Saturday, 29 November 2014

How the West Was Won

Thursday 30th October 2014 is unseasonably warm.  West London’s Shepherds Bush Common is bathed in sunshine and filled with children playing football in the early evening, defying the overdue changing of the seasons. Aside from a handful of scalpers touting for business outside the Empire ahead of the evening’s concert, it’s a largely tranquil scene – or as tranquil as the main transport artery of London’s west ever gets. However, on the south-west corner of the common, condensation is building on a plate-glass window. The tables outside are all full and inside, it is heaving. Every chair at every table is filled, while every route from door to bar is occupied with drinkers. The bar is three-deep but moving quickly – yet despite the bar being rammed full, I can see one of the staff patiently offering the booth next to me table service, explaining why their two samples of IPA are slightly different, and if it’s not to their taste, perhaps they’d like to try…

When Brewdog opened its Shepherds Bush bar in November 2013, it was a considerable risk. The venue itself was an unorthodox choice, huge by comparison with the Scottish brewery’s other bars, and a long way from the crucible for London’s beer boom in the East. Their other forays into London had been in small units (Camden), a takeover of an existing beer bar (Shoreditch) and in trendy areas noted for their nightlife (both of the above). Ahead of its launch, it seemed like an ambition too far, even for a company known for its audacity. On launch night, one guest privately told me that they would be surprised if it were operating in the same guise in 12 months’ time. They need not have worried. This weekend, as the bar celebrates its first birthday, it is not only still pouring beer, but is on course to turn over well in excess of a million pounds in its first year of trading.

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The steady decline of the pubs of Shepherds Bush was as constant as it was depressing. The construction of the giant Westfield shopping complex nearby had revitalised a sagging and unfashionable area of the city, but this was not being felt in the on trade. Outsiders flocked to W12 for retail therapy and Wahaca, but nearby pubs like the Goldhawk and Duke of Edinburgh were failing and closing (in both cases, earmarked for apartments). The nearby Stinging Nettle became a Costa Coffee. Shepherds Bush was somewhere that required a good reason to visit – a gig at the Empire, a film at the Westfield – rather than a casual leisure destination. Pubs and bars were for other areas.

In the context, it is easy to understand why The Melrose was failing. A boxy, uncomfortable corner site, lined with glass, it seemed an unusual place to hold open-mic sessions around an upright piano. For years, it had been the Vesbar, all frosted glass, tube lighting and extensive cocktail lists. However, as business dwindled, by 2012 it was refurbished as the Vandella, a somewhat confused ‘entertainment destination’ that introduced a stage and suggested ‘you might get comedy, you might get drama, you might get music’. By the summer of 2013, Fullers had run out of ideas and sought to dispose of it.

The unloved 'entertainment destination' The Vandella (picture c/o Ewan at London Pubology)


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Dean Pugh was woken by his mobile phone. A veteran of cult Leeds alehouse Mr Foley’s, he joined Brewdog to become General Manager of their new Manchester bar, where he had been working until closing the night before. On the other end of the phone was James Watt, Brewdog’s self-styled captain, with a proposition – the chance to run the biggest Brewdog bar yet. “At the time I was starting to think about what else I could do in the beer world outside of bar management”, Dean explains, “but the opportunity to run one of our biggest sites, with 40 taps and in London was too good to turn down.”

At the time, the Manchester bar, set in a double-height unit in the redeveloped Deansgate, was the biggest that Brewdog operated, but nowhere near as big as the Shepherds Bush site. “It was huge!” Dean says of his first visit, but he could shared the vision for the bar. “It seemed like a really great site with… massive potential if we got off to a good start.” Although almost suburban compared to the Manchester bar’s central location, he was pretty positive about the bar’s prospects. Although he freely admits that Shepherds Bush was “a bit lacking in good beer bars”, that was part of the attraction. “I think that was more appealing to BrewDog, to help kick start a change in the area.”

