Brewdog co-founder Martin Dickie joins us in this episode of the Drinks Adventures podcast as the Scottish craft beer company opens its first Australian site, DogTap Brisbane.
Now a multinational business with 95 Brewdog bars globally, BrewDog’s phenomenal growth has been fuelled by its record-breaking Equity for Punks initiative.
The crowdfunding program has raised more than $137 million by selling shares to more than 123,000 Brewdog enthusiasts around the world.
BrewDog has never been far from controversy, creating outrageous beers such as The End Of History, which at the time the world’s strongest and most expensive beer.
Just 12 bottles of it were released, packaged inside taxidermied animals.
And in 2017, the company received a 213 million pound investment from American private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners, in a deal valuing it at one billion pounds.
I was invited up by Brewdog to check out their impressive new DogTap Brisbane bar and brewery in planning, where I sat down with Martin to record this interview.
DogTap Brisbane with Brewdog co-founder Martin Dickie: Full transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Well, Martin Dickie. Thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.
MARTIN DICKIE: Really nice to have a chat.
JAMES ATKINSON: Here we are in Brisbane. It’s 12 years ago since you and James launched BrewDog in Scotland.
MARTIN DICKIE: It’s actually about 13 years. It was November 2006, that I think we formed the company, and then the first year of production was April 2007. It’s pretty much our 13th birthday today, I think.
JAMES ATKINSON: It’s been a pretty incredible ride though, and a pretty amazing achievement, that you’ve come to as far as you have.
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah. I mean, for those first few years it was pretty much James Watts and myself and a dog, working flat out. We set with a pretty straightforward idea, that we wanted to get people into the same beers that we liked. But over the last dozen years we’ve added some incredible people to our team, and we can’t really take all the credit for where we are, for sure. So, the team that’s put the Brisbane facility together over the last, almost two years, have done a phenomenal job. The first time I visited the site was February 2018, when I was out with the family for a couple of weeks holiday, and at that time it was a bare piece of ground overlooking the bridge behind us.
JAMES ATKINSON: It’s kind of a little bit out of the way for Brisbane. Are you confident that DogTap Brisbane is going to become a destination for people to visit?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, I think so. There’s the nice pier at the bottom of the brewery here. I ran in from the town yesterday, so if I can run it, then it’s not too far. And then there’s a decent community on our doorstep. Where we are immediately is, it’s obviously an industrial zone, but a 10 minute walk away, then it’s into some housing there. So we’re really confident that people will come out and visit us, on the river. It’s a beautiful site overlooking the Brisbane River. So great beer, great food and a great for families to come out and hang out.
JAMES ATKINSON: So this facility is called DogTap Brisbane, and I believe that’s different to the naming of any of the other BrewDog bars that you have around the world?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, I guess the DogTap Brisbane name comes for places where we have a production facility and a tap room. So this is our fourth DogTap. The beauty of the facility here is, that we’ve got 20 beers on top. A good selection of those are specifically for guest beers, some of our favourite guest beers from specifically the Queensland area, and also Brisbane. But then being able to pair that with food as well.
JAMES ATKINSON: Obviously the breweries not up and running just yet.
MARTIN DICKIE: Yep.
JAMES ATKINSON: So you’re importing beer for the foreseeable future. You’ve obviously been here and had a look at the beers. Are you’re happy with how they’ve held up the journey?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, I mean, I think the beers are really strong. So we focused really heavily on shipping directly from the brewery to here, in cold storage the whole way. So these are the best examples of the beers that we can show at the moment, until January. We should have the brewery behind us operational, and have beers that are a week old, rather than a couple of months old, onsite.
JAMES ATKINSON: And once that happens, will everything ultimately be brewed on site, or will you be importing perhaps just some of the sour program that you’re not going to be able to make here, and those kinds of beers?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, I mean, I think with any of our breweries, we like to take in some small special beers from each one. So whether it’s the Scotland brewery, or the American brewery, or the Berlin brewery, it’s great to be able to switch around some of the super small batches, that can only be made at those venues, and using local ingredients and things. But the majority of all the beer in Australia, will come from the facility here.
JAMES ATKINSON: You mentioned those other breweries around the world, what do you see as being unique about the beers that are going to be made here?
