Good Beer Hunting

Governing Dynamics — BrewDog Hopes to Build a Coalition Customer Base in the U.S.


BrewDog’s stateside operations, anchored by a state-of-the-art outpost in Columbus, Ohio, capable of producing 100,000 barrels of beer per year, is but one cog in a global machine that itself is buttressed by a nine-figure private equity investment. Despite the physical and financial resources at the company’s disposal in the states, however, Tanisha Robinson, the serial entrepreneur the company tapped as CEO of its U.S. operations this past July, suggests the piece of business she oversees is still an “early stage, scrappy startup.”

“People may not realize [that] because we have phenomenal infrastructure,” she tells GBH. “So, you know, at least part of my role is just getting the right people in place on the team to set us up moving forward.”

The other major part, she says, has just been getting the beer out of the four-month old facility and flowing through the marketplace—the most obviously critical component of running a brewery. But getting out there has come with its own challenges, as the European brand tries to establish an American identity. And at the same time, the company is tweaking its portfolio, sticking its flag down in surrounding territories, and, it hopes, reaching heretofore-underserved demographics.

“We’ve got a lot in the hopper,” Robinson says.

On the challenge front, the company has dealt with what might best be described as a cultural barrier. Yes, BrewDog is known in the U.S. (the company’s founders, James Watt and Martin Dickie, have even hosted an American television show about beer), but not everything that works in the company’s native UK works here. Adds Robinson, “We’ve had some hypotheses on some of the big hits in Europe that would do well and they haven’t necessarily, because it’s just a very different kind of craft beer consumer in the U.S.”

For instance, Punk IPA is the company’s flagship brand abroad. In the states, though, Punk plays second fiddle to Elvis Juice, a grapefruit-forward, citrusy IPA. Dead Pony Club, a low-ABV Session Ale is another UK “headliner” that “just didn’t really take off” when offered to American drinkers.

Rearranging the pedestal of individual brands isn’t its only task, however. Kyle Fornek, corporate beer buyer at Binny’s, an Illinois-based liquor store chain, says the brand has struggled in his stores in the past for a number of reasons.

“The beer was expensive, $12 four-packs,” he says. “It was hard to find the beer fresh. When it was getting over here, it was a month or two old already.”

Because of this, he says he was initially “skeptical” of the U.S. re-launch, though he has since grown optimistic since getting a taste and look at the American output.

Appeasing the current American palate isn’t BrewDog’s only consideration in endearing itself to the U.S., though. Robinson says there’s significant opportunity for growth in simply reaching beyond the “straight white dude” demographic that still serves as the de-facto face of the industry. Of course, bringing new faces en masse to the community is much easier said than done. (Or it better be, anyway, given how little has changed in the face of widespread recognition of the problem.) So, what’s Robinson’s plan?

She made headlines this past October, of course, when, during a talk she gave at a conference, she began her speech with a slide that read, “We don’t want nazis to buy our beer.” She added at the time, “We are totally comfortable alienating xenophobes and racists.” But that isn’t the company’s way of attracting new drinkers—that was just the right thing to do.

“It shouldn’t be that big of a deal to stand up and say that,” she clarifies to GBH. “Within my own identity as a black, gay woman, I’m in the fray—whether I want to be or not.”

The plan, then, is to “authentically” create something new that appeals to new people, rather than to force existing brands in front of them. “It’s not necessarily the Punk IPA we would target towards certain demographics,” Robinson says. “I think the larger opportunity is, what beers can we create that we think might be approachable or resonate with certain markets?”

On that note, she says that, in the UK, the company brewed more than 250 unique beers, while in Ohio, it just got its pilot system up and running. “I don’t want to be coy,” she adds, “but we have something coming up in the spring to address just that.”

And Robinson hopes her entrepreneurial background can help here. Indeed, Robinson has helped launch a number of successful companies, including Print Syndicate, a t-shirt company that designed clothes seemingly born to not only go viral, but born to go viral among very specific and sometimes niche demographics. (One shirt features Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and is captioned “The Notorious RBG.” Another reads “Introverts Unite,” giving way to smaller letters that clarify, “occasionally in small groups for very limited periods of time.”)

“My previous business, we sold apparel online. The t-shirt game is even more saturated than the craft beer game, for sure,” she says. “We were able to build that business by thinking about social identities that were underserved when it comes to product. And I think that applies exactly in the beer space.”

Before the company invests too deeply in expanding its roster of beers, though, it will be making significant market moves. To kick off the New Year in January, BrewDog is adding distribution in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and, lastly, Illinois, where it has a significant retail partnerships lined up with Jewel Osco and the above-mentioned Binny’s. Working for the latter, Fornek says his newfound optimism for the brand is informed by lower price points and the general improved quality of the beers.

“I think the beer is genuinely good, you know, so I think this beer’s got a good chance to do something in our stores,” he adds. “We kind of got to wait and see how it’ll resonate, what the customer’s perception is gonna be. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to tell until we get the beer in.”

Come March, the company will also move into New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. And in Ohio, where the company established its U.S. headquarters, Robinson says the company is opening a pair of bars in the Short North and Franklinton neighborhoods of Columbus, while the sour brewery hotel project is still slated to open in August. It’s also currently looking at locations for bars in Cleveland and Cincinnati. Oh, and it will soon be brewing beer for outspoken and quickly growing Georgia beer makers, Scofflaw. All of which is to say: the “early stage scrappy startup” in Columbus has big plans on the horizon.

“We’re gonna keep our heads down and try to grow our own business,” Robinson says.

—Dave Eisenberg