Word association tests don't lie: if you say 'Shoreditch' to me, my immediate response is going to be 'Twat'. Even though it's a district of London that's not all that far away from where I live, Shoreditch still feels like a Nathan Barley theme park whenever I visit. You find yourself playing Hipster Artefact Bingo as you walk the streets. Non-working class guy wearing flat cap? Check. Apparently heterosexual male in red trousers? Check. Grown man going down the street on a fucking skateboard? Check.
Last year, a bar opened in Shoreditch which had the following sign in its window: "WARNING! All hipsters MUST be accompanied by a responsible adult." I think you know where we're going with this.
First order of the day: breakfast. Our bible for this sort of thing is The London Review Of Breakfasts, a comprehensive series of restaurant reviews written by people with names like Malcolm Eggs, Bob El Ensquique and Damon Allbran. The ability to search on location is usually pretty useful, but it turned out that the Shoreditch category was largely dedicated to restaurants around Hoxton, with fewer in the vicinity of Shoreditch High Street station. Still, at least we were able to find a couple of restaurants, and the Albion Cafe - sorry, caff - turned out to be a pretty good choice. The acid test for lazy buggers such as ourselves is this: how late can you wander into the place on a weekend and still get to see a breakfast menu? At Albion, the answer is 12.30pm, which is reasonably civilised, while not reaching the slack heights of 4pm that some other establishments offer. I had a thoroughly decent full English, while The BBG enjoyed two duck eggs on toast.
Next: records. You know what it's been like this year. HMV going into administration, Play.com becoming a front for other online retailers because the loss of the Jersey VAT exemption has wrecked them, while Amazon survive through the simple means of refusing to pay their taxes. It's getting harder and harder to buy actual physical recorded music and still feel good about yourself for doing it - unless, of course, you visit your friendly local independent record shop, assuming you've got one near you.
Rough Trade East is the biggest one in the Shoreditch area, and we've been there a few times this year. Although all too often, we've encountered the following scenario. The BBG wants something reasonably popular that she's heard on 6 Music: I want something a little more obscure but very much in what you'd assume to be Rough Trade's ballpark: we go to the shop, they have the CD she wants, they don't have mine. It was the same story on our most recent visit: she came away with a copy of Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires Of The City, while I drew a blank with my request for Jaga Jazzist's Live With Britten Sinfonia. I love the idea of Rough Trade East, like we all love the idea of Communism, but they keep doing this to me, and their habit of filing everything under obscure categories reminds you why online shopping took off the way it did. (Sister Ray in Soho, on the other hand, has come up with the required goods every time I've been there, including the Jaga Jazzist.)
It amuses me that in the space of a year, going to a shop and buying a disc of music has become such a radical act. The same thing happened to books a few years ago, I guess, and they still seem to be just about hanging on in there. You could consider it an advance warning of what would happen to record retailers - the megamarts collapsed under the requirement to over-discount everything, and the independent shops collected what was left of the spoils. Brick Lane Bookshop is a nice example of the latter, a compact, friendly, well laid-out collection of volumes without any fancy gimmicks. Although you could argue that the inherent hipsterism of the area came through in our book choices. I wanted a city guide to Helsinki for an upcoming visit, and had to make to with the Wallpaper* one rather than something which prioritised facts over pictures. But on the other hand, having just seen the film the night before, I couldn't resist Pulp! The Classics' repackaging of The Great Gatsby as an impulse buy.
And with all that out of the way, we could finally reward ourselves with a pint or three at BrewDog Shoreditch, in what would be our first visit since it opened in late 2012. The last time we passed through this area, the venue was an upmarket beer hall called Mason & Taylor, the sort of establishment that actually had James Watt from BrewDog turning up to give presentations on craft beer: I guess he liked it so much, he bought the company. The building has been distressed to the usual BrewDog standard, with the white tiles on the walls artfully covered in some sort of shit. (I mean that metaphorically, I suppose, but look at the picture above...)
There's one feature which appears at first glance to be a gigantic design flaw, and it's the positioning of the bar itself. As with most of the venues in the chain, the windows are pretty large, showing off the place to passers-by on the street. But the biggest window is the one directly behind the bar. On a bright Saturday afternoon, this means that there's so much glare coming in from outside that you can't see what's on the boards behind the bar unless you're standing right in front of them. It wasn't until we left that we realised one advantage of this approach - the fridges behind the bar are glass-backed and point directly towards the window, showing those passers-by all the brews they have on offer. But it was annoying as hell while we were inside.
So what beers did we have? It turned out that our initial choices were slight disappointments by BrewDog standards - Vice Beer for me, Brodies Vs Brewdog for The BBG, both a little lacking in the sort of bite we associate with the brewery. That changed completely with our second round, though. The BBG went for 10 Heads High, a beer that's causing quite a bit of controversy on the BrewDog discussion boards, with at least one drinker claiming it was "absolutely terrible, tastes like an ashtray." Well, you should never trust what random people say on the internet, which is kind of the motto of this blog. It's got a hugely complex mix of flavours going on in it, and yes, for possibly half a second, 'ashtray' could be considered one of them. But then it moves on into all sorts of other directions, with a very toffee-like finish. It's a fascinating beer, and I'm a little frustrated thinking about it now, having only got two sips out of The BBG's glass.
Meanwhile, I had a pint of Punk Monk, which is basically the brewery's flagship beer Punk IPA but made with Belgian yeast. Is it blasphemy at this point in the project to reveal that I'm not an enormous fan of Punk IPA? It's just that as BrewDog have ruthlessly purged anything from their range that doesn't meet their exacting standards for flavour, we're now at the point where Punk is the least interesting beer in the core set. Punk Monk is, to my palate, Punk done right, given the extra body and taste that it needs by the yeasty addition. (Although there's another school of thought that notes some recent problems with cloudy beer coming out of the new brewery, and suggests that Monk is just a sneaky way of marketing that cloudiness as a benefit.)
Once we'd got those inside us, we were settled in, and stuck with old favourites like Jack Hammer and Cocoa Psycho while we took in the surroundings. Like Birmingham, Shoreditch seems to be a bar that favours the session crowd over the casual drinker - it was looking a little quiet when we first got there at 2.30 on a Saturday afternoon, but was buzzing quite nicely by 4pm. At that time of the day, though, there wasn't much else to do apart from drink. There's a downstairs bar - Underdog, the best name for a pub basement since the Cock Tavern in Islington called the room underneath it Bollocks - which started the trend for beer cocktails that's slowly making its way across the BrewDog empire, but that doesn't appear to open up until the evening. Also, although there are a couple of Mexican food options on offer, they're not as widely advertised as their equivalents in other bars, and hardly anyone seemed to be eating that afternoon.
So, of the five BrewDog bars we've visited so far, Shoreditch counts as the most no-frills one (which is ironic given its location). Apart from that basement bar - which we must get around to visiting eventually - it's basically just a big room that serves nice beer. There are worse things it could be. A grown man on a fucking skateboard, for example.