Costumed as fuzzy green dragons and purple she-devils, 264 craft beer enthusiasts pre-gamed in the Columbus, Ohio, airport on Halloween night, Oct. 31, 2019. They were waiting to board an unusual charter to Edinburgh, Scotland. The sold-out flight was carrying BrewDog employees and investors in the Scottish brewery’s Equity for Punks (EFP) crowdsourcing campaign across the Atlantic for a fun four-night Scottish tour.
It would be the third and last round-trip flight for the airline, which took its maiden voyage — from London to U.S. headquarters in Columbus — in February and had dropped off group No. 2 in Columbus earlier in the day. This was to be the first eastbound trip, consisting of two days in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, a visit to corporate HQ in Ellon, and time at Speyside/Highlands Scotch distilleries, plus a cooperage. The Americans were excited.
The sold-out 767 took off at 9:32 p.m., and brewery co-founder Martin Dickie came onto the PA system to introduce Cloud 9, a New England IPA brewed specifically for drinking at altitude.
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“This is an awesome experience,” Dickie said over the speaker, “to be on an airplane having a little bit of fun. That doesn’t usually happen.”
Dickie explained that he’d made this beer a little sweeter and saltier than most to overcome the dampened sensory perception travelers experience in an airplane’s dry, air-conditioned atmosphere. Thanks to its intense dry-hopping, the 5.1 percent ale retained its aloe, fresh greenery, and tropical stone fruit aromas, while the flavor balanced resiny, earthy hops with sweet malts.
When asked what he and partner James Watt would do with the recipe now that they’re retiring the route (because, as he says, “It’s not a financially sustainable model, we more or less cover the costs”) he answered, “Hopefully we can get it onto some airplanes. (Pause.) What’s your favorite airline?”
I hate to say it, Martin, because the rest of the trip was perfectly executed and your employees ooze no-b.s. hospitality, but not this one. Though the toilets didn’t stop up like they did on the first two outbound flights, and everyone arrived safely, more than a few people grumbled the cabin felt incredibly cramped. The seat width and legroom were average, but this regular-sized woman still found it nearly impossible to stuff a pillow, branded BrewDog blanket, water bottle, and sweatshirt next to her while stuffing a backpack and shoes under the seat and a few empty cans of BrewDog in the forward pocket.
The cushion sliding forward when the back reclined added a nice touch. But finding any relatively comfy position for sleeping in that space? Forget it.
Passengers couldn’t control their own air vents, so the temperature hovered around hellfire, and at least a few dozen omnivores had to eat tasteless Lebanese veggies and rice because the galley somehow ran out of beef stroganoff.
The drinks cart came around more often than on a normal flight, but the liquid was far from free-flowing. Worse still, instead of the certified Cicerones the brewery promised as “crewmembers,” one flight attendant couldn’t pronounce the names of the five BrewDog beers she served, much less explain them from the notes she’d been given to study in advance. And the marketing team missed an opportunity to verbally mention that the spirits had come right out of the BrewDog distillery in Ellon. Had all of the passengers realized that, they surely would have loved to sample some.
Despite the — admittedly insignificant — inconveniences, everyone did appear relaxed, and, as Dickie observed, “People are standing up, chatting, having a beer. People seem happy to be on an airplane.”
In all, the passengers behaved themselves better than expected. No one acted rowdy, drunk, or even loud. Truth be told, a surprisingly high percentage of passengers had gray hair and, as Dickie noted, “The day flights are a little more lively.”
The group comprised mostly of EFPs, who paid £1,350 per person (approximately $1,740) or £2,550 ($3,290) per couple for the package, which included transport, accommodations, tours, and £250 ($320) worth of “brewbucks” to buy beer, food, spirits, and merch at BrewDog locations in the U.K. Dickie says he loves getting to spend the airplane time getting to know his EFPs and employees, and giving them an opportunity to socialize with one another.
The journey also opened some people’s eyes to the rationale behind Equity for Punks, which skeptics criticize as a way for millionaires Dickie and Watt to fatten their private business, pull pricey public relations stunts, and run trans-Atlantic trips, all on the backs of suckers. But the facts prove far more wholesome.
After the two friends (and a dog) opened BrewDog in a rundown industrial unit in 2007, banks refused to loan them the money they needed to get out of the space and into the next level of production. Instead, EFPs provided them with capital.
Now, 12 years and eight rounds of EFP funding later (along with a 2017 venture capital infusion of $265 million), BrewDog sends 602,000 barrels of beer around the world from a 20-acre campus in Scotland, a production brewery in Columbus, and two more on the way. It also serves 2 million patrons a year at nearly 100 pubs across 15 countries. Without EFPs, Dickie and Watt may never have gotten out of that garage-sized site.
“This trip is about showing what our EFP community has allowed us to do,” Dickie says. “We were two guys with a very small brewery making some O.K. beer at that time. [Everything we do now] is only due to the belief that some of these guys had in us.”
It’s a nice success story to share right before BrewDog opens its third round of U.S. EFP funding. That said, if they do decide to bring BrewDog Airlines back, we might suggest springing for a cushier plane… with a few more toilets.