- Mr Clean, Apocalypse Now
At the time, young Larry Fishburne was talking about a Playboy live show organised in the middle of a Vietnam warzone. Would he have reacted in the same way to BrewDog's two new Aberdeenshire bars? I'd like to think so.
But there's a catch: the AGM is now so popular an event that its traditional Saturday slot (on April 6th this year) sold out in just a few hours, meaning they've had to organise an overflow meeting on Sunday April 7th for the people who missed out. Which includes us. Having booked the weekend travel and accommodation long before the tickets went on sale, it's actually quite lucky that we have some non-AGM things to do while we wait for Sunday to roll around.
The first one of those is on the Friday night at 11pm, as our airport bus rolls into Union Square bus station, and we instantly head into the shopping centre of the same name next door. These days, if you're a regular moviegoer, you're used to that slightly Dawn-Of-The-Deady atmosphere that malls have after dark, when the shops are shut and the only things open are the cinema and a few food and beverage outlets. And it's like that here, except that one of those food and beverage outlets is BrewDog Aberdeen Union Square, sitting in the middle of the TGI Fridays and the Nandoses. To quote from James Watt's AGM presentation the day after, "you know what Americans say about bars in shopping centres. You see one bar..."
In previous years, the two BrewDog bars in Aberdeen city centre were predictably mobbed the night before an AGM. Maybe the opening of this third one has taken the pressure off a bit, or maybe the location isn't quite as inspired as people think: either way, the Union Square bar is looking a little quiet on what should be its busiest Friday night of the year. Most of the people approaching the bar - including us - are carrying Beer Visas to get a new stamp in them, an activity that has resulted in the hashtag #stampwankers being coined by the Equity Punks community. Still, we're up to 37 stamps now, if you're counting. Hey, try not to get any more bar stamps on the way to the parking lot!
Once you get past the weirdness of the location, this is a perfectly acceptable place to have a pint or two, as the decor is very much in the usual (overly?) familiar style. The one minor change is Fisher's graffiti art, here painted directly onto on brickwork rather than plaster, which gives it an interesting variation in texture. Once again (as is frequently becoming the case this year), the music policy shows signs of independence from the corporate line: it pivots from rock with a punk edge to hip hop, the changeover happening audibly as we go past midnight and the crowd thins out a little (or as someone else takes control of the Spotify, perhaps). By the time we get there, the stampwankers have drained the taps of anything stronger than 7%, so we pick up a bottle of the Brewdog/Fierce collab porter Neighbourhood to wrap up the day.
Nine hours later, we're back in again: well, they were offering breakfast, how could we say no? (Though it's fun to hear someone at the bus stop afterwards complaining that they weren't allowed to buy a beer at 9.45am, and had to have a Nanny State with their Dirty Bunaddict.) If anything, there's a bit more life in the bar in this morning session than there was late the previous night - there are also lots of tables with reserved signs on them, though there's still enough space to fit in casual walk-ins like us. It just goes to show that an AGM weekend is a terrible time to visit a bar and expect to get a realistic impression of it. Which makes it all the more awkward that immediately after breakfast, we get on a bus and do just that all over again.
There's a steady stream of people leaving the Union Square bar that Saturday morning, going to the bus station on its doorstep, and heading straight for the AECC and the AGM. We're with them all the way, but stay on the bus as they all get off, riding it for another hour or so until we get to the small town of Peterhead. It makes for an interesting contrast with Aberdeen, the buildings predominantly red stone rather than grey, the roads inevitably less crowded. We take a short stroll out to the harbour and back, wander down to the high street, and suddenly I'm quoting Mr Clean again.
BrewDog Peterhead is an actual high street bar, lurking in the middle of the usual branches of H Samuel and the British Heart Foundation shops, as incongrous there as Union Square is in its own environs. It's here because of one of those carelessly casual promises BrewDog makes to its shareholders - if enough people in a town sign up as Equity Punks, then they'll consider opening a bar there. Enough of them apparently signed up here.