MARTIN DICKIE: I mean, the biggest thing for us, has been able to tap into the Australian hops. It’s something that we haven’t used too much at all, which we focused in our Scottish brewery heavily in hops, from the Pacific northwest, and the States. So we’re really excited to be able to start brewing with Australian hops. And there are so many incredible varieties there. We’ve got some contacts in the industry now, so from the harvest time 2020, we’ll have our brewers from here, but also a few of us from Scotland will come out, and see how we can understand what’s awesome in Australian hops, and start integrating that heavily into the beers that we make here.
JAMES ATKINSON: What other sorts of innovation are going to be happening on this site?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, I mean that’s the beauty of coming to a place like this, in Brisbane and Queensland, where there’s an abundance of amazing produce that comes from here. But also there’s an amazing wine industry, spirits as well. And it’s like, how can we incorporate that into the beers, like we’ve done before in Scotland, but with completely different flavours?
JAMES ATKINSON: Now the journey to opening has taken a bit longer than I think what we were all expecting. When you initially announced Brisbane, you hadn’t taken over the Stone site in Berlin. So did that investment delay things in Australia?
MARTIN DICKIE: I don’t really think it’s that delayed to be honest. It’s a big ground up project, that we started in early 2018. So to complete that within two years, I think is a phenomenal achievement. We’re always ambitious with everything we do. So we probably said it was doable in 15 or 16 months. But that’s just how we work, is that when we start something, we really want it done by tomorrow. And with any big project it takes time to get the permits, to get the equipment, and inevitably there’s tiny delays along the way, that push things back a few months. But I think it’s nicely on a decent timescale, and it’s looking fantastic.
JAMES ATKINSON: What about the change in plan size of the brewhouse though? I think it was originally a 50-hectolitre, and then that went down to 25-hectolitre, and I just recently read that there’s some kind of fundraising happening to pay for the brewery to be finished. So I’m just sort of wondering why it was that that got downgraded.
MARTIN DICKIE: I wouldn’t say it’s downgraded. What we did was, change it to something that’s a more appropriate size for the startup phase. So the 25 hec system means that we can brew way more small batch things, as well as feed in the main headline beers as well. And I know it’s probably a little bit of a learning from our American project, where the initial brewery capacity was probably a little bit too large, so we really struggled a little bit, to get small batch things there, and we had to buy a small pilot plant to produce the small batch things there. So just by putting in the fully automated four vessel, 25 hec system, we can produce exactly the same volume of beer, but it gives us the flexibility to make incredible small batch things as well.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now you’ve obviously had some financial support from the Queensland Government to open this facility, but there’s a bit of mystery surrounding exactly what that is. Are you able to shed any light on that for us?
MARTIN DICKIE: I wish I could. I’m the wrong person to ask for financial questions, I’m afraid.
JAMES ATKINSON: Oh come on, the buck stops with you, doesn’t it?
MARTIN DICKIE: I can tell you about the production things, but yeah, I wasn’t involved with the planning with the government and things. So it’s whatever the incentives that they gave us to come into the area.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now how much opportunity have you personally had to get around Brisbane, and check out some of the local breweries?
MARTIN DICKIE: I mean, the last two trips have been quite quick, but the first time we were here in 2018, we spent, I was here with the families who were able to relax a little bit, and visit quite a few of the breweries, and it was going down to Black Hops, and then Balter, and Newstead as well. I think what’s really exciting for us, is just the standard of beer that’s been made by the breweries here, it’s amazing, and I think that would show in some of the results earlier this year, in Australian beer awards, where so many Queensland breweries were doing fantastically well.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you feel like they’ve been welcoming to having a BrewDog brewery, DogTap Brisbane in town?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, definitely. I mean we’ve visited as many as we can. The guys that are now working with us, know them pretty well, and half our board is dedicated to the best breweries beer from the local area as well, in DogTap Brisbane.
JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah, and I was actually going to ask that. There’s some pretty small breweries on that DogTap Brisbane list, a couple that I haven’t even tried before. How did you, obviously it wouldn’t have been you that selected them, but what’s the sort of criteria that you’re looking for with selecting those breweries?
MARTIN DICKIE: I mean, in any of our bars, the key thing for us is that it’s our beer, and our favourite breweries from around the world, but then with each location, the importance of the bar manager, is getting to know the local beer scene and being able to hand pick the very best of local beer, especially. So there might be one or two specials from other breweries outside Queensland, but on the whole the board of guest beers at DogTap Brisbane will be very heavy on Queensland craft beer.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now what about BrewDog bars? We don’t know of any other BrewDog bars at this stage. Is that search still happening or is it all kind of been delayed just to focus on this site?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, the key right now is just getting this DogTap Brisbane site fully operational, and get an improved run running. But next year we’ll definitely be looking for other sites to have bars, in Queensland, and a little bit further as well.
