Last Saturday, Scottish-based and international craft brewery, BrewDog, unveiled a look at their first North American brewery, located just outside of Columbus, Ohio, to their throng of fans that are involved in the “Equity For Punks” membership program. Technically, I can’t actually be considered a voyeur since I curiously had been invited inside, but there still was an uneasy sneakiness that I felt throughout the day. More on that later.
For those that are unfamiliar with BrewDog, partners James Watt and Martin Dickie, are perhaps the largest and most successful home-brewers- gone-pro in the world. Their beer is distributed in 74 countries and they are the stars of the hit television show, “Brew Dogs”, the masterfully produced beer show with jaw dropping engineering.
Because of their unique and fun-loving, and sometimes irreverent (I mean, who uses stuffed roadkill for Custom Koozies of rare beer?) personalities, people might think the BrewDog partners are more like a present day Milli Vanilli. Yeah, they sound good together in public but do they really do the work?
The duo’s sometimes high-jinx shenanigans might lead those folks to think BrewDog slipped on a banana peel, kicked over a grain bucket into a mash tun, hit some valves while they fell and accidentally started brewing beer. Simple warning: do not let their comedic charm fool you. These guys are geniuses. Who brew delicious beer.
Consider this. Watt and Dickie were tired of the “faceless, generic, multi-national, monolithic, industrial corporations” that turned out “G***** awful” beer so they became simple homebrewers, dreaming of something larger. And different. But brewing beer they wanted to drink did not immediately translate into large beer sales.
Peddling their beer here and there with slow success led to securing a bank loan. A lot of businesses need a loan to help them get things off the ground and as long as you compare loans, it should be simple enough to pay it back once things have picked up. In BrewDog’s case, this was possible because they later received a monumental deal with U.K. uber-supermarket chain, Tesco, after finishing 1-thru-4 in a beer competition. Trouble was, it was a deal so large they couldn’t live up to it because they simply did not have enough space to brew the beer.
Needing more equipment, on another visit to the Bank of Scotland went James for an additional loan, but the bank was rather unimpressed. So, he marched into HSBC Bank like John Dillinger–except without guns and a gang–and basically held them up. He told them he had just secured a loan with the Bank of Scotland and offered them the opportunity to do the deal with him. And they did.
Next, showing off their business acumen, BrewDog started the “Equity For Punks” program which allows participants worldwide to purchase a stake in the business, along with receiving valuable membership benefits.
Once described by Watt as, “The ultimate incarnation of our philosophy”, this community-sourcing opportunity is tinged with marketing brilliance that has enabled them to re-invest in the company, while creating a large band of punk evangelists eager to spread the word throughout the world.
So, of all places in the United States, heck, North America, why did BrewDog choose Columbus, Ohio? Not that there’s anything wrong with it. Ohio is an awesome and intelligent beer state and Columbus, specifically Canal Winchester, is a wonderful area. But it does beg the question: of all the beer joints on the continent, why here?
Well in part, maybe it’s this. In 2014, after a lengthy search to build a new brewing facility eastward, BrewDog friends Stone Brewing, chose Richmond, Va. over broken-hearted Columbus. One particular roadblock might have been Ohio’s ABV beer cap of 12%.
Now, anyone who brews “The world’s strongest beer” at 55% ABV, readily sees this as a problem. Fortunately, it seemed that it was the right time for the law to be changed, it seemed to have the right advocate with beer-friendly Ohio Governor John Kasich, and it was the right place for BrewDog to move.
German-made tanks will be arriving shortly, offices will be furnished and the tap room will turn a now large, empty space into a cozy respite. The rear wall of the production area was built with expansion in mind, and the large amount of land where BrewDog rests is just minutes from the interstate.
It might be natural for breweries in the Columbus area to have some concerns over a large entity like BrewDog coming to town. Adam Benner, President of Land Grant Brewing in Columbus, doesn’t see it that way.
Adam said, “I think overall it’s a net positive add that they’re in Ohio. I think they have a lot more national and international draw than some of the breweries here. So it’s a way that folks may be coming out because they know BrewDog, find the other breweries that are making great beer in Ohio and really kind of introduce us to a lot of people that may not have made the trip to central Ohio before. It’s been a great experience working with the different folks from BrewDog.”
It was in one of those unfinished offices where I spoke with James Watt, who, while sipping on a Rhinegeist beer, is even cooler in person. (Co-founding partner Martin Dickie remained home while expecting the birth of a child). But before he starts, remember when I threw out that word “genius”? Check out this resume.
James Watt- “So, the project is slightly delayed because of the delay of the German equipment. We are looking to start making fresh test batches sometime in late January, so the date the beers come out will depend a little bit with the equipment schedules, and how well the test batches go. So, March 2017, hopefully all will go well.”
