Melissa Cole has seen and heard it all when it comes to BrewDog. This week we’re back with the second part of my interview with the well-known British beer writer, author, and judge. In this interview, Cole delivers a devastating indictment of Brew Dog amidst all the scandals swirling around the company. These controversies, which seem to multiply week after week, involve a host of issues including allegations of an abusive and harmful corporate culture, poor treatment of workers, surveillance of employees and critics, and mistreatment of females.
It can be difficult to get your arms around the issues facing BrewDog as they seem to pile on more as time goes on.
In this interview, which was conducted via Zoom and published as part of the BeerEdge podcast, we hear from Cole, who has covered BrewDog for more than a decade. And we start at the beginning, including her first memories of meeting BrewDog’s co-founder James Watt and how her impressions of him and the company evolved over time. A word of warning for listeners. We discuss some sensitive issues in this episode, including physical abuse, harassment, and sexism. Reader discretion is advised.
Andy Crouch: You have been a watcher and occasional critic of BrewDog dating back more than a decade. And for those who don’t know, BrewDog has been ensconced in controversies both real and contrived since its founding. They’ve ranged from marketing gimmicks gone awry or way over the line, over the top shenanigans to more serious allegations that have gotten a lot of play recently, of employee mistreatment, workplace misconduct, and behavioral issues that go all the way to the top of that company. I mean, this could be an episode or two on its own.
Melissa Cole: And this is where I walk you to the fridge with me to go and get another beer. Carry on.
AC: We’ll start off just easy. Can you remember the first time you heard of BrewDog?
MC: Yeah, I met them when I was running a tasting business. We had them down to do some meet the brewer events and so on and so forth. I’d been sort of communicating with them a bit anyway, getting press releases, writing about the beers, getting samples. So I knew about them and I’ve always been very honest, it felt different like a breath of fresh air because I was also the only full time female beer writer in the UK. And younger than most other people doing at the time as well, right? It was nice having somebody shaking stuff up that wasn’t just me. But it quickly became obvious that the ‘me’ was kind of the central theory behind the whole BrewDog experience. And the minute I started spending a bit more time in the US and seeing a bit more of the MO of Stone, who by the way we’re better at it by far, that whole stick was very clear. And then of course it started getting much more unpleasant and gimmicky and just constantly it was just like, “alright who are we going to piss off next? Who are we going to fight next? Which element of the establishment are we going to take on next?” (*long pause*). It was just so bro. I mean, there’s a reason why they’re nicknamed BroDog, you know?
It was like watching a mini episode of American Pie every five minutes you know? Just constant frat boy shit. But it was also just so unnecessary and was drawing other people into it. Young guys who were getting into the beer industry were suddenly just like, “Yeah, I gotta be like BrewDog.” Oh, God not another one. And you know we’ve got that problem now and they’ve spawned all these little agi-puppies who all think that they can behave like assholes and get away with it.
AC: What role do you think it’s played in the development of craft beer in the UK?
MC: A big one. I mean, I’m not going to knock them for definitely shaking things up and making a scene and getting beers into supermarkets and stuff like that. But they did it at the expense of the people who actually got them to that point. It’s difficult to get by on freelance journalism and I was doing some work in a wholesale distributor at the time and I just remember every week they said, “we’ll definitely have some Punk for you next week. We will definitely have that. We’re sorry, we’ve got this problem and that problem.” And it wasn’t, it was just all being pumped into the major supermarket that they just signed a deal with. And they literally just screwed everybody overnight. No warning, no nothing. And that’s it. It’s just parasitic behavior. And there have been a lot of businesses which have copied exactly that. But on the upside, there’s also a lot of businesses who consciously, very consciously behave in the exact opposite manner. So, Yin Yang, problem is that they’re the biggest. And they’ve got a lot of clout. And they’ve got a lot of bars.
AC: You recently participated in a BBC Scotland documentary called “The Truth About BrewDog.” How did that come to be?
MC: Well, I mean, I don’t think it takes a lot of Googling to find my name next to something critical of BrewDog.
AC: True, true.
MC: But also, I’ve worked with the BBC on God knows how many different things over the years. A lot of what I had previously written was being used as source materials. So the producer and the journalist had seen me on varying different other news programs, or heard me on radio, or on food programs, so they knew I could comport myself in front of a camera. My role in that was very much to set a scene and the history of the company. We actually filmed a lot more, and when I say a lot more I mean a lot more, because the original idea I think was that I was gonna kind of pop up and narrate almost the timeline of the business. But they ended up finding so much stuff out that it got cut down. As I said to them, I wouldn’t give a monkey’s if you cut me out entirely if that gives somebody else space to tell their story.
AC: What was your response to the series after you watched it? Because as I think you’ve said some other places I’ve seen that one of the criticisms of the program from the beer community is, “well, we already know all this. We know all of this.” Frankly, there’s plenty of other drinkers throughout the UK and around the world who don’t know this, but also there was so much in there that even folks who follow the story quite closely didn’t know. So as someone who has followed this company for so long and seen most of what it has done, what was your response to what you saw?
