BrewDogging #32: Castlegate
[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†, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome]
They call it the Annual General Mayhem. (I know, I know.) The BrewDog AGM is one of the acknowledged perks of being a shareholder. Once a year, several thousand of us make the journey to Aberdeen to spend a day in a soulless cavern of a conference centre, listening to business presentations full of bad gags, queuing for ages to get food, and drinking beer. To be honest, it's the last one of those that makes it all worthwhile.
The Belated Birthday Girl and I attended our first AGM in 2012, and I wrote about it in passing as part of the monthly Simian Substitute roundup. In subsequent years, we've tied in the AGM pilgrimage with a visit to one of the Scottish bars as part of the BrewDogging project: Aberdeen in 2013, the DogTap brewery bar in 2014, and Dundee in 2015. It's going to be a similar story for 2016, as along with the AGM - plus a return visit to the brewery to see how that's going - we're also going to pop into the second Aberdeen city bar, which opened late last year in the Castlegate area of town.
Most of the people who have got tickets all seem to be in the Castlegate bar that night. It's only to be expected: at the time of the last AGM, this was a recently-closed boozer called The Athenaeum, and those of us who've been away for a year want to see how the new place measures up. The original Aberdeen bar on Gallowgate was the very first one BrewDog opened, and it could be said that it's the one where they learned from their mistakes - in particular, it's a bit too small for comfort, at least whenever I've been there with several thousand other shareholders. The opening of a second bar just a couple of hundred yards down the road certainly gives BrewDog enough overflow space to cope, but it's an oddly shaped space: an elongated shoebox with the bar across the long end. The view out onto Granite City may well be impressive, but there are so many people squished in the room it's hard to see anything through the condensation on the windows. It's also frustrating, on this particular night, to get to the bar and discover that nearly half of the taps are occupied by guest beers from London's own Beavertown. "But we just CAME from there!"
Still, things settle down after a while, and we're able to grab a table and take stock over a pair of badly-timed glasses of Tokyo*. The shape is a bit disconcerting when you're looking around trying to find a space, but it's generally not too bad. The big attraction - one which we'll come back to - is a BottleDog off-licence positioned at one end, with a large selection of interesting beers locked away in a cage much like the one in DogHouse Glasgow. It's closed by the time we arrive, but it's fun to watch all the out-of-towners shuffling up to the chicken wire, peeking at the stock and taking pictures. Our local informant - hi, Ricky - points out the big problem with the bottle shop: unlike DogHouse, there isn't a till in there, so you've got to select your beers and then take them to the bar to pay for them. Other features we don't get to try on the night include a standard BrewDog kitchen menu, and a separate basement venue called Underdog that we choose to ignore purely because they want money on the door.
The next day, it's on to the AECC and the AGM. At the heart of it all is the presentation from James Watt and Martin Dickie on the company's progress, which is kept to a tight 60 minutes rather than the free-form ramble of previous years. The format of their talk is the usual - what was good, what sucked, what's coming in the next year - interwoven with video clips, either promos or bits of that terrible TV show that still can't find a UK channel to show it after three full seasons in the US. My main gripe is with the 'what sucked' bit, which is presented as a series of humblebrags. We couldn't keep up with demand, which is why we're opening an extension to the brewery next week: we got lots of column inches in the papers because of that reality TV show that set us up: that sort of thing. And it's annoying, because actual bad things have happened to BrewDog this year. Of all the new premises opened by the company in the last twelve months, two have already closed. Dog Eat Dog you already know about, while just a few days before the AGM the Edinburgh branch of BottleDog was shut down with zero warning. None of this gets mentioned in the presentation: the closest we get is when someone brings it up in a shambolic Q&A session as the audience wanders off. James deflects the question with a bland reply about BottleDogs working better as part of bars than standalone businesses, citing Castlegate as an example - but that doesn't explain the chillingly short notice of Edinburgh's closure. We're shareholders, and we're grownups: if there are problems, it'd be nice to be told about them.
