Interview: BrewDog Managing Director James Watt

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Craft Beer United Kingdom

Photo courtesy of BrewDog: Martin Dickie (left) and James Watt (right)

James Watt grew up in the tiny fishing village of Gardenstown on Scotland’s northeast coast. He was on his father’s fishing boat from the age of 5 and still spends 12 weeks a year at sea, fighting towering waves to catch mackerel and cod. Watt attended attended The University of Edinburgh with longtime best friend Martin Dickie, studying law and economics. Two years after finishing their studies, the friends were disillusioned with U.K. beers and decided to start brewing themselves, launching BrewDog in Fraserburgh in April 2007. Watt recently discussed his background and approach.

What sets BrewDog apart from other breweries?
The beer industry in the UK is far away from the beer industry in the U.S. Most of the small beer companies in the U.K. are stuffy and old fashioned. Myself and Martin, we wanted to shift toward the beer varieties we like.

Would you say that you have any brewing mentors?
We took a lot of inspiration of what was happening in the U.S., guys like Stone and Dogfish Head. Martin was making beer in his garage. We had an opportunity to meet Michael Jackson. He tried a beer we made aged in a Scottish whiskey cask. He tasted a beer and told us to quit our jobs and start making beer full time…We make some quite unusual beers. We make a 10% beer [Dogma] aged in whiskey casks, brewed with Scottish heather honey, kola nut and poppy.

What was the first beer you ever brewed?
It’s a flagship beer that we still brew today, Punk IPA. We always liked the hoppy style of beers and it’s very hard to get that kind of beer in England. Bold, punchy, quite aggressive. It’s bitter. It’s in your face. It’s edgy, and it kind of encapsulated what we liked to do with the company.

But England the birthplace of IPAs.
You can easily find IPAs in England, but now IPAs have come to mean nothing more than 3.6% session ales…We just hated the fact that the fantastic IPA heritage and tradition came to mean this. We wanted to do something about it.

What’s your first beer memory?
I was 13 and when I was younger and used to swim competitively. I was at a competition in Edinburgh. My friend had somehow managed to sneak a few beers in his bag with him. We drank a few bottles of beer and ended up getting up to a bunch of mischief in the hotel and got sent home the next day. I got banned from going away from swimming competitions for 6 months.

How has BrewDog changed since you first started?
When we started in 2007 it was just Martin and myself for six months. We’d make our beer, bottle it, deliver it, sleep on the office floor for two hours and do it again. Since then we’ve expanded quite quickly and have 22 staff…The staff we’ve got is fantastic. We’ve got people so committed. The most important thing for us in hiring is finding people who share our passion.

What’s the most recent beer that you developed and what was your approach with it?
We recently made the strongest beer in the U.K., Tokyo, 18.2% ABV. We like to do things different, make a big strong stout, put some Scottish berries and jasmine and age it in oak chips. We were amazed by the response, pandemonium, outcry. There was an official motion from the Scottish government to ban the beer. People should tell them that we make a lot of whiskey in Scotland and that’s 40 or 50 % ABV.

Where do things stand with the government?
The Scottish government’s on vacation for two weeks, so when they get back they’ll review it. So far it only has 18 members of government to sign up for it, so I don’t think they’ll push it through.

I read that you’re planning to introduce Atlantic IPA. What was your approach with that beer?
As I said, we were quite disillusioned that we couldn’t’ find any beers that we liked in the U.K. We wanted to make an IPA as close as it was 200 years ago. Martin found a recipe for a 200-year-old IPA with traditional English hops, 7.8.% and aged in oak casks…This is the first genuine IPA aged in oak casks, as an IPA should be, for almost two centuries.

Who are some other local brewers you respect?
In Scotland, there’s Harviestoun. They seem a little bit more progressive in their attitude than other U.K. beer companies, more open to ideas and not stuck in their ways.

Tell me about your collaboration with Stone.
We made two collaboration beers this year with Stone, so I visited Stone in March this year. We made Juxtaposition. We just wanted to make a lager that was insanely hoppy, it was quite an unusual mix of Japanese and New Zealand hops. That was a fun beer to make. Two weeks ago, Greg and Steve came over here in order to collaborate again. For us it was a huge honor to make beer with some of the people who inspired us to start our business in the first place. Bashah. 8.5% Belgium double IPA which is also black. Most of what we send to the U.S. is available in California. We’ll be sending that in two weeks, it will take two months to ship and should be out in the US by the end of 2009.

Where do you like to drink when you’re not at BrewDog?
There’s a place in Aberdeen called Musa. Aberdeen is the closest city to where we live. It’s an art bar. It’s quite a laid back one as opposed to a pretentious one, quite chill and low key…and they have some good beer. It’s like a church they made into a bar.

If you could only drink one more glass of beer, what would it be?
There’s guys based in San Diego called AleSmith. They make Speedway Stout, a 12% Imperial Stout. They also do a version aged in oak casks, and I just loved it…Definitely Punk IPA. I think I have to add that one.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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