[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel, Soho]
It's October 2015, and The Belated Birthday Girl and I are in Brussels, preparing to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of our mate Jon.
Inevitably, our thoughts turn towards death.
Bear with me on this one.
So that's what we did. Which is why, on a Monday evening last October, we burst through the door of BrewDog Brussels demanding their finest beer. However, two things were immediately apparent to us: a) the place was enormous, and b) the place was empty. Now don't worry, there are good things to be said about it too. But it did make us wonder, as shareholders: how long can you sustain a business of that size when there's virtually nobody there on a weekday evening? Could the Brussels bar potentially be the first big commercial failure of the BrewDog empire?
Over four months have elapsed since we wondered that, and now we have an answer to that question: no. Because - and you may have missed this news - BrewDog have just had that first big commercial failure. It's Dog Eat Dog, the hot dog restaurant that was the subject of BrewDogging #24. It seemed okay when we visited it shortly after its opening last October: by a pure fluke of timing, we visited the place for a second time in late February on the night before they pulled the plug, and it still seemed fine. Nobody was saying it was closing down then, you understand: the absence of several of the regular items was put down to their getting ready for "a complete change of menu." The restaurant was shut the day after and hasn't been open since. All traces of DED (the clue's in the name, people) have been Stalinistically expunged from the BrewDog website, while their Twitter account has had all its tweets cleared out and a vague message added that they're "evolving".
BrewDog are presumably still keeping hold of the site and wondering what to do next with it. But in the meantime, it's put a slight crimp in all those plans for world domination that were being bandied about at last year's AGM. It was inevitable that their continued ambitions beyond their core competencies of Making Nice Beer and Maintaining Nice Rooms To Drink It In would eventually come a cropper: it was just a case of when. If it means there's a little more caution exercised before they make any future changes to their business plan, then I'm all for that.
But in the meantime, back to BrewDog Brussels. Once we get ourselves from the Brussels Midi Eurostar terminus to Brussels Central, and find the right exit to leave from the latter, it's almost ridiculously easy to spot where the bar is - the big windows and almost-as-big lightbox beer menu make it pretty much visible from space. (Ah, those days when you had to squint close up at a blackboard to see what beers were on. Now you can find out from across the road.)
That first impression still sticks, though. Just look at that picture up there, which only covers the main room - there's a whole side annex and a balcony area just out of shot. (The balcony really isn't worth investigating on a freezing October night unless you're a smoker, or you've got a bottle of Cocoa Psycho to keep you warm, as we did.) At 10pm on a Monday, it's disappointing to see just how few people are in, although a couple of groups drift in and out at various times while we're there. The second disappointment comes when we discover that we've just missed our chance at dinner, as the kitchen closed at 9.30pm. (It's a shame, as the menu looks pretty impressive.) Still, we have a backup plan - grab a quick beer, then run out to nearby Grassmarket to pick up some chips as a mid-session snack (the trick is to catch the restaurants in the 11pm-midnight slot between going takeaway only and closing altogether), eat them on the street, and go back to the bar again to pick up where we left off.
There are plenty of beers to pick up there - the bar has over twenty taps, which look impressive stretched across its length. (Unlike most of BrewDog's other bars, they're not sharing multiple taps per fount, so that makes for a pretty big stretch.) Also, it's pleasing to see that there's a decent split between BrewDog's own concoctions (Jack Hammer and Cocoa Psycho are our choices on the night) and beers from Belgium itself. We end up going for Brasserie de la Senne's Zinnebir, Brasserie de Jandrain-Jandrenouille's IV Saison, and Reaktor/Monkey Monk's Hello World API/IPA, with the latter taking the cake for most groanworthy concept: "API is an interface that specifies how software components interact with each other. IPA is a beverage that determines how human beings interact with each other."
The staff are generally friendly - as was the case in Florence, the music policy appears to change when they realise there are Brits in the room, so we get the Specials' first album as our own personal soundtrack. There's one slightly peculiar incident when they insist our shareholder discount doesn’t apply to non-BrewDog beers: but as soon as The BBG challenges that, they relent and give us the discount anyway. So overall, no real complaints, and an interesting experience: but I’ll never complain again about the size and relative soullessness of the Shepherds Bush bar while this one is still going. It's hard to see on this evidence how they can get the customers to fill this enormous room, and I'd definitely like to come back here again at some point when it's a bit more crowded.
(As for the rest of our visit: if you're looking for a hotel near to BrewDog Brussels, then Hotel The Moon is cheap and perfectly fine, as long as the absence of a lift isn't too much of a problem for you. When you're in Ghent, try the traditional rabbit dishes at Brasserie 't Voksen, and go on an entertaining walking tour with Ghent-Authentic. For other Ghent and Belgium recommendations, see here. And Joyeux Anniversaire/Gelukkige Verjaardag, Jon.)