Abbotsford has long been a suburb awash with beer. In 1904, in an attempt to remain competitive in a rapidly consolidating beer industry, a group of publicans came together form the Melbourne Co-Operative Brewery on the banks of the banks of the Yarra. The brewery has kept its neighbourhood supplied with beer ever since and, after merging with its major competitor, Carlton & United Breweries, in 1925, it has grown to become one of Australia’s largest brewing companies.
More recently, it's been joined by brewers operating on a rather smaller scale; Moon Dog first started brewing in the shadow of CUB in 2010 and, earlier this year, the first beers came out of Bodriggy’s Johnston Street home, located across the road from its sibling venue Dr Morse and due to open its doors to the public early next year.
But, for a suburb with such a long association with beer, barring outposts like McCoppins' store in Victoria Street, it's one that seemed to have let the craft beer wave wash over it without leaving much of a mark. In the past couple of years you were more likely to see FOR LEASE signs than patrons outside its historic pubs, yet that's all changing as new life has been breathed into three pubs – each more than a century old – helping turn Abbotsford into a real destination for anyone who likes their beer good and their pubs, well, pubby.
Behind those venues are three small operators who are all familiar faces in Melbourne’s hospo world. Among them are Ed Harley, Sam Howard and Nick Sawle, the new custodians of The Park Hotel. It’s the second quiet backstreet pub for the group, the trio having purchased one of Melbourne's pioneering craft beer venues, the Royston in 2016. It was when he ran the Terminus in North Fitzroy, however, that Ed first took note of an old pub he felt wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders.
“I used to ride past The Park every night and the Termi was pumping at that stage and it was when I’d wanted a place of my own,” he says.
A ten minute stroll away, sitting practically beneath the Mernda and Hurstbridge trainline, the Carringbush drips inner-north Melbourne history. Its very name is borne out of the area’s working-class roots, Carringbush being the moniker given to Collingwood and Abbotsford in the works of Frank Hardy. Most famously that was in Power Without Glory, where Hardy’s savage account of the life of Melbourne businessman and Australian Labor Party figure John Wren landed the writer in court with the rare charge of criminal libel.
Behind the new look Carringbush, which is set to open in January with its own wren logo, are Liam Matthews, Joel Morrison and Singa Unlayiti, the trio that has run The Old Bar for more than a decade. Liam attaches his own history to the 130-year-old building, having lived across the road for years.
“I’ve been coming here for a long time and I’ve always really admired the City of Yarra backstreet pubs – the Standards and the Napiers – and I really wanted to get into that scene,” Liam says. “Plus there’s the commute – it’s 20 seconds or something.”
Just blocks from The Park, The Retreat has sat cathedral-like on Nicholson Street since 1915. While it may be the youngest of the three pubs, The Retreat’s wonderful front bar may well be the best known, burnt into the collective memory of Australians of a certain age for the years it spent as a setting for the television show The Sullivans.
Jess McGrath and Mark Pratt, who also run The Palace in South Melbourne, took over this slice of silver screen history in June. Fans of the southside pub will find The Retreat offers similar essentials north of the Yarra: quality pub food, sports on the screens and a diverse lineup of beers and customers. Jess says their approach to the place is to ensure it remains a community space in which all can feel welcome.
“We just wanted it to be what a pub is; it’s a place where anybody can go, it’s a place for locals and it’s a destination,” she says. “We have craft beer but we’re also selling Carlton Draught because it’s what the locals are coming in for.”
Stepping into The Retreat’s front bar is like walking back into a time when Bob Menzies ran the country and, though countless pint glasses have been passed over the timeless front bar in the decades since, little else seems to have changed. One wall is gone and some windows have been changed to create a more open, brighter space. Beyond that, however, it’s a building that still feels like Dave Sullivan could walk back into at any moment, albeit he’ll now have the choice between an IPA, gose or stout.
If by an entirely uncharacteristic set of circumstances Dave Sullivan found himself The Park, there too would he be treated to an impressive array of beer styles across the dozen taps. Meanwhile, outside, the pub’s impressive beer garden also comes with its own taps for those looking to spend afternoons playing pool and soaking in the sun.
“Paint, carpet, light fittings and op-shopping can go a long way," says Ed of the refit. "We spent a lot on the kitchen because it really needed it, but the bones of the place were all there."
At the Carringbush, the work is far more substantial. Once it’s back open, the removal of some of its internal walls will create a pub that’s far more spacious than in years gone by. The horseshoe bar will remain key to shaping how the building feels but now, across 30 taps, beer, wine and kombucha will pass across the bar.
Liam, Joe and Singa’s focus on the taps and decision to forego both packaged wine and beer come from the trio’s commitment to sustainability, as too is the decision to focus on a meat-free menu. It was those ideas that Liam says helped them get a hold of the place as it aligned with those of landlords who bought the place last year.
“I know there were people really interested in getting it who were probably going to be in a much better financial position than I am,” Liam says. “But the fact that I was able to meet with the owners and tell them what I wanted to do and how that aligned with the kind of human beings they are, that worked.”
Together, the three venues add considerably to the suburb’s craftier offerings. Abbotsford itself is a suburb that's changing fast. Once a home to the city’s manufacturing, like Fitzroy and Collingwood before it, it's a suburb that’s rapidly gentrifying and, as the apartments keep rising, the population is on the rise too.
Ed sees the spread of better dining and drinking options as a natural progression, with Abbotsford replicating earlier changes in Fitzroy and then Collingwood.
“I think Dr Morse led this Abbotsford revival and when they opened it up it would have seemed like they were in the middle of nowhere,” he says.
While it’s not uncommon for new owners to refresh the beer offering at a new venue, what’s unusual is for three pubs to change in one suburb within a year of each other. Pubs don’t come on the market that regularly and nobody is knocking down apartments to build new corner pubs.
Says Ed: “The ones that are failing tend to get sold and developed so they just fly off the map.”
But, as more people move to a suburb, just like house prices, pub prices can go up too. Last year, The Park’s sale was well publicised due to it going for far more at auction than was expected.
“There’s all the big builds going on in the area so there will be a lot of new people over the next few years,” Jess says. “But you also have a lot of older couples where kids have moved out and, now they’ve got disposable income, they just want to go out for a pub meal a few times a week.”
For Liam, Abbotsford’s continued development doesn’t just mean there are more potential customers living in the area, the essence of what a pub is becomes more essential. Public space can be scarce in the inner city and pubs connect people in a way few places do.
“What I’d love to see here is for people to come in Sunday, sit down to have lunch with their family and then, as they go to walk out, they run into someone they know, get caught up and before they know it, it’s five o’cock and they go, ‘Well we should really have dinner here as well.’.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Ed, who’s spent years running back street pubs, and believes those in Melbourne are often unique compared with other states.
“I’m from Perth and one thing that Melbourne has over the rest of the country is its pubs,” he says. “It’s got this great pub culture where you’ve got those neighbourhood places that are so unassuming.
“Bars and restaurants are trendy for a bit but then the cycle continues but I think established pubs have a longevity.”