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Trying craft beer's biggest cult of personality in the court of public opinion
Notes on BBC's BrewDog doc, plus BoJo BYOB x The Hold Steady, and more
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On Monday afternoon, BBC Scotland aired an investigation into BrewDog, the largest craft brewery in Europe and a top-50 producer here in the U.S. It was a fairly damning indictment of the Scottish firm’s “punk” posturing, financial finagling, and apparent greenwashing, and drilled into the allegedly predatory and sexually inappropriate workplace behavior of BrewDog’s charismatic CEO and cofounder James Watt.
I already wrote a big thing with a bunch of context on Friday, so I won’t do the whole wind-up again. But my chief takeaway from the 60min feature documentary1 is that absent a worker-led mechanism—i.e., a labor union—to force companies like BrewDog to actually fulfill their stated goals of improving their toxic workplaces, any comeuppance for alleged transgressions will be meted out in the court of public opinion. And that means shit is going to get messy.
It’s not that the BBC’s documentary wasn’t compelling. The Disclosure team obtained several key records that underpinned some of its reporting—mash bills for the hundreds of kegs that BrewDog allegedly shipped to the US from the UK illegally in 2016, screenshots of grim results from an internal 2019 employee survey, etc. The reporters also dug into the Equity for Punks offering materials to lay out the dubious investment deal BrewDog offers its diehard fans.2 Where there wasn’t documentation to go on, they corroborated allegations of harassment with oodles of former employees—many named and on-camera—in a way that I found very credible.
The documentary marshaled all that reporting into a convincing case that Watt, the telegenic BrewDog frontman, is at the root of the company’s rot. Former employees allege (named and on-camera) that he harasses and ogles his female employees, that he hooks up with drunk customers at company taprooms, and capriciously fires people who don’t toe the company line. (Watt declined to be interviewed in the piece, but denied the various allegations in statements to the BBC.) It’s a thoughtful, believable narrative of a cult of personality drunk on power that tracks with what Punks with a Purpose open letter described, and my own reporting on the firm (during which it was very difficult to find workers to speak on the record.) It also tracks with The Guardian’s report last week that Watt was posting intimidating messages to BrewDog’s shareholder forum warning former employees who may have spoken to Disclosure that the BBC couldn’t guarantee their anonymity.
Shitty though it may be, none of this is clearly criminal. The statute of limitations on the allegedly illegal keg-shipping expired. Watt’s allegedly sexual conduct towards customers and employees is creepy and gross, but based on my non-lawyerly knowledge, would probably make for a tough workplace harassment case—which are notoriously hard to prove in the U.S., anyway.3
The report’s other big reveals mostly follow in this “definitely fucked up, probably not illegal” mode.4 According to the BBC, instead of using proceeds from the Lost Lager beers it sells to fund its “Lost Forest” reforesting effort, BrewDog applied for a £1.3M grant from the Scottish government to use taxpayer money to plant the trees instead. (The company bought the land the trees are going to be planted on in Scotland, and claims that it’s also planting trees in Madagascar.) I don’t even really know what to make of this, besides the general observations that companies are almost never as environmentally friendly as they claim!
Disclosure’s reporters also discovered that Watt bought stock in Dutch macrobrewer Heineken—a Big Beer foe that he’s routinely railed against—worth half a million pounds in 2017. This is very funny and baldly hypocritical! Watt didn’t address Disclosure’s questions about the shares in the doc, but later said on Twitter that the shares:
[W]ere held briefly as a show of good faith when we were trying to do a distribution deal with them… Although we do not want to be owned by big beer, we are happy to work with them on distribution.
Craft brewers often have to find strange bedfellows for distribution, so that would kinda-sorta make sense… but I’ve never heard of a founder personally buying stock in a potential distro partner to sweeten a wholesaling partnership. Still, at worst this finding shows Watt to be a cornball, which is a conclusion people could have easily drawn from his frequent LinkedIn posts and years of performative swashbuckling.
To be clear, I think that the BBC did vital work on this piece. Having reported on BrewDog several times before, I know firsthand how difficult it is to get people with knowledge to talk about the brewery or Watt on the record. It’s also a major escalation to have this reporting happening on national TV in BrewDog’s home market; both the BBC’s journalistic imprimatur and its viewership inject important conversations about Europe’s largest craft brewer into the mainstream discourse in a way most written reporting for digital outlets (including mine, for what it’s worth) is rarely able to accomplish. I think beer writer Beth Demmon’s take was right-on in this regard:
But even considering all that, we still find ourselves litigating BrewDog’ moral/ethical goodness on social media, because Watt and his cofounder control the company. That’s terrible for the former workers who bravely spoke out against the brewery: they’ll presumably be subject to harassment from pro-BrewDog trolls (of which there are many!) Plus, as years of brain-dead #RESIST bullshit have taught us, hashtag activism is no substitute for IRL organizing, and in fact may handicap it. In the digital age, the court of public opinion is frighteningly effective at identifying plaintiffs, and demonstrably terrible at delivering meaningful justice.
