Who would have thought, when it was founded by James Watt and Martin Dickie in 2007, that 10 years on BrewDog would be a household name? Picking up a host of supermarket listings along the way, the anarchic brewery’s entrance into our Britain’s Biggest Alcohol Brands rankings last month (it smashed its way into 65th place, with sales up £24m to £38.6m) has cemented its place in Brits’ hearts - and fridges. Notably, it’s the first craft brand to ever achieve a place on the list, having overtaken stalwart brands such as Cobra, Jägermeister and Southern Comfort. 

But it hasn’t been a peaceful ride to the top for craft beer’s self-proclaimed ‘punk’ ringleaders. The Aberdeenshire-based upstarts have picked fights on numerous fronts, leaving a legion of frustrated combatants in their wake, from giant brewers to the dearly departed king of rock ‘n’ roll himself. So as BrewDog takes up its mantle as the UK’s biggest craft beer brand, we take a look back at some of its most bloody - and often surreal - battles.

James Watt

BrewDog vs censorship


One of BrewDog’s first high-profile public spats. Two years on from its inception, the fledgling brand decried a “nanny state” motion filed against it in the Scottish Parliament, which attacked BrewDog over its uber-strong 18.2% abv stout Tokyo. At the time, BrewDog was touting Tokyo as “Britain’s Strongest Beer” (although it followed up Tokyo with the 55% abv The End of History in 2010, an even stronger contender for that title - see BrewDog vs animal rights, below). The Portman Group shortly began an investigation into claims Tokyo did not promote a message of safe and responsible drinking.

But BrewDog didn’t take accusations of irresponsibility sitting down.

Its co-founder James Watt blasted the “self-imposed cartel industry watchdog” for “shooting the wrong people”, and claimed responsibility was “at the core” of his business. “Tokyo is priced responsibly at £9.99 per 330ml bottle,” he stressed. “For less money you can buy 700ml of a cheap whisky or vodka and two litres of 14% wine. The fact that they are so quick to jump to the conclusion that a high-end, limited edition beer like Tokyo is at the route [sic] of the country’s alcohol problems is evidence that they are looking for scapegoats.”

BrewDog’s battle with the Portman Group didn’t end there. In 2014, the watchdog said the packaging of its Dead Pony Club - which featured the lines ‘drink fast, live fast’ and ‘rip it up down empty streets’ - breached the alcohol marketing code for its “association with bravado and immoderate consumption” and “placing undue emphasis on the strength and intoxicating effect of the alcohol in the product”.

BrewDog issued a formal apology… of sorts. Watt wrote: “I would like to issue a formal apology to the Portman Group for not giving a shit about today’s ruling. Indeed, we are sorry for never giving a shit about anything the Portman Group has to say, and treating all of its statements with callous indifference and nonchalance”. Oof.

Winner: BrewDog


BrewDog Roadkill rabbit

BrewDog vs animal rights


Let’s be honest, a £500-a-pop, 55% abv beer packaged, quite literally, in taxidermied roadkill was bound to rattle some cages from the get-go. BrewDog’s The End of History did just that. Only 12 bottles of the brew were produced, incorporating seven dead stoats, four squirrels and one expired hare, but it was enough to incense a legion of upset activists.

Speaking to the BBC at the time, Advocates for Animals slammed the beer and its packaging as “perverse” and “negative”, writing it off as a “stupid marketing gimmick”. The director of services at Alcohol Focus Scotland was equally unimpressed. “This is another example of this company pushing the boundaries of acceptability”, she told the broadcaster. It still sold out in less than four hours.

Winner: BrewDog



BrewDog vs ‘real ale’


It was almost inevitable BrewDog would come up against the arbitrators of authentic ale, the Campaign For Real Ale. CAMRA prides itself on conserving the sanctity of ‘real’ cask ale, a stance which BrewDog has called “a frankly archaic approach to beer” that is “partly to blame for the UK’s craft beer vacuum” - although with the mults’ shelves looking the way they do now, it’s safe to say the vacuum has been filled.

After CAMRA chairman Colin Valentine attacked craft beer and its legions of “bloggerati” at the 2011 CAMRA agm BrewDog penned a scorching blog in reply. In it they called Valentine “a figurehead who’s frightened of the future, where dictatorial policies quickly become the standard knee-jerk reaction as a means of preserving the past, regardless of the implications for the future.”

Later that year it began to look like a reconciliation may be on the cards though, with the announcement that BrewDog would attend and run a bar at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival - the holy grail of days out for ale aficionados.

But it very quickly went to pot. BrewDog claimed CAMRA became “difficult” and had cancelled their arrangement “unceremoniously”, while CAMRA accused BrewDog of being seven weeks late paying its bill to appear at the festival. Ultimately, neither party could spin this punch-up into a victory.

Winner: draw


BrewDog Trump

BrewDog vs Donald Trump

(December 2015)

It seems like a long time ago that Barack Obama was president and Donald Trump was but a real estate tycoon-turned-reality TV star, whose presidential ambitions were widely mocked. The orange-hued gesticulator was yet to win the Republican nomination, and was being trounced daily in the press for his policies. No one in their right mind thought he would be elected president come November 2016.

As a Christmas gift to the aspiring commander-in-chief, BrewDog decided to offer Mr Trump free shares in its Equity for Punks programme. There was just one condition: that Trump would quit politics and stop trying to become leader of the free world so we could “all get on with our lives”.

