Cast your memory back a few years. Let’s say five years. No, no, make it ten. Imagine you are walking into your local pub to enjoy a beer with friends. Doesn’t matter which pub – just pick a pub. What do you see?
If the pub you pictured is anything like any of the pubs available to me and my friends at that time it probably looks a little something like this … auto-opening glass doors leading into a brightly lit foyer with the ‘Pokie Serenade’ and flashing lights coming from the left and the unmistakeable smell of bad luck, misery and cardigans coming from the Pub Tab on the right.
Moving along cheesy-cheap nylon carpet you spy the long, soulless wood-panelled bar adorned with promotions inviting you to half-price Tuesdays, Kids Eat Free Wednesdays in the bistro and Friday Karaoke in the front bar. The footy tipping ladder hangs from one wall (Shags is leading Thommo and Knackers by 2 after Round Four) while Saturday’s ‘Over 28’s Night’ (known locally as Grab-A-Granny) is garishly promoted on the other. Now walk confidently to the bar and survey the taps on offer.
What a choice! A VB from the tap at the front or from the one at the other end of the bar. Actually, there are TWO taps serving VB at each end so, in an instant, your choice just doubled. Carlton Draught is there as well and what’s this new ‘healthy’ beer over there? Pure Blonde, eh?! Even sounds healthy. There’s a tap of light beer (as legislated by law and by Old Stinky Bob who can’t drink 15 pots of anything else nowadays) and even a Carlton Diet Ale but all in all it’s just a showcase for a single brewery’s standard fare.
Enough of this joyful and uplifting reminiscing. Fast forward to the present day. Well, Tuesday, actually. Walk into the bar at The Local Taphouse in St Kilda or Darlinghurst and walk straight to the tap selection. What’s that?! Has nothing changed?! There are twenty taps rather than ten but it’s still a showcase for a single brewery!
Then the Reality Fairy descends from the heavens and lands gently upon your shoulder and whispers gently in your ear; “Relax, it’s Feral!” And suddenly all is well with the world.
The ‘Feral’ referred to is Feral Brewing, the commercial vehicle for the brewing skills of Brendan Varis. Brendan is a brewer, a visionary, a risk-taker and a genuinely top bloke. He is also an ‘alchemist’ according to James ‘Crafty Pint’ Smith who described him thusly in the recently published Critics’ Choice (which is arguably Australia’s finest beer book that puts beers in order from 1 to 100).
Brendan was approached by Taphouse co-owner and like-minded visionary, Steve Jeffares, to provide twenty beers to be offered at The Taphouse at the same time. Where many brewers would faint at the mere thought of having to brew and deliver 20 different beers simultaneously Brendan bristled with determined excitement. And so the Taphouse Tap Takeover was conceived.
On Tuesday May 3 the doors of the two venues opened to the tantalising prospect of sampling twenty beers from a single source. Something that even the most optimistic beer nerd would have thought a distant dream at that dingy suburban pub a decade ago.
One keg of each beer was all the stock allowed, creating an excitement not unlike that felt during any one of The Taphouse’s ‘SpecTAPular’ Beer Festivals (arguably Australia’s greatest beer festivals). The Twittersphere was alive with the sounds of beer lovers’ pre-show predictions and preferences and beer writers everywhere were spruiking the ‘event’. As I made my way up to the terrace bar the question arose, “Why the buzz? Why would people be so keen to try so many beers from a single brewer?”
Finding that only one other punter was there (the doors had only just opened, to be fair) I decided to ask him. Bazz is a Taphouse regular and Hall of Famer with a brass plaque on the bar to prove it. He loves his beer but is always fair dinkum about it and not one to fuss too much over finishing gravities, grain bills or hop regimes. He knows what he likes and has a keen palate for an ‘ordinary beer’.
“I knew I’d come here today and every beer would be very drinkable’, he said finishing off his first beer, ‘because with Brendan Varis you just have an unquestioning confidence that even if one of the beers isn’t necessarily to your taste, it will still be well balanced and well brewed.”
And herein lies the secret. Trust. Anyone who has met Brendan will know that he is a ‘very nice bloke’ in an industry which seems to attract only ‘nice blokes’. He is a master craftsman who can push the boundaries and create a beer of great complexity and depth and yet can brew up a beautiful common, garden-variety session beer as well. But, at the end of the day, you can trust him to brew a drinkable beer.
He is also generous with his time and expertise, a courtesy he extends to venues such as The Taphouse, but also to his fellow brewers.
“The beer world is filled with stories of how Brendan has assisted ‘rival’ brewers to correct procedures or refine techniques or to offer advice and assistance,” says Taphouse manager and Beer Buyer, James (not ‘The Crafty Pint’) Smith. ‘He is always so incredibly generous with his time and he takes a genuine interest in how his beers are travelling and how they are received.”
And, in a stunning piece of Beer Karma, the phone rang at that very moment. It was Brendan Varis calling Steve to see how the beers were pouring. It was the second of four calls he made to different people in the two hours I was there. From checking that all the beers were pouring well to inquiring as to the quality of another he proved true everything you’ve just read about him.
The Feral Tap Takeover at The Local Taphouses is the first such endeavour and it won’t be the last. Steve Jeffares hopes to repeat the initiative.
“We may have trouble finding another brewer who can supply us with twenty different beers that are all terrific tasting and well received,” Steve said.
“We may have to go for 7 or 8 beers out of twenty and re-name it a ‘Tap Makeover’”.
That’s a pretty fair compliment to Brendan Varis and Feral Brewing.