On the day The Crafty Pint visited Bar Josephine, they had just wrapped up a Hop Nation versus Two Birds face-off that ended, somewhat poetically, in a dead heat. Two western suburbs breweries going head to head in a western suburbs craft beer venue – a feat quite possibly never achieved before.
It serves as something of a symbol of just how far the beer scene in the west of Melbourne has come in the last 12 months. It’s no surprise to those living there, but Melbourne’s west is embracing craft beer like never before.
In the last 12 months alone, Hop Nation has moved into Footscray, a suburb with its own beer thanks to West City Brewing, while new venues like Mr Griffith's Alibis & Libations and Jimmy’s Tap and Barrel have also tapped into the market, adding to those we featured in our Crafty Crawl guide to the west little more than 12 months ago. Give it a couple of weeks and the imminent arrival of Mr West Bar & Bottleshop promises to take things yet further.
It’s a fast rising tide that is part of both the wider gentrification of areas like Yarraville and Footscray, and suggests there are some savvy operators looking a few years down the track to when all those new apartment complexes will be filled with couples and young families. And what will many of those couples and young families want nearby? A friendly local bar at which to pull up a chair.
As Bar Josephine owner Aaron Donato sees it, the west, and more specifically Footscray, has an energy and community spirit unlike many other places in Melbourne.
“Footscray has tremendous bones thanks to its wonderfully diverse immigrant population, from the Italians and Greeks in the 1950 and 60s, the Vietnamese who followed, and now more recently the African community. They’ve all shaped the area and given it its unique flavour,” says Aaron.
“Now the newest wave of gentrification is here, with new apartments and an influx of people that work in the city and want to live nearby. Lots of bits of lands with warehouses or empty spaces are now repurposed for apartments and growth is happening insanely fast. It’s not necessarily a nice thing to see, but it’s the reality.”
What it does offer is the chance for the growing craft beer scene to stretch its wings over the west as more venues come to the party to service it. For Aaron and Bar Josephine, there was a moment that cemented Footscray as the place to break ground.
“Looking at the west, I could see it was an area that was under-serviced bar wise. But whenever Jerome Borazio [of the St Jerome hospitality group that runs Laneway Festival and city venues including Ponyfish Island] sets his eyes on somewhere, it’s worth paying attention to.
“When he opened Back Alley Sally’s it was like, ‘Yep, that confirms it for me’. Now that the guys from the Builders Arms Hotel have bought Hart’s Hotel on Victoria St, it’s clear more and more of these people who helped to revitalise places like Fitzroy are setting their sights on Footscray.”
The team behind the soon-to-open Mr West Bar also saw the need to offer the inner west some quality libations. Josh Hodges and Caleb Baker have worked in hospitality from both the bar and sales sides for years.
Mr West is now open – check out their listing here
But, after spending their days on the road for Feral Brewing and Custard & Co cider respectively, their desire to get back behind the bar came to a head and a plan was hatched to open a bar in the west that fulfilled their mutual loves of craft beer, good wine and craft spirits in equal measure. Throw in a bottleshop downstairs and Mr West is set to be something the west of Melbourne has never seen before.
“We have so many mates who live in the west, ourselves included, who have to travel into the city to find a venue that meets all of our needs,” says Josh.
“If my girlfriend wants cocktails, I want beer, and Caleb wants wine, we don’t really have an option in the west for all of us to go to. Mr West fills that gap.”
While individual venues were hitting one or two key elements, such as Bar Josephine and Newport's Junction Beer Hall with craft beer and Seddon Wine Store with its wine selection, they were keen to bring it all together in one space.
Mr West will offer 24 taps of craft beer from a purpose built cool room directly below the bar, wines from the likes of Quealy Winemakers on the Mornington Peninsula, and craft spirits from across the country. Beer cocktails and rare kegs will be a regular feature of the menu once it opens in mid-August.
For Josh and Caleb, they feel like they're opening at just the right time.
“It feels like the west is still in the transitional phase, it’s not massively drastic at the moment,” says Caleb.
“But the whisperings of what’s to come are visible, with new apartments being built and a massive shopping mall going in behind us with cafes and bars and a cinema. There’s a bit of excitement in the air, which is really cool.”
For the team at Two Birds, the beer scene of the city’s west has grown in tandem with the brewery. Founder Jayne Lewis, a Yarraville local herself, says the changes have been remarkable since the Two Birds Nest brewery bar opened three years ago.
“The changes in the west have been huge in general, but especially with craft beer. Prior to the Nest opening I was doing sales and there wasn’t a stack of venue or bottleshop options for me to be able to stop in at,” Jayne says.
“You could do a number of beer crawls through even just Footscray now, because there are more venues than you can safely fit into a bar crawl. It’s just crazy. There are so many people coming into the west, and more importantly people of the age and demographic that are interested in craft beer.”
Two Birds has seen significant growth in the last 12 to 18 months, particularly within the immediate area.
“I think, as the scene grows, you can get that real ‘precinct’ vibe going, where you’ve got a handful of people offering similar things, which drives people to come check out the whole shebang. We’ve definitely noticed the flow on effects from that.”
Part of that development has been the increase in forward-thinking restaurants and eateries that have spread into the western suburbs, with venues like 8Bit, Up In Smoke and Fox In The Corn adding some Melbourne flavour to the area.
There are definite benefits to be found as the beer and food scenes expand alongside one another, says Jayne.
“It’s hard to tell which scene is growing faster, but I think 18 months to two years ago we started getting the burger joints and brunch places and, as those became more common, I think craft beer could go along really smoothly with that.”
And yet, it seems, the west is primed for more.
“I can’t see it slowing down at all, I can only imagine it’ll just keep getting better,” she says.
“There’ll be more venues, I know there’s a gin distillery due to open in the not-too-distant future, and plenty of talk about more breweries looking to the west. I feel sure there’ll be another brewery, if not a handful of them, before long, as well as all the venues and bottleshops that go along with that.”
Yet, through all the changes, the west will always be the west, says Aaron.
“There’s a pride here that exists like nowhere else… You’ve got to know the west and know who your customers are.
“People out west want to support western businesses. Anyone that has a point of view and has their heart in it will be backed by drinkers out here. They’re a savvy lot; they know when you’re being cynical. They know when there’s passion behind it and they’ll send it back your way in droves if they believe in you.”
Perhaps those whispers are just the start.
Check out our Crafty Crawl guide to the west here.
About the author: Kerry McBride is a reformed newspaper journalist who has taken the well-trodden path from Wellington to Melbourne. Her love for bad puns is matched only by her love of hoppy beers and Hallertau Funkonnay.