It's not just beer that's becoming ever more diverse in this era of adventure. Businesses involved in the craft beer world are becoming increasingly multifaceted too. For some time, there have been bottleshops that allow you to drink in (often paying a corkage fee to do so), some of which have since added taps. There are existing beer venues that have added their own on site breweries, such as Adelaide's Wheatsheaf. And then there's the Local Taphouse crew for whom nothing is off limits: with two successful venues under their belts, they've dabbled with a bottleshop and growler bike deliveries, launched the country's most extravagant beer event in GABS and are building their own brewery too.
In an otherwise unassuming spot on Thornbury High Street, another multi-headed beast is taking shape. At Carwyn Cellars, for years the area's most interesting bottleshop even before moving to its current site, they're about to celebrate one year of their Backroom Bar with many other irons in the fire.
Following a sneak peak at Good Beer Week 2014, the 20 tap bar specialising in excellent and frequently rare and unusual beers, wines and spirits, opened a year ago. It has proven a runaway success from the off, despite having possibly the most unrelentingly uncompromising tap list of any venue in the country, one that's often heavy with sours, big Belgians and imperial stouts and IPAs.
Work is currently underway converting the adjacent shop for the next stage of its expansion, with a kitchen opening soon, while works will continue beyond that in multiple directions – and will include a brewery too. The brewing company is already in operation, brewing at 3 Ravens and going by the name 40 Foot Brewing Company, despite the fact they now realise they'll only be able to fit a 20ft shipping container into their land when they get around to installing it. And don't expect them to stop at beer...
In many ways, what's happening there is a microcosm of the wonderful things happening in the Australian beer (and wider beverage and hospitality) world. So, as they prepare to line up 20 beers picked by staff and friends for Saturday's birthday celebrations, Crafty Pint contributor (and Carwyn regular) Graham Frizzell caught up with the three main men behind the venture.
Long after the candles have been blown out (or should that be: “rare kegs have run out”?) at Carwyn's birthday celebrations, the tireless trio of Ben Carwyn, Ben Duval and Lachlan Pagan will have no time to rest on their laurels. Expansion (both retail and the bar) plans are afoot and there is even a brewery in the works – assuming, that is, the guys can fit it in the new digs next door.
First of all, thanks for chatting to The Crafty Pint and congratulations on all your success so far. What can punters expect from The Backroom Bar’s birthday?
Ben Duval: Lots of good, cheap beer, good, cheap pizza and hopefully sunshine as well! We’ve got Panhead [Custom Ales] and Hawkers coming to the party; we’re doing two-for-one pints between 12 [midday] and 5pm and half price pizza from the good guys at the nearby Moor’s Head during that time as well.
With the remaining 14 taps [besides those pouring Panhead and Hawkers] we’re putting on staff members and friends’ favourite beers – beers we have been collecting over the past year. And the beer I am most excited about tapping on the day is the one-year old keg of Two Metre Tall’s Cleansing Ale.
The Backroom Bar boasts what must be one of Melbourne – and Australia’s – most exciting rotating tap list (pictured below is an early example before they added four more taps). Just how many beers have flowed through those hallowed lines during the course of the past year?
Lachlan Pagan: Ten new kegs a week, conservatively.
Ben Carwyn: Somewhere around 500, at a guess.
LP: Ninety percent of them would be one-offs, the rest we would keep as serial kegs. It is a necessity to have a nice pale ale on.
BD: [Laughs] Of the 500 we have had about five were lagers! But [we’ve had] lots of sours; Belgians; big IPAs and big, huge stouts and barleywines.
LP: There’s no discrimination. We don’t set out to design a tap list that’s only Australian or foreign beers – we buy what we think is interesting. We started with 16 taps then quickly added four more. We’re only licensed for 50 people so the tap to person ratio must be the highest in the nation. Okay, we’re licensed for another 40 outside, but the ratio is still pretty high! [Laughs]
[The only equivalent we can think of is Sydney's Keg & Brew – 33 taps and a capacity little over 100 – Editor]
Of those, which have been the most exciting and intriguing kegs to have rolled in?
BC: [Laughs] Intriguing?! Intriguing to me would have to be the Alvinne Cuvee de Mortagne [featured in the Belgique Week showcase] during Good Beer Week. Exciting was getting in decent quantities of Cantillon because we have seen so few.
LP: Having over 100 people waiting in line here at midnight last November for the tapping of a single keg of Cantillon was pretty cool.
BC: This was the Midnight Sour event. A few kegs of Cantillon had come over for Zwanze Day – but we hung on to ours and did a special event called Midnight Sour. The event started at 3pm and a keg of sour beer was tapped on the hour, every hour, until midnight – including the Cantillon Framboise. We were surprised with the number of people who stuck around for it.