MC: The Heineken thing took me aback so hard. I have never heard anything so unlikely in my life as the defense of I bought half a million shares in a major brewer as a show of good faith. I don’t even know how to start with that. I know it’s a very false equivalency. But if you actually take, and I would just like to point out that despite my dyscalculia, I very smartly married an accountant. So I said to my husband, “can you do me a favor? Can you figure out that amount of money as compared to that year’s overall global profit of Heinken?” And I think we figured out it was one-third of two thousandths of a percent. Right. Do you think Heineken gives a flying F about your half a million quid’s worth of shares, Sunshine?
I found the second half really harrowing, listening to the women’s stories. And the defense that I’ve heard from a lot of people of he wasn’t doing anything illegal is an extremely depressing one, right? Because if you’ve made that many women uncomfortable, and men, and you put men in a position or any of your staff in a position where they feel they either have to be worried around you or protect their colleagues from you, you’ve got big problems, pal. And that, for me, is really horrifying. And the fact that he seemed to kind of use the US as his personal playground. Because he might not get caught? I don’t know. Did he think he was on holiday all the time? It’s your business. And I found that really difficult and also because I am somewhat of a lightning rod for women telling stories to in the industry and over the whole series since Brienne, RatMagnet on Instagram, broke all the stories, and there’s other women doing that now, it is an incredible emotional weight to be carrying. And because I have been told, not BrewDog specific, although some of them are involving people in that organization. And so I’ve just been told some of the most horrendous stories, and a lot of it is these women just wanting to let somebody know, which is fine. I’m always there for it but the avalanche has just been, wow. And it’s been going on so long. A lot of it’s been going on in COVID lockdown times as well so you’re doubly impotent about things. And it’s really very frustrating.
But we really need to shape up. We really need to shape up as an industry, we need to start looking after people better, so much better across the board, not just talking about sexual harassment. But obviously, that’s a huge issue. We’re losing brewers left, right, and center because nobody seems to give a crap about their physical health. “You can’t be a brewer if you can’t pick up forty-two 25 kilo malt bags and blah, blah, blah.” Why isn’t somebody providing some sort of help with that? How much does one of those wind-up dollies to get it to the right height actually really cost? And I can tell you why it’s not being done. Patriarchy. Toxic masculinity. All of those things. Just stop being such a bro for a minute. For 500 quid, you could keep brewers for a couple of years longer. Isn’t that gonna pay you back in spades. You don’t have to recruit. You don’t have to train. You don’t have to drain pour batches because you’ve hired the wrong person who it turns out doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing. Just invest in your people.
AC: When the series came out there, you know in the states here it had a big hit in terms of the beer community watching it. What’s been the response that you’ve heard in the UK?
MC: It’s definitely gone wider. It’s really gone wider, I’m inundated with messages saying “oh my god, I didn’t know. I know you didn’t like them. But I didn’t realize how awful they were. I’m never buying BrewDog again. I’ve just poured my two cans from the fridge down the drain.” All that sort of stuff. I don’t know what’s really going to happen in the long run. I have questions still. Firstly, where the hell is [BrewDog co-founder] Martin Dickie? (*long pause*)
Where are you Martin? (*long pause*)
This happened on your watch too. So where are you?
Secondly, TSG. What are you doing? You won’t answer calls, you won’t answer emails. You won’t talk to anybody. The whole bit when the first allegations broke when lots were coming out on social media about it, and you attempted to pretend that you’d installed a woman to head up the company despite the fact that internal emails had gone out about that six weeks beforehand. You’re willing to be complicit in this behavior so you can get your money back. I know you’re a PE company but seriously, come on. Where’s your duty of care for all those staff who are earning you that money back?
But seriously, where the fuck is Martin?
AC: We have seen many big names apologize or even step down from their positions and businesses. But those are sort of few and far between, there’s handfuls of them. It’s not like it’s been incredibly widespread and plenty of folks remain in their businesses, as per the people we’re talking about. Do you think we’re going to see actual, meaningful progress? Or is this going to be a temporary blip and things will just go back to the way it’s always been?
MC: Well, here’s the thing. And this is what I’m going to ask every single person involved in the beer industry right now. You cannot keep on asking the people who are persecuted to keep on doing the emotional labor. It’s crucifying people. It’s had me in absolute floods curled up or missing deadlines, because I just can’t do another thing. I can’t listen to another story. I can’t do anything. I can’t help anything. Nothing’s changing as you said. It’s like 12 years I’ve been talking about this, like really super hyper vocally. Do you know how tiring that is? I mean when it was literally pretty much just me for the first five years. That’s tough. Now, I’ve got so many other voices with me. And that is fantastic and I’m with them. But the problem is I’m not seeing people stand up and say, “Screw you, BrewDog, I’m pulling my beers.” They’ll be the first ones to throw you under the bus. Don’t forget what they did to Camden. Don’t forget what they did to Beavertown. Don’t forget what they did to Wicked Weed. They took the beer that they had done as a collaboration, repackaged it and put it out anyway, allegedly. I mean, don’t think that they won’t throw you under the bus at the earliest convenience. Stop handing these people power. They only have the power that we give them. Stop giving them that power. You’ve got the power not to sell your beer to them, you’ve got the power not to support them. You’ve got the power to speak out against all of this behavior. This bro code of silence, it’s got to stop.
