Beer Travel: Raising The Bar In Sydney
Nick O / 27.07.12
A wonderful thing about history is the way it allows us to look back and pinpoint exactly when things changed. One moment things are following a particular path, then something happens to set things in another direction. It is applicable to so many situations, from the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to Arthur Fonzarelli jumping a shark. But whether it be a cataclysmic event or simply a poorly scripted piece of television, when you are in the moment it is rarely clear what the final outcome will be. Only with the benefit of hindsight are we able to consider passing judgement.
With that in mind, back in 2008 when the NSW Liquor Licensing laws were subjected to some fairly major changes, there was only an idea. It must have been an idea forged by the realisation that there were flaws with the then current system, for these things seldom change unless provoked. The very general idea was to drastically reduce fees for opening a small bar and reduce dependence on having to order food with alcohol, thereby helping to foster a more ‘sophisticated’ drinking culture, one far removed from the tap-tied, cheap booze, binge-drinking, brawling culture endemic to certain parts of Sydney.
Loosening the regulations would, it was hoped, help to revitalise, regenerate and transform disused and derelict parts of the city. Essentially, the way was paved for parts of Sydney to become more Melbournesque.
Several years down the track, and despite some recent statements to the contrary, the law change that encouraged the proliferation of small bars in Sydney should be considered an unmitigated success. Sydneysiders have largely been full of praise for the diversity the increasing number of small bars have brought to the drinking culture and, collectively, these small venues are now generating some big talk.
That it is turning out to be great news for craft beer – which has found a loving home amidst an extended family of fine wines, elaborate cocktails and stylish decor – is an absolute bonus. Although, having spoken to some of the people behind a few of the city’s newer small and craft-friendly bars, it seems that craft beer itself has become a very large part of the success.
Spooning Goats (officially ‘SG’ on the paperwork due to a council objection to the term ‘Spooning Goats’) on York St could perhaps best be described as a retro cocktail lounge. However, owner Jason Newton has been blown away by the insatiable thirst of craft beer drinkers in the four weeks since opening.
With a personal enthusiasm for beer but unsure exactly how his inner-city clientele would take to it, he’d planned to stock a very small number of bottled brews, all made in NSW. The bar opened with a range of six craft beers but demand rose so quickly that it increased to 10 within a couple of weeks.
He says, “I always wanted to offer something a little bit different and I love trying to educate people. For example, a group of guys came in, tried some beers they’d never had before and liked them so much they ended up finishing the best part of a case between them.”
Considering Spooning Goats has only been open a month, has capacity for less than 60 people and wasn’t planned as a beer bar, the fact that Jason is pondering how taps and kegs might fit into the space gives some idea of the interest the venue has been getting from the beer community. And it’s a group he’s happy to be a part of.
“When I was looking to get some new beer in, it was through the beer community on Twitter that I came across Riverside Brewing. I just contacted (brewer) Dave Padden and we ended up becoming the first place in the CBD to stock his beer. So we’re now getting more and more beer people following us which is great.”
A stone’s throw away on York Street you’ll find Mojo Records (pictured above). It is, as the name suggests, a record store that leans heavily in favour of vinyl. But walk past the stacks of wax and you’ll end up in a dimly-lit and dangerously cosy bar that happens to serve cocktails, wine and a carefully thought out selection of Australian-only craft beer.
Co-owner Neville Sergent says the main reason for stocking craft is simple, “it just tastes fantastic”. Mojo gives you the chance to explore those great tastes through bottled beer, freshly-delivered Growlers for sharing between a table or via a shiny new handpump.
On the face of it, it’s the type of bar that appears better suited to the ever-trendy suburbs on the fringe of the CBD, rather than smack in the middle of it where weeknights hum but weekends fall quiet without the foot traffic of thousands of city office workers. Yet, Neville hints that Mojo may just be starting to buck that trend.
“During the week the door is constantly opening and closing as people are coming in for a few drinks and leaving. But now on Saturdays we’re starting to see people come in and not leaving for a long time. People are starting to travel here specifically as a destination.”
He attributes part of the appeal towards a general attitude of people choosing to support local industry rather than overseas corporations. “Things like having some of the brewers personally delivering beer and stopping by for a drink and a chat. That’s all part of it. Supporting them helps keep the money going around the community.
“Times are changing and people want something different, just like what downloading did for the music business. In some suburbs you see four or five small bars thriving while the old pub that’s being propped up by money from the pokies is empty.”
One of those suburban small bars that seems to be thriving is The Little Guy in Glebe. Like Spooning Goats and Mojo Records, there is a focus on supporting local industry. Co-owner Anna Scott goes so far as to say “we’re all about the little guy – hence the name. We know how difficult it is to set up a small business so we’re happy to support other small businesses.”
In beer terms, that means the permanent and rotating guest taps only pour craft and you’re more than likely to find local brews from Rocks Brewing and Young Henry’s from neighbouring Newtown. The draught is supplemented by a solid selection of predominantly Australian bottled beer.
Anna says she’s been surprised with the way customers have responded in the seven months since opening. “We’re actually amazed at how quickly people have turned towards beer. We’ve even got regulars who have a copy of the beer list stowed away behind the bar which they tick off until they’ve tried everything!
“It’s been busier than we thought it would – we didn’t realise Glebe people were so thirsty! And we do get a lot of locals because Glebe is very much a community.”
It should be remembered that these types of venues are not squarely aimed at craft drinkers – you could happily take a wine lover, a cocktail connoisseur and a beer geek into any of these places and all would leave happy. But, in particular, they seem to embody what craft beer is about for so many; passion, quality, a local focus and a desire to invite everyone to be a part of that community. By most standards that would represent a pretty sophisticated drinking culture.
With so many signs of success and an appeal that stretches across many divides, there should be no doubt that small bars are making a big contribution to Sydney nightlife, as well as to the cause of craft beer.
If only more bars were like small bars.