It’s easy to overlook the number of years beer has been made here on The Promenade. Once, when it opened in 2004, it was ahead of its time. Back then it was a James Squire brewpub and there was precious little else like it in the whole of Sydney, let alone in such a quintessential location as glittering Darling Harbour.
That arrangement lasted a few good years before things got tied up with the Bluetongue Brewery. After the lizard met an untimely demise the place found its feet again as the King Street Brewhouse, eventually becoming home to the Red Tape Brewing Company. But, save for a gold medal their stout picked up at the 2014 AIBA awards, the place more or less just kept on keeping on while making few headlines. By 2017 it had just become part of the fabric in the city’s beer scene. The only thing is, over time, fabric starts to fade.
Sure, the old wood-clad brewery still made good stuff and sold every drop it could squeeze out, but it was a right pain in the ass to brew on: awkward, inefficient and excessively wet. And, yes, the meals were still good value, but they no longer stood out on a strip where swarming tourists are seeking out something special. Even the wooden furniture, built so solid it could last for eternity, looked ragged after years breathing in salt spray and baking in the Sydney sun. Honestly, the place just felt like it was getting a bit tired.
The owners knew this. They’d looked in the mirror and seen the grey hairs, so they plotted rejuvenation. Nothing would happen quickly but when it did there would be little to remind you about how this place was before. In a transformative sense, it was caterpillar to butterfly.
As the builders’ boards went up, the old brewhouse was ripped out and shipped off to a new life in the country. Then the place was constructed again from the ground up – lower than that, with the pipes and the traps and the bones of the building all made anew. It took eight months but they shed everything in pursuit of a new and better life, including the name; the King Street Brewhouse went into the chrysalis and the All Hands Brewing House emerged, a more nautically themed title to better suit the surroundings.
The doors reopened to the public at the end of 2017, revealing something quite beautiful; warm woods and soft lighting; glass doors that disappear, allowing the outdoors indoors; copper and chrome to add a little shine while you dine. It felt – it feels – comfortable and cool, casual but classy.
You’ll be drawn to sit outside because that’s where the energy is, in the sun and nearer the sea, but the thing about All Hands versus King Street is that it actually makes you want to sit inside too. It’s more communal and convivial. Instead of haphazardly spread tables there are booths that take on different functions; one is like a scene straight from a stock image with a city worker sipping coffee and slapping away on a MacBook, the next stars six tourists necking pints.
It feels like a versatile venue that’s nice rather than niche, where the upmarket veneer doesn’t mean they sacrificed the screens showing sports; one quirk of this address is that it’s long been one of the busiest in the city come Super Bowl time when it gets flooded with American ex-pats. Fortunately it’s a big place, quite comfortable catering for hundreds of revellers in oversized football jerseys.
Given the proximity to the water, a seafood focused menu makes sense. While Darling Harbour itself isn’t exactly a bountiful fishery from which to drop a line and load up with fresh catch, the nearby fish market does the job. So you’ll order a crab roll or a trout salad, a classic prawn cocktail or the even-more-classic fish & chips battered in the IPA made on site – had we mentioned yet they brew their own beer?
In the grand scheme of the venue’s revival, head brewer Sam Clayman and able assistant Brayden Lew should be recognisable as the ones wearing the biggest smiles. No longer are they required to squeeze and swear in the hot box of the old brewery. They have a gleaming new piece of kit with enough vessels to make whatever they need. Their beer is served as fresh as it can be, straight from the bright tanks. They even have a dedicated place at the bar for cask ale – not degassed kegs, but proper cask conditioned ales sitting in their own temperature controlled incubator.
The brewers’ mandate is simply to ensure there’s plenty of All Hands beer for people to choose from. Five taps are mainstays that will always be pouring, with about the same again theirs to play with. With the exception of Red Tape’s old Wood Duck cream ale, whose almost inexplicable popularity demanded it kept being made, every other beer recipe is new. Not even the gold medal stout retained its place, but these are the hard calls you make when you’re building a brand new business.
Besides, if they had to make a choice between continuing to make their old beers in the old brewery or playing free in a brewery that has portholes where they have a view of the ships and the sea, it’s not really a decision that demands much thought. And that gets to the heart of the matter: this place had some good times in the past, but it’s never been as good as it is now.