Beer Town: BrewDog founder talks expansion, growing pains

Multinational beer and pub chain opened first Atlanta location on Beltline Eastside Trail

Founded in Scotland by James Watt and Martin Dickie in 2007, BrewDog has grown to become a multinational beer and pub chain with a brewery in Ohio and upcoming locations in Las Vegas, Australia and India.

The first Atlanta location opened in October in the Stove Works, just off the Beltline Eastside Trail and directly across from Krog Street Market. The stunning 12,000-square-foot space features a sprawling bar with some 28 taps, multilevel dining areas and a covered patio with fire pits.

Recently, I talked with Watt about the growth of the company and some of the problems it’s faced.

“We like to think our business is built on three foundational pillars: beer, people and planet,” he said. “So there’s a huge focus on making the best possible beer we can. We live and die by what’s in every glass and every bottle.

“During the pandemic there was a huge focus on sustainability, so we became the world’s first carbon-negative beer business. We worked with leading sustainability experts, as well as making massive investments to reduce our carbon footprint. We also remove twice as much carbon as we emit through the air every single year.”

ExploreBeer and brewery news

Credit: Amy Curruthers

Credit: Amy Curruthers

BrewDog also has created a progressive profit-sharing program with its employees that seems to help during a time when bars and restaurants are struggling to find employees.

“The final pillar is, of course, people,” Watt said. “We’ve made some really good headway on the people side of the business over the last 18 months. All of our bars are now what we call 50-50. So we’re the first hospitality company of scale to share 50% of its profits with the people in the bars. That’s been amazing for us in terms of attracting people who help us do what we do.

“We’ve opened a lot of new locations in the last 12 months, but I’m so excited about Atlanta. I love the city. I love the location, and I love the space. It’s just such an amazing thing you guys have in Atlanta with the Beltline. That ability to walk or cycle and connect and engage is a phenomenal thing.”

Another mark of BrewDog is its rotating list of local beers. In Atlanta, that’s included nearby favorites such as New Realm and Wrecking Bar.

“That is just so, so important to us,” Watt said. “Everywhere we go, we’ve got local beers on tap, which is a key part of what we do — especially in Atlanta, where the local beer scene is awesome. I’m a huge fan of Mitch Steele (at New Realm), all the way back to the early Stone days.”

Asked about the future of craft beer, Watt first addressed the U.S. as a precursor to the U.K.

“It’s gone from less than 0.2% of the market to 6% or 7% of the market, which is absolutely fantastic,” he said. “I’ve always thought that we were on the same trajectory as the U.S. but maybe 10 to 25 years behind. New England IPAs are very popular here, and there’s a trend toward really well-made lagers.”

Watt also responded to questions about BrewDog’s corporate culture, which came under fire in January when former staff spoke to the BBC, accusing Watt of inappropriate behavior and abuse of power in the workplace.

ExploreBrewing industry faces #MeToo moment

“We’ve been such a high-growth company over the last seven or eight years and growing exponentially,” Watt said. “Our ambition and aspiration has always been to be the best employer we can, and look after our people. I think it’s fair to say that during the periods of intensely high growth we weren’t able to execute to the level we wanted to.”

But from his point of view, Watt said he thought much of the media coverage had been “massively unfair,” adding, “We have had issues, but I don’t think nearly to the extent that the media has portrayed.”

Overall, though, Watt noted the experience caused the ownership to pause and reflect and spend more time consulting with the BrewDog team.

“I truly believe in a few years time we can look back at what has been a difficult period and say it has helped us invest more in our people and helped us to build a better business,” Watt said.

ExploreMAP: Breweries, brewpubs to try in metro Atlanta
ExploreThe ultimate guide to metro Atlanta food halls

Sign up for the AJC Food and Dining Newsletter

Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.