In 2013, Caxton Street was a place in need of redemption. Its drinking scene was ruled by hordes of footy fans guzzling their bodyweight in XXXX Gold and Bundy rum, interspersed with hen’s parties marching down the road wearing penis necklaces.
At the same time, Matt Emmerson and Antoinette Pollock had been looking for a place where they could open a bar dedicated to independent craft beer. So when a bar on Caxton Street became available, what did the couple say?
“Oh god, no way!” Ant says with disgust. “We lived in Red Hill, and we never went to Caxton Street.”
Evidently, the spot won them over. Ten years on, Brewski Bar stands proudly on Caxton Street – these days with an expanded footprint, a bottleshop downstairs, and a steady stream of discerning drinkers flowing through the doors.
Before opening Brewski, Matt and Ant worked in marketing, not hospitality. But, during a stint living in the UK, they both fell in love with the pub culture there. Brisbane’s own pub culture was sorely lacking in comparison, and they wanted to be part of the solution.
With Queensland’s small bar licences having recently come into play, and Ant’s sister and brother-in-law partnering with them financially, the pair saw the opportunity to try something new.
Matt in particular had a dream to own a craft beer bar: as well as homebrewing, he’d been propping up the bar at The Scratch and picking up new beers every time he walked into Festival Cellars (which later became Craft Red Hill).
“Matt spent a lot of money there,” Ant recalls. “I thought maybe this is a way of him saving money!”
If only Ant had known. Poor, naïve Ant.
When I ask Matt what was the most he’s spent on a single event at Brewski, he thinks for a moment then says: “Bruery Black Tuesday. Twelve beers. Would’ve been close to a grand a keg, so eleven, twelve thousand for beers.
“Just stupid. But totally worth it!”
Matt’s known for such kid-in-a-candy-shop type events: a Knee Deep tap takeover dominated by triple IPAs; Battle of the Barrel: AUS vs USA, at which they pitched five Goose Island barrel-aged beers against five from Melbourne’s Boatrocker; 14 kegs of Dessert In A Can beers from Amundsen, with filled doughnuts on the side (this was subtitled Possibly The Most Stupid Beer Event Ever).
“For me, it was getting access to beers I wanted to try – bucket list beers," he says. "I was fulfilling my own beer fantasies. But I knew there were other people who’d appreciate that. Or we’d go broke.”
Luckily, Brewski found many kindred spirits to share in the appreciation of madcap events, because they don’t come about easily. Matt and Ant have put in concerted effort over the years to gain access to some of these beers.
“Getting any of the importers to release some of the good shit to a little bar in Brisbane was hard work. We weren’t taken seriously for a long time. We had to convince those guys there’s a market up here.”
But convince them they did. Relationships with people is a big part of business, and Matt and Ant have built solid relationships both on home soil and foreign shores. Nowadays, when an international brewery wants to launch in Australia, importers will hit up Brewski as their Queensland venue.
Brewski’s focus on imported beers was much stronger in the early days than it is today, since back then there weren’t many local options. But, even as the Australian scene blossomed and a plethora of local independent breweries flooded the taps at Brewski, Matt has always kept one eye on the international scene.
“As much as we love championing local stuff, there’s a lot to learn from international stuff. I still want to see these beers from around the world," he says. "It sets a benchmark.”
Brewski celebrated its tenth birthday at the weekend – with a party featuring a massive tap lineup, of course. Some things have changed in the past decade, such as the emergence of three My Beer Dealer bottleshops that spread Matt’s beer fantasies a little further. Other things have stayed the same, like the IPA lights above the bar that still give you a sunburn.
Matt hasn’t learned to stop buying silly beers. (This year he ran an event with 14 barleywines on tap. A barleywine festival, Matt? Really?!) But he and Ant have learned other things, so they deserve a spot in our Ten Lessons From Ten Years series.
Matt Emmerson & Antoinette Pollock
1. Building Community, Not A Bar
When we opened, a lot of locals didn’t come to Caxton Street. So our vision was to create a neighbourhood bar, like an English pub where you could come to sit and chat and build community. A place where people could socialise and be in a safe environment. Australia had been lacking in that. Brisbane, particularly.
