The push to build a better BrewDog
Following a string of controversies and the June posting of a critical open letter signed by more than 60 former workers, employees and corporate leaders are taking steps to refocus the business
This past spring, Brienne Allan, a production manager with Massachusetts-based Notch Brewing, started gathering and sharing hundreds of anonymous accounts from women in the beer industry, who detailed incidents of sexual harassment, misogyny and worse.
Among the myriad breweries mentioned in these accounts was BrewDog, a multinational chain founded in Scotland, which opened a 100,000-square-foot production facility and taproom in Canal Winchester in 2017.
In the weeks after these allegations surfaced, a group of more than 60 former BrewDog employees posted an open letter accusing the company of fostering "a culture of fear” and enabling “toxic attitudes toward junior staff,” among other claims.
"BrewDog have been flagged in a significant number of these allegations," read the letter, which posted on June 9. "The purpose of this letter is to make known the feelings of former staff regarding the atmosphere fostered at BrewDog, since its inception, in the hope that it might explain why so many allegations have come to light."
The Instagram claims and open letter closely followed a controversial March incident in which BrewDog fired four female and LGBTQ staff members employed at its bar in Indianapolis, leading to internal and third-party investigations into the dismissals — investigations that turned up larger cultural issues within the Indy location, said Jason Block, CEO of BrewDog USA.
“What the investigations did find is that the terminations carried out were based solely on performance-related issues,” Block said. “However, there were a number of other things the investigation found. There were inconsistencies regarding human resource processes for those terminations, and the Indianapolis location allowed an unhealthy work environment for its front-of-the-house employees, and for that we are responsible. … We need to do better going forward.”
Following the March dismissals, and due in part to the company’s initial response, in which Block wrote that “BrewDog does not tolerate any prejudice and inequality of any kind,” Kayla McGuire sent an email to Block, hoping to kick off a larger dialogue within the brewery.
“I was just disappointed with the messaging about BrewDog being safe and inclusive and diverse for everyone, because that hasn’t always been my experience,” said McGuire, who has worked for BrewDog in Canal Winchester for more than four years, beginning as a bartender and now serving as part of the brewing team.
McGuire and fellow brewer Doug Garrison, who has been with the company since 2018, both said that, at times, BrewDog, driven by the personalities of founders James Watt and Martin Dickie, appeared to prioritize the growth of the business above all, a claim mirrored in the open letter posted in June. (“Growth, at all costs, has always been perceived as the number one focus for the company,” the letter read.)
“There’s this generally prevailing attitude of growth and production over everything: over safety, over employee retention, over professional development,” Garrison said.
“I do think it’s fair to say that a lot of our issues are driven by this culture of moving quickly, growing quickly, doing everything we can to make more money and set up more bars and get more beer in front of people,” said McGuire, who recalled instances where she worked upwards of 60 to 70 hours per week, describing gaps in training and assistance that were often exacerbated by the challenge of communicating with management located overseas in the U.K. “We have a lot of forward momentum, and I think a lot of the time we need to pump the brakes and really take a look at what we’ve built so far, to make sure that it’s a foundation that the rest of our growth can stand on.”
Block said that the brewery’s focus on growth was in line with its founders mission to share their passion for craft beer, which he said is best advanced by getting the product in front of as many people as possible. He did note, however, that this drive needed to be managed in order to not clash with other stated company goals. “We can’t have success in one area at the expense of another,” Block said. “So I would still say growth is a goal of our business, but growing in the right way, and doing it in a way where team members have the support they need to be successful.”
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McGuire’s March email to Block led to a face-to-face meeting with the CEO, during which Block expressed frustration with the situation in Indianapolis, McGuire said, and a dialogue that is still ongoing within the company.
“That was the first time I was like, ‘Holy cow, someone is listening. Let’s see what else we can get done,’” McGuire said. “It’s really been a short amount of time, really just in the last few months, that our staff has felt more empowered to say what’s on their mind instead of just whispering it and living in the shadows.”
“In the days following that open letter being published, we had good conversations between the brewers and our direct supervisor, the head of production,” Garrison said. “We all were able to sort of air our grievances and talk about the issues the letter raised. … At this point, for us, it’s more about making sure we are heard. And, to their credit, I think leadership in the U.S. at least appears to be listening.”
In response to these internal conversations and the larger cultural talks that have followed in the wake of Allan’s Instagram posts, BrewDog has recently taken a number of actions. The company appointed Wiser, a global consultant group, to conduct a full review of the culture within BrewDog. An anonymous survey was also sent to all staff members on June 29, responses to which will be incorporated into the independent review process. In an email to team members, BrewDog also said it would create an employee representative group “to ensure that our crew have a clear voice and connection to the decisions we take as a business,” in addition to creating a new ethics hotline, conducting a full review of salaries and benefits, and revising processes for career development and training. (Garrison, for one, is taking a wait and see approach to some of the proposals, noting in an email that, historically, employee representative groups have been used to diffuse the potential for collective action.)
“Any challenge an individual or business is faced with, it can be easy to get bogged down or frustrated, but the best way to approach it is as an opportunity to do things differently and better,” Block said. “I think any situation BrewDog is involved in where we’ve fallen short of our value or goals, we need to take a critical look at what happened and why, but also use it as an opportunity to make sure it doesn’t happen again moving forward.”
Some of the conversations unfolding within BrewDog aren’t unique to the company, particularly those surrounding issues of sexism, diversity and inclusion. “This is an industry that has been historically male-dominated, and as we’ve seen with other male-dominated industries, that can breed toxicity,” Jackie O’s owner Art Oestrike said in a June interview with Alive.
“Generally speaking, any act of violence, discrimination, assault or inequity are things we condemn in the greatest possible terms,” said Block, who noted that, as an industry, craft beer still has a ways to go on issues of diversity and inclusion. “It’s an unfortunate conversation that’s taking place across craft beer, but hopefully it’s one that makes our industry better.”
“It’s a huge issue within the industry as a whole, and it’s not just misogyny. There’s a lot of embedded racism, and a lot of embedded transphobia,” said McGuire, who noted that her experience as part of the Canal Winchester brew team has been overwhelmingly positive (“We have a tight group on the production floor, and we police each other,” Garrison said). “But I think progress is being made, and we’re seeing more women and queer people and people of color who are highlighted in craft beer, not as a token person that we pick to be part of our team, but as people who are really driving innovation.”
While McGuire and Garrison criticized aspects of BrewDog, both are cautiously optimistic that the company's recent talk will be matched by action, and both still believe in the brewery's long-term potential. “It has that in spades,” Garrison wrote in a follow-up email.
“There have definitely been times when I thought that I should just try and go work somewhere else, or that maybe this industry isn’t for me,” McGuire said. “But really the driving force for me to stay and try to influence some of these improvements is that this is what the beer industry is like everywhere. If we’re not vocal, if we’re not actively working on it, then it’s not going to change for anybody. … I have to stay and make it better for the next person that comes in, because, ultimately, that’s going to make it better not just for women or queer people or people of color, but it’s going to be better for every single person who works in the industry. And I really think BrewDog has the ability to be a driving force in that culture shift.”