Mark Dredge seeks out the genius behind the noise.
In Fraserburgh, an isolated fishing town in northeast Scotland, a little brewery has been nabbing global headlines. BrewDog’s boisterous beers, maverick marketing and anti-macro video blogs, all concocted by 28-year-old owners James Watt and Martin Dickie, bark loudly. But I’m there to see if there’s more to this dog than attention-grabbing exploits.
I’ve arrived with fellow beer writers Zak Avery and Pete Brown to brew a beer, Avery Brown Dredge. We walk through the cold, overcrowded brewery past the bottling line—which will see more than 8 million bottles pass through it this year—through a mountain of boxes and pallets to be shipped (55 percent of it for export), past an equally busy wall of awards and into the modest head office. There, we choose our recipe while Watt serves us hot tea in BrewDog-branded glasses: “I couldn’t find any mugs,” he says with a smile, “so you’re getting tea the BrewDog way.”
2010 was BrewDog’s biggest year yet; Watt and Dickie opened a restaurant and a bar in their hometown of Aberdeen, and in the U.K. alone their sales increased by 230 percent. Still, “We sell more beer in Sweden than we do in the whole of the U.K.,” explains Watt. They also made worldwide news in 2010 with three ice-distilled beers, each topping the next as the world’s strongest beer: The 41%-ABV Sink the Bismarck beat the 32%-ABV Tactical Nuclear Penguin, before the series culminated in the 55%-ABV The End of History, which cost more than $700 a bottle and was packaged inside a stuffed squirrel.
Penguin and Bismarck are now available year-round, but in the brewhouse, most of the focus actually goes to the core range of “smaller” beers like 77 Lager and the flagship Punk IPA, which Watt and Dickie bravely retooled in January 2011 (lower ABV, less bitterness, more aroma) because, as Dickie explains, “We realized that Punk was no longer the best IPA we felt we could brew.” The lineup also includes Hardcore IPA, which won gold at the 2010 World Beer Cup in the fiercely fought Imperial IPA category, and the Paradox series of whiskey-barrel-aged stouts that won WBC gold in 2008. These beers aren’t gimmicky, and they don’t make as much noise as the high-ABV superstars, but they’re the big sellers, so the brewery runs 24/7 to keep up with the demand.
The brewery is ordered around the whirlwind of Watt and calm of Dickie. Watt is an outspoken frontman, always dreaming up new ideas, obsessive in everything he does, driven but inquisitive; Dickie is quiet, maybe even shy, relaxed, in control. Both are very funny, passionate and knowledgeable. The two have been friends since age 11, and together they still share a youthful adventurous spirit, mischievously egging each other on behind the kettle and beyond.
Like a starter’s gun, heavy metal music suddenly explodes from the stereo, and we know it’s time to mash in. There are no back-saving buttons here: It’s shovels, ladders and sacks—and the unsung hero of BrewDog, head brewer Stewart Bowman, who studied with Dickie for Heriot-Watt University’s renowned brewing and distilling degree, commands us through it. Bowman is a man in control, never stopping between brewing, cleaning, transferring beer, packing pallets and driving the forklift like a maniac.
In April, BrewDog celebrated its fourth birthday, a milestone achieved by innovation and hard work. What doesn’t show up on the shelves, or in headlines, is the yin and yang between Dickie and Watt that reverberates in their beers: Beyond the fascinating, attention-seeking brews is a quietly exceptional foundation that shows this dog knows more than a few tricks. •
GET DOGGED: Proving that it’s not only capable of restraint but actually really, really good at it, BrewDog recently concocted its IPA is Dead series, a collection of IPAs brewed with identical malt bills but different hop varieties to show off the nuances of each. The set highlights fruity Bramling Cross, sharp Nelson Sauvin, lemony Sorachi Ace and orange-pine Citra in one four-beer box.