Brewski was obviously built around beer, and we knew the community around beer was passionate and tight, and we wanted to be a part of that. We wanted to serve quality booze. We were looking for the people who cared what they drink.
We always wanted to put together interesting stuff that made people think about what they drank, rather than just: "Will it get me tanked?" We knew enough about what was going on in the other part of the world, and wanted to bring that to Brisbane particularly. And, in that, to bring like-minded people together.
Looking back, it’s pretty cool seeing some long-lasting friendships from meeting here around beer events, or even just coming in for a quiet beverage. Some people that are literally best mates, or partnered up, because of here. It’s pretty cool to know we’re an integral part of their friendship. That feels like: mission accomplished.
In doing that, though, we didn’t want to become a wanky venue, where when someone comes in and says: "Have you got any Great Northern?" and we say: "No. Fuck off and go down to The Caxton [Hotel]."
We thought: "This is a person who needs to learn a little bit more about what they could be trying." So that was always a mission of ours: to help them on their craft beer journey, and make it accessible.
[Matt, with a tired sigh: “Don’t say ‘journey’…”]
We encourage that of our staff: don’t make people feel little. It’s our job to make people feel comfortable when they come in. The same for the female audience. Don’t assume when a female walks in the venue: "Oh, you’d like a vodka and tonic or something." And don’t mansplain shit.
2. Complementary Skills in Management
Left brain, right brain, essentially.
Ant’s strengths are managing people, staff expectations, organising tasks and projects and what needs to be done to get an event going. Much more left brain.
Matt’s more right brain. Beer buyer, vibe, most of the marketing. We pow-wow about it – we do lean on each other. But Matt comes up with the creative, based on what we’re trying to solve.
Ant’s sister Natasha has always done the books, and invoicing, and payroll – that stuff that neither of us really wants to do. But it’s really important to have someone in the business who’s very detail-oriented and makes sure that stuff gets done.
And Simon has that accounting background, which is super valuable to have. Probably a large part of why we’re still here. "Matt, do you realise you’ve got $16,000 worth of barleywine kegs?!"
In the early days, Simon’s forecasting helped a lot. Depending on who the Broncos were playing, he would be able to get within a couple of hundred dollars of how much we’d take on a night. We’d have enough historical data if they were playing Canberra Raiders, for example, we’d know how much we’d take. And also whether they won or lost, and the time the game starts, and all those kind of things. Which was helpful for rostering and stock levels. It was very nice having that business guidance and analysis.
3. Being Authentic
I think a lot of craft beer venues have authenticity, and the ones that don’t have it stand out. They stink. Particularly on this street, authenticity means the owners have created this venue out of their passion, not: "Craft beer’s a fad, let’s jump on it." People can smell it if you’re not authentic.
I remember when we first opened, everyone said: “What do you mean, you’re not going to sell Bundy? On this street?!” People came in and were disbelieving. And, in the early days, when we were first open, it was dead. A lot of people walked out and we lost a lot of customers.
But we built a bar we wanted to drink in and hang out in. And it built a different audience.
It was a dickhead filter. People who knew we didn’t serve certain brands, they kept walking. But it doesn’t just filter people who want to drink that; it filters people who don’t want to explore. People who were super rigid: “My dad drank XXXX Gold, I drink XXXX Gold, and I’m never changing.”
But we did stick to our guns at the time, and kept persevering: “Try this instead.” And there were a lot of guys [who’d asked for a Bundy or XXXX] who then went: “OK, I’ll give that a go.” A personality type, a curiosity, prepared to try something new and different.
4. Never stand still, embrace change
If you don’t, you go under!
As soon as you think you’ve got a formula that works, it stops working. You have deal nights that pump for a year… then they stop.
It’s everything. Not just the booze – also your food offering. We started with pizza, because we inherited a pizza oven. Then the burgers went nuts, so we thought: “Let’s get rid of the pizza oven.” Matt got into smoking meat, so we followed that. We renovated the kitchen so we can do different things.
