BrewDog: A timeline of controversies as James Watt calls time as boss

Coming from humble beginnings, Brewdog has become a global phenomenon - but its leadership under co-founder James Watt has not been without its challenges.

By James Hockaday, Multimedia Producer

BrewDog boss James Watt is to step down as chief executive after 17 years at the helm, having seen the Scottish brewer and pub chain grow into a global phenomenon.

Mr Watt will hand over the reins to Chief Operating Officer James Arrow, but will take on a newly-created non-executive role of “captain and co-founder”.

He will retain his 21% shareholding in the firm, will remain a board member and a director, and will also be a part-time strategic adviser to the business.

The “punk” craft beer brand is now available in 57 countries, producing 367 million cans of beer and serving 16.7 million punters in its bars in 2023. It currently employs 2,530 people across its head office, four breweries and over 120 bars.

It’s a far cry from when Mr Watt and co-founder Martin Dickie started their business aged 24 from a garage in the north eastern Scottish town of Fraserburgh – selling hand-filled bottles out of a van at local markets.

However, this dizzying success hasn’t come without its criticism, including claims of toxic workplace practices, alleged inappropriate behaviour and misleading advertising.

Here’s a timeline of some of BrewDog’s main controversies.

2009 – Drinks industry body intervenes over Speedball beer

In one of many disputes with the alcohol industry marketing self-regulatory body, BrewDog was branded “grossly irresponsible” for naming one of its beers “Speedball”.

The Portman Group said in a ruling that it was “entirely inappropriate” to name an alcoholic drink after the “extremely dangerous practice” of combining heroin and cocaine.

It points to the product’s label describing the drink as a “class A ale” – another “clear reference to illicit drugs”, and terms on the BrewDog website such as “up-down”, “happy-sad” and a “vicious cocktail of active ingredients”.

BrewDog acknowledged the name referred to drug-taking but said it was because the “product contained mild sedatives and mild stimulants”, adding that the “causes of alcohol and drug misuse were far deeper rooted than product names”.

The firm agreed to change the beer’s name to “Dogma”.

That same year, BrewDog’s “Tokyo Beer” – brewed at 18.2% abv – was found to be in breach of the Portman Group’s standards by promoting the product based on its strength.

2010 – Beer packaged in taxidermied animals prompts anger from activists

Made with an abv of 55%, BrewDog’s “End of History” beer was the world’s strongest and most expensive, and sold out within a few hours.

Only 12 bottles were available, selling for £500 each, and they were wrapped with taxidermied squirrels, stoats, and a hare.

BrewDog said it had sourced the animals humanely by using roadkill, but the charity Advocates for Animals accused it of using “shock tactics to get attention” while “exploiting or degrading animals”.

2013 – Caution over foul language on website

The Advertising Standards Authority held up a complaint about language on BrewDog’s website, including its description of itself as “a post Punk apocalyptic mother f***** of a craft brewery”.

A passage on the site read: “Say goodbye to the corporate beer whores crazy for power and world domination. Ride toward anarchy and caramel craziness. Let the sharp bitter finish rip you straight to the t**s. Save up for a Luger, and drill the b******s.”

BrewDog responded with a post titled “Free F*****g Speech: BrewDog responds to ASA ruling” – saying: “We don’t believe in mindless censorship. As for the ASA – those motherf*****s don’t have any jurisdiction over us anyway.”

2015 – Transphobia row

More than 36,000 people signed a petition calling on BrewDog to remove an “offensive” video from its YouTube account, showing Mr Watt and Mr Dickie dressed in drag in a red light setting.

Captioned “Don’t Make Us Do This…”, the pair were depicted soliciting themselves on the streets.

The petition criticised them for “mocking homeless people, trans women and sex workers” while “performing as offensive caricatures of people, many of whom already suffer discrimination every day”.

An update on the petition site says: “After initial refusals to act upon our concerns, BrewDog have quietly removed the offensive video from their YouTube account.”

