The Oaks is a bona fide legend of the Sydney pub scene. It has been in Neutral Bay since 1885 and literally generations of Sydneysiders – particularly those north of the bridge – will have spent many a fine afternoon or evening in the courtyard beneath its enormous and eponymous oak tree.
While the pub may have been plying its trade reliably for well over a hundred years, in the second half of 2016 things started to get a whole lot more interesting for beer lovers. However, it wasn't so much in the bar where you might have expected it. Instead, change began in the attached bottleshop.
From the outside it’s about as unassuming as these things can get, sitting under the banner of the Bottlemart chain and accompanied by a poster of the latest catalogue of big brand nationwide specials. But step inside and the shelves start to tell a very different story.
The selection starts with a Sydney focus and works outwards from there. Expect to see a selection from Northern Beaches brewers like Modus Operandi, 4 Pines and Nomad, while southerners from the inner city like Young Henrys and Akasha get good representation too.
Cans are not prioritised deliberately but there are a lot of them. Of the local canners you’ll find the likes of Pirate Life, Fox Hat, Balter, Mornington Peninsula and Moo Brew while there’s an international selection stretching from the USA’s Heretic to Scotland’s BrewDog to New Zealand’s Garage Project. Add in a few classic bottles from the likes of Weihenstephaner, Fuller's and Chimay – plus the garish pink bottles of Rogue – and you've got quite the eclectic selection.
That said, The Oaks is not – and does not pretend to be – an exclusive domain for beer geeks. Sure you can pick up a bottle of barrel-aged fruit sour or a tinnie of gose, but don’t expect them to stock everything under the sun. Instead it is a compact selection that seems to have been formed partly from following current beer trends and partly because the they just want to give things a go. For a venue that’s relatively new to the wide spectrum of craft beer, there’s a degree of the staff taking the journey with their customers rather than preaching or seeking to lead the way.
But they are partly paving the way for bottleshops in another regard. Should you buy a beer from the fridges you have the option of paying a small corkage (or perhaps that should be cannage) fee, taking up a seat, cracking it open and enjoying it in the confines of the store; when the clock strikes 10pm and the NSW takeaway lockout laws kick in, this dine-in bottleshop concept that’s been borrowed from other cities properly comes into its own – particularly on weekends when it's open even later.
As the space continues to evolve – it will soon include offering a small selection of snacks like toasted sandwiches – the idea is for the bottleshop to become more of a hidden speakeasy quite separate to the public bars on the other side of the walls. That you can also consume bottleshop purchases next door in the pub greatly enhances your options beyond what’s on tap across the rest of the venue too.
Having a quality bottleshop mean there’s now much more to The Oaks as a whole than meets the eye. Not only is it bringing different beer to a new and large audience, it may well be emblematic of the changing face of the venue itself; before they chose to pursue craft beer in a more serious way, the alternative proposal for the space was converting it into a TAB. Call it a leap of faith or a sign of the times, it's all good news for local beer lovers.