Every so often, Brewdog goes viral on British social media. An ill-judged spat with a much-loved Scottish lager brand; anger over the revelation that it was going to stop paying Britain’s real living wage; a skit that appears to make fun of the middle-aged, baseball-capped owners; an arch review of the brewery’s flagship London bar, which describes it as an “infernal pint crèche for confused children and the wife-dodging salarymen they’ll one day become.”

As one Twitter user put it recently, “When you see Brewdog trending it’s never because they’ve made a lovely new beer, is it?”

For Brewdog, ruffling feathers has long been a key part of the business model. From its early tussles with cask-ale consumer group CAMRA to taking on Vladimir Putin, Brewdog and its CEO James Watt have thrived on confrontation and controversy. “If we didn’t find a way to do things unconventionally, we wouldn’t have got our message out there, we would have got lost,” as Watt himself put it last year.

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This appears to have served Brewdog well. Founded in 2007, it runs 72 bars in the U.K.; global revenue grew 13 percent to £321 million ($406 million) last year, although there was a significant operating loss of £24 million ($30 million). It has raised more than £80 million ($101 million) of crowdfunded cash from around 200,000 small investors, creating an army of so-called “Equity Punks” in the process.

But as the social media response suggests, many Britons have had enough of Brewdog’s schtick. Even as the company continues to expand — and as rumors of a forthcoming IPO circulate — it remains a lightning rod for criticism, most recently when complaints it made about a BBC documentary were rejected by Ofcom, Britain’s television regulator. The response from online commentators was not sympathetic.

So how did Britain’s most important modern brewery accumulate so many, to use Watt’s own term, haters?

Disruptive Outsiders

From the start, Brewdog has aimed to be different to the British brewing establishment. To make sure everyone understood this, the brewery hired Manifest, a then-recently established London-based brand communication agency, in 2009. According to Alex Myers, Manifest founder and CEO, the brief was simple: “Redefine beer in the U.K., and we’ll do the rest.”

A series of headline-grabbing escapades followed, making Brewdog the most talked-about brewery in the U.K. — but the aim wasn’t to be controversial, Myers insists. “The strategy was to make everyone as passionate about craft beer as we are,” he adds. “There was a no-holds-barred approach, doing what we felt we should do, rather than what was expected of us.”

This reflected Watt’s own approach to business, as outlined in his book “Business For Punks,” but gradually, and perhaps inevitably, some of those people Brewdog felt were its natural audience were turned off. In 2015, for example, Watt and co-owner Martin Dickie were accused of mocking trans women and homeless people in an ad that saw them dressed as sex workers.

“If you’re the voice of the community, you need to remain anchored to the community,” says Myers. “Continually moving, continually evolving, continually reading the room.” At some point, Brewdog stopped doing this — perhaps when, as Myers points out, it stopped being the plucky outsider. “You’ve done this David-versus-Goliath thing, and now you’re Goliath,” he says.

Unhappy Insiders

Manifest’s working relationship with Brewdog ended in 2019 amid a row over an alcohol-free beer, but Myers insists there are no hard feelings. The same is not necessarily true in Britain’s craft-brewing world.

McKay worked as a designer at Brewdog between 2013 and 2018, seeing first-hand how things were done, and how Brewdog enjoyed bending the truth in its marketing.

In 2015, New Zealand’s Yeastie Boys launched in the U.K., with beer contract-brewed at Brewdog. That agreement lasted about 18 months before being canceled abruptly in 2017, ostensibly because Brewdog had decided to get out of contract brewing. Stu McKinlay, co-owner of Yeastie Boys, says he managed to negotiate an extra three months, but the experience left a sour taste. “I didn’t want to say too much [then] because I didn’t want to rock the boat,” he says.

At the time, perhaps, other brewers were loath to criticize Brewdog, but that didn’t last long. In 2017, Brewdog sold a big chunk of the business to San Francisco private equity house TSG Consumer. Not only had Brewdog spent the previous 10 years railing against similar investment, but it raised as-yet unanswered questions about the company’s dubious Equity For Punks scheme, as covered by VinePair contributing editor and columnist Dave Infante. And then, in 2021, an open letter from a group of ex-employees called Punks With Purpose highlighted what it called the “rotten culture” at the heart of Brewdog.

Brewdog’s response was conciliatory, but a subsequent BBC documentary saw it come out fighting. Much ire was focused on Charlotte Cook, who worked at Brewdog between 2012 and 2014 and is now head brewer at Coalition Brewing in London. She was one of more than 300 signatories and appeared in the documentary, discussing her experiences of sexism at the brewery’s Ellon base.

Brewdog’s subsequent complaint focused in part on her involvement, which they insisted constituted being a “de facto researcher, evidence gatherer, and participation encourager” for the program. Ofcom did not agree, saying that there was no basis for this claim. “I feel vindicated, because I was accused of something preposterous,” Cook says.

Rob McKay, another Punks With Purpose signatory who now works for Scottish brewery Fierce, was also interviewed. McKay worked as a designer at Brewdog between 2013 and 2018, seeing first-hand how things were done, and how Brewdog enjoyed bending the truth in its marketing. He cites the much-repeated origin story of the founders’ meeting with Michael Jackson — even though there is no pictorial evidence of Watt having been there. “If James was there, he would have had his picture taken with him,” McKay says.

(Brewdog declined to respond to our questions about the Ofcom ruling or Yeastie Boys, saying that the company had moved on. “We’ve been recognized as a Sunday Times Best employer and a U.K. Top Employer two years in a row, which perhaps gives you some insight into [our] culture,” a spokesman added.)

Annoyed Onlookers

Brewdog’s abrasive approach has paid off in terms of public recognition, but it has also stored up a lot of bad feeling. It also means that for many Britons, Brewdog is craft beer — which is not necessarily a good thing. For many Britons, “craft beer” now means empty rhetoric and unappealing fussiness.

In 2021, British comedian Alistair Green produced “Punk Squirrel IPA,” an online skit featuring two middle-aged men, both called Matt, who’ve set up a “craft-beer company”; the satire is based on the distance between their cringe-inducing chat, their skateboards and devil horns’ hand gestures, and the reality of their middle-aged, middle-class lives and desires. It struck a chord with viewers, becoming one of Green’s most-watched films on a variety of platforms.

What’s striking is that the sketch isn’t actually about Brewdog (it was inspired by Beavertown, Green says), but everyone assumes it is. “Whenever Brewdog does something stupid — which happens frequently — I get tagged into it online,” Green adds.

Brewdog appears to have decided to make a break with the past. James Watt does most of his communicating via LinkedIn these days, occasionally popping up on the Instagram account of his girlfriend, reality TV star Georgia Toffolo. The beers also seem more conservative now, following public demand rather than leading it: Black Heart, a nitro stout, emerged in the wake of the recent trend for similar beers, for example.

The brewery’s increasing conservatism may or may not have something to do with a much-touted IPO, which could take place this year. It would make sense, as the deal with TSG Partners, which guaranteed the latter a compounding 18 percent annual return on its initial £213 million  investment ($269 million, for 23 percent of the business), runs out in August.

What then? Go for an IPO, find new investment — or maybe sell to a bigger brewer? You can imagine the fallout. British drinkers would have good reason to be more than just bored about that.