By 2014, Oxford Street already enjoyed a long history as a party destination. But that was all about to change.
In particular, the city end of the major thoroughfare was packed with nightclubs so, when Sydney introduced its infamous lockout laws, the area was forever changed.
Many places would soon shut their doors, the previous week's successful business models would need to change, and, in the middle of it all, was a new bar opened by mates Aaron Edwards and Jay Pollard called Bitter Phew.
“The lockout laws reshaped the whole city," Aaron says of the time. "We were kind of looking at offering a contrast to the party district, but then we had to ramp our business model up to make the area more lively.”
Yet, while Oxford Street changed and continues to do so, and you'd never accuse Bitter Phew of not being nimble, the bar has been a constant for inner-city Sydney. Sure, the beer taps have changed countless times but that's what makes Bitter Phew such a stalwart: the staff have always served one of the most exciting, ever-changing tap lists you'll find, even as some of the city's other pioneering beer venues have fallen away in terms of their beer offering.
“If we’d backed off the beer, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today," Aaron says. "We'd be having a very different one."
For Aaron, Bitter Phew has now taken up a quarter of his life – a reality he calls a little "frightening" – but, much like many brewery's origin stories, Bitter Phew's genesis involves plenty of travel. It was while in Europe that he first got a taste for how diverse beer could be, after sampling the drinking culture in countries like Belgium and the UK.
“You don’t have a choice, it gets fed to you," he says. "We can take it for granted now, but we did start to acquire a taste for something different rather than chasing it."
Often Aaron and Jay (who's spent years living in Denmark), would trade beers and talk about their favourites but, rather than feeling like they were searching for something new, their passion for beer was instead a slow-building appreciation that suddenly engulfed them.
“We just knew it as beer that was different; it just morphed and built from there," Aaron says. "You’d go, 'Wow, that beer is dark, let’s give it a try.'”
Aaron's international adventures also took him Japan, where after building a bar for someone else he was offered the chance to run it and found himself diving ever deeper into the world of craft beer, spirits and cocktails.
After returning to Australia, he studied architecture and design before the pair decided to build the bar of their dreams: one where craft beer reigned supreme and where the wide world of beer was available for all of Sydney to enjoy.
“To have a diverse list, you needed to have international beers on,” Aaron says of those early years.
“The standard and quality from overseas was exceptional and things are very different now; the local standard is so exceptional and you don’t need to go overseas.”
Back then, there were maybe 20 or so breweries in Australia from whom they could frequently source beers, yet few were producing the styles of beers they wanted to showcase.
“At best, you’d be lucky to get a double IPA once every six months," Aaron says. "We used to have to wait for seasonal stuff to appear to get beer on taps.
“But we had several years of maturity to get through just to get certain styles brewed here, like barrel-aged beers. You can't just have 30 farmhouse breweries open up into a market that's not educated yet.”
In the subsequent decade, Sydney has filled with breweries of its own, a situation the Bitter Phew crew has needed to navigate, as areas like the inner west and the Northern Beaches have become popular beer destinations on weekends.
“We’ve had to feel our way through that," Aaron says. "I think our place is we don’t have a stagnant beer list, our list is going to be entirely different every week.
“At the end of the day, people still want a bolthole bar in the city with a good variety of beers.”
As for Oxford Street, over the last couple of years it's been undergoing a significant redevelopment as new apartment complexes take shape. It means the last couple of years have been on the quieter side locally, but Bitter Phew is edging closer to having plenty more locals to welcome upstairs – as well as downstairs to their sibling bar Hank's.
“We’re on a very large turning point where Oxford Street is under development," Aaron says. "There are all these retail shops, offices, and apartments that are going to come online this year. So we’re going to see massive growth."
Amid all that change, however, one thing seems certain: their commitment to delivering the broadest range of craft beer they can lay their hands on won't change – even if Aaron might have to change his own approach: “I don’t think I’ll be lifting kegs in ten years!”
As they prepare to celebrate their tenth birthday this weekend, we invited Aaron to talk us through what he's learnt over the years, so read on for his zen take on beer, bars and the universe.
1. You can’t do it all on your own
Know when to ask for help. In no way shape or form have I done this on my own.
There have been countless friends, family, staff and regulars who have helped get us to where we are today, and we can’t thank them enough for their support.
