Ten years ago, the opportunities to find a wide range of good beer on offer around Melbourne were few and far between. The Victorian capital may have been well on its way to claiming the mantle of hotbed of craft beer in Australia and the likes of Mrs Parma's, The Local Taphouse, the Royston and the Belgian Beer Café were helping build momentum but, still, it was slim pickings.
Take a trip to the Dandenongs and there, close to the station from where Puffing Billy sets off, you'd find Oscar's Alehouse with a tap and bottle list (no one put beer in cans back then) to put almost every other beer venue in the country to shame. It had an ambience that wouldn't feel out of place in an inner-city suburb closer to the other end of the Belgrave line plus regular live music and beer events too.
In short, here was one of the best places you could enjoy great beer anywhere in Australia at the time in the sort of place you'd be forgiven for not expecting to find much of a crafty bent at all.
It was opened by Brad and Gypsy Merritt, the former an American expat, the latter a local. A few years ago, they embarked on another beer-related venture, planting hop bines under the Yellingbo Brewing Company & Hop Farm banner and supplying hops for a number of small breweries, including an old sibling of Galaxy called Victoria that had been cut from Hop Products Australia's breeding program but kept alive by homebrewers.
Most recently, however, they popped a "For Sale" sign outside their pioneering venue. When we first heard the news, we assumed something was awry but it turns out that, a little like Dr Who, Brad likes to reinvent himself every decade and has new plans afoot. So, as the first chapter of Oscar's Alehouse draws to a close, we fired some questions at him about the decade of beers in Belgrave and what lies ahead.
What on earth inspired you to open a venue as trailblazing as Oscar's was in 2008, let alone in Belgrave?
Lifestyle choice, commuting, and my decade was up.
I change careers every ten years, I don't know why, it's just been a pattern. I was a bartender/bar manager in Los Angeles for a decade while I pursued a career in the music industry. From club promotion, booking agent, band management to record label owner. This is when I discovered craft beer.
The next decade was spent working for interactive and online marketing companies both in Los Angeles and Melbourne. Long days, a stressful job and 15 hours commuting to Melbourne each week made me rethink life. What else do I know? Craft beer, bartending, and music.
I wanted to share my passion for craft beer and work locally, and Belgrave was a little hub in the Dandenong Ranges.
Did you experience any challenges in doing so?
The first year was rocky. I worked every hour the bar was open as well as all the hours spent behind the scenes. My wife joined me on Friday and Saturday nights while working a full-time job during the week. It was a long and difficult first year. Many locals told us we would not last six months.
We slowly built a business. We started with Coopers on tap, and Boags and Guiness in the fridge along with our craft beer offering. We started with around 30 beers on offer and now it often exceeds 100.
It has never been easy, it has always been hard work. We would never have made it if it were not for our loyal regulars – many have become dear friends.
Have you witnessed much change in your region of Victoria over the past decade when it comes to the beer scene?
A massive change. We were an island of craft beer heaven ten years ago and now most bars around us have a craft beer offering. The local bottleshops have lifted their game as well. It has mostly changed over the past five years up here.
Ten years ago, we could pretty much stock every new beer available. Even with our quickly rotating beer list, these days we can't keep up with every new beer release.
We are now at the point where we only support independently-owned breweries.
Ten years on, how do you view the legacy of Oscar's?
My hair has gone grey.
We are a local, that's what we've always been. That is how I view it. I wanted to share my passion for beer with others.
I can only view our legacy from the point of view of others. We've had births, deaths and marriages. We've seen kids grow up.
What solidifies our legacy to me is seeing our regulars come back the next day or next week. To see the friendships that have developed between them. To raising a pint and having a laugh, or helping someone through a difficult time in life.
I suppose the love from The Crafty Pint and being listed in the top 50 craft beer bars in Australia in Beer and Brewer magazine for years makes our legacy larger than just local.
Why are you looking to sell now?
My decade is up.
It has been a very difficult decision. To sell Oscar's Alehouse is like selling a big piece of myself. I can only hope we find a buyer who wants to carry on with it in a similar way.
It started with a conversation a few weeks ago with others in the craft beer space. My desire to move from gypsy brewing to having a home. Like-minded people looking at their futures and a desire to work together to make it happen.
I simply can't do both.
Why did you decide to start Yellingbo?
After decades of drinking craft beer, it was time to make some. The plan was to build a brewery on our property in Yellingbo and the only way to do that was to grow our own crop due to zoning. So, three years ago we planted a quarter acre of hops.
I've been slowly building a nanobrewery here in my spare time and it's nearly complete. I wanted to showcase our estate grown hops in the beers we make. Initially, I was going to brew one-off kegs for Oscar's Alehouse on the nanobrewery and gypsy brew on a larger scale for the Melbourne market.
How has that been progressing?
Our first year hops went into two collaboration beers: Rubbing Elbows Rye IPA with Mornington Peninsula Brewery and Call of the Hops Harvest Ale with Kooinda. Both were very well received and it only strengthened my resolve to continue.
In our second year, Hargreaves Hill made a wet hopped harvest wheat beer with our fresh Victoria hops going into the beer the same day. They returned in our third harvest to make a wet hopped IPL with our Victoria hops, along with Red Hill who made a Harvest Ale with our fresh Cascade hops.
In the past two seasons, we've gone into the brewery four times to gypsy brew with our hops.
Our plan was to grow enough hops to sustain the majority of our needs.
And tell us what you can about the next steps.
The next step has come as a surprise. A simple conversation has ended up as a merge of people combining forces.
A new brewery and brewpub is in the works for Melbourne and happening quickly. We hope to be open first quarter of 2019, hence the reluctant and hasty sale of Oscar's Alehouse.
The ball was somewhat rolling when I was asked to jump on board. I've always wanted to be involved in the brewing side of things since I started homebrewing years before Oscar's Alehouse opened its doors.
Thanks, Brad, and best of luck with the next decade. We'll have news on the new brewery and brewpub once they're ready to go public.
For details on the sale of Oscar's, head here.