I like BrewDog – not just for their beer but for their attitude. The self-styled punk brewers set out to cock a snook at the brewing establishment. They say so on the front page of their website. Their beers are deliberately distinctive and designed to contrast with the mass-produced brands. Their bars are different from both the trendy drinking establishments and the traditional pubs. Like good punks should, they have managed to fall out with the big beer companies and the established opposition. They had a row with CAMRA last year and some of the more traditional real ale fans are a bit sniffy about their beer. This article in the Newcastle Journal sums up the paradox and the mixed feelings the brewery arouses among beer fans.
There are parallels between this and the original punk movement. One of the things that attracted me to punk, which broke just as I was on the cusp of adolescence, was its ability to unnerve the old establishment and the lefty hippies at the same time.
By the time I reached my teens in the late Seventies, it was as if the generation above us had set a template for how to rebel. You could either be a goody-goody, wear a nice sports jacket and join the young Conservatives, or you could ‘rebel’ by growing your hair long, listening to rock groups that disappeared up their own backsides and calling each other ‘maaaaaaan’. Then punk came along and it upset both sides. I’m sure the trendy hippy teachers at our school were more fazed by punk than the old buffers. I remember overhearing one saying how concerned he was about the snarling nihilism and fascist imagery. Pissing off everybody. Good result.
And that’s pretty much what BrewDog have done. They produce good beer and slag off the corporates but they wind up some of the real aleies too. True, they have done some puerile things like getting into an arms race to produce the world’s strongest beer. They did this by repeatedly freezing the stuff and thereby concentrating it to 41% alcohol. Totally bonkers, in my opinion, and I’m damned if I’m paying £40 for a bottle of the stuff. But then again, I didn’t like everything the punk bands did either. Doing things that will irritate people and/or make them think is very punk.
And now BrewDog has had its God Save The Queen moment.
It was up for an award last week but brewing monolith Diageo, which sponsored the award, decided at the last-minute to intervene, apparently telling the organisers that “under no circumstances” were BrewDog to win it. According to the FT:
As guests sat down to dinner Diageo staff approached the organisers and threatened to withdraw future sponsorship if the prize went to BrewDog.
So the trophy, which by this time had BrewDog’s name engraved on it, was awarded to another company, which did the right thing and refused to accept it.
A few years ago, all of this might have remained within the four walls of the brewing industry but today’s punks are into sowshul meeja and, for the lads at BrewDog, the most natural thing to do was to go home and write a blog post about it. The resulting Twitter storm, with its #AndTheWinnerIsNot hashtag, left Diageo looking rather silly.
I’m reminded of the banning of the Sex Pistols’ single God Save the Queen in 1977, and the (alleged) massaging of record sales statistics to keep it from the number one slot. After a few years, the BBC and other broadcasters relented and these days the single is played without comment. Things happen much faster now and it only took a few days for Diageo to realise that they had screwed up and issue an apology. The damage had already been done though. In an industry at the mercy of changing fashions, being caught out by changes you appear not to fully understand is dangerous.
For BrewDog, though, this is a great result. Publicity like is way beyond anything a company of their size could have afforded. It would have cost hundreds of thousands to have raised their profile in the way they have done over the past week. The Sex Pistols never set out to get their record banned but, when it was, the band milked it for all it was worth. BrewDog didn’t plan to have their award spiked by Diageo but, once it happened, they exploited it to the full. It could well be the making of them.
You might not like their beers, you might not approve of their behaviour, but BrewDog have certainly brought some attitude to what is still, in may ways, a very traditional industry. This is probably where the Pistols parallel ends, though. The BrewDog folk strike me as far too canny to self-destruct. I think we’ll be hearing a lot more from them in future.