Could BrewDog’s Cancellation Trigger a Reckoning Across the Craft Beer Industry?

It isn’t just BrewDog leaving a bitter taste in workers’ mouths.

by Matthew Curtis

15 June 2021

The BrewDog logo hanging outside of one of their bars
Matthew Black/Flickr

At 9:29pm on Wednesday 9 June, Punks with Purpose tweeted for the first time to a mere 50 followers. Attached was an open letter to BrewDog, the multinational brewery and bar chain established in 2007 by school friends James Watt and Martin Dickie, and headquartered in Ellon, Aberdeenshire.

The letter’s 139 signatories – all current or former BrewDog employees – accuses the business and in particular its CEO, Watt (Dickie’s title is co-founder, but remains heavily involved with the business’s operations) of having created a “rotten culture” built on a “cult of personality”; of treating workers “like objects” in its pursuit of rapid growth; and of “gaslighting” mistreated workers by making false claims about the business both internally and externally.

Yet perhaps “the single biggest shared experience of former staff,” states the letter, “is a residual feeling of fear”. A culture of intimidation and secrecy, “an inability to speak out about the atmosphere we were immersed in.” This fear is reflected in the letter itself: while 61 of its signatories are named, around half of these chose to use only their initials; a further 78 signatories opted to remain anonymous.

In a statement to Novara Media, a spokesperson for BrewDog said that the company intended to take swift action, including “build[ing] a programme of cultural and leadership and development that not only inspires a better culture at BrewDog, but sets an example for our industry.”

The tweet quickly blew up. By morning, it was trending nationally, with reports in The Guardian, Daily Mail, CNN and the BBC. At the time of writing, it has been retweeted over 5,900 times.

The controversy threatens to burst the bubble of what has become the UK’s largest “independently owned” brewery, which produces more than 224 million pints of beer annually. Its early marketing focus saw them square up to beer’s biggest multinationals like Carlsberg and Heineken, decrying “mass-produced” beer in favour of its more flavourful, characterful alternatives; BrewDog’s flagship Punk IPA is currently the best selling craft beer in the UK. BrewDog has often been heralded an industry trailblazer: there are now 1,897 small, independent breweries in the UK, more than twice the number that existed just a decade ago.

The company has also expanded internationally, now running more than 80 bars in countries including India, Brazil and Japan, as well as breweries in Ohio, Brisbane and Berlin. The company’s success has not gone unnoticed by wolfish private equity firms: in 2017, the San Francisco-based TSG Consumer Partners acquired a 23% stake in BrewDog for a reported $124 million (£88 million), valuing the company at £1 billion, a valuation that has continued to inflate as the company has pursued stratospheric growth. Nor is it only PE firms that have seen value in the business: much of BrewDog’s early success came from crowdfunding drives that offered its most hardcore fans – dubbed “Equity Punks” – to invest in the company, raising millions in the process.

As BrewDog’s size has begun to rival the mass-production breweries it has historically railed against, its focus has shifted towards sustainability. It now claims to be the world’s first “carbon negative” brewery, and in 2021 became a B Corp (though according to a report in the Times, this certification is under review by its issuing body).

BrewDog’s rise is chequered by a long history of ill-considered marketing stunts. In 2015, founders Watt and Dickie were accused of transphobia and whorephobia when in a fundraising video they appeared as female sex workers, alongside the hashtag #DontMakeUsDoThis. Three years later and undeterred by this controversy, the pair announced Pink IPA, a “beer for girls” and a supposed attempt to draw attention to the gender pay gap – a ploy further cheapened when, on International Women’s Day this year, BrewDog’s Indianapolis bar sacked four of its female and non-binary LGTBQ+ staff members over an alleged “change in culture”. Perhaps the company’s starkest display of naivety was its decision last November to mint 10 solid gold cans of its flagship Punk IPA – reportedly worth £15,000 each – despite threatening staff with pay cuts and layoffs due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although the firm has often invited criticism for these snafus, the criticisms voiced in the open letter feel more significant, in that they come from within the company.

Rob MacKay worked directly under Watt as a product manager between 2013 and 2018. He tells me his time at BrewDog left him feeling “mentally damaged”, and that the stories he and his 138 colleagues share in the open letter are just the tip of the iceberg.

