BrewDogging #54: Tower Hill
[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, Reading, Malmo, Tallinn, Overworks]
A few months ago I was banging on about the recently-opened Seven Dials bar, and how huuuuuuuge it was, and how it was obviously going to be BrewDog's new London flagship bar. Well, part of that might still be true - you can't beat the geometric centre of the West End as a location. But since then, BrewDog have opened another London bar in the City, and it's huuuuuuuger.
Then again, that's part of its problem - it's in the City, so my traditional roundup of other interesting things in the area would resemble Alexei Sayle's theoretical publication What's On In Stoke Newington. (For some reason, new London BrewDog bars keep reminding me of Alexei Sayle routines.) So instead, I'm going to tell you about three separate visits I've made to the bar since it opened back in April, each one showing off its features in different ways.
Fifty-four bars visited - a complete deck of cards including jokers - and yet BrewDog Tower Hill is only the third one of those that The Belated Birthday Girl and I have been to on an advance preview, the others being Soho and Shepherds Bush. It's one of the many perks of being an Equity Punk, as they insist on calling people who've invested in the brewery: the day before a new bar opens to the public, they hold a special opening for a limited number of investors so they can be the first to see the place. As it turns out, this launch is different from the others in a couple of aspects. Firstly, it's being held on a Saturday afternoon, rather than the usual Thursday evening: secondly, after today's launch the bar will subsequently spend a week and a half in a soft opening status before being fully opened to the rest of the world.
Once we get there, it's pretty obvious why the bar needs ten days to bed in properly: it's gigantic. Sure, they've opened a few large places recently, but generally spread over a couple of levels, in the manner of Seven Dials (or the one that I'll be reporting on in the near future as bar #55). But this place is all on one single storey, stretching across what feels like several buildings knocked through - a feeling that's enhanced by the way the bar is split into three distinct zones. On the far left, as you enter, is a games area based around a couple of shuffleboard tables, bring a taste of Leeds North Street (or, for that matter, Malmo) to the south of England. In the middle is the official bar area, with a satisfying collection of 25 taps on offer, along with a decent-sized set of fridges.
And then there's the large space on the right, where they keep the brew tanks. You heard. At this point in history, this is Tower Hill's major USP: it's a brewpub, which alongside the usual favourites from BrewDog and others will be serving beer made on the premises. There's a case to be made for brewpubs, certainly - after all, my first experiences with high ABV beer involved drinking Dogbolter brewed in a Firkin pub over three decades ago. But the idea is usually that the pub will be brewing beer that will be better than anything else you could get in the circumstances. This bar is already serving BrewDog's own world-class beers, plus the usual collection of hand-picked guests: that's a lot for a small batch beer to compete against. Based on the evidence of the first results of their brew kit, a New England IPA that looks and tastes pretty much like every other New England IPA, it's difficult to see what it adds to the portfolio.
But it's early days yet - as I said, very early days, as we're at an investor-only preview. As such, the punters in attendance are more likely to be forgiving of the biggest problem the bar has on its first day of operation: the kitchen isn't fully up and running yet. This is a bit of a bind, as the food offering is one of the main things BrewDog has been using to hype up this bar. Still, for the launch day, they pull off a few treats for us, offering free meat and cheese platters as well as cakes (notably beer brownies). The selection of beers is as strong as you could hope for: the music choices a little more mainstream, possibly in an attempt to make the bar more attractive to passing City trade: the gents toilets have a beer podcast playing in the background, reminding me of the Spanish language tapes that used to accompany wees at long-dead London restaurant Texas Embassy Cantina. All in all it's a fun, boozy afternoon, but obviously it's not any indication of what the place will be like with real people in it. That'll take a few weeks.
2. Friday May 25th: working lunch (well, maybe not so much working)
So, a few weeks later, we go back.
If BrewDog Tower Hill is a City pub, then the time to visit it has to be during the working week. We've taken some time off on the Friday before a Bank Holiday weekend (a weekend, by the way, dedicated to research for BrewDogging #55), so we book ourselves a table for lunch to see how that works out.
Gratifyingly, the place seems to be doing just fine. It's very busy, with a mixture of office workers settling in for a long lunch, and more diligent ones who just pop in for a pint and a bite before heading off again. It's also good to see that the initial teething problems with the kitchen have been resolved, and a full menu is now on offer. Well, almost.
