Design Focus: Brewhemia
1A Market Street, Edinburgh EH1 1DE
The premises on Market Street have a rich history to say the least, having been home to The Scotsman print works and, more recently, Sportsters Bar and City Nightclub. Owners Castle Leisure Group closed the latter two last October and began the process of transitioning into Brewhemia – a shrewd move given the UK-wide decline of the nightclub and rise of the versatile late night bar, not to mention the need to adapt to the tastes of the tourists and cultural types that stream out of Waverley in their thousands every summer.
General Manager Daniel Wylie told DRAM, “The direction of large nightclubs and what people were using them for was changing. That was and still is quite evident. We started thinking about how to make best use of the space, because it is 29,000 square feet and the biggest licensed premises in the city. Event spaces like The Corn Exchange are bigger, but in terms of bars there is nothing bigger.”
To link the sections together and give Brewhemia an air of tradition a backstory has been developed telling the tale of Robert Stuart, a boy from Leith who travelled round Europe in the 19th century, taking in “the beer palaces of Prague, the Oktoberfest in Bavaria, the masquerade balls of Venice, the Moulin Rouge in Paris and then finally back home to Auld Reekie,” the idea being that the new establishment is the work of his descendants.
The first section, The Taproom, would be an impressive pub in its own right, and indeed Daniel says one of the difficulties is getting visitors to explore further and not bed themselves in! Encompassing a long curved bar, a large seating area and a mezzanine, The Taproom functions almost like a show flat, offering glimpses of what awaits further aside this cavernous space. It’s here that you’re introduced to the two standout gimmicks – the gold ‘Buzz For Bubbles’ buttons built into the tables, which allow customers to order Prosecco without moving an inch, and tank beer. Now this isn’t the only place with tank beer in Scotland – or Edinburgh for that matter – but whereas other venues have one or maybe two tanks, Brewhemia has a staggering six. The two in The Taproom are used to showcase the finest in local craft brewing – The Edinburgh Beer Factory’s Paolozzi and Stewart Brewing’s Jack Back. And just to show that sport hasn’t been completely removed from the agenda, Scotland rugby international Finn Russell had the honour of ‘tapping the tank’ at a special event. The food service runs throughout the day and features classic dishes presented in a cheeky way – lobster with Bloody Mary mayo, IPA battered haddock etc. There’s a nice variety of modern light fittings open cabinets full of wine and champagne on the wall above the bar.
The next stop on the journey is The Caffè, and as that extra F suggests, this is where the Italian influence takes hold. Located just upstairs from The Taproom, The Caffè offers artisan coffee and takeaway food made in-house – until 5pm that is, when the lights go down and it’s transferred into a gin and prosecco bar.
The Taproom and Caffè both lead into The Beer Palace, which combines the space of an aircraft hanger with the opulence of a ballroom and is the sort of room that requires a good 30 seconds’ open-mouthed gawping before you can actually sit down or order a drink. Split over two levels, it contains three bars, two private function rooms, a stage, a DJ platform and even a photo booth complete with comedy props. And there’s a reason it’s called a ‘palace’ and not a hall, as Daniel explained.
He said, “The worry was that if you say ‘beer hall’ to people it conjures up long tables, steins, singing, lots of men, rowdiness. There are businesses that do that and are successful but it wasn’t right for us. We brainstormed hard to make sure our venue didn’t slide into that section of the market. We’re calling it a beer palace because it’s bigger, more decadent and more glamorous, and it’s female-friendly.
“I’m happy to say that’s been borne out so far, the usage is couples, women, groups etc, they’re not at all fazed by the ‘beer’ in the title. It is an inclusive space. We want it to be somewhere a group of girls would want to come to on a night out. It may be a stereotype but as a sports bar it was very male-orientated and I didn’t want to recreate that.”
The inspiration is Czech, not German, and accordingly two of the four beer tanks suspended either side of the stage contain Czech brand Pilsner Urquell. On the lower level, where the printing presses once stood, and the dance floor after that, there are now long wooden benches overhung by dazzlingly bright chandeliers. Below the main bar there’s white brickwork with thin strips of wood and above there’s a gold stripe with table numbers that illuminate when the Buzz for Bubbles buttons are pressed. Up above that is the stage, where everyone from brass brands to piano players and voice choirs do their thing throughout the week. The colour palette mixes smooth blues and creams with gleaming bronzes and golds and there are leather banquettes and comfortable booths ringed round the edges of the room.
Designed in French and Scottish styles respectively, function rooms The Boudoir and The Bothy are close by to one another on the higher level, in the finest traditions of the Auld Alliance. The Boudoir, with its mirrors and lights beyond count, positively glitters, with silken seat coverings for revellers to sink into and a carpet that brings to mind interconnecting peacocks’ tails. The Bothy is more muted and homely, with high-backed chairs, a mantelpiece, a fireplace behind a glass screen and an extensive whisky selection.
Lawrie Orr provided architectural services and consultants CRGP assisted on the project management side of things.
Key players other than Daniel include new Head Chef Christopher MacDiarmid, formerly of Ghillie Dhu, and new Entertainment Manager Lauren Glass, formerly of Electric Circus. Daniel himself is a Geordie who first came to Edinburgh as a student and has since worked in pubs and clubs all over Scotland, from Dundee to Dumfries, before joining Castle and taking over Sportsters.
He added, “Every city has been different. The mechanic is the same – you’re selling food, drink and entertainment – but it’s a challenge every time to work out what they want and how they like it.”
Thankfully, now that he’s in charge of a venue that feels like a city in itself, that’s not as much of a concern anymore!