BrewDogging #19: Liverpool
[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern, Clapham Junction, Roppongi]
For a Mancunian, I really haven’t spent that much of my life in Liverpool. I know, it’s only next door, and there are at least a couple of people who live there now that I’ve known for decades – but up until now, the longest time I’d spent there was a weekend on business around a quarter of a century ago.
As The Belated Birthday Girl has suggested herself, one of the nice things about the BrewDogging project is that it’s given us a flimsy excuse for visiting places in the UK (and elsewhere) that we wouldn’t do normally. And besides, it was Easter a couple of weeks ago, and we had a long-standing tradition to uphold. So, we made plans to take the train up to Liverpool over the holiday weekend to check out one of BrewDog’s newest bars, and see what else the city had to offer. Not that Network Rail made it easy – they chose that weekend to shut down the main line out of London, meaning we had to take the roundabout route via two separate Birmingham stations. Apart from that unpleasantness, though, it all went rather well.
BrewDog Liverpool’s just a few minutes away on foot, around the corner in Colquit Street. It’s very much in the same style as all the other newer bars, Shepherd’s Bush acting as the template for all they’ve done since. There are a few interesting little quirks, though. It’s a big space, possibly as big as the Bush, but cunning use of booths and tables breaks it up into a collection of manageable segments. As BrewDog has recently embraced the idea of table service in many of their bars, Liverpool has weaponised the process by fitting five of those booths with a PUSH FOR BEER buzzer.
But the real surprise comes when you get to the food. About a year ago, BrewDog proudly announced that a man called Bates was helping them to reorganise the menus in their bars. Unfortunately, ‘reorganise’ turned out to be code for ‘standardise’. The delightful quirks that we spotted on our tour of the UK bars in 2013 - where each location had its own entirely different collection of dishes - got hammered out into a dull collection of dirty burgers, tired potato tots, and a feeble fried green tomato as a sop to the veggies. (Given that he was introduced to BrewDog punters in a photoshoot involving him butchering a sheep, I suspect vegetarians weren’t high on Bates’ agenda.) I follow all the bars on Twitter, and you could see the pattern repeat over and over again: a bar would announce ‘big plans for the menu!’, and within a week people would be writing to them saying ‘bring back the old menu.’ But to no avail.
Liverpool, on the other hand, appears to be refusing to play the game. Yes, they have the Bates menu, but they have a huge number of specials on the board as well. And interestingly, a large proportion of them appear to be veggie or vegan. Our Sunday lunch ended up being a delicious pair of veggie burgers - mushroom and blue cheese in panko breadcrumbs for her, spicy beans for me – both streets ahead of any of the meaty ones on the standard menu. We even got a free helping of chips with it, because a previously advertised beer-based afternoon tea event had been cancelled at short notice, and they assumed we were disappointed by that. (A little, sure, but not that much.)
And that leads to one more thing that puts Liverpool up there amongst the best of the BrewDog bars: the staff, who are friendly and attentive as hell. The free chips are one thing: the nice conversations over the bar while waiting for drinks are another. If nothing else, compare it with the other bars on Seel Street, which on a Friday night are fortified with bouncers who demand two forms of ID and a DNA sample before they’ll consider letting you through the door. The bouncers at BrewDog Liverpool, on the other hand, wave you through the door with a happy smile. It’s the least we should expect as shareholders, I suppose, but it’s still very welcome in the circumstances.
Yes, we could possibly have spent all of our time in BrewDog, but there’s plenty of other stuff to be seen, eaten and drunk in Liverpool. It wasn’t until we found ourselves describing the weekend to friends after we got back that we realised just how much of that other stuff we crammed in. Ready?