JAMES ATKINSON: Why was Australia an attractive market for you? Did you get the sense that there was consumer demand for your beers in this market?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah. Mainly because, during the months of October through to May, the Scottish weather is really bad. So we just wanted somewhere that we could come and hang out where it’s a little bit warmer. We’re sitting at maybe what, 30 degrees outside at the moment. And I think in Scotland it’s about minus two or minus three. I mean it’s like a country that we really love. I’ve got family that live out in WA, and we had beer in the market since 2008, and I think it’s a very similar culture, Australians and people in the UK. So I think things translate very well in terms of, beer style and flavour.
MARTIN DICKIE: So for us it was really important to actually be able to have beer that we’re super proud of in the market, because before when it’s shipped from Scotland through a distributor onto the shelves, it’s sitting at maybe six months old at best, and that’s not kept chilled all the way through that process. So, when you go into a beer tasting, you’re saying this is our flagship beer, Punk IPA, and it tastes a little bit oxidised from being a little bit old, it’s quite a disappointing experience. So the key thing for us is to make super fresh beer for the Australian market.
JAMES ATKINSON: And having travelled to Australia a fair bit over the last eight years then, I’m assuming, have you really noticed that the beer scene here’s taken off in the last couple of years?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, I think definitely. I think it was 2008, would have been the first time I was in Australia, and every time I come back, we usually come once or twice a year for vacation, and every time you come back there’s new places opening up, and the standard of production every time you come back, is just getting higher and higher.
JAMES ATKINSON: What are some of the beer styles that are exciting you at the moment, personally?
MARTIN DICKIE: One area that we’re working really hard on at the moment is the nonalcoholic section. So we’ve made a Nanny State for pretty much forever, and it’s 2009 we made Nanny State first time, and just this year we’ve introduced Punk AF, which is our non alcoholic version of Punk. And then going into next year we’ve got a couple more that are going to happen as well, which is like a Hazy, alcohol free, and then a coffee stout as well. And the beers are all micro fermented so they’re not like de-alcoholised, and it’s quite a tricky thing to make a really drinkable non-alcoholic beer, that tastes like beer. So we’ve been working super hard on that. So it’s really exciting.
MARTIN DICKIE: I mean other than that, for me, it’s always about hops and we work with a few varieties out of America, which we sponsor to get through. When hops are in their breeding stage, you might have 10 or 20 that are possibilities, but they’ll only ever take three or four, forward. Whereas there’s a few breweries will sponsor a couple more, so there’s more chance of things coming to market if they’re good. So we sponsor a couple of hops out in the States. If the beers turn out well and everything’s positive from the growing aspect as well, then it’ll help things move forward. If the beer doesn’t work out, or agronomically the hop isn’t a success, then they fall back again, and you find another one to take forward.
JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me about Punk AF. How close did you manage to get it flavour-wise to the original Punk?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, I mean, I think it is reasonably close. I mean, the biggest thing with any nonalcoholic beer, especially the way that we brew it is that, you’re missing a lot of the malt bill. So obviously it’s slightly lighter in colour, and not as malty. We use a little bit of lactose, to add some body back into the beer, and then the hops are the same, hop in it’s the same, and the hops through the beer. So it’s decently close, and for a non alcoholic beer it tastes really good.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now, as for this actual DogTap Brisbane taproom, it’s quite a big facility. But I’m imagining that even if this really pumps, you’re going to have quite a lot of brewing capacity there. So are we going to start seeing early next year BrewDog beers being wholesale, to external customers around Brisbane to start with.
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah. That’s the plan. Once we get the beer packed, I mean, you saw the canning line in there, so can and keg beer is the way we’ll be selling beer in Australia. So, yeah, once we’re completely happy with the beer, we’ll then look to get it out in the wider market.
JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me about Brexit, how do you see that affecting your business? Because I know you’ve just released a beer that has a crack at the British government for the current situation.
MARTIN DICKIE: For us running a business, when there’s a big area of uncertainty, then it’s not good. Whether it’s coming up to one of the two Brexit dates that we’ve had so far this year, and all our customers are worried that they won’t be able to get beer, or we’ve got to look at our wider supply chain, and make sure that we don’t run out of raw materials. It’s not a good place to be in. And the one thing that we can’t do is, we’re not a spirit’s factory or whatever, where we can stock pile a whole load of stock, in anticipation of something going wrong. So it’s a fresh product that we’re working with, so you always have that little bit of difficulty as well. So, for us we prefer things to be settled down, so the whole country can focus on important things, and we can focus on making beer.