2017 – Legal battle over Elvis Juice

BrewDog faced a trademark dispute from the Elvis Presley Estate over its Elvis Juice beer.

The UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) initially ruled in favour of the estate in June 2017, claiming the name could easily be seen as an endorsement by King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s estate.

But BrewDog managed to successfully appeal its right to register the trademark BrewDog Elvis Juice in January 2018.

2019 – ‘Sober as a Motherfu’ advert banned

BrewDog found itself in trouble with the ASA again over a billboard campaign promoting its “Punk AF” alcohol free IPA.

The authority found the brewer had breached its code by bearing the message “Sober as a Motherfu”, with one complainant pointing out that an ad was placed immediately outside a school.

2021 – Hard seltzer advert banned over ‘healthy’ claims

The ASA took BrewDog to task again over a paid-for post on Instagram, in which the brewer said: “Due to advertising regulations we cannot claim this drink is healthy.

“Even though Clean & Press is only 90 calories per can, with no carbs or sugar and a little bit of alcohol, this is not a health drink. If you are looking for a health drink, do not drink Clean & Press.”

The ASA took issue with the claims about calories and sugar content, as nutrition claims are not permitted for alcoholic drinks, while complainants also said that the advert’s message did imply the drink was healthy.

BrewDog said its messaging was intended to be tongue-in-cheek but accepted it had fallen foul of the rules.

2021 – ‘Culture of fear’: Ex-staff speak out about ‘toxic attitudes’ at BrewDog

BrewDog was forced to apologise after former workers alleged a “culture of fear” within the business and “toxic attitudes” towards junior staff. A “significant number” of ex-employees were said to have suffered “mental illness” as a result of working at brewer, signatories to an open letter said.

The letter alleged the business was built upon a “cult of personality” around Mr Watt and Mr Dickie, with “growth at all costs” the overarching focus of the company.

BrewDog co-founders Martin Dickie and James Watt / Credit: AP

Sent by a group called Punks With Purpose, it said: “Being treated like a human being was sadly not always a given for those working at BrewDog… Fear to speak out about the atmosphere we were immersed in, and fear of repercussions even after we have left.”

Mr Watt said the letter was “upsetting” but that he would not “contradict or contest” its contents, and instead “listen, learn and act”.

In May 2022 BrewDog said it would hand out shares worth around £120,000 each to 750 staff over four years and launch the first ever profit sharing scheme for all bar workers in an effort to move on from the rift with disgruntled employees.

2022 – BrewDog admits ‘taking shortcuts’ that broke US import laws

The BBC’s Disclosure: The Truth about BrewDog found that BrewDog had sent shipments of beer to the US with ingredients that hadn’t been approved.

Two beers, Elvis Juice and Jet Black Heart, contained extracts that had not been cleared for sale in the US.

Staff at the Ellon brewery told the BBC that they were put under “enormous pressure” in 2016 and 2017 to ship to the US, while one importer said he had been “deceived”.

In a social media post in January 2022, Mr Watt said: “We took some shortcuts to get the beer to America on time and we made some mistakes with the paperwork on the first few shipments”.

2022 – Watt accused of ;inappropriate ‘behaviour’

Mr Watt was accused of inappropriate behaviour and an abuse of power by former employees in the BBC’s The Truth about BrewDog series.

Former BrewDog USA staff said female bar workers felt “powerless” and “uncomfortable”, with bartenders allegedly advised on how to avoid unwelcome attention from Mr Watt.

At the time, Mr Watt’s lawyers said claims he had been behaving inappropriately were false.

Both BrewDog and Mr Watt complained to Ofcom, claiming they had been treated “unjustly or unfairly” in the programme, as they had been “misrepresented, disregarded, and omitted material facts in a way that resulted in unfairness to them”.

However, in February 2024 the regulator said it would not uphold the complaint, ruling that “material facts were not presented, disregarded or omitted in a way that was unfair to the complainants, that they had an appropriate and timely opportunity to respond to the allegations made in the programme, and that their response was fairly reflected in the programme”.

