On any given Saturday, it doesn't take long while walking the streets of Brookvale to realise you've entered a wonderful beer utopia.
You might start with a tasting paddle at Nomad Brewing only to walk less than ten minutes down the street to the 4 Pines Truck Bar before strolling back to Dad & Dave’s Brewing to enjoy an IPA or gin and tonic. By that point, you might be looking for a meal, in which case head to Freshwater Brewing for a Wedge Cerveza and fish finger sandwich before crossing the road for a pilsner at 7th Day Brewery ahead of catching a gig at Bucketty's.
The streets are teaming with people having a good time, the breweries are full... does it get any better than this?
In a few short years, this suburb on Sydney’s Northern Beaches has morphed from a quiet industrial area you'd likely only visit for a work meeting or to get your car fixed into a brewery hub people spend the day traversing. Nomad were first to take up residence back in 2014 with 4 Pines opening the doors to the Brookvale Truck Bar at their main production brewery the following year. Since then, more and more have arrived, taking advantage of the industrial zoning and reasonable rent.
Today there are six physical breweries with venues of one sort or another, plus a couple of distilleries, while more of both currently have planning applications lodged with the Northern Beaches Council.
At the same time, while the beer seems to flow endlessly on weekends, Brookvale isn’t a busy place midweek; neither is it a suburb with a large population. Craft beer has long had a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality and the brewery boom has definitely attracted more people to the suburb, but are there growing pains brewing in beer paradise?
Dave Dumay and his family launched Dad & Dave back in 2011, brewing for some years without a home; their first Brookvale brewery and taproom opened in 2017 to the public in Chard Road. Since then, they’ve expanded into a larger space around the corner on Mitchell Road and started making spirits under the Wildspirit Distilling banner. Their second site opened to the public in early 2021, just a few weeks ahead of Bucketty's arrival in Brookvale, followed by Freshwater's brewpub the following year.
As something of a veteran of the scene, Dave says even when there were half as many breweries, the area was already a drawcard for eager beer drinkers.
“We were a little bit of a destination, just having the three of us,” he says. “We'd have people come in and bar hop the three venues and then go home.”
And although the number of breweries has grown, Dave thinks they all have unique selling points, whether it’s their range of spirits, Bucketty’s focus on live music, or 4 Pines’ substantial screens for sport.
“We’re peddling the same stuff at the end of the day, but I think everyone’s got enough product in there that’s different enough to set each other apart,” he adds.
While his weekends are busy, the same can’t be said for weeknights, despite their best efforts. Dave says their Thursday night trivia is popular but they recently spent ten weeks trying to find ways to keep the taproom open – viably – on a Wednesday night. Despite having a lot of fun with Mario Kart tournaments and musical bingo, they ultimately couldn’t justify keeping the doors open.
“It just got to the point where I’d spent a lot of money on it so far and haven't seen much reward out of it,” Dave says.
“So we just went back to doing our Thursday to Sunday.”
On the flipside, he suggests the busy weekends can bring their own challenges. Dad & Dave's only have space for around 100 people, which means it fills quickly on a Friday or Saturday. Sure, a full bar means more money in the till, but Dave says they're not set up for quick service like a pub.
“Me and my family, we’ve been in hospitality essentially all our lives,” he explains. “We want to be able to have a nice experience in the venue, take a bit of time, and make sure that everything's done to a particular standard – and sometimes on a Friday or Saturday, we’re so busy we can’t do that.
“But on the opposite end, you come around to a Wednesday or Thursday and it's just a ghost town.”
It’s a fine balance to strike. On weekends, he thinks Brookvale would be better served by having more breweries: it would give both visitors and locals confidence in the knowledge they can turn up and get in somewhere without queueing or then facing long lines for a beer.
Part of the problem is also what's helped make the suburb such a good place for breweries in the first place: there's many warehouses suited for transformation into breweries, but not a huge number of residents – around 3,500 live locally according to the most recent census. Sure, there are plenty more in nearby Manly and Dee Why but they have their own venues and, unlike Sydney’s inner west, for example, Sydneysiders are less likely to travel to the Northern Beaches on a weeknight.
“Anyone from the other side of the Spit Bridge doesn’t want to come across to the Northern Beaches," Dave says. "They see it as too far with no train lines and too hard to get to."
His views are shared by Nick McDonald, who opened Bucketty’s in the area with wife Lexi following a protracted planning period that ultimately saw their initial plans to open in the regional NSW town of Bucketty rejected (their busy venue is at the top of this article).
“During the bigger times, having more places is good because you can give a better experience and people can find a beer more easily,” Nick says. “But to try and run a business by just being busy one or two nights a week is hard.”
Compounding the issue is the need to turn eager punters away at busy times; Bucketty’s capacity is limited to 200 people despite having room for more as evidenced by the special events they've run for around 500 without having concerns raised by local residents.
“On a Saturday, it would be good to be able to have 300 or 400,” Nick says. “We’ve got the space to fit them, it’s just council won’t let us because we don’t have the carparks, which I think is a bit antiquated.
