How do you balance a legacy with the need to change? It’s a fairly heavy question – not least when it concerns a beer bar – but some things carry a bit more weight than others. This place is one of them.
Some of it gets tied up with the building itself, simply because it’s really old – about 180 years they reckon, the architecture reminiscent of a time when the European Sydney was young and buildings were formed in a more timeless and graceful manner; it’s hard to imagine our new builds being so easy on the eye two hundred years from now.
Lengthy as that history is, it's the last decade or so that this place really created a legacy. That was when a team that had perfected its craft beer concept in Melbourne sought to replicate their business in Sydney, at a venue with the same name and same 1930s-style European tavern feel as their St Kilda home: The Local Taphouse.
At the time, the late 2000s, there was precious little else like it. Across the whole of the rest of the city it seemed you could scarcely find a pub with a decent pale ale on tap, yet here was a place you could come and indulge in perhaps twenty different styles. Peering up at the beer board, the names were exotic, the experience was exciting.
It was the kind of place where you could strike up a conversation with a stranger at the bar to discover they were a brewer from out of town, because every out of town brewer would come here – it was the spot. They tapped the best beers, the newest beers, the weirdest beers. The place didn’t just have cachet with beer nerds: it turned people into beer nerds, signed them up as fee paying members. If you were into beer – not just drank it, but were into it – the Taphouse shone like a lighthouse. It had the reputation, it had big ideas – perhaps too big, at times – and the pioneering spirit meant it had the jump on almost everyone else. The place felt important. That much is its legacy.
Thing is, when you’re out in front others will eventually, inevitably catch up. New beer bars opened down the road and across the suburbs, pubs changed what they were serving and breweries burst from the ground like flowers. Suddenly you didn’t have to trek over to Darlinghurst to get the best, newest or weirdest beer. Suddenly you had options. The place hadn’t slowed down, the pace of the industry had picked up.
Having run it for the best part of a decade the founders decided to sell up, headed back to Melbourne where they’d launched even more and ever larger beer ventures. The pub was picked up as a going concern by James and Josh Thorpe, brothers who’d come up through the hospitality ranks so they inherently understood what made the place tick. They bought into its legacy, but they also brought change.
Some things couldn’t and wouldn’t be altered: no tap contracts, no pokies – both rarities in an old New South Wales pub, let alone under the same roof. And the beer – a place called The Taphouse had to be about the beer.
Their approach towards change was a subtle but significant smoothing off of the pointy end beer geek stuff. Why? Because, as much as Sydney has become a flourishing beer city, your average person still couldn’t care less about the latest hops or trends.
By way of example, The Taphouse gets a lot of people stopping in on the way to the sports stadiums over the road, but they aren’t coming to preload on barleywine before marching off to put themselves at the mercy of the macro mid-strengths. Most people, most of the time, just want a decent beer at a decent price. But that didn’t mean the new owners went kowtowing to the breweries offering the cheapest kegs. In a maturing beer market such key tenets as high quality, independence, approachability and affordability are not mutually exclusive. It’s perfectly possible for a venue to be both a beer preacher and a crowd pleaser.
If, reading that, you feel a concern that a more welcoming frame of mind might water down the tap list, the answer is succinct: it hasn’t. Bottom line is they pour what they like. Harvest Ale. Hazy IPA. Blueberry Berliner Weisse. Baltic Porter. Even if they were to limit themselves to just a handful of beers (the venue can, technically, pour sixty different lines across its three floors) you’d wager they’d still present a range to match it with the best in the city. After all, you don’t build cachet just to give it away again. In fact, they’re planning on building it further by turning the middle level into a wild beer and natural wine bar. Just quietly though, it’s the rooftop bar that still feels like the jewel in the crown, the verdure of the potted garden helping turn this level into an archetypal Sydney drinking destination whether you’re under umbrellas, under the sun or under the stars.
Then there are things you might not notice but which say plenty about this place. Their pursuit of independence now extends to supporting Aussie spirits. They weave beer into their food at every opportunity – nuts caramelised in pale ale, lamb braised in stout and beer, somehow, turned into cheese dip. Their beer board, to the sure consternation of every sales rep looking for an advantage, remains as egalitarian as ever – just little white letters on a black background, no colourful tap badges or totemic handles trying to sway you their way.
Amidst all the excitement now on offer in the beer world it’s easy enough to forget how recent it was that drinkers in Sydney had so few options. Yet there was always the Taphouse serving it up with understated flair, a kind of nonchalant excellence. True, the rest of the field may have caught up but, pound for pound, tap for tap, floor for floor, there are still few places that can match The Taphouse when it comes to being a beer destination. This place is a modern legend, one that feels as inviting as ever.