A few years ago, if you'd walked up to your average Sydneysider and politely enquired as to where you might get your growler filled, the typical reaction would likely have been somewhere between shock and bemusement. You suspect it’d be different these days, with growlers having grown in popularity as more breweries have opened across the city and helped people discover the merits of a large refillable container of beer. And yet, amidst all that has grown in the beer world, the city has never had a specialist store dealing in fresh fills. Until now.
Beer Barrel has been opened by Roman Enin, a Russian who came to Sydney to visit a friend and so enjoyed the smiling faces and sunny disposition that he decided to make it home. He had a background working for Big Beer back in his home country but a trip to The Lord Nelson in The Rocks showed him there was another path to follow. Fast forward a few years and he was eyeing up an empty shop in a gritty and noisy part of Chippendale with the concept of setting up a shop dedicated to growlers.
But getting it open was hardly plain sailing. As is the case with all new things pertaining to alcohol in a virtuously conservative state, it took time to get the council to come around to the idea that this wasn't a bar, nor was it a bottleshop in the typical sense. In the end it took nearly three years to navigate the nuances of the licensing laws and satisfy the authorities, but looking at his shop now you have to say it’s been worth the wait.
Mostly dark walls and light wood, the decor is simple but has the effect of focusing your eyes behind the counter where three backlit growler stations are mounted. There’s an element of theatre when Roman loads a bottle into these machines, opening hatches and pulling levers while the lights give the pouring beer a glowing aura. You don't have to like beer to appreciate that this looks beautiful.
As for the beers that flow through the machines, when the doors to Beer Barrel opened midway through 2017 there were 18 different lines, with room for another dozen to be added. It would have been tempting to just install the 30 lines up front but Roman wanted to make sure the local market was ready for what he was offering and, more importantly, didn't want to do the beer a disservice by potentially having too much beer sitting unsold and slowly deteriorating in the keg.
That consideration for quality is a big one here, perhaps the number one consideration; Roman chose the Pegas growler system as he deems it to be the best for delivering and keeping the beer as its freshest (and has gone so far as to become the local distributor for the gear); he has set the system to pour deliberately slowly so as to not disturb the beer too much or overdo the level of carbonation; he even keeps the bottles – which is to say, the empty ones – in a fridge so there’s no undue temperature shock to the beer when it’s being filled. His aim is to serve you a beer that you will enjoy in the manner the brewer intended it.
Although he would have liked to have opened sooner, one of the upsides of having been made to wait is the number of breweries that have themselves opened. With about a dozen in the local area to work with, he has the freshest of the fresh at his doorstep (he takes particular pride in pouring Lord Nelson beer, considering how it helped put him on this path). But he also casts his net far wider than that, featuring breweries from all over the country as well as plucking some special treats from the growing catalogue of overseas breweries now sending their beer Down Under.
There’s been another bonus from the delay too. When he’d first planned to open the business, property developers had only just gotten their claws properly into the area. Now all the surrounding neighbourhoods – Chippendale, Ultimo, Redfern and Central station – are booming with new apartments, and inside all those little boxes live a lot of people. Servicing them has resulted in a swathe of new restaurants and that suits Roman just fine; the refundable nature of his bottles means people make a point of grabbing a couple of bottles on their way to a nearby BYO restaurant, enjoying the beer with dinner then dropping the bottles off again on their way home. As far as drinking beer goes, it’s no fuss, needs no prior planning and comes with next to no carbon footprint, which is rather nice.
If you wanted to be picky and find a downside to Beer Barrel, it’d be having all that beer pouring but not being allowed a taste (it’s a licensing thing). However, for a couple of dollars you can walk out with a cute half litre tincture bottle. Those quickly became popular and Roman now sends plenty of people out his door with a taster in hand to have them return soon after for a larger refill.
That growler fills generally work out cheaper than prepackaged bottles definitely helps the cause, which is why he’s toying with doing pre-filled mixed four packs of the small bottles as an alternative takeaway. What’s more, because the bottles are counter pressured, the beer inside is meant to stay in top condition for up to 30 days from when it was filled (although, anecdotally, it tends to last about one thirtieth of that time).
While growlers are far from being new technology, by dedicating the store to them entirely Beer Barrel is putting something of a different spin on things. But if recent history is any guide, serving good beer nice and fresh is always a winning formula.