“At the moment, no. Just our main focus is to start making our own beer in Ohio before we start doing collaborations. We’ve always loved doing collaborations and there’s so many good breweries here in Ohio, so I’m sure we’ll do some things but we haven’t got in front of that, such as yet.”
“Well that’s something that’s so important to us, just to focus on both will be to focus on community. The U.S. has a fantastic craft beer market but no one else has this business model that we have where people that love our beer can own part of our business. For us that’s always been the cornerstone of building our community. It’s having people out there like today, they’re super passionate about what we do and actually owning an equity stake in our business, and that’s getting started in building our community and culture right here.”
“So anyone can go to our website [brewdog.com] and spend ninety-five dollars and they can own a piece of our company. It’s different from other types of crowdfunding that’s been done in the U.S. like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Here you buy equity in our company. And on top of that you get advantages like discounts, invites to days like today with the Equity For Punks event.”
“Yeah! Definitely! We love the guys at Stone and Greg Koch (Stone Brewing co-founder and CEO) is a friend of mine. They were so generous in sharing some of their information, so that when they were looking at Columbus, the fact that we’re here definitely has a large part to do with Stone’s help and potentially also a large part to do with the fact that Stone didn’t come here themselves (laughs)!!”
“I tell Greg every time I see him, ‘I’m happy that you looked at Columbus, but I’m very happy that you didn’t come here because it meant that we could come.'”
“We’re actually in talks and discussions but nothing has been confirmed yet.”
“These guys are all fantastic companies. Sierra Nevada was an inspiration for us to start making beer at home. They all make fantastic beers that I like drinking, but business…Martin and I don’t tend to focus too much on what other people are doing and focus on what we’re doing. We’re brewing beers that we like to drink, and we focus on the people and on the Equity For Punks community.”
“Yeah for us it’s so, so important. I think that so many breweries have sold out to the big guys in the last couple of years. From Ballast Point to Golden Road, to Lagunita’s to Elysian, I mean the list goes on and on. And for us, what we love about Equity For Punks is our business is owned by people who are as passionate about fantastic beers as we are, and that means we can continue to over-invest in making great beers, and we can continue to over-invest in our people and our team, but help this community come on this journey with us. And part of this journey is the work what we do.”
“They’re not just investors. They are ambassadors. They’re advocates who are the heart and soul of our business. This is something we use very much to drive our U.K. business with our almost 50,000 Equity For Punks investors. For us, we didn’t just want to come to the U.S. with our beers, we wanted to come with our entire philosophy. And that philosophy involves the community of beer lovers across the U.S.”
“(Laughs). Anyone who has a established a small business will know that you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, just to keep that business alive for the first couple of years. You’ve got to put everything on the line for what you believe in, you’ve got to take some gambles, you’ve got to do some things that are conventional, some aren’t.”
“A lot of that just to get your business up and established. Definitely I do miss the hustle and bustle of the start up. I like to think the way we do things, of the start-up mentality, is still very key to our culture. Like the decision to spend a million dollar investment in Columbus after spending 24 hours here is very much past our fun edge. We don’t tend to overthink it.”
“I think the beer is the cornerstone of civilization going back thousands of years. I don’t know, it just seems to be kind of in the deep human psyche and that’s why it’s been so frustrating to see what the big corporations have done for the last 40-50 years.”
“Something that is so fantastic and all of those common denominator commodities seemed to go through a drying spell. And then the craft beers started growing in the U.S. and started going global, and then kind of chipped away at Big Beer just a little bit.”
“The craft beer movement, the U.S. is ahead of everyone but in the U.K., we’re showing signs are that we’re going to catch up and catch up quickly.”
“That’s happening in Scandinavia, that’s happening in Japan. For us, we’ve got so much inspiration from the U.S., the beer scene is the catalyst for this global movement, so for us to come full circle to come to the U.S. to make our beers, is something we’re really happy we decided to do.”
The event in Columbus was BrewDog’s inaugural U.S. Annual General MAYHEM party, which celebrates those craft beer enthusiasts who have entered the “Equity For Punks” program. Seven local breweries poured beer alongside BrewDog, five bands played throughout the day, and over 1,000 guests from twenty states and two countries shared in the day.
Flying employees all the way across an ocean into a new country just for the MAYHEM party is evidence that BrewDog is passionate about bringing new fans into the world of craft beer, and rewarding their closest fans. It’s also worth noting, that BrewDog ambassadors, Sarah Warman and Marissa Urbank, who expertly coordinated this Columbus event, are also Certified Cicerone’s. So, when James Watt says BrewDog is all about the beer, you can believe him.