“We’ll have people lining up staring at empty tables wondering what the issue is.”
Like Dad & Dave's, they’ve tried various measures to attract guests during the week but found their ideas falling short. The popular gigs and late opening hours compared to many of their peers helps, yet Nick says they don’t always hit the numbers they’d like.
“It’s not dire, but you want to try and get a hundred people in and it might be 40 or 50,” he says.
Even if they came up with the perfect Wednesday night event that no local in their right mind would want to miss, the fact remains that there aren't that many locals.
“I wonder how it’s going to play out. Our rent isn’t that expensive compared to where they are now but, even then, you have to do well to be profitable.”
Such concerns come at a time when the wider beer and hospitality industries – not to mention most of the Australian economy – are facing a squeeze. Yet, as local breweries continue to open across the country and more existing brewing company owners start to look closer to home for a market, what's happening in Brookvale will have echoes elsewhere.
In this case, the Northern Beaches council has a plan for the suburb which includes more than 1,000 new homes, shared cycleways, and better support for the night-time economy. But with the council currently reviewing public feedback, it’s still a long way off becoming reality and it’s unclear how the Brookvale Structure Plan will ultimately take shape; as Australia continues to grapple with a housing crisis, local councils and state governments can remain at loggerheads over the best way forward.
While they’ve been told they’re part of the area’s masterplan – and that the council wants breweries in the area – Dave says little has been done to date to improve the experience of visiting the suburb’s breweries. He cites safety concerns – "walking around an industrial area late at night because there's no streetlights, there's no crosswalks, and no traffic lights,” adding: “We’d love the council to come on board and put in a few extra streetlights or do a safe walking map – just something to make it safer for people and to get that confidence up for people walking through.”
He’s wondered whether the area would benefit from a local body to advocate on the brewers' behalf, as with the Inner West Brewery Association, but accepts running such an operation properly would require time and money and both are in short supply right now thanks to the economic pinch.
One operation set to join the Brookvale collective is Broken Bay Brewing Co, which is slated to open this summer. Locals Andrew Forster and Brenton Fischer are the duo bringing it to life, complete with the name referencing the nearby body of water that separates Sydney from the Central Coast.
“It's become a bit of a scene,” Andrew says.
“From what I can tell, a lot of the brewers down there are pretty keen to see more.”
With many other industries having already left Brookvale for sites on the city’s fringes, he believes the suburb needs investment with the likes of nearby Manly showing how multiple different bars and restaurants can bring in people.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “if there were only one or two bars down there, it's not an attractive precinct for the punters to sort of flock to. That’s exactly what Brookvale is becoming, which is great because the area desperately needs some regeneration.”
Andrew says the council have largely been supportive of their plans and he believes there's a willingness to help drive more people to the brewery.
“I think they're keen to do more,” he says. “They've released their vision for the area, how quickly that comes into play, I don't know.”
Andrews adds that he sees the value of the local breweries advocating as one too, both to work with council and to bring more people into the area
“We probably take for granted being in the big metros sometimes because of what we've got at our fingertips.”
As for their brewery plans, they view Broken Bay as bringing something unique, both in terms of the beers they plan to brew and the venue experience. They're both drawn to European brewing traditions and the long history of such breweries making beer with precision and consistency. They'll be installing Australia's first SIMATEC Impiantibirra brewhouse, with their early planning and research trips leading the pair to Italy over the American travel route more commonly followed by budding brewery owners.
“We’re trying to bring a little bit more of a European flavour – to bring something a little bit different,” Andrew says.
Given Broken Bay's connection to the local waterways and Andrew and Brenton's own passion for boating, they're promising a venue with a laid-back vibe, as well as a somewhat unusual feature coming as part of stage two of the development when they plan to we rooftop beer garden.
The risks posed by quiet midweek trade has been part of their forecasting too.
“We've been really conservative with our weekday modelling," Andrew says. "There might be half a dozen people in the place.”
As they prepare to welcome another newcomer to the 'burb less than three years after welcoming their first guests, Bucketty’s Nick wonders if the Northern Beaches has a population eager enough to visit craft breweries often enough. He attended the Craft Brewers Conference in Nashville earlier in the year and has the words of the US Brewers Association’s chief economist, Bart Watson, still ringing in his ears.
Bart spoke about how, over time, the growth in the total number of breweries in America was slowing as openings and closings were taking place at the same time. As such, you would expect the beer industry to look like any other: when one brewery opens, another shuts its doors.
“I feel like that moment is coming soon," Nick says. "You’re starting to see more breweries popping up for sale and going belly up like it’s a real inflection point in the industry."
It's a thought that holds relevance in many parts of the country right now, and looking at his adopted home, Nick wonders what's next for a suburb that's changed significantly in the two-and-a-half years they've been open.
“It’s come a really long way in a short space of time,” he says. “Obviously, we've been sort of right in the middle of that, but with more places by the end of the year, I just wonder what that does?”