AC: You have personally been subjected to more than your fair share of vitriol and sexism and attacks over the years, for first of all just being a woman in this industry, let alone calling out misogyny and bad practices. How are you able to maintain your mental health when this happens?
MC: I think being a journalist really helps. Knowing that a lot of things are tomorrow’s chip paper. Sorry, that’s a particular Britishism. So what a lot of old fashioned fish and chip shops used to do was wrap it in a clean piece of paper first but to save money they would use old newspapers because it’s quite a good insulator. So yeah, so tomorrow’s fry paper I guess. I feel like my moral compass is relatively good. And I feel like this is a good fight and I’ve been fighting a good fight and therefore that’s good. I’ve got the most supportive husband who is brilliant and who absolutely supports me doing what I’m doing. Despite you can see his inner accountant just going, “Jesus Christ woman, can’t you just do something that earns some money?” (*laughs*). And I have a great support network of friends as well. I have friends outside of the industry. That’s really important. I play cricket. I’m not going to bother trying to explain it to Americans and that’s really good. That’s really healthy. I go to the gym. I just started punching things again, that’s good, and started boxing training again, so that’s healthy. And actually, I I’m pretty good at fuck you, I don’t care. A lot of the stuff, I mean is utter keyboard warriors, I don’t care. You know James Watt spent a lot of time trying to make me go away. That didn’t work. I’ve had blokes physically assault me at beer festivals because I’m that bloody woman who bangs on about tits on pump clips. Shoved, spat out, kicked. Confronted in my fishmongers, that was a weird one.
MC: Yeah. A guy stood in the door of my fishmongers and shouted at me. My local fishmonger who I use quite regularly. That was, that was weird. (*laughs*) So it was the whole thing of barring the door so I couldn’t get out so he could harangue me. That’s just a terrible move. I don’t scare easily. I don’t back down easily. But it does take a toll. There’s no two ways about it. I have to work very hard for it not to make me cynical.
I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, and you may have to bleep some of this. Here’s from an incident a while back. Somebody sent me a WhatsApp conversation from their time working for a brewery. Because they just felt really bad about it. And they were outside of the beer industry now. So I’d criticized their brewery for their artwork. And I’d written an article in a magazine called Ferment. And the two owners of the brewery, I’m just going to give you some headlines of what they said in this WhatsApp conversation. “Such a cunt. We need to hit this on the head someday, somehow, we could offer to help her bang her anti beer bigotry drum. See what genius ideas she’s got instead of just criticizing someone else. How do we engage the fuck bitch though without her clocking that we are just using her to rectify her bad PR. Fuck her, I might say we make a label with her on it, Coal Miner Black IPA, I’m sure we can come up with some sort of vulgar troll.” You know what though, they didn’t dare say that to my face. And also, I saw them coming a mile off when they tried it. It was very embarrassing. This is the stuff that needs to be called out not five years down the line when somebody has left the business who was too scared to say anything. It needs to be called out then and there. But knowing that there’s people out there that have got my back like that. That left the business as a result of that WhatsApp conversation, sadly, left the industry because they were so disillusioned by it all. If you’re not calling out stuff like that, milder stuff than that. I mean, that’s a very extreme example, obviously. Milder stuff than that. Everyday sexism, everyday racism, everyday homophobia, horrible phrase. Because it shouldn’t be that every day. But you let those little tiny cancerous little cells take hold. And the next thing you know, it’s just a big tumor in the business.
AC: There’s just an incredible weight that you’ve had to bear. And it’s not even that I want to thank you for it. I definitely want to thank you for talking about something that no one should have to bear. But you have incredible strength and fortitude and attitude.
MC: I’m just very angry. (*laughs*)
AC: I can sympathize with that. (*laughs*) But you’re also an incredibly positive person and someone who loves this industry very dearly.
MC: I think a lot of breweries would do really well at startup point to make sure that there is an adult in the room, frankly. You’re going to hire people like you. That’s just human nature, right? So you’re going to hire people who look like you, who think like you, who talk like you, who walk like you. Problem is that also means you’re probably never going to think that they’re wrong. Even though they make you a little bit uncomfortable, right. And then it’s like, “well, you know, but he’s such a great guy.” Doesn’t really matter if he just says the N word every so often or that he objectifies the taproom supervisor or taproom server. “I mean she’s cute, look at those tiny little shorts.” Have an adult in the room, have diversity in the room. Because if it’s all a bunch of bros, then bro behavior is what you’re gonna get.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.