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By autumn of 2013, the fit-out of the bar had begun in earnest. The design of the bar saw a tweaking of the core Brewdog bar aesthetic – stripped back and industrial, with bare brick and exposed lighting, but the confrontational branding, with slogans and logos frosted onto the windows, was dispensed with. To start with, a lower-case ‘brewdog’ sign above the door was the only branding on show. Diner-style booths were installed alongside the reclaimed tables and stools. Pinball machines and vintage arcade machines were brought in, with a nod to New York’s Barcades.

Most striking of all, a cinema-style backlit beer menu was put in behind the bar, stretching the entire length of the wall – no logos or pump clips, just the names of the beers. And there were a lot of them. The promised ’40 taps of awesome’, in typically understated Brewdog parlance, were delivered. “It was quite a big step”, Dean explains. “I think before that maybe 24 or 26 was the biggest range we had in one site”.

With construction underway, attention was turned to putting together the rest of the team. Jen Macfarlane, the Cornish assistant manager of the Camden bar, was coaxed into moving west to assist with the opening. She remembers feeling enthusiastic about the opportunity. “It was really different and super exciting – it felt like the start of something new.” Walls were stripped back, tables were assembled into pillars, toilets were installed. Barbecue chefs were sought to realise the Texas Joes’ food menu. Most importantly of all, an advert went out on the Brewdog website for bar staff.

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Lyndsey Browe does not instantly come across as a punk, a libertine or especially uncompromising. However, when she moved across the Irish Sea in the middle of last year, she quickly became aware of Brewdog. “When I moved to London last year I really became aware of the craft beer scene here and just how many places were making and serving awesome beer”, she explains. “I'd had a few Brewdog beers before back in Ireland and when I saw they had their own bars I was keen to apply. As luck would have it, the newest bar at Shepherd's Bush was opening soon and I got to be part of the opening team.”

She may be softly spoken, but Lyndsey is typical of the servers that staff Brewdog’s bars. Although new to the beer scene in general – her experience was limited to “some local brewery open days”, she was enthusiastic about learning more and beer and brewing in general. Finding the right staff was absolutely crucial, Dean believes. “Myself and Martin must have done close to a hundred interviews to get a team of ten guys together and that paid off for us big time.”

Opening night pouring (Lyndsey not pictured) (pic c/o Brewdog)

With so much variety on the bar at any time, Lyndsey and the rest of the team were put through an intensive course in zythophilia. “Initially, we had a day long crash course in beer to get us all up to speed - learning the basics of the brewing process and styles and testing out the Brewdog beers we would be encountering in the first few weeks.” By the time the bar was ready to receive its first customers, each member of the serving staff was able to identify and describe different styles of beer, and to make recommendations from the tap list. Even the staff themselves were surprised by the level of training, as Browe remembers. “I remember just before we opened, us all sitting on kegs in the cellar doing some blind tasting and realising we had actually learned a load in the short time we'd been at it.”

The occasional hiccup aside – blank faces when asking for a new beer that has only just been tapped, or asking for a description of something especially avant garde (Wild Beer’s rainbow collaboration with Toccalmatto, Indigo Child, was memorably difficult for the servers to describe) – the training system seems to be working. “It's been an on-going thing. We have weekly meetings to cover styles, beer history and, of course, lots of tasting and that’s never really stopped.”

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The low-key Brewdog Shepherds Bush (picture c/o Brewdog)


The shutter went up for the first time on Wednesday 27th November, and Brewdog Shepherds Bush was open, in a fashion. The official opening was planned for the 29th, with an invite-only launch night on the 28th, but in line with usual bar policy, the doors were opened early for a soft, trial run. There is an air of controlled chaos – there are not enough letters for the beer board, so Dean is laying out A4 beer menus on each table. Jen is rushing around checking every detail. The company’s social media expert Sarah is sat in a booth tapping away on a laptop, finishing off the details for the launch nights. Behind the bar, the team serve their first beers.

The bar has a slightly unfinished feel to it, which is perhaps the intention. It feels enormous – when empty, it feels every square centimetre of its near 240 square metres. It also doesn’t feel very Brewdog – Martin, the manager of the bars division, is still applying the Brewdog shield decals to the keg fonts, but apart from that, there are no logos on the premises aside from on the glasses and bottles. It is, in truth, slightly chilly and unwelcoming. The staff behind the bar are nervous to start with. I ask for a BA Dark Arts, the red-wine-barrel aged version of Magic Rock’s ‘surreal stout’. The server pauses, hesitates, checks with me again, then pours.

