Witnessing the phenomenon of Britain's most famous new wave brewery alongside their people on AGM weekend
The sound check has occurred, the stands are filled and the final few who grabbed a last minute beer are taking their floor seats. The background music stops, the light dims and an expectant whooping and cheering from the crowd rises. A pantomime horse jounces onto the stage before separating to allow the fans a glimpse at their band members.
They are James Watt and Martin Dickie performing a routine to a few thousand people, mostly adoring fans. On stage they are comfortable; rebounding off each other like Ant and Dec or Barry and Paul. The performance's mix between the usual self-fellatio and less familiar self-deprecation draws plenty of laughs and cheers from the crowd. There is the feel of camaraderie between the pair and the easy taunting of each other that has come with years of friendship.
Rewind 24 hours and the pair are slightly different in a more reserved atmosphere. Holed up in a meeting room beside their staff canteen, they are holding a Q&A for eleven varied members of press and media at the brewery. Watt, in trademark flat cap and denim shirt, is animatedly retelling the company history he's told a thousand times before. Dickie, one arm resting on the chair in front of him, is happy to wait until it's time to talk beer to raise his deadpan accent.
In British beer terms, James and Martin are at Kim and Kanye celebrity status; and in plenty of circles are as well regarded as that pilloried pair. Here are two men that provoked people to request that I "burn down the brewery" or "Tell James he's a cunt from me" whilst in Aberdeenshire. People scorn at the idea of visiting the east coast of Scotland because of these two humans. Despite opinion, sharing Born to Die and Dog E with the pair at 11.30am on a Friday, before many outside of the brewery have tasted it, isn't lost on me as a beery moment.
James is the foreman, passionately repeating the phrases you've heard or read as if from a hymn sheet. "Two men and a dog," "lied to get a bank loan," "we want people to be as passionate about good beer as we are" are amongst the usual scripted phrases. Questions are mostly directed, or at least handled, by Mr Watt. He's probably heard most of them before. He's rehearsed in expertly deflecting questions about Beer Hawk selling their beer, breweries such as Camden selling out and opinions on Brewdog's marketing.
Though that is telling of wise media training and experience for such questions. The rehearsed answers pave way to a fixed stare beneath the hat and more affirmative annunciation when I personally ask them why they were only recently able to fulfil 65% of their orders. Is there a pecking order in such situations? "It won't happen with our new brewery," I am told twice without any further illumination.
When the question refers directly to the beer though, James looks straight to Martin to provide the answer. Dry nearly to the point of indifference, Martin can talk on beers, such as the coconut presence in the BA Albino Squid Assassin tasted, in details James does not. Only one holds the answers to the type of coffee used in Dog E or exact hops in Born to Die. There's no doubting they both enjoy the beer, but brewing processes and recipes and not at the forefront of the minds of both businessmen.
The preconceptions others have that James is the brand whilst Martin is the product seem exact here. Yet the pair of them have television shows to star in, American breweries to build and an establishment to destroy. Can one achieve all those things and still have such involvement in the creation of beer?
For they consider themselves the captains of this ship and there is quite the galley to oversee. Make no mistake, this isn't a city centre archway. Visiting the brewery is more akin to a controlled visit to a vast construction site than a place of craft beer. A safety inspector runs through a brisk safety meeting, complete with slideshow, before anyone steps foot on the main floor. High-visibility vests, safety goggles and earplugs are all provided. It stops short of a hard hat and vaccinations but immediately the tone of the day is more operational than you may be accustomed to.
Even without the opening of the new 300hl site 3 the operation was already colossal. Offices brimming with all manner of personnel litter the site. Fork-lift trucks fly by routinely in the enormous warehouse. An onsite laboratory, with 9 full time members of staff, spends its days looking at scientific ways to meticulously improve beer. The barrel ageing programme is so large it takes place at an off-site facility half a mile away. If Brewdog want a nailed definition of craft - and James tells us that he does - then size limits are not going to be included.
Paul from Cloudwater Brewery is at the AGM on the Saturday and rather taken aback by the scale of the sheer scale of it, just before he was to host a tasting of his beers to 400 people. "I think the most I've done a tasting with before is about 17 people," he quips. This is the same Cloudwater Brewery scrutinised so heavily for their size upon opening last year, despite the fact their entire facility could fit comfortably into the area Brewdog uses to store cardboard.
The personnel themselves have experience far removed from brewing. Those running the more financial focused side of the business have been head-hunted for their occupational capabilities; taking control of companies with nationwide influence and offices. Some of those involved in the brewing also have surprising backgrounds. One of the people heavily involved in beer quality and consistency did a similar role at Anheuser Busch in the U.S. for years.
The operation continues nationally. The ten-person strong social media team actually take up residence in a London office. A London based PR agency also handles a lot of the advertising from a base 550 miles away. They admit to being mostly responsible for the ill-advised No Label beer and campaign. This is certainly not a business confined to its Ellon base.
Yet the two front men repeatedly say they care about two things: their beer and their people. They employ over 500 people and have over 30,000 shareholders, 6000 of whom will be in Aberdeen on this weekend for the AGM. If James and Martin aren't as heavily involved in the brewing side anymore, is it the same with people?
Standing in Underdog - the underground club-style bar of Aberdeen's Brewdog Castlegate - as it's just passed midnight on the same day of the Q&A, one of the brewery's marketing team is enjoying a few drinks with us. Unprompted and out of context, he starts repeating some of the words I'd heard from James Watt that morning. "We're only 0.1% of the market - we want to be 1%." "We're tiny in comparison to the likes of Sierra Nevada." All of it is said in that first person pronoun talk.
Fourteen hours later, in the midst of the AGM, I jest with another member of the marketing team about the slight narcissism involved in the merchandise availability of James-Watt-style Brewdog branded denim shirts. He briefly shares in my humour before catching himself and saying "Yeah, they're really cool aren't they?"
Add to that the numerous times I've witnessed employees of the company defending it on social media and explaining how much they love their jobs. Beyond the possibility of Science Fiction chips being inserted into these employees that makes them recite their love for the Punk brand at all times, one can only assume the other possibility: that these people really love the company and are devoted to its ethos.
The same can be said for the many shareholders attending the AGM. Each has bought into something they believe in and support. A couple of attendees tell of how they have been every year. They have a weekend routine for it; the same town to stop off on the way, the same cafés to visit, the same restaurant the night before. They're happy to make an AGM a mini holiday and drink little more than Punk IPA when they arrive. They are fans. They are Punks.
That's the word again that is championed and scrutinised. Denial of it is foolish. The Brewdog team and fanclub are not punks in the same way Lady Gaga's fans aren't actually monsters and fans of Taylor Swift aren't actually quick half-pints squeezed in before the train home. They've claimed the word for themselves. They are the super loyal fans, cheering from the bleachers whilst their heroes work the stage. The heroes are both revered and hated in this world in near equal measure but here in this Aberdeen conference centre they are rockstars.
Back in that Q&A session on Friday morning, Martin quips that he hasn't heard a song other than The Wheels on the Bus in nearly a year. It is a reminder that, beyond the marketing personas they have created for themselves, there are two highly successful guys with young families; young families whom I imagine will be very proud of them.
I was in Aberdeen for the weekend by Brewdog's invitation. I am not a shareholder. I did, however, have an excellent time.
For further reading on Brewdog's future plans post United Craft Brewers, see this post from Pete McKerry on brewgeekery