James Watt: Putting the Craftsmanship in Craft Beer

It’s fair to say the evolution of craft beer marked a line in the sand not just for the drinks market, but in much wider elements of fashion, style and social etiquette. In modernising the ethos behind the rather staid market for bitters and ales, the founders of brands such as BrewDog created ‘the hipster’, popularised body art and changed, perhaps forever, how we socialise.

It’s 2007, and 20-somethings James Watt and Martin Dickie find themselves in a foggy, windy, cold Scottish outpost, Fraserburgh. Frustrated at the lack of real choice in a drinks market populated by imported lagers, yet perennially sentimental about the role of traditional alcoholic staples that had fuelled generations of factory workers, miners and engineers, the duo have already set about feeding new life into old flavours, progressing from their bedrooms and kitchens to this, their first brewery which, in simple terms, is some old machinery in a warehouse.

“At first, as with all good creative businesses, creating our drink was something we wanted to do for ourselves,” says James Watt. “I think a lot of people felt there was a disconnect at the time between a certain demographic and the drinks they were consuming. Lager and fizzy beer had gone the way of the young lads, with football and nightclubs piggybacking and then driving the trend. Ciders and fruit-based drinks had a very summer existence, while spirits, shorts and wines were mostly for women. The market needed something different.”

Being aware of the need to change something and having the propulsion to do it are of course two very different things. The duo, both 24 at the time, didn’t possess industry insight, nor have the sort of business acumen to get anywhere close to the big players in the market. And yet, what they proved to what would become a truly global audience, is that if the product is good enough, so then can any commercial challenge be achieved.

“Our initial attempts were a total disaster! We were 24 at the time and had given up our jobs. That meant us getting a £20,000 bank loan, some second-hand stainless-steel tanks and we started making hoppy beers.”

“We were fortunate enough to meet Michael Jackson… not the King of Pop,” laughs Watt. “No, this was the guy known as the ‘Beer Hunter’. He was a famous whiskey and beer writer and he tasted one of the beers that we made at home. He told us to quit our jobs and start making it commercially.

“Martin and I immediately sprang to life at that thought: ‘If Michael Jackson is telling us to do that, then let’s do it’. The UK beer market was dominated by the industrial generic beers and there were cask ales as well, but we wanted to make American-inspired beers.

“We were massively inspired by Sierra Nevada, by Stone Brewing Company, by Dogfish Head out in the US and we wanted to make those types of beers in the UK. Dogfish Head’s founder, Sam Calagione, wrote a book called Brewing Up A Business and that helped make our mind up.”

Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of Jackson’s last great decisions as shortly afterwards the greatly-respected journalist passed away. He was 65 and would have had many happy years ahead of him at any one of BrewDog’s 47 UK bars, or perhaps overseas at locations as far-spread as Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Toronto and Cincinnati. “It’s a shame Michael wasn’t able to witness the transformation and the growth, but to have inspired and given us belief in this creative vision in the first place was monumental for us.”

Wind forward 12 years and that Fraserburgh base on the northeast coast of Scotland turned out to be just the first brewing phase of an empire that sees the pair listed on the much coveted Sunday Times Rich List – the first craft beer individuals to do so.

“I think what is important about creativity and innovation is, in certain sectors, trial and error is imperative,” says Watt. “When people try to clarify what makes a beer it all comes down to a final product and the precision with which that is brewed and comes to market, but there are many thousands of iterations of that same products, and the adjustments that have been made across many years are in fact what the product is, so you must have the confidence to push past the failures.

“Our initial attempts were a total disaster!” he laughs. “Imagine – we were 24 at the time and had given up our jobs. That meant us getting a £20,000 bank loan, some second-hand stainless-steel tanks and we started making hoppy beers.

“The first batch was Punk IPA, and that ended up with my mobile phone, car keys and a mercury thermometer in it. That whole batch had to be condemned. For the second go, we bought some cheap hose to connect from the heat exchanger to the fermentation tank, but that made the beer taste like plastic, so that one also had to be condemned!”

“I think what is important about creativity and innovation is, in certain sectors, trial and error is imperative”

James Watt

Soon finding themselves using credit cards to prop up the purchasing of malt and hops, the founders at least produced a third batch which was marketable. “I think what always helped us was the fact we knew what we wanted to get to in terms of flavour, appearance, perception.

“We also had a marketing campaign that was very different to what all the big lagers were doing – it was a niche product designed to appeal to those in the know, so the craft and perception of what we were aiming at was to go well beyond just the drink itself; that was vitally important.”

Watt began selling the company’s signature drink Punk IPA at farmer’s markets and to independent pubs. “The more we sold the more feedback we got, and that enabled us to tweak the marketing to an audience that we knew was developing.

“I think it was really pertinent to see a market crying out for a drink that was crying out for a market, if that makes sense. The two met at exactly the right time and the revolution really kicked on from there.

“Obviously we weren’t alone,” Watt continues. “Others were having the same idea, and when, socially, things like the hipster image developed and took this drink, the IPA, on as their own, we were really able to make huge strides forward.”

BrewDog’s marketing ploys have, at times, garnered criticism. They displayed their bottled craft beers in the mouths of stuff squirrels and stoats, their socialist ethos was against the drinks market trend, and the punchiness of their bottle and can designs was a world away from the toned down messages lager brands were having to adhere to in the wake of ‘lad culture’. “I feel we did what we had to do,” says Watt. “At the time, the availability and understanding of good beers in the UK was quite limited. That meant that we had to shout quite loud. We have done things that have been edgy, provocative and controversial.

“But the reason for doing all of these things was to open up a debate and get to know other people’s thoughts – people who are as passionate and excited about craft beer as us. I think if someone sees a 55% beer packaged in a stoat or squirrel that has undergone taxidermy, it shocks them into thinking about the beer in a whole different way.”

In 2017, 10 years after the company was formed, Watt and Dickie sold 22% of the business to private equity house TSG Consumer Partners, for £213million, thus valuing the company at £1billion. And yet the ethos of producing a drink for the masses continues – in October 2018 the fifth round of their crowdfunding project to sell shares in the company for £23.75 each raised £10.1million from 21,759 investors. In total, 94,000 people around the world have a stake in the company.

“Looking forward, we remain as excited as ever about the product, because that’s what we do… that’s what motivates us. We have got a phenomenal team and everyone on that team shares our passion. They’re knowledgeable and evangelical about the beer, and that is the craft in ‘craft beer’.

“Although we have been doing a lot since we started in 2007, we are still tiny in the overall beer market and we just want people to be excited about these flavours, the spectrum of the diversity, the artisanal craft beer. We want to put the taste, the passion and the craftsmanship back into people’s beer glasses.”

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