I ask about the beer, expecting to hear something vague about it being ‘a dark beer, like Guinness’. Instead, I hear about the original beer, the brewery, the type of barrels, Brettanomyces. I am both pleasantly surprised and slightly confused. The beer, by the way, was fantastic.

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The investment in staff goes some way to explaining why, for a London bar, the staff turnover at Shepherds Bush has been minimal – only three members of staff have left the business in the past year. Some have moved on to senior positions in other bars, including Macfarlane, who returned to Camden as General Manager. Dean points to the training – and Brewdog’s recent decision to offer the Living Wage to all employees – as the key to it. “They really do look after us well. 
It all helps us keep our team together and benefits the company overall in the long run.”

The impressive knowledge on show behind the bar goes some way to explaining the bar’s success. From the one-off customer’s point of view, a knowledgeable server who can describe every product on a packed bar inspires the confidence to try something new or to explore beyond what they would regard as their comfort zone. Lyndsey agrees. “More often than not people are willing to at least try something new, since we don't offer any commercial beers that might be their 'go to’. Give a quick rundown of Brewdog and offer some tasters and most people are intrigued enough to want to try something new.”
For the repeat visitor – and I regarded myself as one while I lived in the area – that confidence builds into a trust relationship that can define the best servers, where recommendations can be made based on experience of what people have enjoyed before. It is something that I have seen in action in beer bars in the US, where newly tapped beers are proferred to regulars with excitement, and I like it.

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In their book Brew Britannia, Boak and Bailey refer to the notion of the specialist beer as a permanent ‘beer festival’, and nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than a typical beer board at BDSB. What is most striking about the tap list on any given day is how well the balance is struck between different styles, Brewdog beers and interesting guests, old favourites and the unfamiliar. Dean clearly relishes being the curator of his own festival every day. “If there are some new and interesting things coming out, I'm free to go out and buy it for the bar.” As a result, the boards often feature interesting one-offs (Brodies’ Port-like 22% barley wine Elizabethan, for example) or the debut of fledgling breweries just starting out - I can recall trying a beer from Gloucester Brewery in Shepherd’s Bush long before I’d seen it on sale out in Gloucestershire itself. "I've always tried to have the UK beers I've sourced reflect that [variety]. We'll always have things like Gamma Ray or Cannonball show up every month or two because they are fantastic beers, but we also want to bring in new beers from breweries we've heard good things about, or special releases from brewers we already know make great beers."

However, managing such a huge range of taps brings with it its own challenges. Kegs of barley wine don’t tend to kick as regularly as, say, Punk IPA. “I've got a plan for the cellar that is our ideal line up, which should ensure that we have a varied range to cover all tastes”, Pugh explains. 31 of the taps are divided up into styles – nine for IPA, six for stouts, three for sour beers, and so on, with at least one of each of those dedicated to a Brewdog beer. The remaining nine taps are then free for the staff to balance the list up at their own discretion, either to offer a limited edition from Brewdog or something interesting from outside.

Dean's 'ideal' tap plan for the Shepherds Bush bar

With such a wide range available, concepts that seemed like gimmicks in other Brewdog bars come into their own. For example, the idea of buying a ‘flight’ – four one-third glasses of draught beer – from the dozen or so taps in the Camden bar meant that they were aimed more at the beer novice who had yet to try any of Brewdog’s core beers, and could tick off Punk, 5am and Libertine all in one go. In Shepherds Bush, however, one can now pit two or three top examples of the same style against each other at the same time – the aforementioned Cannonball and Gamma Ray can be contrasted with, say, Jackhammer and Punk IPA. For hardened craft geeks, this is utopia.

The lack of cask is, of course, taken as given in a Brewdog bar. It seems clear that the company’s keg-only policy is unlikely to change in the near future, based on James Watt’s consistency on the subject. At least with 40 keg taps pouring away and so much variety of style across the bar, the absence of cask-conditioned beer is less keenly felt than it might otherwise have been.

