Since its inception in 2007, Scotland’s BrewDog has been a lightning rod for controversy and criticism, with it seeming at times like the beer company can’t go more than a few months without some kind of major PR disaster or snafu. Suffice to say, after a 2021 that included accusations of racism and sexism in the company culture, the mass firing of women and LGBTQ employees, and a letter signed by 100 former employees condemning the company’s working conditions, they were likely hoping to begin 2022 in a low-key way. This, however, will apparently not come to pass, as the company is now accused of having violated U.S. law numerous times when it comes to their distribution of beer to the U.S. in 2016 and 2017.
These latest accusations and revelations broke in the U.K. press this week, in advance of a TV investigation titled “Disclosure: The Truth About BrewDog,” which is scheduled to air on BBC One Scotland on Jan. 24, 2022. The 60-minute broadcast reportedly contains material alleging that BrewDog violated U.S. federal laws in 2016 and 2017 when they shipped beer to their U.S. facilities, including beer with ingredients (primarily extracts) that had not been approved by U.S. alcohol regulators. The brewery’s U.S. importers, meanwhile, have also thrown BrewDog under the bus, saying that they were deceived by the brewery.
According to the BBC, staff at the company’s Ellon brewery knew that two flagship beers, Elvis Juice and Jet Black Heart, contained extracts that had not been approved in the U.S. But the beers were shipped to the U.S. BrewDog facility anyway so that it would be able to operate on time, its own brewing equipment not yet being operational. Speaking with the BBC, former workers reported that “the pressure was enormous” to simply “make it happen.” Workers additionally feared losing their jobs if they didn’t follow orders. The following quote from an unnamed worker makes it as clear as it possibly can be: “We were continually told to ship beer to the USA, despite everyone knowing the beers hadn’t been approved.” All in all, the BBC said it has “seen evidence that suggests US treasury officials from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) were given false information on at least five occasions during a six-month period, which meant that potentially hundreds of kegs of beer were sent with incorrect labeling.”
Daniel Shelton, of influential but now shuttered beer importer Shelton Brothers, went on to tell BBC that he was deceived by BrewDog, saying the following: “I was misled. I had every reason to believe that they would tell the truth. We believed what we were told and we weren’t told what was actually going on. They did lead somebody in my company to falsify documents. And, of course, I’m not happy about that; I don’t respect that, I don’t like it.”
In typical BrewDog fashion, co-founder and CEO James Watt tried to get out ahead of the story this week via a post on LinkedIn, in which he criticizes the BBC’s past reporting/involvement with BrewDog in a seeming effort to undermine their credibility, before then admitting that the company did indeed take “shortcuts.” in their shipping process as alleged. As he writes:
The process of importing our own beer was new to us and we took some shortcuts to get the beer to America on time and we made some mistakes with the paperwork on the first few shipments. All applicable taxes were always paid in full, but the paperwork was not always correct in the first few months back in 2017 and we did not realize we needed to get things like the Elvis Juice recipe and ingredients approved in advance (although this was subsequently approved). In hindsight, there were oversights in labelling and paperwork due to the fact we were trying to run a growing business on one side of the Atlantic and start a new business on the other.
In other words, Watt has plead ignorance in the post, titled “My Biggest Mistakes — Growing Pains Edition.” Somehow, said post doesn’t mention or address any of the other allegations of sexism and toxicity in BrewDog’s company culture—color us surprised.
One might think that such a story would end with the TTB going after BrewDog, but the organization reportedly told the BBC that a three-year statute of limitations “prevented any enforcement action being taken,” and even if the violations had happened more recently, it would be the U.S.-based distributor who was legally responsible for the shipments, rather than the brewery. Or in other words, it seems unlikely that anything punitive will happen to BrewDog for these infractions—they’ll be just another part of the rich tapestry of reasons why the company leaves a bad taste in the mouths of so many consumers.