Operating a regional craft beer venue
By Charles Whitting
In Beer & Brewer’s Winter Issue, the magazine celebrated Australia’s Top 65 Beer Venues. The Cambrian in Bendigo, Victoria, finished third on the list of regional venues. We spoke to co-owner Adam Carswell about his approach to craft beer.
How important is craft beer to your venue?
It’s part of the fabric of the place. In the five years since we took over custodianship of The Cambrian, we’ve turned it from an average, dyed-in-the-wool mainstream beer den into a 100 per cent craft only venue. We’ve adopted a staunch approach to which beers we have on tap – namely, we don’t pour anything that is owned, or becomes owned by any multinational conglomerate.
While it’s been a difficult transition, and we’ve copped a certain amount of flack for it (still do), we’ve also earned a massive amount of respect throughout the Australian, and particularly Victorian industry.
In saying that, we place just as much importance on the freshness, variety and quality of our food, and the overall atmosphere of the place – everything needs to come together to create an overall experience.
How do you go about selecting what you put on your bar?
We keep it pretty simple. We focus on regional Victorian breweries on tap, in part for the fact that the distance between us is minimised, meaning the beer is more likely to be fresher and in better overall shape. The beers have to be top notch of course. We wouldn’t put something on just for the fact it’s brewed nearby. Proximity is great, but the bottom line is drinkability.
Style-wise, it’s important to have something on tap in that 4.6-4.8% ABV window. Something people can hang around and have a few of and not fall off their chairs. That would usually be a lager or a golden ale perhaps, or maybe a pale ale as well.
Other than that, we’ll always have dark beers pouring in winter, then lighter and more thirst quenching beers in the hotter months.
What advice would you give an operator looking to improve their craft offering?
If they’re in a situation where they’re planning on taking even one mainstream beer off tap and replacing it with something from a smaller brewer, they need to be ready for a certain amount of backlash.
Everyone has an opinion and some people simply cannot deal with change, especially if it’s at their local. They’ll try every tactic they can to prevent it from happening. Operators need to be resolute. It’s their venue after all, they’re the ones taking the financial risk and investing the time. We were in the unique situation at The Cambrian due to it being in a neighbourhood with one of the most ingrained mainstream beer drinking demographics you’ll ever see. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve never wavered.
What about for an operator looking to start a new craft beer offering?
For me it’s a no-brainer to look at the local brewing scene first. It doesn’t really matter where you are in Australia anymore – chances are there will be something happening nearby. Dealing with local breweries means you can communicate with them face-to-face – they’ll usually be the ones dropping off the beer – and they will almost certainly be keen to come to your venue and interact with your customers in some capacity.
However, the quality still needs to be there. Ask for samples and do your research. Most operating breweries will have had their beers reviewed on websites such as Untappd and RateBeer. If they’ve won medals at something like the Australian International Beer Awards, that’s a good sign too!
What are the challenges and opportunities of operating a venue in a regional area?
The biggest challenge for us is the size of our market. The population of Bendigo is a bit over 110,000, compared to Melbourne which is more than 4.3 million. We don’t have the luxury of being able to attract clientele from surrounding suburbs, because there aren’t any. There are also more pubs per capita in Bendigo than almost anywhere else in the world! So it’s very, very competitive.
It’s also fair to say that regional areas have been more resistant to the craft beer boom than capital cities. It seems to be perceived by a lot of people as ‘fancy’ or ’boutique’ beer, consumed by drinkers who think they’re above everyone else.
Some people’s idea of what a pub is and should be is quite narrow, because they’ve never experienced anything different. They expect a pool table, cigarette vending machine, footy on the TV, jukebox in the corner, and for everyone else’s opinions to be the same as theirs. It means we are constantly breaking new ground in almost everything we do, and it takes time for people to catch on, if at all.
However, firmly establishing ourselves as a ‘craft only’ venue in such a challenging location has brought us recognition way beyond what we could have ever imagined. People who understand what we are trying to do have a huge amount of respect for us, and are extremely loyal as a result. We’re seen as true innovators and genuine advocates of craft beer by the industry as a whole. You can bet your bottom dollar that most ‘industry people’ who pass through Bendigo will stop by the Cambrian for a meal and a few beers.