I Tried a Credit Card-Sized Crypto Wallet at London's Premier Bitcoin Pub
Nestled in the heart of London’s financial establishments, the cryptocurrency revolution is trying to get you tipsy. Last month, Scottish brewer BrewDog announced that its new Canary Wharf pub in would be the first of its 61 locations to take Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash as payment. Inverse visited the pub to try it out for ourselves, armed with a credit-card sized crypto wallet called the CoolWallet S, to see if the crypto revolution is ready to buy you a beer.
This bar in ultra-modern Canary Wharf could chart a way forward as the crypto world finds its place within (or supplants) the traditional economy. While the glowing headlines whizzing around the Reuters building can make the Wharf feel like a sci-fi futurescape, at its heart Canary Wharf is still a host for the established megabanks. Advocates of Bitcoin, on the other hand, hail it as a means of breaking down these systems of power in a radically decentralized structure.
While paying for a pint might seem like a publicity stunt, it’s still the sort of adoption bitcoin desperately needs. The pub’s opening comes amid cooling enthusiasm following the heady days of December 2017 when one bitcoin was worth nearly $20,000 (or about 4,000 pints):
Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong estimates that just 10 percent of cryptocurrencies are used in actual purchases. Bitcoin experts said in interviews with Inverse that third-party initiatives will be key for its future.
Canary Wharf is the first BrewDog to take cryptocurrency, and one of the first to go fully cashless, since the brewery started opening pubs in 2010. The bar celebrated by giving the first 100 visitors a Bitcoin Cash wallet with anywhere between £12 ($16) or £100 ($129). Despite the freebies, some visitors interviewed by Inverse remained unimpressed.
“In reality, it is a bit clunky, it’s slow, I really hate the exchange rates…it seems like it’s got a bumper to account for fluctuations,” Nicholas Afordakos, who works for Barclays Bank located nearby, told me during his second visit. “All in all, it’s not bad, but frankly, using a credit card is much easier.”
That didn’t bode well, though I hoped the hardware in my own pocket might be able to make for a smoother experience. For this experiment, I came armed with the CoolWallet S, a $99 cryptocurrency wallet. Bitcoin aficionados swear by such gadgets as they store the keys on the device, instead of trusting a big corporation that could get hacked. Unlike the USB stick-shaped Ledger Nano S or Trezor, the sleek CoolWallet S is shaped like a regular bank card. Taiwan-based developer CoolBitX provided me with a test unit:
It has a tiny 15 mAh battery that charges via two contacts, slotting into a USB card reader. It uses a single button and an e-ink screen, plus Bluetooth for connecting to a smartphone that completes payments — just scan the recipient’s QR code with the phone camera. I used Bitcoin, but it also supports Litecoin, Ethereum, Ripple, Bitcoin Cash, and ERC20 tokens. Sadly, it didn’t quite go to plan.
“Warning!! Part of your QR code string is unrecognizable,” the app warned me. “Please validate your transaction details before sending.”
After pressing “OK,” I was returned to the same screen with no recipient details. I tried again, same response. A third time, same response. It was a busy Wednesday night after work, so a group of customers were waiting patiently for me to finish messing around with the machine. Rather than feeling excitement about the future of finance, I just felt embarrassment.
Eventually this got the better of me, and I switched to my Monzo contactless debit card. As soon as it touched the scanner, my phone buzzed to tell me the money had left my account.
After speaking with BrewDog and CoolBitX after the trip, I realized that the problem stemmed from the fact that BrewDog uses the BIP70 protocol, introduced in 2013 to boost security for merchant payments. Both companies had explanations for the hiccup: Brewdog told me they were working with its partner BitPay to “look for a resolution” and CoolBitX said it would look into adding the bar’s payments protocol, which it says is not yet “massively adopted.”
As I sat there with my stout toward the back of the pub, I watched the FTSE stock market tracker glow with a degree of disappointment. Bitcoin may have the potential to transform global finance, but having failed this very simple hurdle, inside this tiny pub nestled in the shadows of the HSBC tower, it felt like the banks had already won.
The author of this story has a stake in bitcoin and Ethereum.