Tell someone you want to catch a glimpse of the historical side of Sydney and they’ll direct you straight to The Rocks. It’s here that you’ll zigzag through cobblestone laneways, ascend to the next street by way of narrow stone staircases, read bronze plaques about convict-era construction in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and have the opportunity to purchase Ugg boots and souvenir boomerangs and $9 croissants exactly like the people of yesteryear.
But The Rocks is also home to a valuable piece of more recent history. Four hundred metres from Circular Quay but a world away from the tourist-trap vibe, perched at the top of the hill on Essex Street, is a Lego-looking cubic building. The faded peach and maroon paint and castellated skyline clearly mark this as a historic building – dating to the late 1800s, in fact – but it’s the green sign reading “Harts Pub” that captures our interest here.
Because when it opened under the current owners at the beginning of 2010, Harts Pub became one of the first pubs in Australia dedicated to only selling Australian-owned craft beer. And a decade of of holding strong to that commitment has seen a lot of independent beer pass through its taps.
“I reckon we do about 300 beers a year,” says co-founder and owner Mark Fethers as he thinks over the past decade. “Easy 3,000 kegs.”
There are a number of pubs in Sydney that have been licensed for a hundred years or more. Harts isn’t one of them. While the heritage building dates back to the late 1800s, architect and builder Peter Hart didn’t construct a pub, but a trio of terraced houses. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the space was first used as a bar, owned by the Shangri-La Hotel next door and tended by bow-tied hotel staff. It was in 2010 that Mark Fethers, Nick Becker and Alex Hardie took it in a new direction.
Stepping into Harts Pub today, it’s easy to look at the decor – wood panelling, sepia toned pictures of ye olde days, mirrors mounted on the wall above the fireplaces, worn red carpet that gains recognition on acclaimed Instagram award accounts – and imagine the new owners simply stepped into the space as is and opened for trading. But the transition from hotel bar to Harts Pub was a serious investment.
The three had to build in a kitchen with a reinforced floor, have gas pumped in from the hotel next door, re-do both the upstairs and downstairs bar, build in their own beer systems (without any of the assistance many bars receive from multinational beer companies) … and all while abiding by the tome of restrictions regarding the heritage-protected aspects of the building, and having to work around them.
“We got a 180 page, double-sided document with basically every single thing that is heritage-listed: what you can and can’t do with this place. It’s massive.”
But the result was well worth it – a pub with Old World charm that served New World beers. Harts Pub never set itself up as a haven for the craft beer cognoscenti, but won a following simply by offering locals and travellers good beers from Aussie breweries. In a move uncommon at the time, the staff would offer tastings of the beers available on tap, explore beer preferences with the customers, and point punters to the clipboards that outline tasting notes of the different beers.
“I always say, educate one beer drinker at a time,” Mark says.
The drinkers aren’t the only ones who benefitted from Harts Pubs approach. At a time when beer tastes in Australia were much more limited than they are now, Harts provided a market for independent breweries. Mark knew how difficult it was for new breweries to get their beer into bars; he’d founded Rocks Brewing in 2008 as a gypsy brewing company, and continued as one of the owners for several years until a recent change in ownership.
So he and the rest of the Harts team saw it as their privilege and responsibility to give new breweries a chance, which included helping the likes of Two Birds and Stone & Wood when they were in their infancy.
“I remember [Stone & Wood co-founders] Brad and Ross came to me and said, ‘Mate, we’ve started this new beer company - can you please put us on tap?’ ”
“Anybody who’s ever come to us and said, ‘We’re a new brewery, we want to put beer on’, we’ve always put their beer on. Because I know how hard it is.”
Despite knowing all too well the hard work that goes into starting a brewing company (while also running a pub), Mark’s currently building his new venture Pickled Monkey brewing, starting out with a pale ale that has a regular tap at Harts Pub. While he remembers the difficulties he had with Rocks Brewing, and is fully aware of the obstacles ahead of him with Pickled Monkey, it’s a challenge he welcomes.
“Fun and games, mate. Fun and games.”
To mark their tenth birthday, Harts Pub is hosting a week of celebrations at the start of February. They’re beginning with a “staff party”, bringing together everyone who’s ever worked at Harts over the decade.
“We’ve had a baby – two of the people who met here got married and had a baby. Oh, we’ve had two weddings, actually … couple of marriages, couple of kids. Whole family. Once you work here, you join the family. You never leave the family.”
Is it just me, or does this sound like some kind of beer mafia?
With tattoos of hops and barley up and down his arms, a long list of contacts in the beer world (many of whom undoubtedly are in his debt in some way), and a secret plan for a string of venues run in a new way, perhaps Mark sees himself as a godfather-type character in the Sydney beer scene. (Don’t ask me to tell you his secret plan – I don’t want to end up at the bottom of Sydney Harbour; and besides, I ain’t no squealer.)
So in the lead up to Harts Pub's ten year celebrations, I sat down with Don Marco – ahem, I mean Mark – to chat about what the last ten years have looked like for one of the cornerstones of Sydney’s craft beer scene, and to hear his thoughts on the future.
NB If you're reading this before January 26, Mark is hosting a bushfire relief fundraiser in support of brewers from the NSW South Coast. His parents live in Eden and his first step in support of the region is to fill a truck with beers from Dangerous Ales, Cupitt Craft Brewers, Jervis Bay Brewing Co and Camel Rock to tap at their Beat The Bushfires event in support of WIRES and the Red Cross.
