareholders. They assure fans that TSG is also completely aligned with their stance on independence. “This new deal gives us the firepower to compete globally with the mega beer corporations and their faux craft beers, whilst remaining fiercely independent.”

As Scotsmen, the BrewDog leader know a lot about large corporations swooping in and purchasing the little guys. Do a little snooping about the ownership of the most famous Scotch distilleries and you’ll see names like Beam Suntory, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Bacardi. By now, this is an accepted fact for Scotch fans. They’ve come to have faith that the product won’t necessarily change just because a large company owns a slice of the pie.

“Many people are still very unaware about the breweries that are owned by mega-corps,” Watt says, “and the smoke and mirrors surrounding many supposed ‘craft’ breweries’ misleads beer drinkers every day.”

Part of the problem revolves around educating consumers about where their beer comes from and whether its minority owners actually have power. Fans are naturally afraid of anything that would curb a company’s renegade spirit. This is particularly true with BrewDog — whose appeal is that they push the boundaries of beer and challenge preconceptions about what brewing means.

“Historically, we have brewed beers that have pushed this notion much harder than any of our predecessors,” Watt says, “resulting in beers like The End of History, which tapped out at 55% ABV. Taking on societal norms surrounding beer helped pave the way for a changing landscape for both beer and beer’s consumption in the UK, and we’re excited about where the scene has landed today, and where it will go next.”

That doesn’t sound like a man who has allowed big cash (reportedly $264 million) to tamp down his rebelliousness. In fact, one of the first beers the company has slated for Ohio is a re-run of The End of History, to celebrate the state lifting limits on ABV. If that’s considered selling out, we’ll probably all be too buzzed to notice.