The Inner West is undoubtedly one of Sydney’s prime destinations for craft beer. Yet, walk into the vast majority of bottleshops and the first thing you’re likely to see is shelves filled with wine. Craft beer usually plays second fiddle, relegated to the back like an unloved sibling. Wider Sydney isn’t short of bottleshops that have love for good beer, yet the area that’s home to a plethora of breweries and craft beer venues has remained strangely lacking.
Yet things are starting to change. New to the scene is Bucket Boys Craft Beer Co, located in the craft beer mecca that is Marrickville. Sharing a postcode with the likes of Batch Brewing Co and The Grifter Brewing Co, the shop is in a prime position to be a central hub for breweries in the surrounding area.
“The idea [for Bucket Boys] arose out of the need for a great bottleshop in the Marrickville area, combined with our love of all things beer,” explains co-founder Johnathan Hepner. A veteran of the Inner West scene, Johnathan has worked as a bar manager for the aforementioned Batch as well as the Lord Raglan in Alexandria. His business partner, Clint Elvin, has years of hospitality experience in small bars.
Over the past nine months, the pair has planned out every detail of their shop, focusing particular attention on the stocking layout.
“Most shops have a comic book store feel to them, with rows upon rows of shelving and bottles stacked everywhere in the shop. It feels claustrophobic and usually means people don’t have the time or mental stamina to browse through everything,” says Johnathan.
“We created a shop with a ton of open space in the middle… everything is neatly aligned and all the beer is in the fridge – the way it should be.”
Building from the ground up has also allowed Johnathan and Clint to avoid the “European city” look, where the design and layout changes as the shop evolves.
Aside from selling packaged beer, Bucket Boys will also have four taps offering growler fills. Among these will be a selection of their own beers, so far brewed on a pilot system at Willie the Boatman and released at various events. Their releases to date constitute an eclectic selection including a red stout brewed for GABS 2016 which included coffee and cacao nibs, an XPA, an American pale ale (called – and it had to be – Pail Ale), a boozy Belgian dubbel and a supremely interesting three percent ABV Grodziskie made with oak-smoked wheat and Polish hops.
“We wanted to create a brand that could do more than just sell bottles out of a shop, which is why from the beginning we decided to brew our own beer,” says Johnathan. “We only make four kegs at a time, so we can experiment with recipes and be as creative or traditional as we want.”
As customers browse the shelves of Australian and international beer, they’ll be able to sip on 90ml tasters purchased from the taps. There are future plans to expand this concept into a small bar in the upstairs area of the store.
Johnathan is eager to point out that Bucket Boys is more than just a bottleshop that makes beer. The pair also hopes to build a community based around the shop; steps they’ve taken to encourage this include the quarterly mailed Beer Geek Box, containing merchandise and “other cool stuff” from local breweries. They’ve also established the Sydney chapter of the Mikkeller Running Club – half exercise and half social club – where participants meet up for a run and drink at a local brewery afterwards.
“We wanted to share great beer with great people and hopefully through all our different ideas we can do that.”
Elsewhere in the Inner West, Kieran Allen has taken the dedicated craft bottleshop concept in a different direction. Earlier this year he opened Medhurst & Sons in Glebe, now the largest Australian stockist of craft cider.
“There are no bottleshops that focused on craft cider,” says Kieran. “It’s one of the fastest growing liquor segments in Australia… I saw a gap in a fast growing market and decided to take the plunge and fill that void.”
Those in the beer industry may know Kieran as the owner of gypsy brewer Pixel Brewing Co, which has taken a back seat to his new business venture. He also worked for a time at Beer Cartel in Artarmon, Sydney’s only other craft beer dedicated bottleshop.
“It seemed a bit of a waste of my knowledge and experience to not range at least some craft beer,” he says. Thus, Kieran decided to also stock a range of local and international breweries – but only those packaged in cans.
“Cans have a lot of advantages over bottles," he says. "Particularly important to the brewers is the cost of the cans, the freshness of their product and the reduction in space and weight involved in transport. It also helps that they’re trending at the moment.”
Given the store’s focus on aesthetic, cans often go hand in hand with good design.
“There’s so much more real estate with which to brand,” he says. “A disturbing number of sales are made on branding alone. That said, if the product isn’t also solid, repeat sales are unlikely. The holy grail is awesome beer that’s branded really well.”
Nevertheless, the main focus of Medhurst & Sons remains cider, something Kieran is confident will still attract craft beer drinkers.
“[They] tend to appreciate a well brewed product, regardless of whether it’s made from malt, apples or grapes.”
Kieran jokes that there isn’t much sweet cider in his store, which he’s done on purpose to drive people away from the idea that cider is simply an alternately named, sugary premix.
“I generally look for ciders that are wild fermented, unfiltered and produced using traditional methods. These tend to be the most interesting ciders.”
Examples include varieties from Tasmania’s Two Metre Tall and Adam’s Orchard from the USA. Both are often hard to find, given they’re not brewed to any particular schedule.
“Pointing craft beer drinkers in the direction of well-made and interesting ciders is the best way to convince them what it has to offer,” he says.
The chances are that these stores will point drinkers in the direction of well made craft beverages in general, something the breweries and specialist venues that call this part of Sydney home have been doing for years.