Beer Festivals: Willoughby Craft Beer Fair
Nick O / 14.09.12
For a long while, craft beer has been considered a sleeping giant in Sydney. But perhaps, finally, the giant has awoken from its slumber. There are increasing signs that it is rising and stretching its limbs across all parts of the city, crushing stereotypes and gradually loosening the ice-cold grip that pale lager has held for so long.
And if that giant is indeed stirring, last weekend it cast its gaze towards the northern suburbs where the Willoughby Hotel turned an otherwise fairly innocuous looking suburban street into one flowing with beer for its first Craft Beer Fair. The best part of 20 breweries, from large to small, pitched marquees and served beer in the sunshine while punters ambled in the street, taking in the tastes and finding shade alongside the grand old hotel.
The day had a fairly relaxed community vibe, which is understandable as a majority of the attendees we spoke with during the day lived nearby and simply wandered along. Though, as John McGurk, manager of the Willoughby Hotel, says: “If you close a street and put up a bunch of marquees, people are definitely going to stop and have a look.”
Fill those marquees with beer and people are more than likely going to stay for a while. Having gorgeous weather never hurts a beer festival either. John agrees: “We were really happy with the sunshine.”
Weather aside, that local appeal was obviously important for a new event with no history or reputation to call upon. But if the afternoon queues for some stalls were any indication, there wasn’t too much trouble in attracting those crowds. The only problem, as is the case for any place where craft beer isn’t a common language, is convincing people to try it. In the manner of the awkward school dance where the boys stand nervously opposite the girls at the beginning of the night, some punters here had a slight touch of hesitation when approaching some of the beer names that weren’t so familiar. But, as most people tend to find out, once you’re in, you don’t turn back in a hurry.
To make it accessible for all beer drinkers, there was a wide representation of breweries, from the one-man operators through to the craft arms of the multinational companies. For every Arvo there was a Two Birds, for every James Squire there was 4 Pines, for every Matilda Bay there was the Australian Brewery. Most craft beer drinkers will appreciate that discovering beer involves a number of steps rather than a single leap and this event was intended for everyone – a day of equals and opposites. As John says, citing the impending acquisition of Little Creatures by Lion: “The bigger companies are getting better craft beer portfolios so that just helps get it out to more people. You need that mix.”
For those smaller breweries, it was a chance to get their name heard in a market that might not ordinarily be so accessible. To continue pushing things in the craft direction, John says the Willoughby has allocated a number of taps to craft beer (as well as having poured it in the months leading up to the fair) which suggests the venue’s commitment to craft is ongoing.
The response from the punters to the event was overwhelmingly full of praise, though John did mention he’d identified a few changes for next year. That he’s already giving thought towards another event next year, combined with the stated willingness of the Willoughby to support craft beer, can only be a positive sign for beer drinkers in the area.
And if this attitude continues to spread, Sydney’s sleeping giant might find itself rather busy.