Ask any one and they’ll tell you that Melbourne is the place to be when it comes to innovation in craft beer. Well, ask anyone FROM Melbourne and they’ll tell you that, anyway.
But there is certainly a vibrant beer culture in this city and it seems that if you want to try something a bit different, this is place to do it. Any new bar is a risk but the loyalty of this city’s drinkers with their willingness to support good beer seems to offers enough confidence to justify the financial risk involved in some serious beer bars.
With its out-of-the-way location, narrow space, heritage listed building and extensive and expensive bottled beer list, Biero Bar is probably at the top of the table of ‘Bars That Have Taken a Really Big Risk’.
It is up the slightly unfashionable end of Little Lonsdale Street near the Law Courts, and is only about as long as a Shane Warne run-up (and not quite as wide as Shane Warne himself). It stocks about 100 beers in little under-bar fridges, as well as having tens of thousands of dollars worth of beer cellared awaiting their time in the fridges upstairs.
But it is Biero’s beer vault that is undoubtedly both its biggest gamble and also its most prominent feature.
I appreciate that not everyone is into the whole ‘How Stuff Works’ thing. But just try not to be seduced by the set of ten beautiful vertical glass tubes designed to transfer the contents of a bottle of beer without exposing it to any oxygen that can then dispense small amounts of it over a three day period as if it were on draught without any degradation.
If that’s not enough, you are told that the technology is worth around $100,000. I think it’s OK to be impressed without needing to know how it all works. Let’s just say you had me at “hello”.
Biero’s beer vault is a stunning piece of engineering and is visually impressive as well. Covering the entire wall space behind the bar, it aims to serve a fairly single minded purpose – to allow the average punter to try a small amount of a rare or special (read prohibitively expensive) bottled beer without having to purchase and then finish a whole bottle. The vault takes the beer from the bottle, stores it under chilled and UV protected pressure, without exposing it to the terrors of oxygen, and then dispenses it as required.
It does all that and I’m sure it does it technically very well. It can draw you into the bar to marvel at the latest beer gimmick. What the beer vault can’t do is tell you just how special its contents are. It can’t talk to you about the history of the style or about the passion of the brewer. It can’t tell you how it felt the last time it experienced its beer and it can’t throw its head back and say something like; “Ahh!! If I close my eyes I can still taste the hops in that IPA!”
Fortunately for visitors to Biero Bar, it’s not a one-high-tech-trick pony. Biero also has Ray Kent. If one of Biero’s beer vaults is worth ten beers then Ray is worth a thousand. Passionate, personable and six foot four inches tall, he creates the human presence that this little bar needs. He knows his beer and he speaks genuinely of his love for the malted nectar with a vibrant politeness.
“I just love talking to people about beer!” he says.
“But sometimes you have to remember that not everyone wants to know everything about the beer!” he adds, underlining the importance of ‘good people’ in the beer vs technology equation.
What the Vault lacks, Ray provides.
And this is a good lesson for those who are at the retail end of the whole craft beer scene. As Ray serves one person after another at the bar it’s obvious that he has the ability to get a good read on the punters’ beer knowledge. For some he speaks of hop character and flavour depth while for others he simply compares the flavours with something he thinks they might know.
A keen sense of when to ‘tell’ and when to ‘sell’ is apparent and his manner and enthusiasm are his keys to making everyone feel welcome.
Ray worked as a technical illustrator for the navy, Holden and Toyota in a previous career and his talents are utilised in the quirky eye-catching pump decals that greet drinkers at the bar. He left the propeller pencil for the bright lights of Crown Casino before a stint at Beer Deluxe which gave him the inspiration to create, as he calls it; “Something unique in Melbourne in the way of an extreme beer bar for the people — hence the prices we push, just trying to get that feeling in Melbourne back when having a good time didn’t cost an arm and a leg.”
Ray refers to the fact that all the taps at Biero Bar are fixed-priced with pots at $5 and pints at $10, making choosing a beer a much easier experience particularly for the novice. A bold move certainly but one which tips the balance of power in favour of the punter.
As for the beer vault, there are no strict rules as to what a beer needs to be to qualify for a vault position.
“I just try to put in something that people might not regularly see on tap or something unique and I’ll often pressure the breweries to make me something special. Sometimes I get lucky!”
Ray knows the value of the vault but doesn’t rely on it. He is also acutely aware of the risk that it be seen as a gimmick.
“It’s all about trying to get the public trying something new, I mean I could put hundreds of dollars worth of crazy stouts and 41 percent ales in all the time, but I try just to show them paths to follow, get them heading in a new direction that they might never have tried.”
The value of the beer vault – both real and perceived – is probably a debate for another day, but it has already attracted the attention of the beer media overseas with renowned commentator Jay Brooks reserving his judgement on the legitimacy of the technology for the moment.
Perhaps it helps to think of it this way. Biero’s beer vault is to craft beer what a self serve checkout is to a supermarket. It’s new and different, it serves a purpose, brings people through the doors and is wonderful at certain times – but the supermarket can still operate effectively without it. The beer vault is a tool that can enhance the experience but it can’t replace the face-to-face element that really is essential if craft beer is going to win over new converts.
It looks as though Biero Bar in Ray Kent’s hands has that side of the deal covered.
525 Little Lonsdale St Melbourne near the corner of William Street
Ph. (03) 9600 0940
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