The Perth suburb of Subiaco has long been known by many – particularly those from outside Western Australia – for one thing in particular: the Subiaco Oval. With the closure of the stadium at the end of 2017, following the completion of the the city's new Optus Stadium, some businesses that had evolved around the masses of people that would flood in around events at Subi could be forgiven for looking to the future with some trepidation.
Two who aren't are Tim Prast and David Gronow, who launched Refuge Small Bar in the area in late 2016. Tim suggests football leaving the Subi may instead give local businesses a chance to redefine themselves rather than being reliant on a few hours of trade before and after games.
Here they are, as part of our Behind Bars series, in which we invite bartenders and venue owners around the country for their insights on the local beer scene.
How did you come to launch Refuge?
TIM PRAST: Well, we were all in the nightclub side of hospo before this and you can really only do that for so long. Being tied into contracts meant we had no freedom to pour what we were really interested in drinking.
I think our ethos is pretty simple; we just want people to enjoy themselves and to educate where we can (in a totally non-judgy way, we are all still learning too), whether that is opening their eyes to the newest craft craze or pouring a fresh pale made by a guy that lives around the corner.
DAVID GRONOW: From memory, it actually came from a conversation at about 1am on a Saturday night, where we just thought, we’re not loving where we are, let's do something we want to do! Our idea for the bar was for a venue that brought a bit of life back to what we knew as a dying suburb and, as Tim said, introducing people to awesome beer without the preconceived ideas of it being an eye-rolling experience.
We’ve put a big focus on establishing a sense of community between ourselves, our staff and our patrons, which, in all honesty, is what gives us the most pride in our venue, and linking that positive feeling with the beer people are drinking.
A lot of our crowd is drawn from local business people and there was a fair bit of pressure for us to pour the big conglomerates' beer; the idea of being called Peroni’s was joked about but we held true and people who were once timid to come in are now asking for imperial red IPAs, which puts a big smile on our dials. This change in people's willingness to experience something new helped us make the decision to stock probably three quarters of our fridges with barrel aged, soured beers.
What’s the beer that was a game changer for you?
TP: For me it was Little Creatures and, more specifically, their Rogers mid-strength about eight to nine years ago. The whole atmosphere of the place, the fit-out and the beers just opened my eyes up to what could be done. I feel like Little Creatures was potentially the gateway brewery for a lot of people in Perth, though.
DG: Rodenbach’s OG Flanders red, without a doubt. I started Spanish lessons after a big trip overseas and it quickly turned into an excuse to go out for a beer with everyone afterwards. This led me to Baby Mammoth, in Northbridge, and, more importantly, to this beer that just blew me away. It's still a favourite for our team at Refuge too.
What’s the Refuge team drinking after work?
TP: Basically, whatever is new on tap. We encourage free tasters for our staff and patrons so it’s pretty common that when the staff come in the first thing they do is check our tap list and have a taster or two of the new beers.
At the moment, with it getting a bit colder, most of them are hitting the Hazelnut Brown from Eagle Bay. Sometimes we might crack a bottle and share it around; I think the last one was the La Sirène Biere de Cerise, which was just perfect for staffies because there was so much to discover in that beer and talk about.
DG: Milk. Anyone who knows me knows I’m heavily set on having a couple of frothy, dairy treats to end a day. On the beer front though, Tim nails it: the team jump on anything and everything.
What are your customers asking for at the moment?
TP: We have a pretty diverse crowd here, which is pretty fortunate, so it ranges from the Hardcore PBS (Perth Beer Snobs) chasing the latest keg or something from our pretty extensive sour bottle range to the work crowd wanting the easy drinking lager or kolsch.
At the moment, though, it’s all about the NEIPAs. We ran through Dainton's Blood Orange Rye then straight onto the Beer Farm NAIPA and now have the Innate Brewer's Baby Juice, all in just a matter of weeks. But, with it cooling down and everybody releasing their dark beers I think things will change pretty quickly. More Nail Clayden Brew please, John Stallwood!
DG: With the change in season, customers are chewing through the reds and dark beers pretty quickly. Innate's Watch This Space IIPA kicks in a stupid amount of time whenever we’ve put it on and, in the fridge, we’ve been trucking through the sours, La Sirène’s Citray Sour and Beer Farm’s The Pineapple Berliner Weisse 2.0.
The beer landscape has exploded in the past few years, have you seen a change to everyday buying habits?
TP: Punters' tastes have just opened up. No longer do you need a tap line up filled with lagers, pales and IPAs. We can have 12 taps with 12 different styles and they will all move. I mean, we have regulars that will drink the Nail VPAs and we have regulars that will drink the Black Brewing Bao Bao Milk Stouts over summer too! So it really just makes it exciting for us, it gives us the flexibility to be able to stock almost anything on the market and there will be punters happy to at least give it a go.
DG: We took on VPA early last year and I don’t think its come off once – this beer just grabbed people, threw them into a light filled, golden, pale, tropical sunrise and forced itself into every part of their bodies. People love it, it's helped shape our image as a place people can go for what seems a new standard: a 6.5 percent ABV hop bomb of a pale. With that, I think the majority of our customers are seeing the tap list change regularly and they want to move with that change and allow themselves to be more open to something they’ve never had.