The evidence suggests that it used to be a nightclub called Nemesis. And maybe this is a spoilt child of the city talking here, but I have to ask - aren't nightclubs usually bigger than this? In this instance, that's not a criticism: regular readers will know I don't entirely approve of the megabars that BrewDog tend to open as standard nowadays, and Peterhead has the intimate feel of the older bars, like the Aberdeen flagship or Camden in London. Maybe this is the way BrewDog should expand in the future, with a mixture of smaller out-of-town bars and bigger hop palaces in the cities.
Anyway, the couple of lunchtime hours we spend in Peterhead passes very enjoyably indeed. Aside from the beers from their small but perfectly formed taplist (including some fine guest appearances from Buxton and Northern Monk), and a couple of pizzas (have I ever mentioned that the vegetarian White Trash is the best thing they do?), there's one more bit of cheeky business we have planned: a test of the bar's wi-fi, which happily proves to be more solid than the network in Paddington was on its launch night. Which is good, because by now it's 1pm, and James Watt and Martin Dickie are starting their presentation to the AGM. Which is being streamed live on YouTube. And we've got our laptop with us.
Surprisingly for something involving the combination of BrewDog and technology, this works rather well: at least, after some initial confusion during which we're connected to their test stream rather than the real thing. For the purposes of practicality, we're watching it without audio, though given the usual quality of the patter that seems like a positive advantage, and we know we'll be hearing it all for real tomorrow. (Watching them doing their comic business without sound turns out to be fascinating, as you realise that James gets through on enthusiasm, while Martin gets through on his total lack of enthusiasm.) All the important announcements are verbalised on PowerPoint slides as we go, so we catch all the important details, the highlight occurring when The BBG is almost yelling at the screen as it becomes apparent what Brewdog Millionaire is. "I wonder what the FCA would think about that?" she asks. (We're not sure. Watch this space.)
Is Peterhead worth the trip from Aberdeen? On balance, I'd say yes. The bar's a charming throwback to the old days of BrewDog, and there are a few other things you can investigate while in town. The Arbuthnot Museum is a delightfully idiosyncratic collection of stuff centered around the twin foci of vintage toys and the whaling industry: it shuts early in the afternoon, but you can easily get through it in half an hour. If you're still craving beer, the Brew Toon microbrewery has some decent beers in their brewery taproom, enhanced by the nifty use of old keykegs for seating. And when it's time to head back to central Aberdeen, the bus obligingly passes through Ellon, giving you a couple more bars if you've not had quite enough to drink just yet.
Our Saturday night out in town turns out to be a bit of a bust, after an initially promising start: a couple of lovely Northern Monk beers in The Craftsman, followed by a splendid Japanese dinner at Yatai. It all starts falling apart at CASC, which is uncomfortably crammed full of people back from the AECC, still wearing their lanyards ('#lanyardwanker' becomes the catchphrase for the rest of the weekend) and drinking out of the freebie AGM souvenir plastic glasses rather than CASC's own pretty ones. All the best beers have been drunk dry, but the board hasn't been updated to reflect that (even though it's a video screen), turning a simple bar order into a ten minute drunk version of the Monty Python cheese shop sketch. ('It's very clean.' 'Well, it's certainly uncontaminated by DIPAs.') The Hop And Anchor - the late lamented Musa restaurant, now repurposed by BrewDog as a Draft House bar - is, at the other extreme, eerily underpopulated, with a disappointing selection of beers available. And Fierce won't let us in, claiming they're full, even though they visibly aren't. We end up back at the BrewDog flagship after all that, which has Dog H, Barrel Aged Albino Squid Assassin, seats, and door staff who aren't being arseholes, so we take advantage of all four before heading off for bed.
So now it's Sunday, and it's time for the AGM, which is a collection of words I've never used together before. This explains our initial panic when we go for our traditional breakfast at Cup only to find it shut, because we haven't realised it only opens at ten on Sundays. Still, that works in our schedule, and breakfast is as good as it usually is, though we note that the menu has now been extended to include a pageful of avocado toast options for the millennials. The bus to the AECC is as crammed as it was yesterday, but we get there for 11.40, with a 20 minute wait until the doors open.
