In the giddy aftermath of World War II George Orwell penned an essay on the fictitious English pub, the Moon Under Water, outlining the ten criteria it fulfilled as the perfect pub.
Curiously (given he frequently included descriptions of pubs in his books, and even described the life of a hop-picker in Kent*) Orwell barely mentioned beer. His only reference being the pub serving “a creamy sort of draught stout.”
He detailed the interior, the glassware, the lack of noise and rowdy drunks, and the “fairly large garden,” before admitting it was his ideal pub rather than an actual establishment. He said he knew of one pub fulfilling eight of his ten criteria and implored the reader to let him know if there was such a place to top his list.
Sixty-odd years and half a world away things are out of hand. We have a plethora of rankings and awards for bars and pubs with diverse and confusing categories, but pubs are still a matter of personal preference.
Orwell’s perfect pub would not be my perfect pub (for a start I don’t like the liver sausage he said the perfect pub must serve!); my perfect pub would not be your perfect pub; and your perfect pub would not be my perfect pub.
However, there are some places which many agree are a measure or two better than the competition. Both the St Kilda and Darlinghurst branches of the Local Taphouse have won insane numbers of awards for dedication to beery goodness.
OK, there’s a staggering range of beer on tap and in bottle. Yes, some of them you’ll really struggle to find elsewhere. Yes, the furniture is old but solid and there’s an un-pindownable funky leather and wood aesthetic to the bars, which makes me feel like I’m drinking in a trendy Chapel Street antiques shop.
But I’ve enjoyed pubs with a tiny range of beer and crap interiors. What really puts the icing on the cake (or the head on the pint) is the people. Not just the people you’re drinking with or are surrounded by. Sometimes it’s the people serving.
A typical Australian bar encounter plays like this:
“I’ll have a beer, mate.”
“No worries – there ya go.”
A few grunts and an exchange of money and it’s all over (I’m still talking about serving beer by the way).
Now picture this scene as a refreshing change:
2.45pm on a hot Sunday afternoon in December and a couple of guys in their mid-twenties look daunted by the giant tap list looming above the bar in the Darlo Taphouse. Then the barman greets them.
“What are we having today fellas?”
“Hmmm, what do you recommend?”
“Well do you like ales or lagers?”
“What sort of ale would you like? A simple, farmhouse, exploratory, dark or hoppy ale?”
“You’re the expert.”
“Well, it’s a hot day why don’t you start with a cool pale ale.”
On it goes, until the customers walk away beaming with a beer they’ve just discovered.
It doesn’t matter how pretty a bar is, good staff are essential. And as it happened on this occasion the bloke behind the bar was new assistant manager, Cam, who is taking charge of training.
Then in a reversal of the age-old role of customer and barman Cam starts telling me his problems.
“I’m afraid the Feral Wit has an infection,” and he points to a glass of what looks like lemon curd.
“It’s pouring like butter!”
No matter, I’m dying for a Hop Hog Oak-aged IPA. Unfortunately that’s exploding out of the tap like Vesuvius and needs time to settle.
Such problems would normally scupper a bar, but I’m still able to try Bridge Road’s Saison, Feral’s Funky Junky, Steam Exchange’s Southerly Bluster and Steam Ale, Mountain Goat’s Hightail Ale and Renaissance’s Elemental Porter … by which time of course I’ve forgotten about the others.
Allowing for the passage of time, I reckon Orwell would have liked the Local. Some of the décor would have been familiar, and the new rooftop terrace would alleviate his requirement for outdoor space.
But there is something less savoury old George didn’t discuss. As the saying goes, you don’t buy beer you rent it, or rather you process it. Of course we all have to make room for more processing.
The problem with the Darlo Taphouse when I was there was that it had the smelliest gents toilets outside Italy I’ve ever had the misfortune of using, in a cover-your-nose-and-breathe-through-your-mouth-but-not-too-much kind of way.
Perfection it seems is not that easy after all.
* The heroine in A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) spends a summer picking hops in the Garden of England.