What makes a great boozer great?
In a unique new series, award-winning beer writer and podcaster Luke Robertson of Ale of a Time sets out to discover the answer, breaking down the experience of going out in Australia in the company of experts.
First, he tells us why...
"This series came from thinking about the little things in pubs and wondering where they first came from and first happened. What are these things we are so familiar with in pubs?
"I wanted to unpack all these little bits and pieces that we know of in pubs and bars and try to work out where they came from: who was the first to come up with them and why are they a certain way and why do they look a certain way?
"Given the year we’ve had, we are all really excited to be back out, but being in a pub, bar or brewery is about more than the beer or people we are there to connect with. I feel like now is the right time to celebrate the little things that we maybe take for granted sometimes.
"There’s the tactile nature of everything you touch, and you look around and enjoy the pictures on the wall, the company of the people there, and these are things you might not have thought about. But people have thought about them.
"In this first story, the doorway is so critical for a modern pub and your experience as a customer – yet we don’t think about it at all. You just walk in and get a beer.
"I’d like people to read these and tell us what they like about pubs, or start thinking about their local and going: ‘Yeah, they do that really well.' I just like to hear about pubs and people’s pub experiences."
You can tell us what you love about your local here or in the comments at the bottom of the article. For now, however, let's start at the very beginning...
There are few things as awkward as the thunk of a pub door that won’t open. Maybe there’s a “please use other door” sign, but it’s too late. You’re not from around here, are you?
The other day I counted the doors on one of my locals, the 19th Century-built Victoria Hotel in Footscray (pictured at the top of the article). In total, there are six street entrances for what is a normal-sized corner pub. So why do all these old school boozers have so many random doors?
“The different entrances to a pub reveal much about its different social spaces,” according to Dr Tanja Luckins, co-author of The Australian Pub, and historian at La Trobe University. She says that, in the 19th century, Australian pubs were often in private dwellings; the only distinguishing feature was the doorway.
“The addition of a shingle over the front door transformed a house into a pub. Pubs also had to have a light over the main entrance,” she tells The Crafty Pint via email. “Until the introduction of gas street lamps, a street was often only lit by the lamps hung outside pubs, which innkeepers were legally required to keep burning from sunset to dawn.”
Once pubs moved out of houses, different spaces were built for different reasons. The public bar was for everyday drinking, dining rooms were at the back or upstairs with their own entrances. Pre air-conditioning, more doors also helped the cool breeze flow in summer. Until the 1960s, licensing laws required sleeping quarters, which meant one more entrance. Then there were gender and societal norms.
“The ladies lounge or parlour either had its own street entrance away from the main part of the pub, sometimes down a side lane, or had an internal doorway away from public view. Women were served their drinks through a servery hatch,” she says.
“The saloon bar [for the white collar workers] sometimes with its own street entrance, provided stools and charged higher prices.”
Larger establishments may have had an added Lounge bar with comfortable chairs for couples. Some even had a resident barber in a small room at the front, while in country pubs the room was for commercial travellers showcasing their wares (we’d probably call that a pop-up these days). The first World War added more reasons for entrances.
“The introduction of six o’clock closing in World War I changed the architecture of hotels. Back entrances adjacent to laneways became popular, and publicans would illegally sell bottled beer from these entrances after hours," she says.
There are also claims, from the police at the time, that pubs installed doorbells, lookouts and even cockatoos to help alert the publican when the cops were on the prowl.
Easy, Clear, A Little Bit of Cover
While classic Australian pub design has left some with many doors and few right choices, modern design is all about avoiding awkwardness. Paul Kelly, architect and creative director at Paul Kelly Design, specialises in hospitality spaces. His company is behind large refurbishments like the Oaks Bar and Grill and the Ivanhoe Hotel of Manly (pictured above). He says creating pub entrances is all about “making things logical”.
“The trick is to not let people feel like they are idiots,” he says.
“We put the main entrances off to the sides, so they [customers] are not walking into the guts of the venue, especially if there’s a sports screen or something, and the entrance is below. We try and get the customer to try and turn away and not be facing the crowd directly as they walk in. We try and manipulate the movements.”
He also likes spaces where people can catch their breath, and are obstructed from view while they decide their next move. The Ivanhoe of Manly is a favourite example of his; you’re greeted by a long side table with a view of the downstairs bar and a staircase to the right. You won’t be in full view when you arrive, and there’s space to step inside, or turnaround and leave if it’s not for you.
Kelly says his approach to redoing an old boozer is to remove windows from doors so they become only exits, and draw attention to the main entrance using lights, plants, and signage. He adds that it can be a good place to set the tone for your brand.
Entrance as Advertising
One example of using an entrance to create value is Beechworth’s Bridge Road Brewers. It has a long corridor that takes you off a busy tourist street into the beer garden. Not quite the secret door of a cocktail speakeasy, but hidden enough to create a journey.
“There’s value in feeling like you’ve found something and discovered something that not everyone has access to.” says brewery founder Ben Kraus. “Looking through different reviews – Google, Trip Advisor, Facebook – there’s a lot of talk of people saying they went down this little laneway and walked into this beer garden and discovered it.
"It’s the idea of discovery, and the signage on the street is not in your face.”
It also serves as a space for curious window shoppers when the brewery is closed, including a touchscreen with six videos about the brewery, alongside chalkboards explaining the brewing process. Ben says he got the touch screen idea from real estate agents.
While the entrance is a quirk of the space, it’s worked out for the better.
“We didn’t plan it that way, but it turned out that way, and we tried to plan it from there. ‘What does it look like when you walk down the laneway and walk into that area?’ – all those little things make beer taste better at the end of the day.”
Paul agrees, saying the right experience at the entrance will just mean happier customers.
“If you walk in and you feel great, and the lights are right, the music’s right, and the aircon’s right, and everything is where it’s supposed to be, that’s good logical design," he says.
So, while that thunk may be awkward, on those occasions when you find a well-signed door leading you to right where you need to be, you may not even notice. But it’ll make that first sip a lot more enjoyable.
In part two of Doors To Dunnies, Luke looks at bar tops.
Before then, let's hear from you: do you have favourite pub or bar doors – or those you wish the landlord would fix up? And what do you think makes for a great boozer?