Many moons ago, while picking apples and backpacking around Tasmania – usually by hitching – a lesson was swiftly learnt: the value and newness of a vehicle was in indirect correlation to the driver's likeliness to offer a lift. It was pointless attempting to flag down any half decent vehicle; best to wait until some ramshackle banger or pickup was coming and, more often than not, its driver would pull over. Indeed, the more decrepit the vehicle, the more likely the driver was to not only go out of their way for you but also to offer you a beer.
Quite what that says about the state of kindness in society we'll leave to the experts. But it's something that has echoes in the beer world – at least when it comes to marketing and PR. Generally, the fancier and better presented the email or marketing release, the more likely the product is to be far removed from the fancier realms of the beer industry.
Get something schmick and it's probably a new venue opening after a lavish refurb in which the most exciting aspect on the beer front (in the eyes of the PR team) is the copper tanks pouring "Brewery Fresh" Carlton Draught. Receive a badly punctuated two-liner, in all likelihood thrown together between kegging and chasing invoices, and it's likely to be of interest. There are exceptions, but generally it's a pretty good guide.
Thus, a few months back, when we received a beautifully presented media release from a Creative Director about a new venue in Melbourne's west, we were immediately suspicious. Furthermore, it was for a pasta restaurant in Footscray – not a combination of words that filled us with confidence as to the quality of the beer list. We delved a little further, however, as they claimed to be offering a "fantastic selection of worldly craft beer".
And then they sent a PDF of their beer list.
"May as well have a look," we thought.
Lo and behold, opening page: Sours. Page two: More sours. Page three: Fruit sours & fruit beers.
And a fine selection too: Boatrocker, Mash and Two Metre Tall of the locals; Mikkeller, Boon, LoverBeer, Rodenbach, Tilquin and De Ranke among the internationals. There followed pages of lagers, IPAs, dark beers, Abbey and farmhouse beers – even meads.
"OK. Best go and check this out."
So we did, catching up with Josh Murnane – one of two Joshes and the key beer geek in the team behind Fox in the Corn.
It turns out the two Joshes (the other being Bayne) originally went into business together making gourmet pasta as Millgrove Pasta in Williamstown five years ago and had opened Fox in the Corn as a venue in which to showcase their wares, as well as Josh M's passion for excellent beer. What's more, it transpired the Creative Director behind the media release, Chalsie Mew, was his girlfriend.
A couple of hours later we left not only impressed by their mission but also wondering: "Is this the standard to which all other restaurants serious about beer should aspire?" In Melbourne at least, while there are beer venues that offer fine food now and some restaurants making an effort with their beer offering, since the short-lived Josie Bones closed down has there been a venue striving to go the extra mile when it comes to beer and food pairing as well as the education that goes with it?
"I've been to places claiming to be craft beer restaurants and I've noticed that a lot of them haven't really put any thought into it," says Josh. "With just ten to 15 beers you can do a lot.
"I'm amazed. Really, really amazed. There are so many good beers out there and people don't know about them. There's a price point issue but compared to wine it's still cheaper. Volume [of beer consumption] is down but spending [on craft] is up – people are after quality."
What's more, he says: "I just want to talk to people about beer."
The way he tends to do it is simple. The food menu that's handed to diners when they come in also includes the non-beer beverages. But should they say they're after beer, Josh will get a nod from the waiter and leave his post behind the eight taps that sit front and centre on the bar, pick up a beer menu (11 pages and counting on our last visit) and take up the conversation: "Mind if I give you a couple of samples?"
He explains: "I might give them a Mitte [Boatrocker's gold medal-winning Berliner Weisse] and a fruit sour and they'll often say, 'This isn't beer.' It gets them thinking and talking about beers. Then they might go on to ask for a recommendation; maybe a Rodenbach Grand Cru if they normally drink red wine, a gueuze if they prefer white.
"It's kind of like they're stuck here: they're in here to have food but I might as well do a pitch for a variety of beers. If I'm about to get them a glass of red or white I may as well ask for their opinion on these beers."