LP: The whole keg was gone within 20 minutes!
BD: We are probably the only venue in Melbourne where you could ask for a pint of Cantillon and have a chance at getting one.
Having grown up on wineries rather than having a background in hospitality prior to the opening of Carwyn Cellars, how do you view the way in which both the retail side and The Backroom Bar have grown and evolved?
BC: When we first started none of us had worked behind a bar. We opened it to literally see what happened. We were pretty surprised at the response and it has allowed us to grow the whisky range and the training [of staff in whisky appreciation]. All the whiskies and beers that we love, other people couldn’t get them even vaguely close but now people can find them, drink well, learn about what they are drinking and hopefully have a good time.
BD: The bar is a natural extension of the bottleshop. Originally it wasn’t about the one particular thing, it wasn’t even just about craft beer. [The bottleshop] was all about great wines; a fantastic range of whiskies, mescals and gins. It was about being knowledgeable and educating people.
BC: One thing that we noticed before we started was that there are good whisky venues, good beer venues and fantastic wine venues – but there was nowhere that did all three.
Have there been many obstacles along the way?
BC: Not enough space for people. The biggest obstacle is getting staff up to speed on everything that we have [coming in] – it’s not hard, it just takes time to learn.
BD: [Laughs] The council!
BC: Probably the biggest issue we had leading up to the opening of the bar was the amount of red tape.
BD: [Laughs] Not having enough taps – is that an obstacle?
Both the Backroom Bar and Carwyn Cellars itself have seen – and helped – the Thornbury area become the great place it is now. To that end, tell us about The Backroom Bar’s expansion plans.
BC: The expansion is pretty simple – we have from day one struggled with the lack of inside seating, so we have taken over the room next door. There will be 20 extra seats inside and a beer garden out the back with space for another 60 people. We’re also going to expand the retail in the front part of the shop and really fix up our wine range because it is very cramped for the physical space we [currently] have. Possibly down the track we will have the brewery housed in the backyard – with an urban winery as well.
BD: We’re going to have a private, walk-in sour beer cellar – look out for that one!
Were you at all skeptical in the beginning of how receptive locals and Melburnians at large might be to The Backroom Bar?
BC: No, not really. Having the bottleshop here we knew we had a crowd and a market. I think any skepticism was over how big [the market] was. So we kept it conservative in terms of the bar’s size. But we always knew the customers were coming in and taking things home to drink instead of going out and hitting the town.
LP: In terms of the bar, we spent seven years educating people through the bottleshop on interesting drinks, so when we opened the bar people went for the concept straight away.
Further to that we have seen this end of High Street develop exponentially over the past 18 months.
Probably the most exciting news is the aforementioned plans to open a brewery. Have you christened the brewery or has that yet to be decided?
BD: Interestingly, we have coined the brewery 40 Foot Brewing Company, in reference to having a brewery in a 40 foot shipping container to be placed next door. We named it, then Ben [Carwyn] went to stride it out to make sure it would fit the space… Turns out we were about a foot short! So it looks like it will be in a 20 foot container instead at this stage.
BC: We’ve decided what we would like to do but we’re in the planning processes for it. It’s probably still another 12 months away from opening. We have already started contract brewing at 3 Ravens and we are looking into Hawkers soon to do some of the 40 Foot brews for us. Our brews are already out and about, you can find them around the place.
[Some of] Victoria’s breweries are among the most adventurous and experimental in Australia, will 40 Foot Brewing stick to the tried and true or should drinkers expect the unexpected?
BD: Our whole thing is doing interesting spins on beer styles we really like, so we’re not going to be brewing many “normal” beers – whatever that means. But we’re going to be putting our spin on interesting styles and being quite experimental in the bar as well.
Our system will be quite small – around 300 litres – which will allow us to go really balls to the wall and do whatever we want in terms of style and ABV. We can really make things quite challenging [on the palate] and it will still sell.
The mural spanning the Blythe Street side of the venue must be up there with the most Instagram-able spots among Melbourne’s watering holes. How did it come into being?
BC: We’ve got some friends of ours who are street artists. The wall had been there for a number of years and was pretty well known to begin with. When cutting out the wall to make way for the door we were cutting into the original artwork so we decided to repaint it.
BD: One of the artists who coordinated the mural had previously held an exhibition inside, which is also an art space. It was the first large piece that she had coordinated with other artists to come [on board]. We will probably have the wall redone every year.
Thanks again for taking the time to chat with The Crafty Pint and all the very best for your future endeavours.
Graham "Stoutwhiskas" Frizzell is a legally blind beer writer and brewer in the making. You can find his beer writings at Blind Taste Test.