Aside from that, you have to admit that the running of the AGM is a hell of a lot smoother than it used to be. Case in point: getting a beer immediately after James and Martin have stopped talking. In previous years, with an entire arenafull of punters all heading to the bar simultaneously, you could be waiting for the best part of an hour to get served: this time, it's a matter of minutes. We're so shocked, we go nuts and binge on two newcomers to the BrewDog range launched that day. Dog E is the fifth of the anniversary stouts that they've been releasing at every AGM for as long as we've been attending, while AB:20 (the latest in the experimental Abstrakt range) is an attempt at recreating the flavour of tiramisu in a beer. We don't quite see it ourselves with the too-chilled third we drink at the AGM, but a subsequent warmer glass in another venue - see BrewDogging #33 soon for details - makes it more apparent. As for the food, some vendors like Pieminster have epic queues all day, but there are plenty of others you can just rock up to straight away: decent veggie options like Foodstory in the Boyd Orr room, or the spectacularly eye-watering chili on sale at the Dog Kitchen on the main floor.
The Boyd Orr room is, for me, one of the best innovations of the day. It's a large breakout area with loads of seats and a screen relaying the stuff happening on the main stage, but played at a volume that allows conversation to happen. Even in these conditions the bands are much of a muchness, all still sticking to the White Boys With Guitars template that's been standard for the last couple of years (apart from the surprising appearance of a couple of White Girls With Guitars in the form of Honeyblood). The BBG and I have decided that hanging around listening to music is less fun at these things than it used to be, so instead we foolishly commit to three beer tasting sessions from various guests. Cloudwater are the revelation of the day, handing out a Bergamot Hopfenweisse and a Belgian trippel that amazingly aren't even their best beers: that honour goes to the double IPA they're serving in the bars. To Øl are high on my personal list, given that I'll be visiting their home city of Copenhagen just two days after the AGM (more on that soon, too): they have a couple of decent samples of Hoppy Mondays and Babushka Barley Wine. BrewDog themselves hold a tasting involving the latest version of their Blitz fruit series (blackberry this time) and a barrel aged version of Albino Squid Assassin, which are all the more impressive for not being on sale in the bars downstairs. Aside from the formal session, BrewDog are also offering free samples of gin from their upcoming Lone Wolf venture, as they move from brewing into distilling - from the taste they seem to be on the right lines, but only time will tell.
By ten o'clock we're reasonably hammered, and UK Subs are about to take the stage as the headline act. We decide to call it a day at this point, and take the bus back to Castlegate only to find it even more crowded than it was the night before. The bouncer politely suggests that we could pay to go into Underdog instead, and we politely decline. Instead, we walk from there to the original Aberdeen bar on a hunch, and it pays off: by comparison, it's easy to get into, and we end up splitting a bottle of Oskar Blues' Death By Coconut as our nightcap.
But that's not the end of our BrewDog bar hopping: because after a night's sleep and a full breakfast at Cup, we head out to Ellon to revisit the brewery for the first time since 2014 and the opening of DogTap. We know the brewery's been through an expansion, but now you can actually see it on the bus from a mile or so away - the new tanks are massive. The brewery tours are now a commercial affair offered to the general public, not the secret shareholder perk they were a couple of years ago: they're operated by a tour guide, rather than one of the brewers taking a few minutes out of their real job. The big change is that production now runs seven days a week, so we can actually see the place in operation, up to and including the bottling line. It's a fun and informative thing to do, even with the most basic £5 tour that doesn't come with tastings included. For our part, we're happy to just pay up for pints of 5AM Saint and Punk IPA afterwards, revelling in the chance to drink them at their freshest.
The tour doesn't stretch as far as the new brewery - at the time of the AGM, it hadn't quite opened yet, though it's in full production now. Will that be the thing we have to do the day after the 2017 AGM? Will the 2017 AGM even be in Aberdeen any more, given that it's completely outgrown the conference centre? We'll have to wait and see.