Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dead Dog

I’m not ‘cool’. I get that.

I support Coventry City. I’m a Tory. I go to church. I don’t own any devices prefixed by a lowercase ‘i’. My favourite vehicles are executive cars and grand tourers from the 1970s and 80s and my favourite music is Anglican chant, hymn tunes and folk-rock.

And not so much the kind of 'folk-rock' that is sometimes 'credible' amongst the cool like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, either. My favourite band ever is Steeleye Span and I'm proud of that.

In fact, I reject the very concept of fashion and take not a little pride in so doing, and even by the convoluted logic which dictates that the rejection of ‘cool’ makes one cool, I’m not cool.

I don’t generally like ‘cool’ things, so I appreciate that I’m perhaps not really Brewdog’s target market any more. Despite sporting seven body piercings, I've also never much liked Camden, it being full of all the 'cool' stuff I so despise, obviously.

As fate would have it, I've worked in Camden in the past, and dated a girl from Camden (who I then married) but the thought of drinking in the area always filled me with dread. Noisy. Trendy. Beer desert.


You can tell where this going - Brewdog Camden having opened recently and all that...

A strained relationship

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Brewdog produced some of the tastiest and most innovative real ales in the country. As recently as early 2010 I wrote - in an article about beer for the FSA staff newsletter - that they were my favourite British brewery. How times have changed.

I didn’t particularly like the ‘cool’ branding (because it sometimes threatened to be more about the brand than the beer, rather than any particular issue with the visual identity) but the beer was all kinds of awesome so I bought into the vision and became one of their first shareholders. I've written about this shit before. It still hurts.

They continue to brew innovative and tasty beers, but are utterly focused on keg and bottles for the International market now and their reprehensible decision to completely turn their back on real ale after their initial success and exponential growth has turned them rapidly from heroes to villains in my eyes.

Founder James Watt has always claimed that they're primarily inspired by the great pioneering American microbreweries - Rogue, Stone, Dogfish Head etc. - and that's great. We need more British brewers making brilliant beer and pushing the boundaries.

But they miss the crucial point that the best these great breweries have to offer - and not just for the rarity value either - are the cask-conditioned versions of their beers. Yes, they do keg beer and as keg beer goes, it's very good keg beer, but the real highlight is the real ale.

American bars are coming from a place where 15 years ago real ale was extinct and keg was the norm, whereas we fought a revolution 40 years ago and our microbreweries have, quite rightly, come from a starting point of 'cask is best'.

You might not see banks of 12 handpumps in the States, but a good bar will have a couple these days, and they often treat cask as a special treat - the pinnacle of excellence, which is as it should be.

And, crucially, drinkers have a choice.

But with so many fanboys eagerly sucking the Dog's cock right now, they have little reason to care what I think.

Sometimes on their website and Facebook page, they ask fans what sort of beer they'd like the Dog to Brew, but selective doggy deafness kicks in whenever the answer is 'cask', which it frequently is.

Welcome to Camden

Would rather be elsewhere..
So with the Dog boys now opening up their own bars across the UK you'd expect to see something resembling the US model, though perhaps, given their narrow-minded attitude, with the 'keg-only' policy as a feature rather than a reluctant reality beyond which real ale is a noble aspiration.

Regardless of what they've done, I had to pay a visit to their new London outlet, even if it meant venturing into N1 again. Ho hum.

Brewdog Camden is less edgy American taphouse than it is basic North London boozer, albeit one that is full of trendy, stick-thin 20-somethings with haircuts that they shouldn’t be able to afford. Fucking students. 

The interior is a bit crowded, and in a ‘poky’ rather than ‘bustling’ way. Even if it were empty it would probably feel crowded, if that makes sense. It’s dark, loud and you’d need a lot of luck to get a table. Yes, I sound like an uncool old person. I don’t fucking care.

The beers available include standard Brewdog offerings like Punk IPA, 5AM Saint and my personal favourite, the hoptastic Hardcore IPA, alongside new and experimental brews. A 10%+ Wasabi Stout and a Prototype fruit beer are proof that they continue to innovate, and if these were real ales for me to scoop, I'd be raving enthusiastically now.

As it is, their blinkered decision to completely abandon cask beer reduces the lineup to a range of interesting but overpriced keg beers, and that's something I just can't get excited about. Even the cheaper/weaker beers are close to £4/pint and while I'd happilly pay that for a proper beer (hell, I had Thornbridge Bracia at £12/pint the other day) I'm not going to fork out for something that is always going to be second-best.
I enjoyed my couple of gulps of the Prototype, before the carbonation became unbearably sickly, and I wasn't able to finish it, as I often find with over-fizzy keg beer.

The Punk IPA is still a decent, hoppy ale, but it's not as good as the old recipe, and as a drinker I find it annoying that they kept using the old name for a new beer, which smacks of putting branding before product.

(Online requests to bring back the original Punk fall on the same selectively deaf ears as the requests for cask, obviously).

Let's eat... Oh, wait...

So, what's the food like then?

Well, from what I saw of it (cheese platters, burgers and pizzas) it all looked pretty good, and it should be, with a menu designed by 2011 Masterchef winner Tim Anderson. But I didn’t get to taste it because there were no tables free and by 9 PM they’d stopped taking food orders anyway.

See, if Brewdog wants to do the American-style experience properly, as is their claimed aspiration, they really need to treble their floorspace, serve food until midnight and offer table service. And probably have a zillion screens showing sport as well.

Brew Wharf and Tap East do a better job of representing this style of outlet in London, while the Rake and the Euston tap and the Craft have shown that a big range of beers can complement a more intimate vibe in limited floorspace.

And all of the above offer the option of plenty of real ale in addition to the 'craft' keg beers, which is exactly how it should be. More choice for everyone.

Brewdog used to be one of my favourite breweries but have been absolutely hemorrhaging Brownie points with me for a year or more now. I’ve never enjoyed drinking in the Camden area, and when you combine the two the only likely result was grave disappointment.

I might go back at a quieter time to try the food and I might not. It’s just such a tragedy that Brewdog have become what they’ve become, and when there are so many great pubs around, I don't see the point of going out of ones way for this.

I'll still buy their bottles from the supermarket occasionally, I'll drink their keg beer if they get it into places where real beer isn't available because it's probably the best keg beer around, and I'll cash in my shares when they sell out to a multinational, which they invariably will.

But the dog is dead, and I've already buried the corpse in the garden of good things gone bad. In Camden.

Where to find it...

Brewdog Camden
113 Bayham Street,
NW1 0AG (map)

1 comment:

  1. I once enjoyed a pint of a little known beer named 'Thickers Bunch'. It was in a pub called The Golden Steel, if I recall, and it tasted of aniseed mixed with chocolate. It was a thick, stouty brew and was as satisfying a beer as one could hope for.

    Unfortunately, the Golden Steel closed down after the Landlord died, and I've never had 'Thickers Bunch' since then. Perhaps it died?



Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.