The biggest surprise, I think, was just how prevalent decent beer is in Liverpool. All of the music venues we visited – I’ll get round to them, hold yer horses – had at the very least at least one decent real ale, and at best a whole selection of crafty goodness. There are also some impressive beer bars scattered around the place: the closest one to our hotel after BrewDog was the Grove Beer Tap And Grill, whose collection of American ales was backed up with some gloriously over-the-top beer food, including an ‘ultimate chip butty’ that somehow also encompasses a minute steak, a beefburger, Portobello mushrooms and dollops of peppercorn sauce inside it. Their opening policy is a bit iffy, though: we turned up at 11pm on Saturday to find the gates locked, forcing us to go back to BrewDog for our nightcap.
As for food, the Nadler have convenient discount deals with a number of local restaurants to compensate for not serving breakfast themselves. Lunya has some interesting Catalan variations on the usual favourites: East Avenue Bakehouse has a terrific collection of oversized brunch platters, only marred by their being served on oh-so-fashionable planks. (Runny fried eggs just don’t work on surfaces without a rim.) In terms of dinners, we had a massively fancy blowout at the Art School Restaurant, and a decent fish supper (though not in the Scottish sense) at The Italian Club Fish.
In terms of sightseeing, we crammed in a fair bit too. On the one day of decent weather over the weekend, we fitted in the traditional ferry across the Mersey, enlivened quite a bit by riding on the newly-launched Dazzle Ferry repainted by Peter Blake to commemorate the work done by Liverpool artists during WWI to confuse enemy battleships. We did both cathedrals back to back in the same evening, and even though it’s at least partially down to upbringing I still think that Paddy’s Wigwam wins any day. We squeezed a couple of gallery visits in there too – a lightning dash around Tate Liverpool to fill in an hour or so between scheduled events, and a far-too-short visit to the Walker Art Gallery. The latter has a glorious exhibition on till June 7th, comparing the social photography of Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. Only In England was my introduction to Ray-Jones’ work, and it’s extraordinary: the sort of extreme surrealism you associate with Hipgnosis album covers, conjured out of scenes from everyday life just caught at precisely the right moment.
We were told we had to do at least one museum over the weekend, and we ended up spending our final day at the Maritime Museum on Albert Docks. We mainly focussed on the temporary exhibits, knowing that we only had a couple of hours and wanting to get the maximum benefit out of them. There are two loosely related exhibits about tragic sea stories, taking in the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania (it turns out the latter was built initially to compete with the former). There’s more cheerful fun to be had at Seized!, a fun bit of propaganda for HM Revenue and Customs, with some glorious tales of laws being both bent and broken. And on the way to the decent top floor dining room, you can see a selection of lovely old posters for Liverpool shipping companies. Top that off with a brief run around town to find the Superlambanana, and that feels like a busy weekend to me.
But there’s even more! Because this was an Easter weekend, and regular readers will know about our terribly long-standing tradition of watching a movie shot in whichever city we’re staying in on Easter Sunday. There are plenty of Liverpool movies to choose from – quite a few of our friends suggested the various works of Terence Davies, which are always welcome. However, I had in my possession a DVD of Letter To Brezhnev that came free with The Guardian back from the days when newspapers gave away free DVDs, so that’s what we did.
It’s 30 years since Brezhnev came out, can you believe that? Actually, once you watch it again, you definitely can – you forget that most of the first act of the movie is set in Liverpool’s bars and nightclubs, and the hair and clothes on display are absolutely of their time. I remember really loving the film back when it came out: it was the sort of low-budget British production we didn’t really do very often back then, and it was a refreshing change from the very middle-class stuff coming out of Channel Four’s film investments. These days, some of the writing and acting looks a bit rough, but there’s still a huge amount of charm that comes through. You forget just how good Margi Clarke was in this, before she became a caricature of herself: the way her vulnerability slowly seeps through her hard-as-nails persona is perfectly played. And given that Alexandra Pigg glows like an old-fashioned movie star throughout, how come she didn’t get a huge career off the back of what’s effectively the leading role? It can’t just be the surname, surely?
