BrewDog was, and is, built on a cult of personality. Since day one, you have sought to exploit publicity, both good and bad (and usually with the faces of James and Martin front and centre) to further your own business goals. Your mission might genuinely be to make other people as passionate about craft beer as you are (and in a sense you have succeeded - your fanbase certainly has some true zealots in its ranks), but the ambitions you impressed on your team have always seemed business-led. Growth, at all costs, has always been perceived as the number one focus for the company, and the fuel you have used to achieve it is controversy.This is not an isolated incident either. Last week, Cloudwater brewer Charlotte Cook published this angry and passionate article in which she recounted similar experiences of workers at a number of other smaller but still well-known craft breweries, and stated "These companies are not run as businesses, but as theocracies."
However, perhaps these incidents are not aberrations that betray the spirit of craft, but something whose seeds are contained in the very nature of the project.
It is recognised that the founders of successful start-up businesses often tend to be single-minded, driven people with little regard for social niceties, who often trample roughshod over the concerns of others. Their behaviour is tolerated and excused as long as the money keeps flowing in.
In a non-beer field there was a prime example of this recently in the case of Ray Kelvin, the charismatic founder of fashionable clothing brand Ted Baker, who was ousted by the company after a catalogue of misdemeanours including the creepy forced hugging. Yet, as sales tanked without him at the helm, he was later brought back in some capacity, although not restored to the leadership of the company.
In beer we have seen the cult of the “rock star brewer”, although we don’t hear so much of that nowadays. This is very much putting the emphasis on personalities, and rock stars themselves are not noted for their sympathetic treatment of those around them.
This tendency can be compounded in organisations that lay claim to some higher moral purpose beyond merely that of making money. It is sometimes believed that charities, local government and the health service are friendly and unthreatening work environments compared with the cut and thrust of the private sector, but often they are the scene of even worse bullying and abuse, partly because the restraint of actually needing to make a profit is taken away. Any complaint is seen as undermining the noble objective. There have been many examples in non-profit organisations of a toxic atmosphere developing because individuals were afraid to challenge the dominant culture.
As companies mature, they grow out of a reliance on individual personalities, and become the impersonal corporate behemoths that are often seen as the embodiment of what craft is setting itself against. But, while the likes of Heineken may be widely derided, they have HR departments, employment policies and grievance procedures, and any abuse of this kind would probably be swiftly nipped in the bud and not allowed to fester.
Looking forward, it’s not hard to imagine that, as a response to these issues, companies create a different but just as stifling climate of fear in which a blanket of conformity is thrown over the whole organisation and people live in fear of saying the wrong thing. Perhaps it is time for craft brewing to concentrate on the beer and stop proclaiming that it is trying to change society. It needs to become less of a movement and more of just another market segment.