2022 – Claims of hypocrisy over World Cup ‘anti-sponsor’

BrewDog was accused of being disingenuous after launching an “anti-sponsor” campaign during the 2022 FIFA World Cup in protest over host Qatar’s human rights abuses.

The brewer said it was making a statement over the Gulf state’s criminalisation of homosexuality, use of corporal punishment and poor treatment of migrant workers who reportedly died during preparations for the football tournament.

It put up billboards saying, “First Russia, then Qatar, can’t wait for North Korea” and said that all profits from its Lost Lager sold during the tournament would go towards human rights charities.

However, BrewDog raised eyebrows by offering a “fan zone” where punters could watch the tournament matches.

The brewer said it didn’t want to “stop people watching football”, adding that “corruption shouldn’t stop this”, but it faced further questions as to why cans of BrewDog lager were available to buy in Qatar.

BrewDog said it doesn’t sell directly to the country, rather it works with a distributor that sells to multiple Middle Eastern countries.

2023 – BrewDog pays out £500,000 over ‘solid gold’ promotion

Mr Watt paid nearly £500,000 out of his own pocket to unhappy customers who felt duped by a bungled “solid gold” beer can promotion.

In 2021 BrewDog told buyers they had a chance of finding a “solid gold” beer can hidden inside some cases of beer.

However, some customers complained after finding out their beer cans were merely gold plated, rather than made entirely of gold.

In a LinkedIn post, Mr Watt accepted fault for the “£500,000 mistake”, claiming that “in his enthusiasm”, he “misunderstood the process of how they were made and the initial tweets I sent out told customers of the prospect of finding ‘solid gold cans’”.

“It was a silly mistake and it only appeared in around 3 of a total of 50 posts about the promotion but as it turns out, those 3 tweets were enough to do a lot of damage.”

He said the ASA had got involved and agreed that the promotion had been misleading.

Mr Watt added: “I got in touch with all 50 winners and let them know that if they were unhappy with their prize I would personally offer them the full cash amount as an alternative.

“Furthermore, I promised to fund this myself so the business did not have to suffer financially from my mistake.
All in all, it ended up costing me around £470,000 – well over 2 and a half years ‘salary’.”

2023 – Complaint over BrewDog ‘carbon negative’ claims

The ASA upheld a complaint against BrewDog over “misleading” claims that its beers were “carbon negative”.

In an ad campaign launched in July, the brand touted itself as the “the world’s first carbon negative brewery”, describing its products as “beer for your grandchildren”.

While BrewDog has installed a number of carbon offsetting measures, the ASA ruled that “no information provided in the ad which explained the basis of BrewDog’s ‘carbon negative’ accreditation.”

The regulator added: “Although we acknowledged that the ad referred consumers to a link for the BrewDog website which contained further information about their carbon reduction and offsetting project, we considered that the ad itself did not include information which explained the basis of the claim.”

In a furious response on LinkedIn, Mr Watt said the information supporting BrewDog’s carbon negative campaign is “extensive” but that a slightly shorter explanation was needed due to Instagram’s formatting.

He added: “Two people complained and the ASA upheld the complaint. That’s it.

“You can all sleep more soundly now, knowing that the ASA is protecting you from insufficiently extensive carbon accounting data in your Insta feed. Dealing with regulators sucks up a lot of time.”

2024 – BrewDog under fire for dropping Living Wage pledge

BrewDog faced a challenge from employees at the start of this year after announcing it would be hiring new staff on the legal minimum wage instead of the higher voluntary rate.

The Unite union criticised the move as “outrageous”, especially coming amid the continuing cost-of-living crisis, pointing out that BrewDog had been paying the real living wage since 2015.

In a letter to staff, the brewer said: “Even with this strong performance over Christmas, as a wider business there is no hiding from the fact that in 2023 we made a trading loss, and despite many efforts in the past 12 months to reduce our spending we still need to find more ways to get this business back to profitability and the financial stability that is needed.

“Inevitably, this does mean making some hard decisions.”

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