For those of you who are counting, I've been in my current Moderately Responsible Job In The Computer Industry for just over four years now. It's fun to look back on my first Christmas there, when I had to explain to my new colleagues that I was going to be spending the festive season in Cardiff: not because we knew anybody there, but because we wanted to go to a bar and get them to put a little stamp in our Beer Visas. As I said here at the time, it led to a series of awkward conversations with people who were only just getting to know me, but "I'm sure they'll get used to it eventually."
Four years later, I'm telling the same people just before Christmas 2022 that I'm going to see a panto in Hornchurch because there's a newly-opened BrewDog bar a couple of miles down the road from it. They don't bat an eyelid. See, they did get used to it.
You could argue that BrewDog Upminster is a London bar. After all, Upminster's got a station on the Underground: it's in zone 6 and everything. It is, however, a station that's further east than anything else on the tube network. When we start planning a full day of activities that'll climax with a visit to the bar, we gradually become aware that it'll take us a similar amount to time to get there as it would to get to the bar in Brighton. Still, it's the first day of our Christmas break, and we're up for an adventure.
We’re starting off with an Elizabeth line journey out to Romford, because we've become big fans of London's newest transport line since it fully opened earlier in 2022. From Romford, there's a little random Overground line that runs from there to Upminster on a half-hourly shuttle. However, we want to fit in a bit more exploring before Upminster, so after a quick peek around Romford's shopping centre we get a bus out to Hornchurch, which is effectively on the midpoint of that shuttle line. We've done our research, and earmarked Liana's Tea House as a suitable place to grab a quick lunch: unfortunately, we haven't done quite enough research, and missed the detail that their Christmas break started the previous day.
Happily, our next scheduled stop is the Queen's Theatre, whose cafe turns out to have a wide range of lunch options available, and those set us up nicely for that panto I was telling you about. The Queen's production of Sleeping Beauty is the first proper panto either of us have seen in possibly decades, if you put aside all of the ironic ones we've watched over the years (including two online ones during the Christmas lockdown of 2020). It's hard to describe it as 'much better than we'd expected' without sounding massively patronising, but it's true. Caroline Leslie's production is surprisingly slick, with a hard-working cast of eight also doubling up as the on-stage musicians, and some good looking sets and costumes. Meanwhile, the script by Andrew Pollard is packed full of jokes operating at every possible level, from basic fart gags to intra-Essex bickering. (‘Ah, Hornchurch. Romford’s waiting room.’) He even manages to work around one of the dodgiest aspects of the Sleeping Beauty story by setting up a mechanism for the princess to consent to being snogged in her sleep (though that mechanism looked like it might have been scuppered by technical issues on the day we saw it).
We're at a matinee, and there's still quite a bit of time before our dinner booking, so we stay in Hornchurch and call into the Hop Inn – a lovely little micropub that covers all the bases for beer drinkers of every stripe. There's a mixture of both cask and keg beer available, plus a surprisingly large collection of ciders: the old CAMRA types can enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, the young bucks can juice up their phones with their USB charging sockets. By an amusing coincidence, I end up overhearing a conversation at the bar with a couple of customers who've just come from BrewDog Upminster, and don't seem to be too impressed by it. They’re a bit sniffy about the customer service, and the layout of the place in general, complaining that "it’s more like a restaurant than a bar," particularly as many of the tables have reserved signs all over them.
One of those reserved signs is ours, so we take that as our cue to make the final hop from Emerson Park station down the road to Upminster. I appreciate that this is a piece about Upminster that's so far been very heavy on detail regarding Hornchurch, but the simple fact is that the one thing Upminster has going for it is a half hourly shuttle service to all the stuff in Hornchurch. Actually, that's a bit harsh: it has two things going for it, if you count the Upminster Windmill, which is an impressive structure but currently closed for refurbishment. (Coincidentally, the Hop Inn is one of a small consortium of local businesses helping to raise money for it.)
And of course you could say there are three things Upminster has going for it, thanks to the opening of BrewDog Upminster. As noted on several occasions recently, the current trend for BrewDog bars is to either build them compact or enormous, and it's a surprise to discover just how enormous this one is. The trick here is that they've structured it as three moderately-sized bars stacked on top of each other, meaning it never feels quite as gargantuan as it is. Downstairs, we get a nicely buzzy pub, doing the sort of business you'd expect on a weeknight in the week before Christmas. Above that, there's a more relaxed bar with a bit more comfy seating and fewer people, the ideal spot for a quiet drink rather than a boozy night out. And at the top, there's a roof garden which nobody wants to go into in this weather, so at present it's closed off.
We’re still a bit early for our dinner booking, so we start off in the middle bar before heading down to our table in the main space. Up till then, it’s all okay. Then it gets a bit odd. I go up to the bar to order a couple of meals (because, you know, it’s like a restaurant) from the plant-based bit of the menu. I’m having the bacon double cheeseburger, while The BBG is having the Carolina Chicken. Maybe part of the problem is that most places highlight any veg dishes pretending to be meat by spelling their names wrong: chicken with 3 k’s and a silent apostrophe, you know the deal. BrewDog, unfortunately, are not doing that. After a long, long wait (admittedly they’re busy, so that’s not unexpected), The BBG is given a bowl of salad with slices of actual chicken on top. When the waitress is challenged, she initially insists that this is how the veggie burgers are served. What we’ve actually got here, of course, is a chicken salad bowl, but it takes a bit more arguing and another long wait before a replacement arrives.
This next paragraph may involve a bit of jumping to conclusions, but let’s try it anyway. You’ve noticed that over the years, we’ve visited a lot of overseas BrewDog bars. In the vast majority of cases, they’re franchise operations: they find a local partner they can trust and leave most of the organisation to them. What’s happened recently is that they’ve started using this business model on some of the new bars in the UK, and Upminster is one of those. If there’s one thing that unites the eighty-odd places we’ve visited in a period of just coming up to ten years, it’s that the staff have always been dedicated, passionate and friendly: and it strikes me that when you hit the rare occasion when someone tries to persuade you that a chicken salad is a veggie burger, it may suggest that this franchise hasn’t quite got the training right yet. (It's a similar story to a lesser degree later in the evening, when we’re served our traditional end-of-night impy stouts in spirit glasses because they can’t find any of the usual ones.)
The site has a fair bit of potential, despite what I keep selfishly thinking of as its back-of-beyond location. A bit more focus on getting the staff up to standard, and it could be worth crossing London for. (Or maybe people already live round there. I dunno.)
[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, St Pauli, Old Street, Cambridge, Ealing, St Andrews, Chancery Lane, DogHouse Manchester, Bath, Reykjavik, Inverurie, DogTap 2.0, Waterloo, DogHouse Edinburgh]