For years, Newcastle carried the stigma of a tough town blanketed by a thick yellow smog, where the locals rioted when the cops tried to shut down one of their pubs. Its streets were built on blood, sweat and Tooheys beers. Where the bar tiles were hosed down from the night before, ready for the shift ending at BHP steelworks that day.
So many Australians did a double take when Lonely Planet named the city as one of the Top 10 must-see destinations in 2011. However, Novocastrians weren’t surprised in the least as they knew the city had quietly transformed itself from those rough and tumble days of the 70s and 80s. Likewise, no one was baffled when smart-thinking Corey Crooks did something extraordinary, taking over The Albion Hotel and whacking a load of craft beer on its taps, evicting Tooheys and other working class multinational beers from the bar. And the working class drinkers stayed for the transformation.
Then, when Corey moved to the Grain Store, with its 21 taps, the punters moved with him. The Newy lot merely took it in their stride, adapted, then embraced it, and the city now has arguably one of the best craft beer scenes in Australia with Corey as its trailblazer.
As he puts it: “We're very much a beer town, and we have a good appreciation of something that is quality. Now bowling clubs and your corner suburban pubs have five or six of their taps dedicated to independent Australian beer. It's driven by the consumer."
When it comes to Newcastle as a consumer of quality beers, Corey believes the city's CBD area has a higher percentage of independent beers than the mainstream multinationals being poured, something not many cities in Australia can boast. Newcastle is punching again, but this time well above its weight.
If you'd like to check it out for yourself, it's not just us trying to make things easy for you: when it opened at the start of 2019, following no shortage of controversy, the Newcastle light rail managed to make travelling between many of the city’s best beer venues much easier than ever before. So, follow this Crafty Crawl and the walking between venues can be kept to a minimum.
THE BLIND MONK
Sitting in the heart of trendy Beaumont Street and set among its cafes and restaurants is the area's only venue with quality beer on its 12 taps, as well as a nitro hand pump.
This is a cracking joint to kick-start our tour, too, purely as there are no distractions, so make sure you pick a table that opens up onto the street where you can watch some proper characters in this neighbourhood pass by. You might also see Grainfed's brewer and owner Lachlan MacBean, who lives around the corner, sneaking in for a quiet one.
If you love Belgian beers, this is the place to quaff some of the best and latest ales from our European cousins. Local team, The International Beer Collector, source 20 litre kegs from Belgium and The Netherlands that you'll not find anywhere else in NSW, let alone Australia. On Friday nights, this popular spot is heaving with the post-work crew, before quickly transforming into the late night mob, keen to get the weekend underway.
The Blind Monk can be found at 76 Beaumont Street, Hamilton.
THE HAPPY WOMBAT
It’s time to grab the Newy Tram to Honeysuckle, then head across to this funky little bar that begins our main crawl down Hunter Street. There aren’t many bars where you can walk out smarter than when you walked in, but if you apply yourself in The Happy Wombat, it’s possible.
One side of the bar has an eclectic mix of odds and sods that includes more than 28 hardback copies of Encyclopedia Britannica. So, if you're waiting for your mates, pick a book, slowly sip your beer and hold your hand to your chin, so you look like a genius when they turn up.
There's a variety of the best breweries in the country on tap rotation at the Wombat, while the owners' own cider – Tilse’s Apple Truck Cider – is available too. This is another bar that has an outdoor area set up on the pavement so you can watch the world go by.
The friendly bar staff here pride themselves on their knowledge of what they're pouring and are more than happy to let you taste the not so familiar beers they have on tap. During winter, the resident crowd gets stuck into the Friday night BBQ the team puts on, while the bar’s food is renowned in Newcastle, so much so that on Friday and Saturday nights it's a tough gig to get a table.
You can start your learnings at The Happy Wombat by heading to 575 Hunter Street, Newcastle West.
Time to jump back onto the tram and head down to the next stop – Civic – then walk across the road to The Clarendon Hotel. This place boasts a beautiful Art Deco front bar, built around the 1930s, with the original tiles continuing their unique lines up the wall and a bar that runs the length of the hotel.
Outside, there's an open courtyard complete with tables and sofas to sink into as you take in the live solo acts The Clarendon supports. A great array of craft beers pours from the ten taps, while there is a guest tap that constantly rotates through beers no other venues in Newcastle get to pour.
When the craft beer scene exploded in Newcastle, The Clarendon was one of the first venues to jump on board and it continues to search for, and pour, the beers the city’s craft beer fans seek. With the Civic Theatre practically next door, it’s the venue to be seen at prior to a show or gig. It's in the perfect location, near one of the busiest eating districts, while FogHorn is a short walk around the corner.
Experience the old-fashioned charms and freshly-brewed beers by getting yourself to 347 Hunter Street, Newcastle.
Foghorn Brewery opened in 2015 and continues to push the boundaries of what a brewpub is all about: combining the city's freshest beer with an excellent American-styled food experience. It has transformed this once-abandoned building in Newcastle's CBD dating from the 30s into one of the places to head to on a night out in Newcastle.
Shawn Sherlock is FogHorn's brewing genius and a full-blown living legend in the industry, picking up Australian Brewer of the Year while head brewer at Murray's back in the day. He conjures up all beers fantastic to hit the brewpub's 17 taps in his ultimate beer paradise, complete with 1800 litre brewery and four 1800-litre-serving tanks. Expect to find a range of styles from saisons to pales to chewy IPAs and his trophy-clad Sligo Extra Stout – the one the Irish drinkers says reminds them of home.
“We don't really have anything that doesn't pull its weight,” Shawn states proudly.
