For any discerning beer lover, the opening of a new beer bar is cause for excitement. The opening of a bar that sets out to pioneer a new experience in craft beer, as well as provide a local uniqueness to their beer selection, is a cause for celebration.
Many readers will be familiar with the Chris Badenoch and Julia Jenkins story. They were introduced to the Australian television-watching public during the high-rating first season of MasterChef. Badenoch and Jenkins have now capitalised on their experiences and exposure, taking the step from amateur cooks to professional restaurateurs with a venue that is all about beer and food.
With Badenoch and Jenkins at the helm, they have employed head chef Robert Taylor and beer manager James Greenfield to drive the restaurant’s food and beer elements.
In all of the excitement in the wake of the opening, the mutterings about the venue seemed to highlight that the food and venue are fantastic, but the prices are very steep, especially when it comes to the beer. In fact, the high beer prices have become a consistent talking point whenever Josie Bones is mentioned or reviewed.
Josie Bones throws the question of beer value into sharp relief. Diners are usually accustomed to paying two or three times the bottleshop price for wine at an upmarket restaurant. However, when you turn your venue over to beer, especially beers that cost upwards of $14 per bottled beer, will people look at beer the same way?
It is a question that I have been grappling with since dining there. I left deliciously satisfied but stripped of cash, an experience usually reserved for fine dining.
Josie Bones is located in a trendy but still emerging dining and entertainment precinct of Melbourne. Smith Street is very accessible, just outside of the CBD, and home to a number of small, fashionable and highly rated eateries such as Provenance Food & Wine, Huxtable, Peko Peko and Birdman Eating. The area is also home to popular small live music venues and clubs like Yah Yahs, Grumpy’s Green, Vibe, Blue Velvet and the Grace Darling Hotel.
In contrast, the strip is also still littered with rundown empty shops and you are unlikely to see anyone formally dressed whilst having a night out on Smith Street. Therefore, the location is still some way from being touted as a prime fine dining or cultural destination by Melbourne’s promotional and tourism fraternity.
Josie Bones itself is small, seating about 80, in keeping with most restaurants in the area. The building’s rustic but fresh aesthetic complements the beer and nose-to-tale food themes perfectly. The interior design is bold yet beautifully minimalist, with walls stripped bare and painted jet black, also leaving some brickwork exposed. The interior space is dominated by an ironbark bar, which runs almost the length of the room, and four-seater high tables against the opposing wall. There is one communal table at the back, which comfortably fits eight but can possibly cater for up to twelve.
And now for the beer.
Eight regularly rotated tap beers provide an opportunity to discover draught versions of Australian microbrewed beers, as well as interesting international beers. On the night I was there, the majority of taps were pouring beers that I had never encountered in draught form.
The bottled beer selection is impressive and eclectic. A thick clipboard beer menu, sorted by style, offers a generous selection of local and international craft beers. The overall range and selection of beers available cannot be faulted and is clearly the result of the substantial experience and knowledge of Greenfield and Badenoch.
Greenfield previously managed Carwyn Cellars, a small bottleshop in Thornbury that is a minor craft beer haven for locals. More recently he worked the bar at Birdman Eating, just around the corner from Josie Bones. He was elated when he secured this beer manager role at Josie Bones, the closest thing Australia has to a “beer sommelier”, allowing him to indulge his beer passion to an extent that has not been possible in previous jobs.
Badenoch’s passion and knowledge for craft beer is now well known through his advocacy for cooking with beer and his former business venture BeerMasons, a craft beer delivery and appreciation service that he co-founded.
All the draught beers are served in a custom Josie Bones glass of one size, 330ml, with prices ranging from $8 to $12. The glass size if fairly unique in hospitality and departs from to the standard local beer glass conventions of pot/schooner/pint or even the boutique 385ml. It also makes Josie Bones one of the most expensive places to drink tap beer in Eastern Australia. The bottled beers suffer the same fate with a fairly common beer such as Weihenstephan Kristal coming in at $14.
And this is the one potential stumbling block. The beer prices sit far above almost all local hospitality competitors and raises the questions, what is the value of the Josie Bones experience and will people pay?
As beer manager Greenfield notes, you are not paying just for the beer, you are paying for a beer experience – a new way of experiencing beer along with an education in beer.
Additionally, Josie Bones is not just beer and food matching. It is a beer and food pairing journey.
Where beer and food matching has been rapidly increasing in popularity over recent years, current operations of such nature lend more to helping people experience more styles and varieties of beers. So far, the factors influencing the food match have been relatively elementary.
The Josie Bones beer mission is to take customers beyond the basic “compliment, contrast or cut” nature of beer and food matching and provide a unique dining experience, which is served best through a degustation approach.
On the night I dined there, one example of the Josie Bones pairings was the “ocean waves” experience provided by pairing BrewDog’s Zeitgeist (a Schwarzbier) and oysters topped with guanciale and a BrewDog Riptide Imperial Stout jelly. As the salty oysters dropped down your throat, chased by the Zeitgeist, the sensation was best described as an ocean wave washing through your mouth and then back out to sea. An interesting twist, when explained by the beer manager.
As a beer lover, the food was some of the most flavoursome and unique cuisine that I have ever experienced, leaving me very satisfied.
Badenoch and Greenfield claim that the Josie Bones price requires you to consider the whole package of the food and beer plus experience and not go through the mental process of calculating the bottle price of the beer in isolation. For me, it was mission accomplished. My appreciation of the way beer and food can work together as a whole changed for the better and provided a new a new path to explore on my own beer journey. Although, I do question whether all customers will receive the same attention of the beer manager and staff when it comes to detailing the pairing experience.
All credit must go to Chris Badenoch for taking the idea that he proposed on national television, of a nose-to-tail and beer theme restaurant, all the way through to an uncompromised commercial reality.
Josie Bones may be a little ahead of its time, but anyone attempting to be a pioneer needs to take that risk. A lot of expense has gone into creating the venue, which goes some way to explain the pricing. It will be very interesting to see whether the appreciation for beer is developing enough that such an experience and expense is sustainable longer term.
I will be keen to see how they are performing this time next year once the updraft from the fleeting hype initiated by reality TV has passed. True validation will only come when the culinary experience of Josie Bones is no longer niche but national practice.
Although their target audience is everyone, for many of their current pragmatic market or for beer lovers, such as myself, Josie Bones will remain a special occasion destination for now. As much as I would dearly like to return soon to indulge and further my beer and food experience, I will be saving my pennies for some time to afford the pleasure of Josie Bones.
It’s not the place for a casual Sunday session, but If you wish to encounter something new or different about how good beer is constructed and its potential to work with food, then yes, Josie Bones is definitely recommended. If your budget does stretch to simply sitting at the bar to drink, I recommend their beer flights or at least sampling some of the food whilst engaging the staff to understand how and why to pair it with beers. After all, you’re paying for the education.
Learn more about Josie Bones at: http://josiebones.wordpress.com/