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BrewDogging #48: Oxford

It's rare that I use a daytime shot of the outside of a BrewDog bar, isn't it? So here's one.[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton, Berlin, Warsaw, Leeds North Street, York, Hong Kong]

As regular features go, it has to be said that BrewDogging has become increasingly irregular. When we started back in 2013, The Belated Birthday Girl and I had a simple aim: within a single year, visit all of the BrewDog bars that were open at the time. By the end of the year, we'd visited all thirteen, at which point they started opening more of them. What the hell, we thought, we'll try to visit those as well.

As you can see from the list above, counting after Nottingham, that's an awful lot of bars. We always suspected there might be a point where BrewDog's expansion would slow down to a trickle, and 2017 appears to have been it: a grand total of three new bars opened in 2017. One of them was the taproom at the new American brewery in Columbus, Ohio, and it'll probably quite some time before we get around to visiting the US again, what with one thing and another. One was in Tallinn in Estonia: let's just say we'll come back to that in a few months. But the third one was in Oxford, and that we can do right now.

We went to Oxford for a weekend break back in November 2017: since then BrewDog have opened another new UK bar, and have an ambitious set of openings planned throughout 2018. So it's possible that the slump we encountered in 2017 might only be temporary. Watch this space, as they say. Meanwhile, here's what happened on our first trip to Oxford since that time in 2008 when we spent the weekend in prison.

Oxford's close enough to London to travel by train, heading there late on a Friday afternoon and coming back on the Sunday evening. The rebranded GWR are currently running that line, and turn out to be great at offering cheap deals on trains, but less great at actually making the trains work. Our outbound service ends up being cancelled, with the added frisson of us getting shouted at when it turns out that the replacement service their staff recommended to us isn't covered by our ticket. The return service at least runs to schedule, but they cancel all seat reservations with zero warning and pack the train with about double the number of people it's meant to hold. (Apparently there's a refund for the latter journey in the post to me, but it's taking an awfully long time to get here.)

Apart from the trains, everything else about the weekend works just fine once we get to Oxford itself. We end up hitting two bus services quite heavily: the number 3 that runs along Iffley Road, and the number 5 along Cowley Road. The two roads basically join up in the centre of town, and the V shape they make marks out the main ports of call for our stay. Iffley Road is the location for our B&B, the traditionally delightful Heather House. The owners are friendly, the rooms are comfy, the breakfast is nicely varied: it's perfect as a base for our visit.

A few minutes down a side road takes us to the other leg of the V, and the Cowley Road - home of many drinking dens, to which we can now add BrewDog Oxford. That, to The BBG at least, is an important factor: she's had this theory for a while that these bars need to be in areas where there are other places nearby to visit. If you open a bar in the middle of an isolated location with the attitude 'if you build it, they will come,' you end up with what happened at Homerton - a bar that nobody really wants to travel to, in the middle of a non-residential area, that closes down just six months after it opened. (That's another thing: BrewDog may have opened three bars in 2017, but they closed four.)

On the purely anecdotal evidence of three visits - one on Friday evening, and then late night on both Friday and Saturday - it looks like Oxford will stay open a lot longer than that. It's particularly evident on that first Friday evening. Sure, we're in a college town during term time, so as you'd expect many of the bars on Cowley Road have people in them, though they're not especially rammed. Where is everyone? We walk into BrewDog and find out - they're here, to the extent that it takes ten minutes or so of hovering around tables before we can find somewhere to sit and eat. We grab our usual burgers from the menu and start making our comparisons - the number of taps may be limited (fourteen in total), but they're all serving good stuff, and the bar itself is a nice mix of open tables and small booths that seems about right for the sorts of numbers it's pulling. (There's also a useful collection of outside tables, but that can sod right off in late November.) It's a little easier to get in for our post-entertainment nightcaps late on Friday and Saturday, but the place is still buzzing throughout.

All in all, it looks like BrewDog Oxford is a fine addition to the empire, as well as a fine addition to the city's nightlife. As we're there for a whole weekend, we get to investigate that nightlife in a little more detail. Elsewhere on Cowley Road, the best of the non-BrewDog boozers we encounter is The Library, a delightfully traditional pub with a good mixture of real ale and craft on tap. If you want to stay more on the craft side of things, your best bet is to head into town for Pint Shop, part of a small chain of functional bars with a wide range of favourites from across the country. Our one other surprising beer experience comes when we have dinner at Syrian restaurant The Pickled Walnut (as part of The BBG's 2017 unfamiliar cuisine project) - the interesting menu also gives us our first chance to sample the imported Lebanese Brew. As for the times when we need a break from beer, we grab a quick coffee at Jericho Coffee Traders on the High Street, and a slower traditional Swedish fika at KuPP on the top floor of John Lewis in the Westgate shopping centre.

Oxford is, of course, renowned for culture and literature, so it makes sense for us to attend a poetry recital at the O2 Academy, featuring punk legend John Cooper Clarke. There's definitely an older audience than they normally expect at this venue: I see at least one guy reading the list of upcoming gigs using the torch on his phone. I haven't seen Clarke perform since 1991, when he was on the bill at a Mancunian festival called Cities In The Park, and went down poorly because he was just a filler in between the musical acts. These days, the rest of the world has caught up with him, and there's a whole spoken word scene out there that he can draw on to act as support for his own show. Toria Garbutt and Mike Garry‎ are terrific, both evoking a real sense of place with their verses - with Garbutt it's the ex-mining communities of Yorkshire, with Garry it's a section of Manchester so specific that I recognise the bus numbers. As for JCC himself, his set veers between rambly digressive chat and high speed poetry: anyone capable of writing a new work with the refrain 'some cunt used the N word' is still fascinated by language and the tricks it plays on us, and long may he continue to be so. Our other night in town is spent at the Ultimate Picture Palace, which is a delightful cinema to visit no matter what film you're seeing. (To be honest, Call Me By Your Name doesn't move me as much as it has done some other people, and just feels a little too, well, groomy in the current climate.)

Best of all, most of the other stuff that Oxford is famous for can be viewed for free, or at least for a voluntary donation. There's plenty of fun to be had just wandering round Oxford Covered Market, or taking a stroll out to Folly Bridge past Inspector Morse's old cop shop. You can spend hours getting lost in the Ashmolean museum, even if you avoid the one exhibition in the building with an entrance fee: for our (lack of) money, the best thing we see there is a collection of pictures by Chinese artist Qu Leilei, which is still running till April 15th 2018. We miss out on our chance to go on a guided tour of the Bodleian Library (you need to book early for those), but console ourselves with a couple of free exhibitions inside Weston Library: a delightfully curated collection of pairs of Treasures from the library's collection, and a selection of photographic portraits of current Oxonians. There's also an excellent cisplay of vintage scientific equipment at the Museum of the History of Science, although the current temporary exhibit of Anna Dumitriu's art made from bacteria may leave you psychosomatically itching for hours afterwards.

I appreciate that 'Oxford has lots of things to see, not just a BrewDog bar' may not necessarily be news, but it can't be denied, can it?

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