Excuse this little bit of a (Melbourne specific but could apply to almost any city) rant, but as a beer drinker and someone who likes good food, I am often dismayed at how little effort restaurants put in to their beer menu. Quite often we’ll be researching new places to drink and eat, we find a hot new restaurant that has a great looking menu, with a wine list but no mention of beer. I’ve seen bars do the exact same thing. “Tapas style shared food and a great wine list” is no longer a selling point, it means you’re going to overcharge me for small bits of food and have the same wine list as every other place… and it’ll probably be too damn loud.
There are, however, some shining lights in Melbourne’s culinary scene. Restaurants that are including local beers on their list. Putting some thought into the beers they include and giving beer drinkers something to be excited about, but they are few and far between. Being a beer geek, I do admittedly have higher (read: snootier) expectations and am more likely to be disappointed when I don’t see a Moon Dog Black Lung or a Red Hill Hop Harvest on the menu, but I don’t think beer drinkers can continue to be an afterthought. There are a few reasons why I think this.
Now that Fosters is more than likely to be under foreign ownership, it’s a good time for both restaurants and bars to show some local pride. Food and wine menus are often fiercely proud of their local credentials. They will proudly say the cheese is from Warnambool and the wine is from the Barossa. The same care and pride is rarely put into a beer list (many places don’t even have one. Recently we sat at a ‘hot’ new inner city pasta place. Home made pasta, great wine list, no mention of beer. Turns out they had a couple of decent beers in bottles, but of course they weren’t on any menu and the waiter did not know what they had… maybe they assume beer drinkers are psychic?). Sell your beer like you do your wine. “Made with locally grown hops, by a small brewery that actually gives a shit about what it’s beer tastes like. The brewery is so small it’s one guy called Brian* that lives down the road, he’s probably having a beer at the bar right now. That’s how fucking local we are”.
Australians are strange in the sense that many people will say it’s a beer drinking nation, while also talking about how everyone needs to support local companies from the evils of importation, but no one seems to combine the two. It makes no sense. Sit in a pub with some locals and they are more than happy to bitch about the economy and how no one sticks up for the little guy and foreign ownership is ruining Australia… while knocking back big brewery beer. Meanwhile, local craft brewers get slugged with a 25% tax on their income just because they aren’t big enough. Why isn’t A Current Affair doing one of their ‘investigations’ on the ‘small brewery battlers being bullied by the big guys’.
On the recent Fosters takeover, Dick Smith said “”My belief is we should try to retain as much of our wealth in Australian hands. Anything good will be sold off. We’ll own nothing.” (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/bn-fosters-bid-from-sabmiller-leaves-bitter-taste/story-e6frg8zx-1226079564027). Why aren’t Dick Smith and Harvey Norman standing up for small brewers? Particularly after Harvey Norman’s horrific PR disaster recently, attacking people buying goods online… getting behind small beer is a pretty good way to get the punters back onside while being able to continue to crap on about buying Australian in order to get free publicity on Channel 9.
The recent Foster’s takeover talks, are however something of a blessing for small breweries. They can use this as an opportunity to really push their local credentials. This is leverage to get the fickle public onside and make some noise about their case. I know small brewers have enough on their plate as it is, they don’t have the million dollar backing for ad campaigns… instead they actually have to worry about making good product and paying 25% tax on sales profits (did I mention that? I feel it needs mentioning again). Fans and market leading restaurants do need to play a part in this, and while you’ll find no more avid bunch than craft beer drinkers, it is also heartening to see some market leading restaurants getting on board with decent beer.
You can get a Bridge Road Saison at the Press Club. Recently I was pleasantly surprised to find a Hitachino Nest XH at Izakaya Den, which is not a local beer, but a great Japanese beer for probably the coolest Japanese restaurant in Melbourne. You can have a Holgate Pilsner with your $115 steak at Rockpool (sure it’s right underneath Crown Lager on the menu, but you got to know you market and the kind of person that is spending that much on a steak, may not be wondering why they can’t have a Holgate Temptress for desert). Cutler & Co, while I was disappointed with the meal, is one of the top restaurants in Melbourne and carry some top craft beer to match. When I visited they had an Emersons Bookbinder… now I look at their menu and see they no longer have that, but carry the father of new world craft beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and some local favourites, like a Bridge Road or a Mountain Goat. MoVida has a Stone and Wood Pacific Ale, probably the best beer to ever come out of Australia (it also has a Bridge Road IPA… for a small brewery from Beechworth they are doing damned well in this space aren’t they?… I even spotted their Porter on the menu at Neil Perry’s ‘The Waiting Room’ at Crown. They are doing something right)
While these examples could all be looked at as positives for craft beer, and they definitely are, they should also be looked at as a guide for other restaurants in Melbourne. That is a list of market leaders in Melbourne’s crowded dining scene – Restaurants that set the standard for different reasons. Restaurants around Melbourne need to take note of these changes happening at the top and realise that not only do customers want a choice, but in some cases (mine), it may win or lose you custom; while supporting a growing local industry making a high quality product. If you run a restaurant and wouldn’t serve plain white bread in your restaurant, then you really should put some thought into your beer. List it on a menu, do a little research, talk to a few punters, talk to some brewers. Take some pride in what is being served to your customers.
Edit: Some thoughts from ‘Beer Snob’ about BYO restaurants and beer: http://coldale.net/snobblog/2011/06/08/byo-license-and-beer/
*actually if he’s from Melbourne and involved in beer, then he’s probably called James. What the hell is with that?