If you pay even the slightest bit of attention to what's going on in the craft beer industry in Australia, you'll have noted a rising tide in Tasmania. After years in which the number of breweries in the state remained steady, from around 2015 onwards that steadiness was replaced by a stampede as, almost overnight, so many new arrivals appeared that there are now more than 20 calling the state home.
Similarly, Hobart has enjoyed quite the buzz around its beer scene, with a handful of good bars and pubs supporting those new brewers. But what of the north of the state?
It's been pretty slim pickings when it comes to venues. The remote Weldborough Hotel has been banging the all Tasmanian beer and cider drum since 2010, while Crown Cellars was the bottleshop you'd head to when in need in Launceston. Then, in 2014, Saint John Craft Beer opened in the same city, giving it not just a good beer venue but one of the best in the country.
The team behind the venue, and its annual Fresh Hop Beer Festival, is now bringing the same ethos to Devonport, a city that, prior to Empress Craft Beer opening, was home to no more than a couple of craft beer taps. Upon opening its doors in March 2017, Empress had added a dozen more, albeit with a couple dedicated to cider and one switching between nitro beers and cocktails.
While it doesn't have the more lived in, exploratory feel of its older, multi-roomed sibling, the same thoughtful approach has been taken to the drinks list and, with its blend of outdoor decking seating, tall tables and comfortable couches, it's more welcoming than a space redeveloped from a former mechanics has any right to be, one that, if its first few weeks after opening are any guide, will succeed in bringing a broad cross-section of punters through its doors.
Having been invited to look at the space by neighbours Hill Street Grocers, who provide the deli cheese, meats, breads and nibbles that comprise the Empress food offering (you can BYO food too), the team was confident Devonport was ready for such a venue. In part, this was because two of them grew up there and were aware of an existing audience throughout North West Tasmania – many of whom would head to Saint John for their crafty fix.
Now they can get their fill closer to home, one that, on the beer front comes in the shape of a lineup of beers that rotates but will always tick boxes from mid-strength and session beer through IPA, amber, dark beer and often something a little funky too. On top of this, there's a wall of well stocked fridges mixing local brews with those from the mainland and overseas with a solid list of ciders. They're all available to drink in (with a corkage fee) or take home, with staff putting together themed mixed sixes too.
The wine list is small and focused on lesser seen local and international labels, while there's broad support for local distillers, with the gins and whisky lineup again augmented with rarer imported spirits.
There's a movement in Devonport, supported by the local council, to boost tourism and to do so in part by highlighting and expanding upon the best produce from the region. Empress, itself named after one of the passenger ships that used to run the Melbourne to Devonport route, should slot nicely into this movement – indeed, it takes part in Meet the Maker events on the site also shared with a 9/11 chain bottleshop and you can look out for events such as Meet the Brewers there too.
If it can have a similar impact to Saint John, it should become a key player in helping spread the word about craft beer to a new audience. Although, given how much many of the early customers to the venue already knew about beer – taking staff by surprise – perhaps they're just providing locals with what they already wanted.