To say Bitter Phew has the best range of beer of any bar in Sydney would be too subjective. To say it pours Sydney’s most interesting range of beers probably isn’t. This little bar, tucked away above the Darlinghurst stretch of bustling Oxford Street, is home to a wild orgy of a beer list over a hundred strong which spans every size, colour and country.
And it all seems so innocuous from the street. Some modest signage calls out only to the observant passerby: "Bitter Phew. Craft Beer. 12 Taps. Outdoor Terrace." It’s truthful, but undersold. For a real beer lover, stepping into Bitter Phew is akin to a bee happening upon the prettiest flower with the sweetest nectar.
A big part of that is due to the fact that it opened as a specialty beer venue as opposed to gradually changing its image and customer base, often the case with pubs and bars that have moved into craft beer. Here, from day one, there was no mistaking what you were going to get. The menu puts it almost as mission statement and fact: "Bitter Phew. Better Beer."
As with so many beer businesses, it is what it is because of the passion of its owners and staff. Aaron Edwards and Jay Pollard, with a couple of friends chipping in to get the ball rolling, took over the spot at the beginning of 2014, gave it a minimalist makeover, installed a dozen taps and set about filling them with the very best beer they could get their hands on.
Aaron now spends a disproportionate amount of his time sourcing Australian beers, including those that most others venues either can’t get, won’t get or didn’t know they could get. On occasions you’ll look at the tap list and think: “How?” As for Jay, he happens to now live in Copenhagen and run a couple of beer bars there, inadvertently making him Bitter Phew’s international beer spy. He gets the opportunity to try most of the European beers before they arrive in Australia then relays a message home advising which beers to pursue and which to avoid. The long and short of it is that Bitter Phew ends up only stocking the best imports.
The ensuing tap list is always driven by quality, loosely by seasons, and any visit here would be a good one were you to only drink from the draught selection. But the bottled beer list must be their pride and joy, its many pages forming an immaculately curated selection from perfect pale ales to barrel-aged wonders and big barley wines.
If you’re at all daunted by the choice, an excellent introduction comes by way of the Bottle Share. This is Bitter Phew’s equivalent of a tasting paddle, the idea being you get 4-6 people together and the staff will select five beers of varying styles to share. The choices change frequently depending on the beers they’re able to source, but you can always be certain of the quality. For those chasing something a bit more special, consider the Rare Phew. This is a premium bottle share, held roughly once a month, that features hard to get – or more accurately, very, very hard to get – beers from around the world. There may only be a couple of bottles available so this is an experience aimed at hardcore beer lovers who want to taste some of the world’s most sought-after beer, without being stuck paying the full price tag.
While that all might add up to an impression that Bitter Phew caters only for the pointy end of beer geekery, it’s really not the case. Not only are the team undeniably passionate and happy to indulge in deep conversation about beer, but they’re also more than willing to offer a sip of something special and a gentle nudge in the right direction – without attempting to lecture you into submission. What’s more is that in 2019, the team decided to offer something special entirely for non-beer drinkers.
Upon acquiring the space downstairs that once housed a Vietnamese restaurant, the team set about the same kind of minimalist makeover that worked so well for the upstairs bar, naming the venue, simply, Phew. They installed some beer taps, of course, but decided to supplement the offerings from upstairs by way of a vast selection of Australian and international wines, as well as a gourmet food menu inspired by gastronomic cuisine.
Perhaps the best part of the makeover, however, is the presence of a barn-style wooden roller door that’s open when both venues are. That makes it possible to bring a glass of wine or a cocktail upstairs to Bitter Phew, or perhaps a glass of beer down to Phew, depending on whether the drinkers prefer a view from above Oxford Street, or from street level. Either way, the movement between venues is extremely fluid, assuming one still has the stamina to climb or descend the stairs.
Together, the two bars form a perfect pair. Or, more accurately, together they make the ultimate venue, one which caters for all interests and tastes, and isn’t afraid to be extraordinary in its simplicity.