Thinking back to the early days of sourcing beer for The TapHouse Townsville, owner Mark Rugg can’t help but laugh at the reactions he’d receive from certain sales reps.
“We were searching for beers to put on tap," he says. "We’d ring breweries and they’d be like, ‘Where’s Townsville?’ No, we’re not giving it to you.’”
Conversations with industry contacts have certainly changed since their opening in 2015, but such initial exchanges were admittedly not entirely unexpected.
After all, Airlie Beach is a mere hop, skip and jump from the Whitsundays, and Cairns and Port Douglas attract sun-kissed masses seeking access to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. When it comes to Far North Queensland, Townsville is an oft-overlooked destination. Which for many would be an off-putting proposition when looking to launch a craft beer bar. Especially in what is considered to be exclusively Great Northern and XXXX territory.
However, as noted by bar manager Dave Hinrichs (pictured working the taps above), who formerly managed some of Melbourne's top pubs such as The Royston and The Standard, the very nature of North Queensland’s unofficial capital has allowed the bar to flourish, with its largely static populace a blessing in disguise for the TapHouse.
“[Townsville is] an army town, it’s an industrial town, there’s a lot of students," Dave says.
"You’re not getting the tourist market, as what tends to happen is backpackers only stay for a couple of days – if that – on their way up or down the coast. So, you haven’t got an itinerant population. That means we can build relationships with customers.”
Turning once-off visitors into regulars isn't an easy job, though, with the focus at The TapHouse on education first and foremost, and there’s one conversation that’s been repeated – with joy – countless times by Dave.
“When someone comes in and has never drunk craft beer and not know anything that’s on tap, we’ll say ‘OK, start with this one. It’s the closest style we’ve got…’ Nine times out of ten they’ll come back.”
Dave says, however, that many thought the venue would have to change its offering to better fit in with the locals.
“We had a few people come in saying, ‘I’ll give you six months and you’ll have Great Northern on tap’.”
Instead, at the last count, TapHouse more than 900 beers to have passed through their eight taps alongside countless other packaged products kept in the venue’s fridges and they've managed to secure some pretty rare ones in that 900.
“An event not long ago – the Sour Fest, and Kiwi Tap Takeover which we do every February – we were sent two kegs of 8 Wired’s 2018 Wild Feijoa Sour," he says.
"To have a beer of that calibre on tap; that’s unheard of. Having that sort of beer in Far North Queensland is a big thing.”
So, here's Mark and Dave to tell us what's proving popular at TapHouse Townsville as part of our Behind Bars series.
What styles are proving popular? And does it change at different times of year?
Dave: Pales and IPAs are perennially popular. The last year or two has seen a phenomenal rise in the popularity of sour beers, whether they are kettle sours, farmhouse style or wilds. Due to our climate, which is pretty similar for most of the year, there isn’t much change, so we are able to keep a pretty consistent number of styles all year round.
What's surprised you most about the beer scene locally?
Mark: When we first opened, we didn't have a stout or porter on, we believed because of the aforementioned climate folks wouldn’t be interested in supping on a stout in 38 degree heat with 75 percent humidity.
How wrong we were; many customers asked us to remedy the situation, one we were happy to accommodate and now we have always at least one black beer on tap at all times. In general, we were happily surprised with customers willingness to embrace new and different styles, they may not always enjoy them but the fact they are willing to have a crack is really satisfying.
What were the obstacles to opening a craft beer venue in Townsville?
Mark: We had to approach breweries and figure out a way to make it work. We’d make it as easy as possible for them by taking care of all the freight and associated costs. All [the breweries] have to do is brew the beer, and we’ll get it to Townsville.
One of the biggest other obstacles, if you like, was us deciding whether to be a restaurant or a bar. We’re always trying to get people to stay for dinner, as a lot don’t realise a focus from day one for us was providing great food that complements great beer.
If you had three beers to convert someone to craft beer, which would they choose and why?
Mark: Maybe start them with an easy-drinking, sessionable lager so as not to scare the horses. Then move on to the classic Stone & Wood Pacific Ale, there is a reason it has dominated the GABS Hottest 100 for so many years. And to finish off, maybe a modern IPA such as the Black Hops Hornet.
Which indie breweries are people able to access in the region?
Mark: We are lucky to have Townsville Brewery on our doorstep, then Macalister’s, Hemingway’s, Coral Sea and Barrier Reef brewing are only a short drive away in Cairns, with Sauce Brewing having opened more recently too.
What does the future look like for TapHouse Townsville?
Mark: We’d love to have something else in this region (North Queensland) – but somewhere other than Townsville. We have a lot of people asking us: “When are you going to bring the Taphouse to the southeast corner of the state?” But it’s hard to use the same template somewhere else you know, finding that perfect location is crucial.
Dave: We’ve also found that we’re having an influence on the beer scene in general – there’s a couple of bottleshops who have started to put a lot more craft beer into their fridges and we like to think a bit of credit has to come from what we’ve done. Some of the owners would come to the bar, try the beer, and then go back and order the beers for their shop.
Mark: So, we’d like to keep raising the bar in that regard. We also want to keep doing events. There are about ten to 15 dedicated ones each year – Oktoberfest, July 4th, Meet the Brewers and so on – and no one else in the laneway does anything like it. It’s the easiest way to keep us in people’s minds, so we’ll keep expanding on those.