Some evidence of the craft beer movement is obvious, such as the growing number of smaller breweries opening their doors, the increasing crowds at beer festivals and so forth, while others can be less obvious. One of the less trumpeted flow-on effects of craft beer’s slowly expanding market is the infiltration of good beer into well-established institutions that have never really bothered with beer before.
One such institution that has recently jumped on the craft beer bandwagon is the Oak Barrel bottle shop in Sydney. Located just a short walk from Hyde Park in the heart of the CBD, the Oak Barrel has been firmly established as an independent liquor stalwart since its inception in 1956. Distinguishing itself in the market by stocking shelf space with more esoteric wine and spirit options, as well as hosting regular events to educate palates, the store now boasts an impressive selection of craft beers and ciders from around the world. And, like craft beer proliferation in general, their dedicated beer shelf space is continuing to grow.
“It was a natural progression for us,” Oak Barrel’s self-proclaimed ‘beer and cider guy’ Ian Chainey tells me.
As a fiercely independent purveyor of artisanal spirits and wine, craft beer was simply the next step for the business.
“A handful of our wine distributors will also have a beer or two in their portfolio, so we made the connection through that. But once you’ve opened the door a little way, you look in and say sh*t, there is so much beer out there,” Chainey says.
When I visited the Oak Barrel for the first time back in February, their craft beer wall consisted of about four shelves featuring regular line-up brews from a handful of local breweries and a couple from interstate. Now the craft beer wall has expanded to fill upwards of four entire racks of shelves, with breweries from New Zealand, the US and Japan amply represented; and more on the way.
“Since we started in January, I’ve drunk probably more beer than I ever have before,” Chainey says with a grin, citing a couple of bigger stouts as his favourites as the weather starts to turn colder.
To commemorate their growing appreciation of the craft beer segment, the Oak Barrel will be hosting their first ever Craft Beer and Cider Fair on Saturday May 26. The fair will feature exhibitors from breweries and cideries across Australia and New Zealand, as well as food options and some discounted pricing on featured products.
The layout of the store serves such events well, and the beer and cider fair will slot naturally into other such tastings and festivals that have garnered the store a loyal following of local fans. Beyond the typical bottle-filled shelves and fridges out the front that make the Oak Barrel seem like any other liquor store, there is ample storage and office space behind, as well as a sizeable dedicated tasting room, which will act as the main event space for the fair.
Chainey says he is yet to work out the final layout for the fair, but he hopes the event will give people a chance to try a few new things as well as talk to dedicated brewery reps about their range and the brewing process in general. He will also be setting up a ‘chill-out’ space with standing barrels set up so people can mingle and have a chat over a beer or two.
To me, the Oak Barrel’s move into craft beer is a positive thing in so many ways. Not only is it a signal of the growing demand for good beer in the market, but it also goes another step towards legitimising craft beer, by placing it alongside well-established liquor varieties and taking it partially out of the exclusive realm of dedicated enthusiasts. There is, of course, no reason why good quality produce shouldn’t stand side-by-side in any good store or bar already, although some naysayers would have us believe that there still exists a divide between beer and the upper alcohol echelons occupied by wine and refined spirits.
The Craft Beer & Cider Fair is a great opportunity for Sydneysiders to show their support for the Oak Barrel’s new venture, as well as sample and pick up some great quality beer.
Entry to the fair costs $35 ($25 for store members) and can be booked via craftbeerandcider.com. Once inside, samples will be offered free, in responsible serving sizes.