The joint head of one of Scotland's most controversial alcohol producers has lambasted critics who claim his company encourages binge drinking, saying they have the IQ of garden gnomes.
James Watt, who co-founded craft beer company Brewdog with friend Martin Dickie, says the claim is the equivalent of accusing a Michelin star restaurant of causing an obesity epidemic.
The firm has come under fierce criticism from public health bodies and Alcohol Focus Scotland for encouraging binge drinking since its launch in 2007.
The catalyst for the criticism was the 2008 release of 12% Tokyo, which is three times the strength of normal beer, and 18.2% Tokyo* the following year.
At the time the drinks were the strongest brewed in the UK and both were banned by the Portman Group, the social responsibility body for alcohol producers.
However, in an exclusive interview with HeraldScotland, Watt says that Brewdog’s beers are not designed to encourage binge drinking and its recent re-release of 28% Ghost Deer in a new 6cl miniature bottle is aimed to ensure its drinks are savoured and enjoyed, rather than drunk to excess.
The 30-year-old former fisherman from Gardenstown in Aberdeenshire said: “I think it is completely unfair, it is like blaming a Michelin star restaurant for an obesity epidemic.
“As a company we want to elevate the status of beer, show people amazing flavours and stylistic diversity. We want to get people passionate and excited about beer.
“We decided to do a second run of Ghost Deer but package it in a 6cl bottle so that it was a beer that you would enjoy in the same way you would a nice spirit, or a nice whisky.
“The whole idea behind making the bottle smaller was to focus on the experience and the taste as opposed to the effect it had on you. That is not what we are about as a company.
“Our beers are expensive, our beers are niche, they are artisan products for hardcore craft beer aficionados so to say we’ve got anything to do with binge drinking at all; the person who said that must have the same IQ as a garden gnome. It’s insane.”
The Scottish Government is currently battling to introduce a minimum alcohol pricing policy in a bid to tackle binge drinking. If passed, the policy would introduce a 50p per unit minimum price for alcohol, making it illegal to sell a standard 70cl bottle of whisky for less than £14.
Since launching, Brewdog has created a number of controversial drinks and organised numerous high profile stunts, including driving a tank down a street in London and creating the world’s strongest commercial beer.
However, despite gaining notoriety for its unconventional beers and publicity stunts, Watt says that Brewdog has not intentionally courted controversy.
He said: “As a small company we have had a non-existent marketing budget so we have had to be quite inventive as to how we get the name out there. We’ve focused on social media, on interaction and engagement and we’ve also done a few high impact, reasonably provocative things but it has been great because it has gotten our name out there and it’s given us a platform to speak about beer.
“I don’t think we’ve intentionally courted controversy. We have always done things that we believe in, we have done what we are passionate about but we have never been scared to tell people what we believe in and stand up for our opinions.
“I guess a lot of our views are contra to what’s currently in the UK beer industry and what we’re trying to do beer wise is different as well. We’re an outsider, a rebel and we like to think our beers have the same attitude towards the incumbents of the beer market that the original punks had to pop culture.
“Ourselves, our company and our beers are a modern day rebellion and I guess that comes through in what we do as a business.”
Watt and Dickie launched Brewdog, which currently employs 150 people, after they were unable to find any commercial beers that they wanted to drink.
Since then the company’s rise has been meteoric: it has released a range of popular craft beers, including Punk IPA, Dead Pony Club, Tokyo, Sink the Bismarck, Dogma and 5am Saint; moved into its new £8million low-carbon brewery in Ellon; and opened 10 bars across the UK. It will unveil its eleventh in Leeds in January.
In 2011, it made a £6million profit and is predicted to double that to £12million in 2012 through a growth in sales at home and abroad.
However, Watt says that despite being one of Scotland’s fastest growing companies, Brewdog has only laid the foundations for its success so far and there is a lot more to come in the future.
He said: “We’re still a tiny player in an industry dominated by faceless, generic, multi-national, monolithic corporations and we’re determined over the next few years to get more people excited about craft beer.
“We don’t consider that we are successful yet, we’ve got so much more that we want to go on and achieve as a company and, for us, we’re always focusing on what we want to do next.
“We’ve just moved into our new £8million production facility up in Ellon, which is going to give us so much more capacity to make beer. Up until now we’ve given ourselves a platform to go on and achieve something but I don’t think we have done any more than that so far so watch this space for the next few years.”
A record number of independent breweries have now opened in Scotland as drinkers reject more established brands in favour of locally produced beers.
Figures from the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) show that there are now more than 70 breweries operating across Scotland, including Brewmeister in Kincardine, which produces the 65% Armageddon, Alechemy Brewing in Livingston and Kinneil Brew House in Bo’ness.
The boom comes amid the recession and the closure of many pubs across the UK.