If I’d known it only takes two and a half hours to get to Aberdeen, I’d have gone before. As everyone probably knows, BrewDog have now opened a bar there, so I went up for the opening night.
The North East of Scotland is prettier than its reputation as the train swooshes through Arbroath and Montrose. Aberdeen station feels more like a German airport than it does like any other Scottish railway station (this impression is strengthened by the branch of Peckhams' selling Oktoberfestbier from the big six Munich breweries). Outside, the whole town has a distinctly retro feel. There's an indoor market featuring Hughie's Country & Western Music Store. Even Marks & Spencer has the slightly cramped interior that I remember department stores having when I was a child.
Aitchie’s Alehouse across from the station is evidently an oil rig workers' pub. Bags are piled in the corners, and the place is filled with men presumably having a last pint before going offshore, or a first one on returning. Some still have a train journey ahead of them and are buying cans of McEwan’s Export at the bar. The staff, older men smartly turned out in white aprons, helpfully add a plastic tumbler to each carry-out bag. The “alehouse” sells only one cask beer — Orkney Dark Island is on. A plate of stovies or a pie and beans each cost less than a pint of beer.
Aberdeen has a number of remarkably tatty, run-down pubs slap bang in the city centre.
In contrast, shortly ahead of where the Gallowgate turns into a mass of 70s concrete, BrewDog now have a smart modern bar:
In some areas, it still smells of fresh plaster. The bar staff are cool and friendly, wearing uniform black Punk IPA t-shirts. There is no music until later on. The guys from Aitchie's Alehouse wouldn't, I think, feel comfortable here. The crowd is slightly older than I’d expected, mostly under 40 rather than mostly under 30 — and overwhelmingly male. The number of women barely reaches double figures.
In advance of the opening James had once again made waves by announcing the bar was only going to serve kegged and bottled beer with no cask-conditioned beer whatsoever. I don’t know whether this is deliberate contrariness, or just an infatuation with doing things the way the Americans do — this goes as far as spelling draught “draft” on the beer list. The irony here of course is that American craft brewers generally love playing with cask conditioning these days.
Since I’m hardly going to be a regular there anyway, I’m relaxed about it; it’s their brewery and their pub. I just find it hilarious that they have chosen to abandon real ale just at the precise moment when it’s finally becoming fashionable after nearly forty years. Later, standing at the bar, I overhear another customer “asking if it’s cask” and the barman explaining. I suspect the staff will be doing a lot of that.
The last time I drank kegged BrewDog I wasn’t impressed: Punk IPA was not even as good as the bottled version and certainly not a patch on the cask; 77 was a shadow of itself, merely good rather than the superb beer it is in the bottle. But I’m not a bigot, and happy to give it another shot. On my way between the railway station and the BrewDog bar I had dropped into Musa, where female staff wear chunky woolly jumpers and male staff look like members of Kraftwerk, and get a half of Punk IPA. Served in the rather nice BrewDog half pint tulip glass, it costs £2.20. It’s excellent, tighter, leaner, harsher than the cask version, with more soap and urinal-cake aromas. It’s not over-carbonated either, which lets so many kegged beers down.
At the bar itself, it’s already open well in advance of the announced 6pm start and there are no speeches, just a dimly lit bar which gradually fills up.
On the beer list, there are Dogma, Vanilla Porter, Punk IPA, Zeitgeist and Hardcore IPA. I don’t like Dogma so go for the Vanilla Porter. It’s decent, not the best thing they’ve ever done. The vanilla varies from restrained to hardly noticeable, which is preferable to it being overwhelming.
There’s one draught guest beer, 3 Floyds’ Pride and Joy Mild Ale. It’s fizzy, tart and lemony.
Back at the bar, they are selling shots of Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck! for a fiver a pop. I was intrigued by the description of Bismarck when it came out, but never bought any because of the pathetic Kraut-bashing that accompanied it. Thank God I didn’t — it’s a boozy, syrupy mess.
As well as the draught, sorry “draft” beers, the entire Brewpooch range is available in bottles. There is also an extensive guest bottle list from the likes of De Struise, Stone and Alesmith. They’re not cheap. Guest bottles start at £6 and many are in the £12–16 bracket, with the likes of Older Viscosity and Dark Lord going for £30 and £45 respectively. I suppose some of them are big bottles, at least I certainly hope so — it doesn't say on the menu. Yes, these are strong specialist beers, yes it is expensive to ship beer across the Atlantic, but I wonder who is going to pay these prices. Norwegian tickers I guess. Draught beer, on the other hand, is much more affordably priced: a pint of Punk is £3.50 which is not bad for Aberdeen. It seems odd, though, that there are only six draught beers.
I finish off with some Hardcore IPA. Wow! What a beer. One to restore your faith in these guys. It's too cold and overcarbonated, but still superb. I can still taste it on the train home.
BrewDog are certainly onto a winner here. Definitely a place worth visiting if you happen to be in Aberdeen.