2. Just because you’re ahead of the curve, doesn’t mean people are ready and waiting for you
We were the first bar in Sydney to consistently have imperial stouts, sour beers, wild ales and double IPAs as a standard on tap.
This meant that we had to invest in educating and introducing our customers to what Bitter Phew was all about. It was a slow burn, which once it stuck was great, but we can forget that we had to remain viable those first 18 months while we were waiting for people to catch up.
3. Growth isn’t always about physical expansion
“I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea, because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast. I believe that you can set your own ideas against ideas you dislike.” Neil Gaiman
I originally thought to grow you had to open multiple venues, which I learned the hard way is a quick way to spread yourself thin and burn out.
Some of the best ideas have come from a simple conversation with someone, collaboration with like-minded businesses, and now the digital world. If you have an idea that can scale easily across different mediums, it allows for more agility and growth can be quick.
4. Your friends won’t always be your customers
Your friends will be “your” greatest fans and supporters, but it doesn’t mean that they’ll always be your customers, they're usually supporting you, not necessarily the business. Realise this quickly so you can build your true customer base.
5. Remember why you’re here
I don’t mean looking in the mirror every morning with your shirt off while yelling positive affirmations to yourself.
For me, I wanted to drive change in the beer industry and inject a sense of curiosity in the community and the public by improving diversity. I wanted to utilise my creativity in this industry by broadening how people perceive beer and build new experiences.
6. Consistency in quality is key
In short, it’s about turning up every day and surrendering to the meditation found in the small repetitive acts of improvement in your day-to-day. It’s easy to overlook how much work goes into being consistently good and turning up.
I am proud of our beer and tap lists and it is easily one of Australia's most consistent lists for quality and diversity. It is hard work though and I can see why some operators let it fall by the wayside.
So many venues and operators go really well for the first six months and then it all falls away. The industry, media, and people celebrate openings and are always there to report the closings, but quickly forget the businesses that are consistently good and great at what they do and keep the fabric tight.
7. Complacency kills
Bitter Phew opened with a clear business plan which was basically thrown out the window as the Sydney lockout laws were introduced three months later.
Although it was stressful at the time, it forced me to get into a habit of iterating and innovating quickly and thus build agility into my business model. Change is constant and unavoidable, so this habit has served me well over the years.
8. Collaboration will always outperform competition
In 2014, the beer industry was one of the fastest-growing industries in Australia and there was a sense of community and camaraderie in sharing our love for beer with the world. Collaboration was a huge part of how we all got here.
Things changed a few years ago when breweries and bars got bigger, or were on the path of creating a larger presence. We no longer talk to each other much now and I feel we’ve lost that a bit.
One of my favourite memories is the “Cannonball Run” we did with Big Shed Brewing. The idea was to have an Adelaide-based brewery tap one of their beers (Californicator IPA) the freshest possible in Sydney. The boys kegged the beer off, popped it into a car filled with ice and drove 17 hours to the bar.
It was all live-streamed and was a great way of showcasing the efforts we go to. In no way shape or form was that a financially-motivated event, but it garnered a lot of interest and attention.
9. Prioritise sleep
We can easily get caught up with the gradual build-up of days and weeks of running our own business and the one thing that actually helps us keep energised is one of the first things we sacrifice. We forget how much our bodies do for us, especially when we’re worried about keeping a business running.
If you take care of your body and mind, it will mean you will be in the right shape to take care of the business. So sleep even if the pile of ‘To Dos” grows, SLEEP!
10. Sometimes the best solution is to do nothing
The universe has a funny way of showing you what you need, not necessarily what you want. When COVID first hit, for the first few months I was running through a list of solutions of how to keep the business afloat, keep people employed and so on, but none of them were viable as we now know when we all entered lockdowns. A few weeks later all the support flooded in via the government, customers and so on.
By no means am I saying “do nothing” when a problem arises, however not every problem needs to be solved, or at the minimum, solved by you.
Learning to psychologically let go meant that the universe could do its thing. I have found a lot of the time when I am unable to solve the problem, maybe it doesn't need solving or I just let it go and see what comes back.
Bitter Phew's tenth birthday is on January 27 and includes magnums, rare bottles and a tap list filled with beers from some of their close mates. The full details are here.
You can find other entries in the Ten Lessons From Ten Years series here.