Whenever we travel abroad, far away from the overzealous attitude of the current American craft beer zeitgeist, the most important thing for GBH to understand is where beer, wine, spirits, and food all fit together. How they relate. How they influence the future of the eating and drinking culture of their local patrons. We learned this the hard way years ago in Portugal when, after three days of unsuccessful beer hunting, we gave up and drank Port. (And, oh my god, are we glad we did.) Port’s an amazing thing, and American brewers are starting to put beer in those barrels. But let’s not close the circle too quickly.
This is about Melbourne, Australia. And like most remote areas (said with a Westerns bias), Melbourne is a culture based on self-sufficiency. Its culinary culture may be Western-influenced, but its opportunity is entirely homegrown. And Melbourne, at its Southern end along the coast, is at the epicenter of some radical influences. As you'll see, Melbourne is a bit like smashing Bardstown, Kentucky, Napa Valley, and an up-and-coming craft beer scene like St. Petersburg, Florida or Richmond, Virginia together into one amazing place.
This is how our group of strategic and creative thinkers look at gustatory cultures. And it's exactly how we party.
Looking hard at the Melbourne booze market, there are a few things of which to take note. First, they’re legendary wine makers. The Yarra Valley is a phenomenal region, one that’s been producing Chardonnay—both the buttery, malolactic-driven versions as well as the high-acid styles—for more than a hundred years now. More recently, the natural wine trend has people like Patrick Sullivan becoming a household name. His funky, sometimes-bottle-fermented, juicy wines are all over the place, and the way he presents them is anything but traditional despite his non-interventionist, nearly ancient methods.
Secondly, just off the southern coast, the small island of Tasmania has some up-and-coming whiskey producers that the entirety of Southeast Asia seeks out on the regular. Increasingly, the region is known for its purity and precision—and the price points reflect that.
Finally, there’s the craft beer scene. It’s dominated by macro-owned craft brands producing slightly pale ales and a bunch of whacky, Americanized start-ups nipping at their heels, but neither reflect much about Melbourne specifically, outside of their love for crisp, clean, summer drinkers. Just to the East, though, New Zealand’s more advanced beer makers continue to infiltrate.
Back in Melbourne, all these influences overlap, resulting in a drinker with a fairly refined palate. But it’s at the intersection of these influences that Melbourne seems rife for development. Advanced fermentation beers, Yarra Valley fruited spirits. Proper barrel-aged beers. It’s one hell of a local ecosystem with a huge potential for exceptional things to come. Anyone want to start a brewery or distillery in Melbourne? I’ve got some ideas.
Despite all that, when we landed in Melbourne, the first thing we visited was a coffee shop. And the city is lousy with them. In fact, Melbourne’s newest wave of coffee seems to be all about making fun of coffee in Melbourne. I hope American coffee can laugh at itself one day. A grimace, maybe? An uncomfortable huff that passes as a self-reflective grunt, perhaps? I’m not holding my breath.
Melbournian cafes rarely exist in isolation. At Axil Coffee Roasters on the far east side of the city in Hawthorn (they call it the burbs, but compared to Chicagoland, that’s laughable: it’s 15 minutes from city center), I stepped into a massive shop of sit-down restaurant proportions. Coffee was the brand, but the food, the environment, and the drinking comprised the experience. It was delightful to refresh with a water, shoot a single-origin espresso, then snack on duck breast with fig, cherry, and beetroot. Rich fats and bright acidity all around. Coffee as culinary.
I hit my jet lag timing marks like a champ, so the next morning I was bright-eyed for a 7am breakfast, eager to prove this cafe thing was an exception. A small neighborhood coffee shop in Hawthorn East called Collective Espresso, nestled in next to the train line and surrounded by a set of Edwardian colonial architecture so perfect it felt like a film set.
Beautiful plates and delicate ingredients, presented simply. And lovely espresso. In the States, this would be a lauded farm-to-table restaurant. In Melbourne, it was a run-of-the-mill espresso shop turning out exquisite fare on the street. Melbourne is matured. And part of the reason everything hangs together, according to the locals, is because the minimum wage is so high. There are high-quality neighborhood joints, and then there’s really high-end dining.
Later in the week, I'd find my favorite coffee shop of all—Patricia. It's an in-and-out espresso bar, standing-room-only with some newspapers along the window sill for a five-minute rest-stop if you require it. The place is cramped, buzzed, and perfectly in synch. It was here that I met Tim Williams, one of the organizers of the World Aeropress Championships, drinking espresso, half hanging out of a window. Between his outsider view, and the recommendations of our barista, my culinary plans for the week got properly sorted. But we'll get to that in part two.
What you don’t see, driving around (even in the burbs), are the middling tier of chains that lower prices and wages in order to make a volume profit, a’la Denny’s. Who knew that improving the standard of living improves the actual quality of living? As it turns out, in Melbourne, the cafe worker and the Uber driver, and the people spending $12 on a pint or $20 on a sixer do, actually. Prices are only high in an economic vacuum. In the real world, what goes around comes around.
