If you've visited The Scratch in Brisbane, you'll be well aware it's no ordinary beer bar. It's very, very good at being a beer bar – one of the best in Australia, in fact – but it's more besides, its owners' mindset manifested by the strange murals and animal skulls adorning the walls, the offbeat collaborations and the lengths they'll go to when putting on events.
These days, it's not the most outré beer bar in Brisbane, however. That mantle has passed to Netherworld, a venue opened by an augmented version of the same team at the start of the year that combines elements of The Scratch's madness with arcades, pinball, consoles, board games, monsters and, of course, heaps of top notch craft beer.
There are other venues out there combining gaming and good beer but, arguably, none that has gone to such lengths – or attracted so many eager punters from the off. Ahead of its biggest and most ambitious event to date – the Monster Menagerie – Julia Charalambous steps tentatively into the Netherworld...
Anybody who’s got a body knows Brisbane’s October temperatures are hardly conducive to goosebumps and chills down the spine. As for Halloween parties in Australia, well, they tend to resemble a B-grade Playboy shoot rather than an ode to the phantasms of monstrosity. But, folks, have we got good news for you. This year, everything looks set to change thanks to a craft beer festival of epic proportions at Netherworld.
In The Valley of Brisbane - formally Fortitude Valley, an area described by polite locals as "full of characters" - lies a creature borne from the brains of The Scratch family members Benjamin Nichols and Kieran Ryan and pinball wizard Jimmy Angliss. On any given day since it opened in January 2017, Netherworld arcade bar has been home to some 130 board games, up to 16 pinball machines, more than 25 vintage arcade machines and a collection of vintage consoles – each hooked up to their own vintage TV.
It is quite unlike anything Brisbane or Queensland has ever seen before – and a venture that has placed the threesome and their staff under siege from customers since day one like the inhabitants of Precinct 13's cop shop (1976 vintage, of course).
It's tucked inside the Art Deco heritage listed building that was once home to The Underdog Pub and Step In, among others, and large enough that "we could have all the machines we wanted,” according to self-proclaimed Supervillain Ben.
He adds: “Something we were always really conscious of, in the early days, was not making this place a boy’s club, or a games pit, with dark corners.” Thus the space, while crawling with creeping plants, is lit at night by more than just the light of the vintage machines. And this has translated to a diverse crowd, one the owners say is a fairly even mix of gals and guys.
They split the space into three areas. First, you encounter a large oval bar pouring all Australian craft beer and cider, homemade sodas and cocktails ranging from classic to experimental. Then comes the Hellmouth Diner, specialising in vegan American-Japanese fusion cuisine. Finally, in the furthermost room, you will find the retro arcade games the venue is famous for.
Throughout, you can feel rampant creativity seeping from every corner – or maybe that’s just the skeletons hanging from the roof. There's personality present in the hand illustrated blackboards, the murals by local artists sprawling from floor to ceiling and the cheeky little monsters hiding in the loft corner above the diner. It is palpable, and it is more than aesthetic – it’s a deliberate and constructive effort to make this venue live up to, and align with, the owners' ethos of creativity, community, inclusivity and environmental consciousness, making Netherworld progressive in a way few other venues in Brisbane are.
“Locality, having a good family here, drawing on things that are close by, is something that is important to us," says Ben. "That’s why we chose Australian only beer. Supporting local guys for our main taps.” The support has been reciprocated – the house pour, Green Beacon Kobald Pale Ale, was the brewery's first every collaboration, intended as a one-off batch for the opening week, but kept on by thirsty mouths.
Then there's Hellmouth's vegan menu, where dairy and meat are optional add-ons. For the owners, this wasn’t about thrusting veganism into people's faces, however.
“Beer being so meat focused sparked a mild frustration [for me]," says Ben. "But it wasn’t about being vegan only. It was about inclusivity for gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian, vegan and meat eaters. It just makes good sense to start with vegan, dairy free, gluten free meals and add to them, rather then stripping things away.”
As for the environmentally conscious aspect, Netherworld is a part of a growing number of venues in Brisbane to join the LOOP Growers movement. LOOP Growers is an initiative started by two Samford based farmers, Ally and Phil, with the aim of closing the loop of food production and waste. All the green waste from participating venues goes back to the farm to be composted and eventually turned into fertiliser for future crops.
To some, this might all sound rather earnest, even in an age where people are slowly waking up to the simple steps they can take to cause less harm to the planet. But then you remember the skeletons, the monsters, the consoles, the unique otherworldliness of the whole endeavour. And then there's Monster Menagerie – a festival that threatens to put even The Scratch's wildest weekends in the shade.
“Monster Menagerie is an event for the beer community, but it's also just about getting creative and making weird shit and hoping to show others the fun of collaboration beer,” says Ben, who has found many people drawn to the venue to be new to craft beer, attracted instead by its location and gaming aspects.
Inspired by the late 1980s comic series "Monster in My Pocket", they hope Monster Menagerie will become an annual affair, one at which 16 new collaboration beers from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are set to be tapped with decals brought to life (or life after death) by local artist John Webber and where guests can be transformed at a "wound station".
Among the beers will be The Grifter Brewing Co's Medusa – the snake-haired creature reinvented as a watermelon and mint IPA. Two Birds Brewing is releasing a special edition Blood Red Jalapeno Taco, 4 Hearts is rooting for the team with an Imperial Beetroot Stout and, one for the saliva glands, the maniacs over at Brisbane Brewing Co is sending a creamy AF Green Tea Ice Cream beer.
Naturally, no 2017 beer festival would be complete without a NEIPA, even if it is green. So, come on down, Semi-Pro Brewing, who've gone all mad scientist in whipping up a Swamp Sludge green NEIPA.
How are they making it green? “We don’t ask questions like that, we just drink the beer,” says Ben. As for the question of viscosity, it was evaded like a well trained politician. Guess you’ll just have to nab a ticket and find out for yourself.
Netherworld is found at 186 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley
If you're around Brisbane this weekend (October 7 to 8), you can head along to Monster Menagerie by grabbing a ticket here. You'll get samples of all 16 beers, limited edition Netherworld trading cards, gaming tokens and more.
You can check out the full lineup of brewers involved and grab a ticket here.