The big thing about food at Tower Hill is this: after years of juggling with a variety of different options, BrewDog food has just about settled into a couple of set menu patterns. The larger bars offer a mixture of burgers, hot dogs and wings: the smaller ones that can't support a full-sized kitchen just offer pizzas. Tower Hill is a rare example of a bar whose menu offers both, plus weekend brunches, plus assorted breakfast options from 8am on weekdays. Admittedly, it's all on sale at a bit of a markup compared with the same dishes in other BrewDog bars, but the extended choice is welcome. Apart from on days like this one, where The BBG is told that the veggie options are greatly reduced today because "we've burnt all the seitan".
Still, it's not a total disaster: their Soy Division hot dog is still available, as is the gigantic meat edifice they call the Jackpot Burger. So lunch works out quite nicely, accompanied in my case by the Tower Hill pale ale V1, the latest offering from the bar's own brewtanks. It's still just... okay, really: The BBG does a lot better with her Kottbusser from Yellow Belly. But again, it's a nice buzzy atmosphere, and an enjoyable place to be overall. You'd have to imagine it must be fairly dead at the weekends, though. Unless you could find a way of attracting people then?
3. Sunday June 24th: England v Panama
About two years ago, during what we now have to call Nordic Expedition I, The BBG and I paid a couple of visits to the BrewDog bar in Oslo. It was in the middle of Euro 2016, and BrewDog bars don't have tellies. As a result, the bar was largely deserted: on one memorable occasion, we saw half a dozen people huddled around the bar, only to discover that they were watching a match on somebody's tablet.
Possibly because of situations like this, BrewDog reassessed their TV policy around the time of this year's World Cup, and came up with a concept they called Fanzone. They'd show matches in a selection of their bars, but only the ones which had an area that could be kept isolated from the rest of the pub - usually a basement, an attic, or a games room. That way, anyone who wanted a quiet drink could still get on with doing that undisturbed.
Tower Hill, as you've already seen, has a games room - well, more like a games wing, which is far enough away from the bar area to count. So, for the duration of the World Cup, the shuffleboards were moved out into the middle section (losing a couple of dining tables in the process), and a big screen with a few rows of seating was set up in their place. Curious to see how this works out, we randomly pick a Sunday lunchtime England match to try the Fanzone out for ourselves.
England v Panama turns out to be a pretty good call, as you may remember. The area fills up quite early on, but we manage to get ourselves a seat near the back which has a handy ledge for balancing our brunches on: good job too, as it turns out we'll be eating all our meals here today. The big screen is showing an iPlayer stream, and we get the occasional buffering problem that causes the action to speed up and slow down unpredictably, making it look like a shit Zack Snyder movie (i.e. like a Zack Snyder movie). But for the most part it's just fine, and the crowd reacts wildly to the first couple of goals, less so as it becomes apparent what a rout it's going to be. (For myself, it comes as a shock when I suddenly discover 90 minutes have been played: I'm so used at that point in an England game to be closely watching the clock, either to see if we can pull something back or hang onto whatever slender lead we have. Being five ahead at that point is an unusual experience.)
We're so pleased with the experience that The BBG and I hang around for the other two matches of the day: Japan v Senegal (playing to a much reduced crowd) and Poland v Colombia (where we're joined by a sudden influx of Poles at half time). We keep ourselves topped up with food (cauliflower wings for lunch, burgers for dinner) and pace ourselves with the beers, so we make it to the end of the day intact. Again, we try the on-site brewed pale ale, and again we're not quite sure why BrewDog are making such a big deal of this being a brewpub. We note that the music choices continue to be reminiscent of Virgin Radio (or do we call it LNER Radio now?): when you hear a particular riff over the audio system, you know it'd normally be Straight To Hell in other BrewDog bars, but it'll be Paper Planes in here. And while we're on the subject of stuff you won't hear in this bar, it seems that the audio entertainment in the gents has now been turned off.
For all my niggles, I think Tower Hill is the first BrewDog bar where we've ever had a nine-hour session, so they must be doing a lot of things right. And the brewpub concept isn't going away, no matter how ambivalent I may be about it: in the last couple of weeks the bar has been rebranded as the first BrewDog Outpost (the new name for the ones with onsite brewing), and later this week they're opening the second. It may take us a while to get around to that one, so sit tight.