As of 2019, the brewery started canning its beers too, but being able to try them elsewhere in no way takes away from the necessity for any beer fan in Newy (or elsewhere, for that matter) to get to FogHorn. Keep an eye out for Young Americans IPA as enjoying one straight from the tank into your glass is a moment of joy; you’ll never experience a fresher, hoppier beer in Newy.
If you have a designated driver, Shawn also brews a low alcohol pale ale (2.4 percent ABV) called Dads With Prams, which packs a punch with its Riwaka hops from NZ. Time it right at the weekend and you can enjoy massive slices of pizza, the freshest beer in the city and local live music all at once.
Enjoy Newy's freshest beers at 218 King Street, Newcastle.
Babylon is a short walk from FogHorn and is a delightful space in which to enjoy beer and beer's distilled close cousin. Set in an old ballroom, with two magnificent chandeliers hanging over the bar area, this beautiful old building is reminiscent of the 1920s with its hidden away booths, striking bar with a rolling ladder, and the sound of jazz standards in the air.
Boasting a wall of more than 200 whiskies and 14 taps of beer, Babylon is a space that compares to few others and offers the perfect opportunity to discover flavours as the hours of the night disappear. Matching that drinks list is a food menu that's just as likely as the booze to draw you in, a mix of bar snacks and small plates designed for sharing.
If you do manage to escape Babylon's allure, it's an easy stroll back to the Crown Street tram stop, which will take you close to the entrance of your final destination.
Babylon's elegant ballroom is located at 145 King Street, Newcastle.
You don't visit Newcastle without popping your head into Corey Crook’s veritable wonderland of all things great about Australian beer, hence the reason why the pub is always throbbing in the tourist season. Ironically occupying an old warehouse that was built by Tooheys Brewery in 1885 as a grain and keg storage facility, it boasts 21 taps featuring 100 percent independently-owned and 100 percent Australian-brewed craft beers, ensuring there's not a Tooheys beer in sight.
With the Grain Store, you truly do not know what to expect when you walk in; time it right (or wrong if they're not your bag) and you might find Corey running one of his IPA days where all 21 taps pour nothing but IPA. He says the Grain Store is the starting point for a lot of his customers on a night out, but more often than not they don't make it out the door to the next venue as they are too engrossed in the beer menu.
What the Grain Store has also done well is turn itself into an extension of people's lounge rooms, with large couches and stuffed chairs sitting in the sunlight; little wonder customers are happy to settle in for the night.
With so many beers to choose from, sometimes your best bet is to get the bar staff to put a tasting paddle together and chip away at that list. Pair these with some of the fantastic food coming out of the kitchen, like the huge dish of Sticky Pork Belly Bites or the legendary chicken wings that will bring a tear to your eye, and you're set.
Corey – winner of the inaugural True Indie Supporter at the 2019 Indies – and his team put on the city's best beer degustation evenings too, with the likes of Bridge Road and BentSpoke showcasing their wares alongside top-notch food. With hardly any advertising, the Grain Store truly is a craft beer venue built on word of mouth by a hard-working team and, with more than six years under its belt, it will continue to be Newcastle's finest beer venue for a long time to come.
You'll find the myriad indie beers, food and good times the Grain Store is known for at 64-66 Scott Street, Newcastle.
Looking for more beer? Luckily, Newcastle and its surrounds have you covered.
- Wil&Sons, 102 Darby St, Cooks Hill – Once the home of Newcastle's Hop Factory, Wil&Sons retains the former inhabitant's love for good beer, wine and food.
- Carro Bowls Club, 1C Cowper St N, Carrington – The Carro not-for-profit club is a community-driven venue that pours ten taps of independent craft beer. You can read more about the club’s craft credentials here.
- Styx Brewery, 97 Wilson St, Carrington – Within a few hundred metres of the bowlo is Styx, one of the newer arrivals on the Newcastle and Hunter region's brewing scene. You can read our interview with the team brewing in an old coal testing shed here.
- Boatshed Bar & Galley, The Parade, Belmont – Belmont is a 20-odd minute drive from Newcastle's centre but make your way to the shores of Lake Macquarie and you'll find 18 taps, most of which are focused on Australian craft beer, fine views and hearty burgers.
If you'd prefer a night in, there's a growing number of good beer bottleshops that will leave your car full and wallet empty after a visit. You'll find excellent beer at:
- Prince of Wales Hotel Bottle Shop, 1 Morgan Street, Merewether – A bottleshop that boasts beers from across the world, a growler station and some of Australia's finest wines and cheese.
- Tighes Hill Cellars, 1 Tighes Terrace, Tighes Hill – One of the oldest liquor stores in the Newcastle area has been evolving apace in recent years and is now home to more than 500 beers.
- Warners At The Bay Bottleshop, 320 Hillsborough Road, Warners Bay – One of the region's first craft beer destinations and still one of the best. The bottleshop is home to one of the biggest selections of beer in the land, plus a growler filling station, while the sibling venue has craft beer pouring through taps aplenty. Add in a festival that sells out every year and you've got a pretty sweet package.
- Lambton Bottle-O, 41-45 Griffiths Road, New Lambton – It’s a little known secret that if you want to find the very latest, hard to get hold of craft beers then the Lambton Bottle-O is a great place to wander among its teeming, stacked shelves of crafty wonders. Check out its September Beer Festival too, where all the main players, and others, pitch their wares. And if it's Fuller's Vintage Ales you're after . . .
NB "Crafty Crawl" is our catch-all title for suburb, area or PT line guides to good beer around Australia and we're not suggesting you take any of them on in one go unless, of course, they're approached sensibly.