BrewDogging #50: Reading
[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, 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, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku†, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road†, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton†, Berlin, Warsaw†, Leeds North Street, York, Hong Kong†, Oxford, Seven Dials]
We were only ever meant to be doing twelve of these, you know. But here we are. Fifty.
I'd be the first to admit that these BrewDogging posts have been coming out at somewhat erratic intervals. Back in 2013, we knew where we stood: we started off the year with a plan to visit all twelve bars we knew about, and by the end that had increased to thirteen. Since then, as new bars have opened, we've gone to them whenever it's been convenient for us to get there. There was always going to be some sort of saturation point reached, either on our part or on BrewDog's, and I'd assumed we'd reached it in 2017 - a year when (as previously noted) the company opened just three new bars and closed four old ones.
But I'd underestimated James Watt's desire for world domination. If 2017 was a quiet year on the new bar front, 2018 is shaping up to be anything but, with some pretty ambitious plans for new locations. In March 2018 alone, two bars opened on consecutive weeks. You already know about Seven Dials, where we grabbed brunch on its opening weekend. One week later, we did it all over again in Reading.
The first thing to note about BrewDog Reading is this: during the walk from the station, we pass a few other craft beer hangouts on the way, which is reassuring. As The BBG has noted in the past, 'if you build it they will come' is a good theory for baseball pitches, but it's lousy for bars: you need to have an area that people want to come to in the first place. A bar on its own isn't enough, otherwise you end up with what happened in Homerton.
The Reading bar may not be as spectacularly well positioned as the one in Seven Dials, but as we eat our brunches it becomes apparent that it's picking up a fair bit of passing trade, and not just the usual fans of the brewery. Obviously, as this is the first weekend of opening, there are plenty of curious locals popping in to see what it's like. My favourites are the elderly couple who come just inside the front door, look over the place from their standing position, closely scrutinise the pictures of the staff on the wall, and then quietly leave again. But there are also sights I've never seen in a BrewDog bar before. It's St Patrick's Day, and before too long we get a bunch of lads coming in with giant Guinness hats. You'd expect them to be disappointed, but they quickly settle down with a few pints of an alternative stout (there's a series of Irish breweries contributing to a seasonal tap takeover today) and grab one of the board games just like the hipsters would.
Examining the bar itself, the first thing we notice - because it's our second opening within a week - is that New Bar Smell is genuinely a thing, and BrewDog should consider selling bottles of it on their merch shelves. The second thing we notice is the interesting use of space. You can imagine how this large floor area could have been some sort of meat market bar in a previous life, a huge open space with maybe a few random tables where people could put their drinks down while they're fighting. But for the purposes of the new bar, it's been carved up in an interesting fashion - several booths, a couple of long communal tables, and a large area of stepped seating against the back wall. During our early afternoon visit, the place starts to fill up very slowly, but it's hard to get a handle on how it'll look later in the day.
Which makes this the perfect time for an intermission. Because by a glorious stroke of luck, the opening Saturday of BrewDog Reading coincides with another craft beer event that's about an hour away by bus, in Finchampstead. Back in 2016, when The BBG was running a project to visit twelve brewery tap bars in the space of a year, we always considered Siren Craft Brew to be the one that got away: shortly after the project started, they shut down their tap bar, claiming they needed the space for storing increasing quantities of their lovely beer. Thankfully, they eventually built a new tap bar on the brewery premises, and it's been open for a few months now, waiting for us to be in the area and visit it. And on the day we were close by for BrewDog's opening, there was an added incentive: a big party at the brewery to mark their fifth anniversary.
With snow threatening to fall that afternoon, it seemed touch and go as to whether the event would go ahead, given that it was being held in a remote location in large unheated buildings. But everything works out just fine. The driver of the number 3 bus is entertainingly bemused by the large number of people who decide to get off at an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere: for us, it's a reassuring sign that we're going the right way. When we get to Siren, it's pleasingly rammed, with the crowd split between the brewery itself, the tap bar, and the open yard separating the two: everyone has taken note of the weather warnings and supplemented their beer jackets with at least two actual jackets each. For the next few hours, we get to guzzle multiple Siren brews old and new, including some special barrel aged versions of their classics. (Inevitably, it's the 10%+ beers, like the variants on their Bourbon Milkshake milk stout adulterated with coconut or orange, that are the first to sell out.) All of this takes place against a crazily eclectic soundtrack that somehow manages to play Steely Dan and Black Lace within five minutes of each other.
We finish off with birthday cake and then head back to BrewDog, still clutching our Siren souvenir glasses, to see what the bar looks like on a Saturday night. And it's heaving. We manage to grab two chairs at a communal table from a couple that's just leaving, but that's a stroke of luck: every other seat in the place is taken, including the stepped area which now has loads of people perched on it. And it stays that way as we scoff a couple of burgers and try a couple more of the Irish guest beers, with a fair proportion of the crowd obviously bedded in for the night.
Again, it's possible that the first Saturday night of a bar is an unreliable indicator of its future success. But if they can keep up this level of interest, I don't think BrewDog Reading has anything to worry about for now. And based on that success, it seems like BrewDog are looking for other commuter towns where they can set up shop. Here's to the next fifty, then.