The Melbourne sun is the kind of thing Chicagoans dream about in January. At the Rooftop Cinema, a younger craft beer crowd lingers, half under umbrellas and half exposed as they carefully manage their lethargy like lizards on rocks. Up here, the beers are easy, dry, and appropriately yellow. Downstairs is where things get serious.
There, a continental-looking bar called Cookie has the widest selection I’ve seen in Australia of traditional Belgian ales and new wave local craft. It’s a welcoming environment that introduces beer drinkers to new styles, and the tables open up onto the veranda. “It’s sour, just so you’re prepared,” warns my earnest barkeep.
La Sirène is Melbourne’s whispered-about brewery, the one making Saison and sours. Its art nouveau/pre-Raphaelite branding style is anachronistic to the otherwise modern American craft aesthetic permeating the country right now. And it’s certainly not American-inspired by any stretch. It is, however, poking around the edges of what makes a good sour beer—and that’s great news for the Melbourne beer scene. Beers like this open doors into better restaurants and raise the populace’s expectations for something beyond the Blonde Ales that dominate their shelves.
The Sirène beers I stumbled upon are simple sours, perhaps kettled or dosed with lactobacillus—or both—to their puckering point. They are not the refined, nuanced farmhouse-style beers the brand speaks to, though perhaps that’s what it aspires to in the near future or in more-limited batches not shared widely with the city’s bars. Its co-founder, Costa Nikias, is a bit of a golden child in Melbourne at the moment, consulting with other local breweries and somewhat reluctantly holding the spotlight in order for a conversation about these rustic beers to begin, albeit slowly.
“He’s the one everyone’s paying attention to,” elaborates my still-earnest barkeep. “It’s pretty progressive compared to most Australian beer, and he looks the part.”
A short walk into the heart of the city is Nant, a Tasmanian Whiskey brand that seems to be leading the state-backed branding of “Tassie Whiskies” around the continent and far into Southeast Asia. Australia is the breadbasket for nearby developing and industrial Asian countries, and the high-end whiskies coming from it’s exotic Southerly island region are placed on a pedestal of sorts.
In the modern, cloistered, Ralph Lauren-esque basement bar of Nant, the whiskey list is presented in leather-bound booklets and placed upon fresh-cut wooden coasters as if to elevate the delicacy of the liquid in contrast to its bric-a-brac setting. It’s effective. There’s more grain presence in these whiskies, and a muted-but-still-pleasurable ester profile evolves from one taste to the next, but they finish cleaner than the rusticity that the environment might otherwise indicate.
Whiskey and beer have a ready relationship in Australian drinking culture. And at the new Boilermaker House Bar on Lonsdale St. in the city center, the pairing of whiskies and beers are in fact the entirety of the point. What might be considered one of the city’s more progressive and extensive beer lists is focused down to three pairings, each presented atop of thick slice of tree with an amuse bouche.
The Melbourne cafe interior style, distilled to white tile, vintage light fixtures, and steam-punk copper plumbing extends to these new wave bars just the same. And indeed, at Boilermaker, that ubiquitous white tile serves as the backdrop for the draft system, brought down from its pretty perch by black-marker scribbles for beer names like Odyssey Calypso Pale and Boat Rocker Hop Bomb. It’s a nice high-low moment, really.
Mountain Goat Beer is a welcome respite from the progressive considerations of the Melbourne culinary and bar scene. Lovingly known as Goat, the brewery strikes a useful and pleasant balance. Which is to say: this place is built for drinking. It's Melbourne’s original craft beer maker, of nearly 15 years now, which was recently purchased by Asahi, the large Japanese outfit, putting it in direct competition with Australia’s Kirin-backed Little Creatures Brewing.
There’s less of an anti-macro beer pushback here as much as there is a cautious and watchful eye toward Asian conglomerates buying into Australian’s growth industries.
“We have a nice way of life here, for the most part,” my Uber driver tells me on the way to Goat. “But if we’re not careful, we’re just going to be a service economy owned by the Asians. We dig stuff out of the ground and sell it to Asia—and they sell it back to us in the form of manufactured goods at ten-fold the price.”
For its part, Goat seems fresh and lively, serving exceptionally well-made beers that are both interesting and familiar. Flawless fermentations, if slightly cautious in their trendiness, are served alongside flatbreads made onsite, on picnic tables and flea-market style patio furniture inside the warehouse in an up-and-coming condo district.
“They’ve done well to stay here and hold on,” my drinking partner says. And as far as I’m concerned, these would be the best beers I’ve had in my entire 72 hours in Melbourne.
Part two of our Melbourne journey will take us to the Yarra Valley and back, visiting some wineries, cider makers, and one of Australia’s most inventive distilleries. And then across the city in a blur of bars and restaurants that still have our hearts.