We recognised very early on there are two kinds of drinking people: people who like to come out and socialise, and people who want to drink at home. And they could be into the same beers, but want a different experience. Some don’t want to go out or can’t go out, say, if they have kids at home. So we did this renovation to make the bottleshop; that was a different arena for us.
If you keep still, you don’t survive.
5. Fuck the haters
Early on, when we moved to Caxton Street, we had people on the street – hardcore hospo guys who had just opened a bar themselves – telling us: “You’ve got six months, guys. You don’t know what you’re doing.” And a lot of people were telling us: “You’re not doing it right. No one’s going to pay that for those beers.”
That was fuel for us to keep going, and prove them wrong.
Then there’s the amount of online hate we got from these carnivorous keyboard warriors! We championed vegan food early on. There wasn’t much vegan stuff going on ten years ago, but with our pizzas we did a vegan pizza – Ant’s been vego for 35 years, so it was really important to have that offering – and when we did the burgers, we always wanted to have a plant-based option for every meat option on the menu. Which was challenging at the time, but it was what we believed in.
But the hate we got from certain parts of the community was pretty strong. It’s an interesting community, that group of meat-eaters who hate the vegan things. We’re not making you eat it! We’re not cutting anything out!
Of course, we can see now that the plant-based trend was going that way.
Back yourself. Believe in yourself. More than anything, it’s to turn around and say: “We made a success out of what you bloody hated.”
6. Fail often, learn fast
Just give it a crack, and seeing what works.
The amount of silly events we’ve done that we’ve known would likely blow back in our face. Or you might get three people show up. And quite often you do. But the events that pop, surprisingly, and go crazy… that’s where you learn. You surprise yourself.
Coming from a creative background in advertising, you put yourself out there creatively and get knocked back a lot. You get used to putting a little piece of yourself out there and getting eaten up. And not crying in your sleep if something doesn’t work. You go: “Right. We’ve learned something from that.”
We’re never doing a barleywine festival ever again. It was Matt’s dream for five years. And we’ve had three or four guys come up and say: “That was one of my favourite events.” There were 50 people here, and for a lot of them, it was a very special time. Financially, it was a fucking disaster.
Barleywine’s a very niche thing, but we feel like that’s a part of Brewski’s job. To champion unpopular styles, and really show people what beer can be, knowing that it’s not going to be popular, or financially responsible…
Like what we did with the advent calendar: the 12 Imperial Stouts of Xmas, during a Queensland summer! We pushed the edge of advent calendars. But that was a good example of giving a silly idea a run. We did that for two years, and it sold OK. But we were a bit ambitious, and it was a hard slog. So we’re not doing it this year.
We’ll do something equally silly some one day…
[Ant, laughing: “Matt, don’t buy any more barleywines!”]
6. Booze self-management
That’s an industry thing. Everyone who’s gotten into the booze game obviously is into their booze. And it’s a cautionary tale about watching yourself, and being self aware of that.
Particularly when you’re open late. I [Matt] took myself off working late nights, because I’d end up going out afterwards. You had a busy stressful night, you go for a knock-off at Lefty’s, and all of a sudden the sun comes up, and your partner doesn’t talk to you for three days.
[Ant, laughing: “I don’t do that!”]
It’s all so accessible, compared to anybody working in any other game. It’s all around you: you’re getting samples all the time, you’re trying new beers. How do you manage that so it’s a healthy-ish relationship with alcohol, as opposed to one that takes over your life? Because we saw lots of people in the game who… didn’t. And you’ve got to be really disciplined in that.
And even with our staff, same thing. We made some stupid mistakes as far as letting our staff, you know, with knock-offs and things… and have it quite often unravel. It didn’t work out for any of us. So we’ve become a much stricter venue as we matured.
We’re very conscious that we’re selling a legal drug, and managing ourselves as well as possible, and the people under our care.
8. Being in business and in bed together
We’re a couple, and Ant’s sister and brother-in-law are a couple. You’ve got two couples working together, not to mention siblings. And we’ve got children. So it’s always been very difficult for us to separate work and play.