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Her face caked in greasepaint, the mime makes her way from table to table. We watch as she approaches a group that have just arrived. Saying nothing, she mimes taking a slug of beer from a pint glass, and points at the board. Once their initial confusion subsides, between them and their silent server, they decide on four pints of Punk IPA. The mime disappears and returns with their drinks, wordlessly charges their debit card, and moves on.

It is the 31st of May, and Magic Rock have been invited to take over the Shepherds Bush taps. Dean was here into the early hours of the morning decking the bar out with bunting and balloons to look like a big top, and it looks like a particularly spoiled child’s vision of a circus party. On the bar, no fewer than 25 beers from the Yorkshire brewery are being served, and brewer Stuart Ross is on hand to introduce them. There is the sought-after edition of their Bearded Lady imperial stout that has spent time in Pedro Ximenez barrels, luscious and thick with molasses flavour. Core favourites High Wire and Cannonball are on fine form. However, what catches the eye are the staff – like the aforementioned mime, they have all taken the circus theme and run with it.

Behind the bar, Jen marches up and down in a head-to-toe lion costume. Dean patrols the floor dressed, inevitably, as the ringmaster. A strongman in leopard-print toga prepares a beer cocktail; a pint of Rapture is being poured by a bearded ‘lady’ in an evening gown. The uninitiated, the tourists and the casual drinkers approach the bar with a mixture of bafflement and amusement; they leave clutching glasses of Magic Rock’s brews.

The Brewdog Circus (picture c/o @lambicqueen)


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On that unseasonably warm Thursday evening in October, it seems hard to believe that anyone could have doubted the success of the bar when it was first opened. Whereas on that opening night, it had seemed cavernous, an echo chamber in waiting, it had in fact simply been an empty stage waiting for the thirsty cast to arrive. During the summer months, when the World Cup enticed drinkers to more sports-oriented bars (Brewdog does not screen sport, or anything else, in its bars), there were some nervous, empty weekdays, but as the nights draw in, business is booming again in the West. Jen is clear on why the bar has been so successful: “It’s the team. They're such a great bunch, and Dean is awesome at bringing out the best in them.” Word of mouth has played a part too – I can recall several occasions where a returning customer has brought a friend and wants to recommend the beer that they were themselves recommended by someone on their last visit. Lyndsey agrees: “I think word spread pretty quickly that we're a good place to visit… lots of people tell me they were in the area for a gig or a play nearby and we were recommended by friends.
  
Dean is confident about building on the success of the first year. “At the moment we are really pushing the overall customer experience and looking at how it can be improved, particularly with table service.” One of his high points of the year was during the city’s beer week, London Beer City, in August, when he and James Watt held a sold-out tasting session, running through a selection of British beers, including many from guest breweries, not just Brewdog. “I really enjoyed getting him out of his comfort zone slightly and doing a beer tasting a different way.”

That outlook seems to sum up the BDSB approach – doing things in a slightly different way. Brewdog will, in many people’s eyes, always be the confrontational, explicit beer company, easily characterised as self-interested, inward-looking, protectionist… The bar in Shepherds Bush has gone a long way towards putting those characterisations to bed – a gentler kind of Brewdog. It is one that West London has lapped up. As Dean puts it, “Our aim is to… ensure that everyone that walks through the door has a positive experience, and hopefully learns something new about beer.”

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It is Monday evening, and it is a quiet autumn night at Brewdog Shepherds Bush. There is no gig tonight at the Empire, and no football at nearby Loftus Road. There are a few groups of friends and drinkers in tonight, but it’s largely peaceful. Around one table, though, there are dozens of glasses and bottles waiting to be opened. Lyndsey is sat amongst them, out of uniform for the evening. She and the rest of the table are not working tonight, but in a way, they are. At the head of the table, the first bottle, from Bermondsey’s Brew by Numbers, is opened. “So,” he says, “tonight we are tasting saisons…” as a ripple of enthusiasm reverberates around the table.

3 comments:

cremabrewery said...

I have admiration for your detached tone here. It would have been so easy to be giddy about it. Especially the mime doing table service. <3

You could have mentioned that guy who brewed some beers in tribute for the staff too.

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