When you’re located in a part of Melbourne that’s rich when it comes to excellent cafés but relatively sparse on the craft beer front, it suggests two things. Firstly: it’s an area where people like to enjoy a quality drink as they catch up with friends. Secondly: if they like catching up over a cuppa during the day, chances are they enjoy doing something similar at night too
It would seem, then, that a craft beer bar should work well in such an area, and West Melbourne’s Benchwarmer is a beer hall and bottleshop that’s out to prove that is indeed the case.
As a local in the spot where West Melbourne meets North Melbourne, Lachlan Jones often found himself travelling to other parts of the city to enjoy craft beer and felt his part of city – on the edge of the CBD but very much its own community – needed a craft beer-focused bar of its own.
Lachlan’s own passion for craft beer can be traced back to well before Benchwarmer opened. He’d worked in hospitality for some time, but it was a love of travel which really opened his eyes to the world of better and different beer. While travelling, he found that drinking at breweries, beer halls or craft beer bars was often the best way to meet locals and gain a real insight into wherever he’d landed.
As a result, Lachlan set his sights on creating a craft beer bar that was both a relaxed hangout and a cosmopolitan bar, the result of which is Benchwarmer – born at the start of 2020 in Victoria Street, a short stroll from the Queen Vic Market.
They say first impressions count and, when it comes to Benchwarmer, even approaching the bar makes it clear this is a neighbourhood hangout you’ll want to return to again and again. The warm, red glow emanating from within certainly helps on that front, but so too do the shared tables on Victoria Street itself. Head through the front door and you’re greeted by more shared tables, plus a cosy courtyard that encourages the kind of drinking and talking that appealed to Lachlan when exploring other countries.
Although it’s a relaxed, inviting spot, it’s also one where you easily wile away your time absorbing the finer details. There’s the curved doorway, the Olympic torch in the logo, the religious imagery juxtaposed with scientific posters which make it clear you’re in a venue. On the flipside, the portraits from The Wire, plants in tins, and board games can make it feel more like dropping in at a mate’s place – if that mate had excellent taste in TV shows and beer.
Of course, it’s the beer – or BRRR as the signs inside say – that brings everything together. Pouring across nine rotating taps and filling fridges that can be enjoyed there or taken home, at any one time about half of those taps are international, with the Benchwarmer team keen to showcase breweries who have little, if any, presence in Australia. That’s not to say they don’t support local, however, with beer from closer to home making up the rest of the taps, with particular fondness for those brewing nearest to the bar, such as Hop Nation and Bonehead.
The Japanese food menu also ensures Benchwarmer remains quite distinct from many other places in Melbourne in which you can enjoy craft beer, while complementing the bar’s international approach. It comes in two parts, offering both Izakaya (small plates, designed for sharing) and Yakitori (grilled skewers you’re unlikely to want to share). The concept is that the food is designed to be enjoyed in one hand, leaving the other free for beer.
Having opened in 2020, just as COVID put almost everything in Australia into shutdown, Benchwarmer’s first 12 months saw the team operating in various stages of closure – but it did bring one silver lining. Through the team’s ability to provide much-needed beers for people stuck at home – both packaged and in growlers – the local community was quick to welcome a bar they couldn’t even walk inside.
And now they can enjoy BRRR and warm hospo as the Benchwarmer team always intended (snap lockdowns notwithstanding), we’d say that’s mission accomplished.
Photos by Chris Bunjamin.