If that sounds a little forward, in person Josh (pictured above) is about as unassuming as you could wish for, wrapping his zeal for beer education in a mild-mannered approach. And the way the restaurant is set up – mostly wooden booths and benches designed to be "like someone's house" and a wide bar fronting the kitchen at the rear – makes it hard not to want to learn about beer.
Above the eight taps are large signs telling you what's pouring from each. They're set out in two sets of four: the "Standard" bank and the "Bridging" bank. But if those tags brings to mind four lagers and goldens on one side and pales, IPAs and something dark on the other, think again.
The Standard will always feature a lager or pilsner, a golden or pale ale, an IPA and a dark ale; the Bridging side showcases a cider, a sour, a fruit sour and a "wild" beer that could be a saison, a witbier or something totally out there. The beers chosen for the taps are generally not those you most commonly find on tap; indeed, they've chosen not to stock some local beers found widely in other beer bars and restaurants in surrounding suburbs.
"You can give a fruit sour or a Grand Cru to a red wine drinker and they're like, 'Yeah.' I just say, 'Describe it to me as you would a glass of red', or suggest they sip and sniff so they discover how much flavour there is."
And flavour's not something the place lacks, whether in the range of pastas and sauces or the remainder of the drinks list. The beer range in the cool room is one to have anyone with a passion for beer drooling and weak at the knees, while Josh has a love for mead and enjoys conjuring up all natural soft drinks, such as shrubs, himself.
This hands on, attention to detail approach is one they've taken to their pasta business too, one which supplies mostly to the restaurant industry.
"It's all about quality," he says, explaining how they use all fresh, all natural, all local (almost everything is sourced within Victoria) ingredients that showcase other independent producers, such as cheeses from Meredith Dairy, Tarago River Cheese and Floridian Cheese. They're also completely transparent about where ingredients are sourced, how the pasta is produced, how it's priced – a level of openness not always found in the beer world, as the ACCC is discovering.
The aim is ultimately to have a pasta and beer venue in the city, with Fox in the Corn step one. In fact, Fox in the Corn is working through its own steps: there are plans to turn an area out back into a beer garden for summer and also to install fridges for takeaway beer as the venue offers its entire menu for takeaway too.
"I want customer service to be awesome," says Josh. "We have two staff on the floor for just 49 customers. If the staff are talking to a table about beer or food and someone comes in, then I'll jump out from behind the bar. We've had the chef jump out to talk to people too."
Beer events have started up as well. Michael Leslie, who works at nearby Grain & Grape, has set up Piggyback, which specialises in beer and cheese events and runs them regularly at the Fox in the Corn.
Josh has also been chatting to Luke Robertson, founder of Ale of a Time and 2015 Crafty Pint AIBA Beer Media trophy winner, about hosting tastings too.
As for the aforementioned beer menu and the decision to open with pages of sour beers, it's partly because that's where much of Josh's passion lies (when Two Metre Tall's Ashley Huntington called in with his distributor recently, he remarked on leaving that Josh knew more about him than he knew of himself) but also to instigate those conversations.
"If you open with pales then people are, like, 'OK.' If it's sours then many people don't know what they are so they ask questions," he says. "Then when they get to the pales they are expecting to see stock standards but the closest I have [in bottle] is Sierra Nevada.
"That's what I'm here for: to take you from close to home to further afield. It's an educational mission."
It's a mission that should be joined by others too. Food and beer pairing done well in a welcoming environment is a powerful way to get across the message of just how diverse and flavoursome beer can be. And that in itself is only ever going to help the craft beer industry grow.
"I'm all about small producers," says Josh. "Showcasing a product that someone has made with love that they are trying to make a business out of."
It's an ethos that strikes a chord at Crafty Towers and will, no doubt, with many beer lovers and craft brewers too.
Fox in the Corn is at 4 Droop Street, Footscray. We'll be adding a listing for the restaurant to our Venues directory soon.
If you have visited any restaurants that you believe are doing beer excellently, then we'd love to hear about them.