November 25, 2010 by Crafty Pint
It turns out that if you build it, they will come. After all, if someone had told you a few years ago they planned to open a craft beer bar on the edge of the Yarra Ranges – in the home of Puffing Billy to boot – you’d have wished them good luck and hoped they had the money to lose. Yet Oscar’s Alehouse celebrates its second birthday tomorrow in rude health. Its loyal customer base races through keg after keg of fine Australian-brewed beer (and seems to post comments singing its praises on every Crafty Pint beer story that appears on the Age website) while American owner Brad Merritt watches orders of specialty bottled beers sell out before he has the chance to add them to his blackboard.
While Belgrave – 40km from Melbourne’s CBD – is hardly Broken Hill, the bar’s success, recognised with impressive placings in a number of categories in the recent Beer & Brewer Best Venue awards, is a good omen for the chances of craft beer in Australia spreading beyond the capital cities. Brad, who runs the bar with wife Gypsy, says he’s “in disbelief” at the results and also the support of his dedicated followers. To mark his birthday, he gave Crafty an insight into the Oscar’s story.
On its opening
I played it somewhat safe in the beginning by offering some recognised brands, while focusing on Victorian microbrewed beers. I had Cooper’s Sparkling, James Squire Amber and Little Creatures on tap when I started, along with Old Speckled Hen and Hargreaves Hill Pale Ale. I knew, given time, I could educate some, lose others, and gain a following of local people who had to venture into the city to find good beer otherwise. I had 25 beers in bottle when I opened, and that often exceeds 60 these days; I always have more beer than I can physically list.
How he got into craft beer
I was working my way through university when I first started bartending in Buffalo, NY. I was also involved in live music booking/promotion at clubs in Buffalo and found I had a talent for it. I decided to move to Los Angeles to see if I could make a career out of it. I eventually started my own indie record label, which I ran for five years, all the while bartending to support my business. It was during this time that the craft brewing industry in the US was starting to grow. Luckily, I had the Library Alehouse just a ten minute walk from my pad in Venice Beach. Their menu of ever-changing microbrewed beer on tap was an inspiration to me, although I had no idea the impact it would have on me until many years later.
The origins of Oscar’s
While working at a top Los Angeles interactive agency, into my local bar walks Gypsy, this cute, confident and strong willed Aussie backpacker. She proposed to me (yep, that’s right) after three months living together in LA but the deal was I’d have to move to Australia. Three-and-a-half years later, we land in Melbourne and settle in the Dandenong Ranges and I start working for an online marketing agency within a month with a daily commute to the city. It was great at first but the stress of the job, the long commute and little time I spent with my wife got the better of me.
I took up the hobby of homebrewing as I was not satisified with the beer available in the hills, especially at the local bars. After my fourth kit brew, I was ready to give it up but a friend, Jeff Wyant (currently a brewer at Holgate), convinced me to continue but get into all-grain brewing. My beer went from swill to exceptional. I immersed myself in home brewing study, joined a home brewing club and brewed while my passion for website development and search engine optimisation waned. I wanted to brew on a commercial level but wasn’t ready to open a brewery. So, to raise the capital to start a brewery, I decided to pull all my experiences together – bartending, a passion for beer, customer service, marketing/promotion, booking talent – and decided to open a bar. Two-and-a-half years later, Oscar’s Alehouse opened its doors.
Business is still growing after two years. We advertised locally in the beginning but stopped completley as we were getting the wrong crowd. We made the conscious decision to grow the business naturally by word of mouth and filter out the undesirables. The best decision we ever made was never to carry any VB, Carlton, Tooheys, Hahn and the like. We are a free bar, we have no contracts; we decide what we stock and who we deal with.
Our business is mostly local, but in such a sparse area, local means up to a 15km away. We have a very steady base of regulars and a smaller percentage of people who come from the city to check us out. We’ve become what many refer to as Cheers: a place where everyone knows your name. Our focus (other than excellent drinks) is conversation, a place where friends can meet and enjoy each other’s company without screaming over music.
What else is on offer other than beer?
Light food that goes well with drinks: all Victorian cheese plates, bruschetta, gourmet cheesy toast, bowls of beer nuts and grilled mixed nuts, plus kalamata olives handpicked from an olive grove in Greece established in 776BC.
All Victorian wines, including a Shiraz from a vineyard that just received five stars from James Halliday and a Durif that won best in Australia by the glass. Our cocktail menu combines my ten years in LA with current trends. We also carry hard to find things that deserve representation, like Willie Simpson’s Melomel, a fruit-infused dry mead with a touch of Tasmanian native pepperberry. We love to get our hands on things that push the boundaries.
Here’s hoping the success continues and proves an inspiration to other bar and hotel owners with businesses outside the cities. That said, Brad’s now considering opening a second Oscar’s in Melbourne…