BrewDog’s announcement of a £231m investment form a US private equity firm at the weekend prompted praise and dismay in equal order. It is the latest in a series of moves by the Scottish brewer and pub operator which has seen them accused of relinquishing their ‘punk’ status and becoming part of the establishment. James Wallin asks whether the self-procliamed rebels really have sold out and what the latest chapter in the BrewDog story can tell us about crowdfunding and the craft beer movement.
Schadenfreude could very easily be the name of a BrewDog creation. Probably packaged inside a dead otter and launched from a bazooka at the headquarters of Aberdeenshire Council when the group eventually, inevitably, finds a way to launch its much-hyped ‘craft beer hotel’ despite the local authority’s reluctance to give the punks their way.
It also sums up the reaction of many in the pub and brewing at the announcement this weekend that BrewDog has finally gotten into bed with private equity. Despite countless pronouncements over the years from co-founders James Watt and Martin Dickie that they would never be taken over by a producer of ‘mass industrial lager’, almost a quarter of their company is now owned by investors in Pabst, a producer of….. well, you get the picture.
The news comes hot on the heels of another challenge to the group’s meticulously cultivated underdog status, when it was revealed that BrewDog’s lawyers had forced an independent bar in Birmingham to change its name from Lone Wolf. An embarrassing u-turn ensued after the story went national with Watt insisting that as soon as he heard the news he reined his lawyers. This is despite MCA contacting BrewDog three weeks earlier to ask about the move and whether it heralded the first bar dedicated to its Lone Wolf spirits range. We were no commented, but it was little surprise to see the announcement at the weekend that the first Lone Wolf speakeasy would launch downstairs in its Castlegate bar later this year.
Both of these developments drew a collective “told you so” from across the industry with many a knowing tweet alerting followers to previous comments from the BrewDog stable. Not least Watt’s immediate and very public huff when Camden Town Brewery was acquired by AB InBev. Founder Jasper Cuppaidge is a true gentleman but even he must have privately enjoyed the flack BrewDog was getting from some quarters.
Not everyone is up in arms about the current chain of events though and on the face of it, why should anyone? BrewDog’s objection to its trademarks being infringed was perfectly legitimate and nothing out of the ordinary for a company of its size. More pointedly, the deal with TSG is the obvious next step in is growth plans. The company has done – in its words – awesome things with crowdfunding but the funds involved in this deal dwarf anything the brewer could hope to do with the help of its fans alone. The sluggishness of its $25m crowdfund in the US probably highlighted the issue but the BrewDog founders are astute businessman and knew very well that this step would come eventually.
The pair have already shown their hand for the next step in their evolution – setting out a timetable to float within the next five years. This is not a new direction, Watt has expressed his interest in an IPO several times in recent years. But, it is another sign of BrewDog edging further towards the mainstream. I can recall a seasoned operator claiming that an IPO would be a far greater betrayal of the group’s principles than investment from private equity, forcing them to value profit over all else. Perhaps, but if there is any established role model that Watt and Dickie are likely to admire – and the feeling is reciprocal – it is Tim Martin, a man who has never shied away from doing what he thinks is right and to hell with the analysts. I’m sure Watt would rival even Martin’s mastery at using trading updates to share his view of the wider world.
At the heart of all of this, of course, is not deep-seated aversion to BrewDog’s actions (maybe among the hardcore punks but even they must see the sense in it) but a fully-deserved gloat at how an upstart that has routinely derided other businesses acting like….. well, businesses….. is now finally ripping up its own rulebook to follow a more conventional path.
Still, I genuinely this is a turning point – in two directions. It could be said that we now know the limits of crowdfunding. BrewDog have been masters of the game and have continually broken records in terms of figures raised and the time it takes to get there. Who knows where the next disruptor will come from but they will find the benchmark set pretty high by BrewDog and it would be some feat to surpass them.
Secondly, this may eventually be seen as the moment craft beer truly became mainstream. Watt has been among the harshest critics of big brewers trying to claim the term but BrewDog is now the UK craft beer behemoth and whether they like or not the punks are now part of the mainstream.
For me, this latest chapter in the BrewDog story is something of a relief. I don’t for one minute expect this to be the last charge of hypocrisy laid at Ellon’s door and I’m sure Watt and Dickie will continue to court controversy but we will now see how they can adapt to being the big dog, with newcomers to the scene snapping at their heels.
I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next. It’s going to be awesome.