Not that BrewDog helped its cause on the stand, mind you. Throughout the entire 60min BBC doc, not one person went on camera to defend the company. Not one! BrewDog appears to have communicated entirely by written statements with the Disclosure team. The fact that Watt in particular, a camera-friendly ham who routinely posts about his plans to become a better executive, wouldn’t face Daly on camera speaks volumes about how sincere those promises are. It just wasn’t a good look.
So if the BBC’s BrewDog feature has indeed put BrewDog on trial with the drinking public writ large—which is still an “if,” because the company and Watt are remarkable at spinning away from scandal, and could still just sorta skate on this—what might the ruling be? And in the absence of a unionized BrewDog workforce that could just shut it all down until Watt gets walked, who will hand down the sentence?
The only involved party with direct jurisdiction here—besides Watt and his cofounder, of course—is TSG Consumer Partners, the private equity firm that owns a compounding stake in BrewDog plc. After the Punks with Purpose exposé, that company installed one of its executives on the Scottish brewery’s board in what could be read as an effort to put adults in the room and shepherd their investment to its long-promised IPO. Another group with indirect leverage: the bankers responsible for the (still hypothetical) public listing, and the analysts who will evaluate the stock offering for their own firms. Given the BBC’s report, either may come to view Watt as more trouble than he’s worth at the helm.
It would be a fitting irony for the craft brewing punks of Scotland to be deposed by the same financial-sector fatcats they’ve alternatively castigated and courted. But it would do little to address the power imbalance between workers and bosses at craft breweries like BrewDog ruled by powerful cults of personality. On that matter, the court of public opinion has little standing. Only the workers do.
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📬 Good post alert
🎤 What if the BoJo BYOB Scandal Was A Hold Steady Song?
I’m pretty sure I don’t fully grasp the significance of the controversy currently roiling U.K. politics, but the gist is:
The parties were billed as “work events” but privately advertised to guests as “bring your own booze” and referred to internally as “blowouts.”
Johnson later claimed he had no idea the parties violated his own government’s social distancing protocols.
A former top advisor was basically like “lol nah man I told you that this was a bad idea like two years ago and you did it anyway.”
Johnson, scrambling to contain the scandal, told the Queen “sorry for partying” (more or less.)
Political rivals and media figures have joined in calling for Johnson’s resignation.
And I think that about covers where things stand to date! (English readers, feel free to yell at me if I missed key details.) It’s objectively funny whenever Very Important Politicians get caught boozing like teenagers and then lie about it like… well, teenagers.5 But Americans may have trouble relating to this story, because former President Donald Trump is a tee-totaler who once sold bad vodka, and current President Joe Biden just kinda seems drunk most of the time.
Thankfully, Kelsey D. Atherton, author of the Wars of Future Past newsletter, has a handy solution for ignorant Yankees like us: a lengthy Twitter thread rehashing all the key details of this alcoholic Anglo scandal as song lyrics from The Hold Steady, a beloved, boozy rock band from Minneapolis. For example:
Does this help? No? Well… hmm. Anyway, enjoy The Hold Steady!
✍️ Recent writing elsewhere
Your fearless Fingers editor had a couple stories over at VinePair publish lately that you might be interested in:
Got another big piece publishing there imminently, too. Too much happening in the beverage alcohol business these days! That said, I need money! If you’re an editor looking to commission stuff from me, by all means get in touch via email.
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The show wasn’t broadcast live here in the U.S. but I was able to watch live on Scottish telly thanks to VPN access (provided by Friend of Fingers Tim M., thank you Tim M.!)
Make no mistake, there are a lot of true believers. As I’ve reported before, BrewDog has raised over $100mm worth of crowdfunded equity from around 200,000 rank-and-file investors. One of them is a guy with three BrewDog tattoos who performs an original rap about the company for the BBC’s cameras. I desperately want to interview him. Someone claiming to be him tweeted at me! Stay tuned…
All the sexual misconduct allegations seem to take place in the U.S., which left me curious. A sex pest on the scale that former workers allege Watt to be would surely do this sort of thing at locations in the UK and other countries, right? Or maybe not? Just kinda weird that all the allegations were about transgressions that took place on American soil. The BBC took pains to spell out that it was not alleging criminality. Regardless, Watt took to Twitter to deny it all and signal he planned to sue the broadcaster.
It’s worth noting (if not directly relevant) that the U.K.’s libel laws are notoriously stricter than their American analogs.
For what it’s worth, I think legality is a terrible measure of ethicality, but when it comes to convincing people to give a shit about corporate malfeasance, that seems to be the low bar that readers expect their big beautiful businesses to clear—and no higher. I wish this was not the case, but experience has mostly taught me otherwise.
Much less funny: the theory advanced by some experts that BoJo & co. are getting more aggressive with Russia over the latter’s Ukrainian ambitions as a way to distract from “partygate” at home. “There is no distraction as enticing as war,” one U.K. politics columnist warned. I’ve seen this movie before!