HOW HAS HARTS PUB CHANGED OVER TEN YEARS?
Honestly, we’ve kept a lot of things from the start the same. If you came here ten years ago and come here now, the only thing that’s gonna change are the beers and the food. The venue’s the same - people love the feel of the old pub, the little rooms. They like that it’s small and kind of intimate.
The beer industry keeps changing, but we stay the same. Our beers change all the time with different breweries on, new breweries, new beer styles, we keep all that up to date … but we don’t change who we are or what we’re on about. Good beer, and converting people to drink good beer. Pretty simple.
People love the feel of the old pub, the little rooms. There’s not a big open loud pub, I think. They like that it’s small and kind of intimate.
HOW'S THE BEER SCENE AROUND YOU CHANGED?
There are more craft breweries, and a lot more bars have options to put craft beers on. But back when we first started, probably the first five years, all the breweries always came in here ‘cause we were one of the only ones who’d put craft beer on. But now sometimes you’re ringing people to try and buy beers, and they won’t answer the phone! It’s hard to get the beer on – they can’t make enough. It’s a great problem to have. It’s great to see the success stories of some of the breweries.
A lot of the breweries are getting a lot bigger. We used to deal with them when they were smaller – the owner would come round, drop the kegs off the back of his truck. Now you’re going through logistics companies. Not as much touch and feel from the owners and head brewers anymore.
Beer styles have come and gone. A lot of the craft brewers when they started never did lagers. They were always trying to do the edgy beers. I think it used to be like: “You’re selling your soul if you do a lager, or a low carb beer, or a mid-strength beer.” But there’s no shame in that, because you need to sell beer to make money. Any monkey can make beer. It’s selling it that’s the hardest part.
WHAT DO YOU EXPECT FROM THE NEXT DECADE OF BEER IN AUSTRALIA?
I think the Australian market will change. Anybody wanting to go national will be kidding themselves. There’s always going to be a “top tier” – which back then was 4 Pines, Mountain Goat, Stone & Wood – then under that there were another hundred. Now there’s a top tier of craft, and now there’s three hundred underneath them, or whatever the stupid number is now. So if people come to the market and think: “I’m going to go national, and be in the top tier”, it’s like, you’ve got to put five or ten million dollars in advertising if you want to do that, to get people to buy it. It’s a lot of hard work.
You can’t just sell beer; you’ve got to have a brand. A lot of beer companies do not know how to market. Over at Rocks Brewing, I ran out of money building a brewery. Didn’t have money to market it. It’s getting beer on lips; it’s getting people to buy your beer. That’s why [with Pickled Monkey] we’ve got: “Don’t fuck with the monkey.” Being a bit ballsy with advertising. This is our beer – if you don’t like it, don’t fucken drink it.
And I don’t think there’s gonna be too many more buyouts. I think that’s almost stopped. Essentially because they’ve got one in each state now, you know what I mean? Couple in Sydney. In Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth. They’ve got their national distribution. I think they won’t push them as national beers – they’ll push them as statewide beers. That way they can keep them small, keeping them local, keeping them state-based to keep the quality of the beer.
DO YOU EVER COME UP AGAINST PEOPLE WHO ARE UNHAPPY THAT YOU DON'T SERVE NON-INDEPENDENT BEER? HOW DO THOSE CONVERSATIONS GO?
They’re the best ones! They’re the challenge. Most people, you can help them find something they like.
We do get some people coming in and going: “Wheres your fucken VB? And where’s your Carlton? What’s this shit?”
And when you explain it to them, that we only have Australian owned craft beer on tap, they say: “What do you mean? Where’s your VB?”
We say: “It’s not Australian owned.” And you try and educate them on that. And they get upset, mostly because they didn’t know about it. And some people just will not try new things.
Or they’ll say: “It’s too fruity. What’s that shit in there?” You can’t convince them. So those guys, you’ve gotta go: “If you don’t like it, sorry mate - we support Australian.”
WHAT DOES THE NEXT TEN YEARS LOOK LIKE FOR HARTS PUB?
Hopefully we’re here for another ten at least!
Bit of a refurb. Little bits and pieces that after ten years you want to look at. The ladies’ toilet roof fell down the other night. That’s what happens when you’ve got a 130-year-old pub.
Maybe a coat of paint. But it’s heritage - it’s a bloody hard thing to do. The colour’s gotta be perfectly matched. People always ask: “Oh, is that Harts? Is that the pink pub?” This place hasn’t been painted in 25 years, and I’m scared that the original colour was a bright pink!
One of the great things about this place is we haven’t had to adapt too much. We’ve evolved with the craft beer, and the food, but one of the greatest things about this building [being heritage-listed] is we can’t do anything about it! So we don’t have to worry about it.
Every other pub, every five to ten years you need to reinvent it, or refurbish, or re-whatever it … but mate, if someone gave me a million dollars to invest in this place, I’d give ‘em $990,000 back! I’d buy new TVs, put some sound systems in, maybe some furniture … that’s about all I’d need. I can’t put a beer garden on the roof, I can’t do this, I can’t do that. The beer system’s still state of the art. We don’t need to do a lot of extra things.
We haven’t got much planned except doing what we’re doing, and doing it as good as we can. The beers change all the time with different breweries on, new breweries, new beer styles, we keep all that up to date. Hopefully, another twenty years, we’ll still be here, doing the same thing.