Charlotte Cook worked at BrewDog’s Ellon brewery between 2012 and 2014, and had a similarly bad experience. “The way BrewDog and James Watt present themselves publicly is very different to how they behave within the company,” she says. “It’s a really awful place to work and we wanted to spread awareness of that.”

Both Cook and MacKay say Punks with Purpose felt galvanised to publish their letter following an outpouring of testimonies from within the American and British craft beer industry, one that often presents itself as innovative and progressive, when the reality is often one of long hours, low pay and little to no HR support.

Many of these stories have been collated and shared anonymously on the Instagram accounts of Brienne Allan (@ratmagnet), production manager at Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts, and Edinburgh-based beer writer Siobhan Buchanan (@britishbeergirl). Others have chosen to name themselves: Cook recently wrote in detail for beer magazine Ferment about how one incident of sexism during her time at BrewDog took eight years to resolve, and how poor workplace culture is endemic within the company. The consequences of these exposés have been material: earlier this month, the managing director of Marble Beer in Manchester decided to step down after the brewery was accused of harbouring a sexist, bullying workplace culture in several of the posts shared anonymously by Buchanan.

BrewDog’s reaction to the open letter was fast and furious. A few hours after it went live, Watt posted a response on his company’s Equity for Punks forum – a private message board accessible only by those who have invested in the company – that was swiftly leaked. While Watt appeared to admit to making a mistake, he also attempted to downplay the letter’s motives by expressing that the workplace environment at BrewDog is “not for everyone”.

Despite having attracted significant press attention by this point, the company kept digging. The following morning, Punks with Purpose shared a leaked internal memo sent to BrewDog staff asking them to sign a statement confirming that their experience didn’t align with that of the letter signatories.

Suddenly, Watt began backpedalling, insisting that it was his “people team” who had sent the memo, not him. Less than an hour later he tweeted a further statement from his personal Twitter account. This time, his tone was more conciliatory: “Our focus now is not on contradicting or contesting the details of that letter, but to listen, learn and act”. Meanwhile, Watt’s co-founder posted an apology to Instagram.

While BrewDog is no stranger to scrutiny, the unprecedented scale of this particular incident feels like it could signal a sea change within the craft beer industry.

Bryan Simpson, an organiser with Unite Hospitality who’s been attempting to organise at BrewDog since 2014, seems to think so: in an interview with Novara Media, he says he has “never seen anything like this”. Nor has MacKay: he says the public response to the letter was far bigger than the Punks With Purpose anticipated; their Twitter account now has more than 12,000 followers. “I’m glad that people are finally able to see [BrewDog] for the gaslighting, social media hungry company they really are,” Cook tells me.

What to do with all that momentum? The open letter demanded an apology as “the absolute minimum”, but now they’ve got one (albeit not a wholly satisfactory one), BrewDog’s current and former staff are starting to think bigger. “If it involves James Watt stepping down, so be it,” says Cook. “We want to see real and lasting change, not just lip service.”

A spokesperson for BrewDog said:

“As we begin to take stock from what has been a difficult, but important few days for BrewDog, our focus now is not to allow the dust to settle, but to take action. For those ex-employees we clearly let down, we can’t and we won’t leave things at an apology – they spoke up to see change and we will make that happen. And for the fantastic people currently working at BrewDog, we intend not just to make incremental improvements here, but to build a programme of cultural and leadership and development that not only inspires a better culture at BrewDog, but sets an example for our industry.

We will start by listening. Over the next 10 days, we’ll conduct an anonymous staff survey not just exploring the themes laid out in the letter from ex-employees, but painting a comprehensive picture of the BrewDog culture at every level. We are ensuring all team members know of our existing anonymous channels of escalation, and the independently managed crew support helplines, offering access to counsellors and specialists for anyone affected by the events of or issues raised this week. We’ll also be implementing listening groups to work with our team members and hear their feedback. We’ll be engaging a third party partner to conduct an independent review of our culture and HR practices to ensure we can build a programme of positive change within the business at all levels. These are just the first steps and we will keep our team updated with further actions that result from this listening and learning phase and how we’ll work together to build the best business we can be.”

James Watt was contacted directly for comment, but did not respond.

Matthew Curtis is the co-founder of Pellicle Magazine.


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