JAMES ATKINSON: And I understand that, that was part of the motivation for taking over the Stone facility in Berlin, was to maintain brewing facilities in Europe.
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, I mean that was one of the benefits. It was an incredible opportunity that that came up for us, to take that facility on. And it’s an absolutely incredible facility, with a brewery and big tap room. I would say probably the most beautiful brewery tap room in the whole of Europe. So yeah, we were really fortunate to be able to take that on, and it just gives us a nice foot print in the German market.
JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me how well the American market’s going for you. I mean, obviously that is just such a crowded market, and so incredibly dynamic. And even today we’ve seen New Belgium, the fourth largest independent craft brewer, get swallowed up by an Australian company, in Lion. How has America been for BrewDog?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yes. So really good, actually. We always felt that the BrewDog brand and brewery belonged in America. Those were the beers that really inspired us to make beer to start with. So we always wanted to have our footprint in America, to I guess, stand toe to toe with the beers that were inspirational for us, as we grew our business. And the facility we have is in Columbus, Ohio, which has awesome, distribution. 50 per cent of the American population is within 12 hours driving from Columbus. But what we’ve been able to build there, is a real beautiful campus for beer. So onsite there we’ve got the big brewery and tap room. We’ve also built a sour beer hotel, which is 32 rooms that surround an overworks facility there. And just recently that was given one of the top 100 destinations in the world, from Time magazine. So I think it actually kicked the Pyramids of Egypt, out of the top a hundred, to put that there.
MARTIN DICKIE: So for us, it’s all about a few things, incredible beer, and also educating people wherever we can into the beauty that craft beer is. Because I think once you start going down that path of understanding how things are made, then it translates to so many parts of your life, whether it is coffee or wine or your food in general. So anything we can do to try and push people in a positive journey, then we’re really happy you do that.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now when I was going online just to do some research for this interview, I looked at Wikipedia, and there’s like this big list of BrewDog controversies that have happened over the years.
MARTIN DICKIE: How big is the list? I haven’t checked it.
JAMES ATKINSON: It’s bigger than the actual BrewDog biography itself. But I feel like maybe you’ve quietened down a little bit with some of the stunts and some of the antics that have happened previously. Has that kind of been a conscious decision? Like the two of you have maybe matured a little bit?
MARTIN DICKIE: Possibly. I guess the thing for us is that, anything we’ve done, we’ve always stood behind the meaning behind it. When you’re a young company and growing, anything you can do to make people talk about your business is good, and that’s not in a negative way. So an example would be Tokyo, which was our 12% Imperial Stout, back in 2008, and we made that beer, it took us so long to make it and perfect it, so it was a big Imperial Stout, 12%, aged with oak chips that we got from California. And then it had cranberry and jasmine dry hop cascade. And this was a beer that we were super proud of, and we made, I think, about a thousand bottles, something like that.
MARTIN DICKIE: Half of that, or more than half of that was exported. So we ended up with maybe 300 bottles in the whole of the UK, and off the back of releasing that beer, we were, I guess, hounded a little bit in the press for making this crazy beer that was going to, you would think, cause the downfall of Western civilisation.
MARTIN DICKIE: Whereas it’s actually an incredible talking point for beer and beer consumption in that, yes it’s 12 per cent alcohol, but it’s a beer that you don’t drink in a pint. It’s a beer that you sit down and share with your friends, and a discussion point, as opposed to an everyday lager that you’re smashing 12 pints of that, and not enjoying the next day. So anything like that, that we’re able to push the beer agenda is always a great thing for us.
JAMES ATKINSON: If they were worried about that, what did they think of The End of History, and some of the other beers that you’ve done?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, well in Tactical Nuclear Penguin, they couldn’t tell it was us because we were dressed up as penguins when we made it.
JAMES ATKINSON: Right. Okay. And what are your plans for spreading the word about BrewDog here? I mean, any other kind of crazy stunts like that?
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, I mean, I’m sure that we’ll be able to think of something. The key at the moment is just, getting to understand the ingredients. If we can find something that really brings a story to it, then we’ll definitely do something and push that.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well, Martin, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast and all the best for DogTap Brisbane and Australia.
MARTIN DICKIE: Yeah, thanks a lot, James. It was great.
JAMES ATKINSON: Cool. Cheers, mate.
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