Just in case I wasn't clear earlier: we booked our travel and accommodation for this trip before the AGM tickets went on sale. As such, we were working on the assumption that we'd be at the AECC on the Saturday, and pottering around Aberdeen (including Peterhead) on the Sunday. The reversal of those plans has an inevitable impact: we now have to leave the AGM at 4pm if we want to catch our flight home. That gives us four hours, which will have to be planned with military precision, and drinking is one of those activities where 'military precision' isn't necessarily applicable.
Somehow, though, we manage it. We're among the first people through the door at noon, where the first problem is trying to organise all the stuff that's thrown at you as you enter - a lanyard loaded with beer tokens and a timetable (#lanyardwanker), a plastic glass (#glasswanker), a wristband to get in and out, and a voucher for a Hawkes Cider tasting. You've got to somehow juggle all of this while still keeping hold of your original ticket, and without carrying any sort of bag, as they remain banned under the AECC's security rules. (Our own bags are currently back at the hotel, adding one more bit of potential jeopardy to our post-AGM journey home.)
We've worked out that with our combined token allocation, we'll be able to cover one round per hour for the four hours we're there, though that final round might have to be a single shared glass as we won't have enough tokens for two. So: we have a structure.
- 12:00-13.00. Round 1: Cask Dead Pony Club and 30 Day IPA. The former is a variant on an old favourite that The BBG has been trying to get hold of for ages, and she's delighted when she does.
- 13:00-14:00. Round 2: Espresso Jet Black Heart and Renegade Vanilla Scotch Pilot from the mobile beer facility they call Truck Norris. These are the beers that we take with us into James and Martin's business presentation, which we now get to see with the volume up. We don't really learn much that we hadn't already worked out already, and the talk's most notable for what it doesn't cover - no dates for the proposed new bars, and the traditional 'things that sucked' section has been quietly dropped.
- 14:00-15:00. Round 3: Onto the guest beers. We go for Chomolungma brown ale from Jackie O's, and Terry Needs His Nibs from Glasshouse, because it's hard to resist a cacao beer named after an obscure Brooklyn Nine-Nine reference. These accompany our lunch, consisting of a fish naanwich (you can imagine) and a more conventional shrimp and chips combo. We also do a bit of chilling out in the Boyd Orr room, which is surprising as one of the main complaints from Saturday's AGM session was that the sound in the chillout room was frequently at ear-bleeding volume. That seems to have been fixed now, happily.
- 15:00-16:00. Round 4: We've got just enough tokens left for one shared beer, but luckily it's one worth sharing: Cloudwater's red wine chocolate porter. We're taking it into our one breakout session of the day, a Q&A session with James and Martin taking questions from the floor. As we're standing in the queue waiting to go in, James walks past and gives The BBG a quick 'hi', presumably following on from their chat in Dalston one week earlier: so she's happy. I always get a little bit antsy at these things, because they frequently result in a procession of blokes asking "can you open a bar in [insert name of questioner's town here]?" This time round, though, there's a lot less of that, and a lot more interesting stuff about the business and the finance. The most delightful audience question comes from a couple who claim to have used James' book Business For Punks as the inspiration to start up their own company, and now see themselves as "the BrewDog of the radiator world." The best line of the day, however, emerges from a discussion about a future rebrew of Paddington Beer, the orangey pale invented by James' four-year-old daughter Evie and sold on the opening night of the Paddington bar. James announces from the stage that a new batch will be brewed shortly, whereupon Evie - who's in the front row - yells at the top of her voice "CAN I HAVE SOME OF THE MONEY?" Which, to be fair, is higher quality bants than anything her dad or his mate came up with all weekend. (Okay, I'll grudgingly give him credit for "you see one bar".)
Round 5 could, potentially, have been the free can of Punk IPA that they hand to everybody on the way out of the presentation. Unfortunately, we have to turn it down as we're leaving immediately to catch a plane, and they won't let us drink it on the bus or fly with the cans in our hand baggage. So, in summary: we had to belt through the event in four hours, meaning no time for bands or tasting sessions, but we still had a pretty good time. And we got to collect visa stamps from two more of the bars as well. Stamp numbers 37 and 38, in fact. We'll need to think about pulling out something special for stamps 39 and 40, won't we?
[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, Dog Eat Dog/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, Tower Hill, Edinburgh Lothian Road, Milton Keynes, Canary Wharf, Brixton, Paddington, Dalston]