You can almost imagine the board meeting at BrewDog plc. One of their execs is doing a PowerPoint presentation, pointing out that since they took over the former Stone brewery in Berlin there’s been a notable upswing in sales in Germany. It’s probably about time they opened another bar in the country. Maybe in Hamburg, perhaps?
Offscreen, we hear a quiet rhythm being beaten on the boardroom table, gradually increasing in volume: three beats, then a pause, then repeated. And as the camera turns towards James Watt and Martin Dickie at the other end of the table, we hear the vocal chant that accompanies their banging.
“Ree-per-bahn! REE-PER-BAHN! REE-PER-BAHN!”
This (wholly imagined) chain of events will ultimately lead to The Belated Birthday Girl and me spending our first ever Christmas Day in a BrewDog bar: specifically one located in the St Pauli district of Hamburg, at the top end of the naughtiest street in Europe. Coincidentally, it’s the 69th bar we’ve visited. I thought this next sentence would more or less write itself, but it’s harder than it looks.
I've talked briefly elsewhere about the bookends of our Christmas 2019 holiday: a couple of nights in Brussels, taking in the Winter Pret market and a few other bits and pieces. Getting from Brussels to Hamburg requires a two-stage rail journey with a short change in the middle at Cologne. We've been in Hamburg station before, on our previous visit to the city in 2007, but it's still an astonishing sight when you first step off the train and you're hit by its multi-level structure. The disorientation continues as you try to leave the station, where everyone is walking at high speed in extremely well defined lanes, except for the ones yelling St Pauli terrace chants on their way to the match.
From the station, it's a simple one-stop U-bahn-hop to our hotel - we realise some time later it could be done as a relatively painless walk, but we've got our suitcases and can't be bothered with that. The hotel is actually our second choice: we were originally trying for the Motel One Hamburg am Michel close to the St Pauli bar, but it was full, so we settled for the next closest branch in the chain. As it turns out, the Motel One Hamburg-Alster is perfectly located as a hub for six days of exploring the city - it's directly on top of Lohmühlenstraße U-bahn station, and a few minutes walk from both the Hauptbahnhof and Berliner Tor, giving us a huge number of transport options.
We've not really used Motel Ones in the past, apart from on a trip to Manchester a few years ago when all the Premier Inns were full for some reason. Hamburg-Alster gets itself into our good books almost immediately: the room we've been given smells like someone's smoked themselves to death inside it, and as soon as we mention this to reception they move us to a nicer room with zero fuss and all the apologies. It's as comfortable as it is well-located, and the catering arrangements work out just fine: a comprehensive breakfast buffet available even during the holidays, and a late-night bar that gradually gets used to our perverse requests for a cup of green tea before bed.
The Motel One may not be quite as close to Brewdog St Pauli as its am Michel relative, but it's a short enough ride on the subway. The bar's simultaneously easy and hard to find: the huge Tanzende Türme complex (aka Dancing Towers) hits you in the eyes as soon as you exit St Pauli station, but you may not realise BrewDog are on the ground floor until you're virtually on top of it. They're taking up a sizeable amount of space on that floor, subdivided in the usual fashion with booths, tables and sitty-on boxy things. The two concessions to Hamburg bar culture are the DJ playing a Eurodisco set on the Saturday night, and the photo booth incongrously positioned just outside the door, something we subsequently spot at a few of the city's trendier boozers.
When it comes to beers, the twenty or so taps are augmented by a not-so-secret weapon: they can get in beers specially made for them at the Berlin brewery, with things like Kiez Keule and Obstkomp(l)ott labelled as DogTap exclusives. Alongside their own brews and a few local guests, there's also a well-stocked fridge with interesting selections from all over.
On the three nights we visit, it's the fridge that provides us with our nightcap beer: Buddelship's Meppener Moorbrand Imperial Stout on the Saturday, Pohjala Gimme Danger Gluten Free Imperial Stout on the Sunday - because nobody can quite work out how much it costs, we get charged the ludicrously wrong amount of EUR 6.50 minus our shareholder discount - and on Christmas Day, another Pohjala stout (Port Over Easy, a collaboration with Jester King) where we're charged something more like the proper amount, but heck, it's Christmas.
Any problems to report? Well, the WiFi is absolute garbage on all three nights we visit. And there's an awkward incident on the Sunday night when without warning, they call last orders at 10pm. There's always a degree of uncertainty when a bar gives its closing time as '-late', but a warning would have been nice: a few years ago we were at the late lamented Warsaw bar when they closed up at 10pm for someone's Xmas party, but they made damn sure everyone knew that was going to happen on their way in. Shutting down when there's already a decent crowd inside, not to mention people eager to come in off the street, feels like the wrong way to make friends.
Because the bottom line is, this is a pretty popular bar. It's certainly doing better than the Brussels bar we called into en route to Hamburg, which is still struggling to fill the massive space it occupies, even on the Friday night before Christmas. By comparison Hamburg is enjoyably buzzy on all our visits, including the one on the evening of Christmas Day (because it's Germany, and we can). It ends up being a nice wrapup to our day, as we share that naughty bottle of Pohjala and chat with a friendly barperson about the vagaries of the local craft beer scene.
Which would seem like the perfect lead-in to a discussion of that local scene, and non-BrewDog things in Hamburg generally. But let's pause for now, and we can talk about that sort of thing another time. You know how it works around here, it'll probably be Easter by the time I get around to posting that.
[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, Aberdeen Union Square, Peterhead, Itaewon, Le Marais, Outpost Manchester, Perth, Edinburgh Airport, Carlisle]