What advice would you give to a customer who is new to craft beer?
TP: If you already have some more mainstream beers you like, then let the bartender know and they should be able to match a craft to that to ease you into it.
[At Refuge] we offer free tasters so that you can try before you jump into something, we also ask some questions to see what might suit what you prefer or what you have tried before, etc. The best thing to do is find a craft beer you like, learn how it is made, what hops or malts and all that and find other beers that might use one or two of the same ingredients and expand outwards from there.
Craft beer can be daunting: breweries all over the world, names you can’t pronounce – curse you, Nøgne! – and styles older than some cities, but if you start local I guarantee you will find something you like.
Crafty Pint helped a lot in the early days at Refuge; I would check the website a few times a week to see what was coming out and get the hot gossip. [NB: this was unsolicited – but we'll take it!]
DG: Anytime I see someone hesitate as they take in our tap list, I ask the question, what do you like to drink? From there you can understand what they’re expecting from the glass, and you can probe and prompt them to creep a little out of their comfort zone. You won’t convince them to jump into a saison every time but it can go a long way to just be friendly and enthusiastic, and show them that the world of good beer is not a dark, scary place but a dark, delicious, barrel aged place.
It gives me no greater pleasure seeing the look on people’s faces when they try a beer they are hesitant about and discover it's mouth-wateringly delicious.
What have been the standout beers you've tried this year?
TP: I’ve been gushing about this guy lately to everybody that comes down to the bar but the BOTNA (Beer of the New Age) from [the Swan Valley's] Heroes and Villains is just such a good drop. It’s an American Pale Ale style using Fortnight hops, super fresh and light enough to drink a few of them, plus the guy lives around the corner: ex homebrewer now turning pro.
DG: I’ve had a few belters from Artisan Brewing: the Le Pont Saison was right up my alley. Cheeky Monkey’s Imperial Monk went down a treat too and there was a lot of quality control tasting on both. I was lucky enough to convince my girlfriend to hunt down a collaboration between Pöhjala and To Øl, and bring it over from Estonia – an imperial stout aged in Cognac barrels with Estonian liqueur additions. It went down a treat even on a 35 degree day!
In your opinion, who is the brewery to watch in 2018 and why?
TP: This is a tough question. Innate Brewers has been doing some amazing things the last few years and I know head brewer Joel Nash has just got some new kit so we are all pretty excited to see what he’s coming out with next. Given the fact he’s done so much for the brewery and it’s him doing a heck of a lot of the work, I think he has a pretty exciting year ahead.
I also think given the way the Beerfarm boys have been tracking with their releases, their ethos, their farm/brewpub/brewery setup and just some of the whispers I hear about upcoming releases, collabs and future plans that these guys are really onto something with what they are doing.
DG: I’ll get behind Tim on this. Might also be a sneaky new brewery coming to Leederville very soon, with a great bunch of guys behind it (not us, I know, I know).
What do you think is the next big thing in beer?
TP: In Perth specifically, it’s going to be the suburban brewpub; we are already seeing it with Nowhereman and Blasta and it just harkens back to that whole concept of drinking local (it might also be my nostalgia about Little Creatures). It’s just that whole being able to drink the beer where it's made – it doesn’t get any fresher. It’s not sitting in a big distribution warehouse and coming out to the bar nine months after being kegged.
This idea kind of also ties into the concept of farm to keg or bottle that I think will really hit it big in the next few years. Being able to produce and process the majority of your beer from on-site grown (or locally grown) ingredients is a pretty amazing thing that I know breweries are starting to get around.
DG: I think that as we move through the sour craze at the moment, this will naturally graduate to a greater number of barrel fermented or aged styles and this might lend itself to single keg releases to venues.
What's you most recent most memorable beer experience?
TP: This is going to be a mushy answer but it’s damn near nearly every day. You meet some amazing people in this industry and it is just one big supportive community. From my experience with dealing with the breweries it has never been about selling the most units or anything, everybody is just trying to make the best beer’s possible and then it turns into this giant game of one-upmanship where they try and outdo each other which means the winners are people that like to drink beer.
What are your your early contenders for beers of the year?
TP: Can I say the Citray Sour from La Sirène is a this year release? If so, then that is definitely up there for me. Clean and crisp with enough funk hidden away that there is always something to discover. Beerfarm Pineapple Berliner Weisse 2.0 is definitely up there; the pineapple taste really fleshed out that beer for me (mind the pun).
DG: La Sirène’s Biere de Cerise was stunning for mine. Perhaps a Refuge Small Bar collaboration with La Sirène and a trip over [to Melbourne] is due... Tim can hold the fort.
You'll find Refuge Small Bar at 5/50 Subiaco Square Rd, Subiaco.
You can check out the rest of our Behind Bars series here. Know somebody or a bar you think should be featured in this series? The drop us a line here.
About the author: Guy drinks and writes about beer, goes for a run most mornings and makes his own chilli hot sauce. Find out more on Goodtimes Craft Beer via Facebook and Instagram.