Good Beer Hunting

The Red Hats are Coming — Watching Scofflaw's Party Wash Ashore in the UK


Beer consumers have once again kicked up an online storm following the latest in a long line of PR faux-pas from multinational brewing conglomerate BrewDog. This one differed a little in that the Scotland-and-Ohio-based company wasn’t the only one at the center of the ensuing maelstrom. Instead, it was BrewDog’s corporate partner, Scofflaw Brewing, another beer maker that’s no stranger to the odd PR misstep.

The Atlanta-based operation has stated it did not instruct UK PR firm, Frank—the founder of which, Graham Goodkind is, by his own admission, “not afraid to say what he thinks”—to send a release indicating it would offer free beer to supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump as it tapped its beer on British soil for the first time. Nevertheless, that's what happened. The purpose of the promotion was to “help the U.K. get ‘beered up redneck style,’” according to the initial release.

The brewery was due to host tap takeovers at a selection of BrewDog’s bars in London, Leeds, and Manchester, starting at its Soho location on Sept. 27. However, following Frank’s press release becoming public—which, according to Scofflaw, was sent to more than 11,000 British journalists—BrewDog co-founder James Watt canceled the events immediately, and said he would return the beer to Georgia.

“Everyone. We had no idea about the Scofflaw press release or the plans they announced today for the events,” Watt tweeted. “We in no way aligned with their position and we will of course be cancelling all the events and sending all of the beer back.”

In a later tweet, Watt also called the announcement “fake news,” a term often used by President Trump to describe unfavorable media coverage. He also extended the offer for drinkers to claim free pints of BrewDog’s core beers if they visited any of its bars and expressed that they support love, not hate.

Meanwhile, Scofflaw also refuted that the offer within the press release had come from them. In an official statement, released after Watt had canceled their tap takeovers, Scofflaw described how it was “appalled by the inaccurate posts concocted this morning on their behalf.”

“This post is absolute non-sense [sic],” Scofflaw owner Matt Shirah said in the statement. “While we definitely have country roots, no one at Scofflaw Brewing or those associated with our brand is now, or has ever been, rooted in hate. We do not tolerate hate—that’s just idiotic.”

In the statement, Scofflaw laid the blame squarely at the feet of Frank PR. It also called for the PR firm to “to take accountability for its misrepresentation.” Frank did, however, release a statement following the fallout from the initial release, stating the message did not come from Scofflaw and apologized to recipients and for any confusion. It also blamed the existence of the initial release on a “rogue” element within its team.

Frank did not respond to GBH when reached for comment to explain the release or what they meant in their follow-up.

“Frank has been our PR team for the U.K. tour. We never saw or approved a copy of the release that was circulated,” Scofflaw’s Morgan Salmon tells GBH. “We are working with Frank to get them to write a formal apology and retractment. This has been an extremely frustrating and disappointing process for us. We welcome everyone. We love everyone. We just want to make good beer.”

According to posts made yesterday by Scofflaw on social media, Frank PR would not retract their comments and issue an apology unless the brewery agreed to waive any of its legal rights. But the PR firm issued an apology this morning (Friday, Sept. 28), in which it also indicated that the employee responsible had been suspended pending an investigation.

It’s unclear why, exactly, Scofflaw came to partner with Frank PR, but the two companies certainly share a rhetoric. Founder Graham Goodkind describes himself as a “Dutch Uncle.” GBH had to google the phrase, learning that it describes “a person who issues frank, harsh, or severe comments and criticism to educate, encourage, or admonish someone.” You might say Goodkind is something of a scofflaw himself.

To understand how this latest PR fracas came about, we need to rewind to December 2017, when Scofflaw announced it would be brewing its beers under licence at BrewDog’s Ohio facility. This deal, intended to help with capacity constraints at its Atlanta facility, currently adds around 9,000 barrels to its existing 15,000-BBL capacity. Earlier this year, Scofflaw took delivery of a new system, including a 5-vessel, 50-BBL brewhouse (one that has been sitting, unused, in its Westside Atlanta space for months). The untapped equipment gives Scofflaw the potential to take their capacity up to around 60,000 BBLs annually—bigger than almost every brewery in the Peach State.

That system, which was expected to be producing beer in March, is still waiting to be commissioned. All of which is to say: the beer for these events was being contract brewed, and that means BrewDog is effectively sending the beer back to itself. It is unclear if this recent snafu will have a further business impact between the two and their contract brewing relationship.

Speaking to GBH about the partnership late last year, Shirah described BrewDog and Scofflaw as having “obvious synergies.” This is true, in that both brands have a seemingly irreverent attitude rooted in a “punk-as-capitalism” ideology.

They’ve also both promoted their beers through the display and use of automatic weaponry. BrewDog has released a beer called Albino Squid Assassin, which features photographs of guns within its promotional material. And following a can release that did not pass quality standards, Scofflaw saw fit to make a video of themselves shooting the cans with automatic rifles.

In January 2018 it was announced that former BrewDog USA chief revenue officer Chris McJunkin—who also had stints at Founders, Craft Brew Alliance, and Vermont Hard Ciders—would join Scofflaw as a partner. Meanwhile, Scofflaw’s previous head of communications, Jonathan Ingram, elected to not renew his media relations contract with the company the following May.

Whomever was behind the now-canceled promotion had not, apparently, paid heed to current British opinion on the U.S. President. According to polling service YouGov, just 11% of Brits see Trump as a “great or good President” while 67% rate him as “poor or terrible.” That swing is likely even higher in liberal metropolitan enclaves such as London or Manchester. Should the promotion had gone ahead, it’s unclear how much beer they would have successfully given away.

Somewhat curiously, in the reactions from both Scofflaw and BrewDog, a language swap was made for “we don’t hate” as opposed to “we don’t support Trump.” It’s a curious alignment of words, but also perhaps enables them to take back this mistake without necessarily having to disown the president and his policies, which are viewed as hateful by many and enable both breweries to use the terms interchangeably. It is unknown if any of the owners of the so-called “redneck” brewery voted for—or support—Trump.

Staff at BrewDog’s bars were also unaware of the intended promotion until Frank PR’s press release became public, according to one employee who requested to remain anonymous. BrewDog has previously promoted a product by mimicking Trump when it launched a beer called Make Earth Great Again in November 2017. The beer was designed to raise awareness of climate change following the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords.

What does the future hold for the professional relationship between the two breweries now that BrewDog has canceled what it called “Scofflaw Week,” deleting the events from its website? Great question. For what it’s worth, at the time of this article’s publication, a collaboration beer between the two breweries called “Double A” was still listed on BrewDog’s website.

What’s apparent by the online reactions from both press and consumers is how this latest PR storm has become the expected norm for these brands. In theory, Scofflaw’s ideology depicts the brewery as a company that doesn’t care what most beer drinkers think. But the reality, as seen in its responses via social media, is that they do, indeed, care quite a bit about consumers and their brand image.

According to the Brewers Association, the UK is the second highest-selling market for craft-defined exports behind only Canada, seeing 10.5% of the share. Several popular U.S. breweries—including Other Half, The Veil, and Bissell Brothers—have all enjoyed successful tap takeovers on British soil over the past 12 months.

It’s likely Scofflaw hoped to tap into a market as well. Unfortunately for them, they no longer have the opportunity to pour their beers in thriving, thirsty cities like London, Leeds, and Manchester this week, leaving fans who were looking forward to the event disappointed, while kegs make their way back to the U.S.

—Matthew Curtis