“Your ideas are as misplaced as your hair, sir,” James Watt penned in an open letter to the tycoon. “You do believe in Christmas, don’t you - sitting there at the top of your tower, which is probably not at all compensating for something?”

Trump, sadly, did not take BrewDog up on its offer. But headlines galore followed, boosting the reach of BrewDog’s covert promotion for its shareholder programme far beyond its typical audience.

So this goes down as a win for BrewDog, if a questionable result for international politics. As much as BrewDog may not savour the comparison, it’s got a fair bit in common with the president. Like Trump, BrewDog has never hesitated to make its ambitions clear, or shy away from offending the masses. We’re just surprised it hasn’t adopted ‘Make Beer Great Again’ as its slogan yet.

BrewDog continued to poke fun at Trump last month, with the possibly-fake news it planned to “make beer, not walls” by opening a bar on the US/Mexico border. But we suspect the president was probably too busy with North Korea to notice.

Winner: BrewDog


Camden Town Brewery

BrewDog vs big beer buyouts

(December 2015)

This may go down as the year craft broke into the mults. But AB InBev’s multimillion-pound acquisition of London’s Camden Town Brewery two years ago was equally as important a turning point.

The brewing behemoth is notoriously picky with its acquisitions, targeting brands it believes have the potential for serious growth. By snapping up Jasper Cuppaidge’s cult London brewery for a tasty sum of more than £80m, it drove home to commentators and brands alike just how valuable the craft category was becoming.

BrewDog’s response was to “nail its colours to the f***ing mast”, delisting Camden’s beers from its growing portfolio of bars and slamming the likes of AB InBev for “destroying, bastardising and commoditising beer over the last 50 years”. Never one to skimp on hyperbole, James Watt said: “Their god is market share and their stock valuations.”

AB InBev said nothing, though Camden’s Jasper Cuppaidge took to Twitter to defend his decision on the basis that the partnership would drive growth, help create jobs and expand Camden’s presence.

This one’s a win-win. BrewDog’s fierce defence of ‘craft’ principles won it fans among more evangelical beer shoppers, but craft beer evangelists do not an accurate representation of the market make. Camden got a massive cash injection and a 50,000-plus sq ft, £30m brewery in Enfield.

BrewDog may trump Camden in value terms for now, but with a slew of listings in the mults this year and the backing of AB InBev’s marketing budget, Camden could be poised to make its own splash in the market over the next year.

Winner: draw


BrewDog vs intellectual property

(2016 - 2017)

BrewDog’s Elvis Juice IPA has performed well since its launch, racking up value sales of £2.1m in the past year alone, according to Nielsen. But it may not be around much longer. Upon its launch, BrewDog was told to cease and desist by the estate of the late king of rock ‘n’ roll himself, Elvis Presley.

True to form, BrewDog responded with a sarcastic blog and the news that James Watt and co-founder Martin Dickie had both changed their names to Elvis by deed poll in protest at the “petty pen pushers”. Once again, BrewDog bathed in the headlines.

But things didn’t quite go to plan. Just last month, BrewDog lost its two-year legal battle with Presley’s estate over Elvis Juice’s name. It’s not clear yet whether BrewDog will have to change the beer’s name, but it was uncharacteristically silent when approached by The Grocer to comment on the Intellectual Property Office’s ruling.

BrewDog’s trademark troubles didn’t end there. It faced a storm of negative press when it became embroiled in a spat with an independent Birmingham pub, The Lone Wolf, which shared a name with BrewDog’s spirits division LoneWolf. The pub’s owners claimed they were told to change its name or face legal action from the brewer, who they called out in the press, accusing them of acting like “just another multinational corporate machine”. The story did not go down well with the public when it hit social media.

Watt apologised and announced BrewDog would allow the pub to keep its name and would even invite its owners to its Ellon brewery to create their own gin. “We made a mistake here in how we acted,” he said. Almost all companies always look to enforce trademarks, whereas at BrewDog we should take the view to only enforce if something really detrimental to our business is happening.”

As The Lone Wolf had already rebranded as The Wolf out of their own pockets, BrewDog would pay to re-establish it under its original moniker, said Watt. “This is a mistake that hurt a lot, but like all mistakes, it made us better. This will not happen again.”

BrewDog scored a point back in the last minute, but this goes down as a win for intellectual property. The IPO, it seems, doesn’t care much for punks.

Winner: intellectual property

The problem with growing up is you have to accept some of life’s more uncomfortable truths. Certain realities become inescapable, be they beer bellies, divorces or insurance payments. And BrewDog’s been a little quiet since selling 23% of its business to American private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners in April.

To many fans the transaction, which valued BrewDog at £1bn, smacked of cosying up to the same establishment the brewer had loathed for so long. And Watt’s platitudes about wanting to “make the world as passionate about craft beer as we are” post-cash injection did little to assuage that.

Indeed, far from raging against the machine, BrewDog’s current crusade is ramping up chilled beer distribution in the mults - hardly the arbiters of ‘cool’. A branded chiller was trialled in Tesco last month, with a spokesman adding it was working to “introduce chilled beer fixtures across our retail partners”.

Perhaps you don’t need to be punk when your beer is flying off the shelves faster than you can say ‘Anheuser-Busch’. But despite making Watt & co a swathe of enemies, it was BrewDog’s sheer irreverence in the face of authority that drew its legion of admirers in the first place. Growing brands make compromises, and it appears BrewDog may have sacrificed some of its bite.