Over the years, we’ve done a really terrible job of it at times, because we lived and breathed our bar. It was hard when we got home to separate and not talk about work. It still is. As our daughter got older, she started telling us: “Stop talking about work!”
Ask anybody who’s in business together. You talk, and also clash, about work. When we work well together, we work very well. But when we disagree, it’s hard to keep it separate from your relationship. It’s really tricky.
And even with siblings, you do treat each other differently to how you’d treat another business partner. I [Ant] know I can rely on those guys and trust them completely. But you also clash, because you say things to them you wouldn’t say to another business partner.
I think we’ve done extremely well for ten years to negotiate around our relationships!
9. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story – the Angela Merkel story
Even today, people mention this. The claim to fame.
It was during the G20 Summit in 2014. We’d only been open a year-and-a-half.
Gambaro’s [on Caxton Street] was a delegate hotel, so they had bulletproof Plexiglass set up all out the front, and there were police everywhere; there were literally snipers on the roof of Gambaro’s. It was pretty full-on. Venues were all quite quiet. But we had a few people, and at ten o’clock at night the tables outside were pretty full because it was too hot to sit in the venue.
Caxton Street was closed to the public, and this official car came down the street with a little German flag on the front of the car, and Angela Merkel gets out. Everyone in Brewski starts yelling out: “Angela, Angela! Come over here!”
She turned to her security detail and got the nod, and next thing in the bar there’s all these dudes wearing suits just standing around.
She came over, shook people’s hands. A couple of our regulars at the time got a selfie with her, and that selfie went global. That was the feelgood story of the G20. Brewski Bar was on the front page of the New York Times!
We posted on social media, and that went ballistic. Somebody said: “What did she drink?” She was only out the front for like 60 seconds, but I responded as Brewski: “Just schnapps and hef.” It was bullshit – she didn’t come in for a drink. But that was taken as a quote, and published all around that she came in for a drink.
We put on 99 Luftballons, by Nena. And a trivia show used that as one of their questions: "What song did Brewski Bar play when Angela Merkel went in for a beer…"
We played the song. She didn’t come in for a beer.
The funny thing is, I had a career in advertising for 18 years before that: our job was to try and get shit to go viral. Buy a bar and a couple of years later, we go viral for something that’s an accident.
10. Don’t do fondue: a story about setting fire to the bar during Brewsvegas
Ant: Just one of the most terrifying times of owning a venue!
It was one of our Brewsvegas events, maybe 2019. We had this great idea to do fondue and farmhouse ales. We spent a couple of weeks going round to different op shops to look for secondhand fondue sets. We needed to get enough; the tickets were selling well, because it was a novel idea.
The whole back area was full of fondue sets and people. We had about 20 fondue sets. There were about two of them that started to play up. The person was like: “This fondue set’s getting a bit out of control…”
It was flaming, 'cos it’s got kerosene in there, and it just got out of control. Luckily one of the regulars went: “I think you need your fire blanket. Get it! Get it!”
And so I put it over the top of this fondue set, but it’s still flaming like crazy, so I run with this flaming fondue set out to the front of the venue to get it out of here, because I’m like: “We’re gonna set fire to the place!”
One of my staff comes out with a big bucket of water, and I went: “No, that’s gonna set it off more! Leave it!”
Someone did take a video of me looking like a frickin’ idiot.
Matt: My side of the story: I got in really early to set everything up. So, when service started and everyone came in, I went downstairs just to chill out for a bit; take a breather, and I had a bit of other work to do. Half an hour later, I popped back upstairs: Ant’s running around like a mofo, everyone was panicked, and there was a fire blanket lying on the ground. I was like: “What the fuck happened?!”
If you’re thinking of doing a fondue event – think again. Or make it smaller, and make sure you know where you’re getting your fondue sets from.
And contact the fire department.
Ant: Are they still on Marketplace, those fondue sets, or did we sell them? I think they’re under the house…
Do you want to buy some fondue sets?
You can read other entries in our Ten Lessons From Ten Years series here.