From Telly Savalas to Bono, many have sung the praises of Birmingham over the years. Me? Not so much. As recently as a couple of months ago, I certainly wouldn't have considered it as a destination for a Bank Holiday daytrip.
But then BrewDog opened one of their bars on John Bright Street and, well, you can guess the rest.
A day trip out from London to Birmingham isn't quite as ludicrous an idea as it may initially sound, particularly if you ignore Virgin Trains and go by Chiltern Railways instead. Chiltern avoid the big obvious stations at both ends: they depart from Marylebone in London, and arrive at the picturesque Moor Street or the more carpark-y Snow Hill at the Birmingham end. But depending on how early you book, you can get some great bargains on the fares: we managed the equivalent of £24 return, but if you're flexible with times you could possibly halve that. And it saves you the hassle of trying to find your way around the part-refurbished New Street station - when we got there, it was one week after a major bit of reworking in which every existing entrance had been closed off and replaced by another one elsewhere, which seemed to be baffling the locals no end.
BrewDog Birmingham is a ten minute or so walk from the various stations, located more or less across the street from not one, but two lapdancing clubs. Our visit was on a Sunday afternoon, though, and there didn't seem to be any sort of crossover in traffic between the establishments. It's interesting to compare the punters with the ones we saw in Newcastle back in March, where BrewDog was frequently just a short-term tanking-up station for people on extended bar crawls. In Birmingham, however, it looks like the drinkers are in it for the long haul: we spent about three hours picking through the beer list, and there were plenty of others there for two hours or more.
My main discovery on the beer list this time round was a brew called Tongue Tied, which had gone on sale for the first time just one day earlier. By now, you'll be familiar with the sort of experimentation - some might say gimmickry - that leads to BrewDog producing the sorts of beers that they do. Tongue Tied's gimmick is this: an IPA made with lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves and cardamon, which was designed by the female members of the brewing team. (Or #brewbirds, as the inevitable hashtag has it.) The result is actually pretty damn fine - it doesn't have the aggressively hoppy punch we usually expect, but makes up for it with complex layers of fruitiness. At least one person on Twitter dismissed it as tasting 'a bit like a lager shandy': I can sort of see that, but it's a combination of flavour and refreshment that makes it intensely gluggable. It's only after several glugs that you suddenly realise it's 7% ABV, and you're drunk. "Why, it's a beer as duplicitous as Woman herself," I said to The Belated Birthday Girl, shortly before she hit me for some reason.
We'd rolled into the bar around lunchtime, in the hope that we'd be able to get something to eat there, and it turned out that wasn't a problem at all. The main veggie option open to The BBG was the Don't Have A Cow Man, a big sloppy beetroot 'n' bean burger that's one of four available on the menu. I was nearly tempted by the chicken burger purely because they've chosen to call it Los Pollos Hermanos, but instead I plumped for the Saint Pork Sarnie, a gigantic bun full of pulled pork that's been marinated in BrewDog's own 5am Saint. Both our meals hit the spot quite wonderfully, although our judgement may have been clouded somewhat by the Bracken's Porter and IPA Is Dead: Dana we drank along with them. (The latter confirmed my suspicion from back in Newcastle that the Dana is a beer that opens up spectacularly when combined with food.)
What else was there to do in Birmingham on a sleepy Bank Holiday Sunday? Well, we found two things, one successful, one less so. The first was a visit to the Electric Cinema (which, as they have to keep pointing out on their website, should not be confused with the Electric Cinema). As it's the oldest working cinema in the UK, our choice of film seemed somewhat appropriate: the silent classic The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, with a live accompaniment by Steven Severin, formerly of Siouxsie And The Banshees. What could be better than that? Not much, assuming that we were given the show that was advertised. But what we actually got was Severin sitting at a laptop triggering samples over some disjointed looped clips of the film, and then buggering off after three quarters of an hour. Which is a perfectly acceptable thing to do in its own right: but to sell it as a performance of the film, when the narrative thread has been completely destroyed for anyone who hasn't seen it before, made for a very disgruntled audience when the lights went up. I wouldn't go as far as to hassle the box office for my money back, as several people were seen doing, but I definitely think they had a case.
So, making a note to try and watch the film properly at some point, we went off in search of food again. At one stage in our planning, The BBG was quite keen to try and track down an authentic balti, but our schedule meant we didn't have time for a trip out to the Balti Triangle. Still, we got ourselves a fine Indian meal anyway at Asha's, just a few minutes away from Snow Hill station. It's part of a chain whose list of locations reads like an amusing odd one out game (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Birmingham, Cairo, Kuwait, Qatar), owned by the world famous Bollywood singer Asha Bhosle (as in Brimful Of...). The Birmingham branch is deceptive: you enter through the front door of an unassuming office block, and find a gigantic restaurant floor behind it. We had a couple of cracking main courses - chicken kheema for me, aloo matar gobi for The BBG - both beautifully textured and spiced, with fine service and atmosphere to match the food.
Asha's was pretty much the perfect finish to our day, only marred by the way that our earlier flavour adventures at BrewDog meant that our Cobra beers tasted of pretty much nothing at all. Is there a curry house somewhere with a craft beer range attached? Because that would be awesome.