Aside from movies, what other performing arts come to mind when you think of Liverpool? Well, ignoring the obvious one for just one paragraph more, the Everyman Theatre has a pretty special reputation. It’s a glorious venue – it takes your breath away just how they’ve taken the idea of a theatre space with seating on three sides, and got it utterly right. The current production when we were there (finished now, sadly) was Nick Bagnall’s fantastically inventive staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When even the daft play-within-a-play at the end gives you an emotional rush, you know you’re dealing with something special. A beautifully diverse cast, too, with some familiar old faces in the mechanicals (notably Andrew ‘Scully’ Schofield as Peter Quince) and a quartet of fresh-out-of-stage-school youngsters as the lovers. The BBG insists that I mention their names out loud here – Emma Curtis, Charlotte Hope, Tom Varey and Matt Whitchurch – because she thinks they’re all destined for greatness. Let’s see, shall we?
But I’ve put it off for long enough, so let’s address the elephant in the room. Liverpool is a music city – and you may remember that The BBG has got herself a project for 2015 of visiting small venues. Well, we racked up three of those on three consecutive nights. Kazimier is a lovely tiny lockup that converts into a venue at night, with a small dancefloor surrounded by stepped viewing areas that mean everyone can see the stage. It’s even got a fine selection of craft beers behind the bar, which is unheard of at a gig venue. The icing on the cake was the chance to catch Ghostpoet in a tiny room that was obviously booked for him just before his Shedding Skin album broke big. His next London gig will be at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which is probably more the size he deserves – but the intimacy of Kazimier suited his ultra-relaxed style perfectly, reminding me of the good bits at the start of Faithless records before the thumpa thumpa woot woot bits kick in.
That was Good Friday. Saturday night saw us go all pub rock, with a trip to The Caledonia, a bar that has acts on in the corner and doesn’t require you to pay for them. Bargain! It’s a fascinating venue, albeit possibly too dog-friendly for The BBG’s liking: several excellent real ales and craft beers on tap, plus – wait for it – a beer vending machine selling cans for takehome purposes. Our act that Saturday night was Alex Gavaghan, who appears to have a regular residency in the place. He intrigued me enough that I bought his album on Bandcamp, as he’s got an interesting modern take on the traditional Merseybeat sound: but the gig was marred a little by a ropey sound mix that made his vocals inaudible, and a posse of female fans who stood directly in front of the tiny stage and blocked it from everyone else’s eyeline.
Still, if you’re talking venues in Liverpool with atrocious sightlines, you have to go to the most famous one of all: which is why we spent Easter Sunday night with Lee (who says hi, by the way) visiting the place that chooses to call itself The Cavern Club. It’s in a different location from the original, and is little more than a tourist trap, like Planet Hollywood with Fenders on the wall. But if you were going to see a Beatles tribute band in Liverpool, where else would you go? It turns out that the Mersey Beatles are utterly fearless, stopping their set at regular intervals to ask the audience what they should play next: a policy which leads to an hour long set that opens with A Day In The Life and climaxes with Hey Jude, with a mixture of deep cuts and old favorites along the way. Aside from some wobbly keyboard work to cover the bits that were never intended to be played live, they’re actually pretty damn solid at what they do. At the end, they announced that they’d be doing two more sets before midnight, and you knew they had the songs to back that up: but we felt we’d got our money’s worth for our three quid admission, so we left it there.
I think that's everything. Actually, no, it isn't: we also saw Duck Soup at the FACT arts centre, but I couldn't work out how to make that fit into this piece. And I might as well finish up with the final thing we did in Liverpool - go to the top of St John's Beacon and look out over the city. We'd tried to do it the day before, and they wouldn't let us up there, thanks to the fog that shrouded the city for the whole of Easter Sunday (and made that picture of the Billy Fury statue above look especially cool). By Monday afternoon it had cleared a little, but not entirely, and it was fascinating to watch bits of the skyline drift in and out of view in the ten minutes we were up there. Still a terrific view, though. It may seem churlish to say that Liverpool looked at its best when you couldn't see lots of it: but then I would say that, being a Manc. And being a monkey, and all.