Words like pivot and change have been uttered a lot over the last couple of years, and for many beer businesses, taking a new approach has been essential to survival. Few have experienced the COVID roller-coaster quite like the team at Sydney’s 12 Taps, however. Their rocky ride has been tumultuous but now seemingly has put them on a path they're happy to walk.
At one stage, there were two 12 Taps craft beer bars in Sydney, but neither survived the challenges COVID was to pose. Now they're back with a new venue, which opened in Marrickville at the start of last month.
“We think it’s a great formula and if we opened anything else, it would be just like Marrickville,” 12 Taps co-founder Marco Vargas says.
Their first bar opened in Glebe at the end of 2018, but when their three-year lease on the three-storey venue came up for renewal they chose not to stay on due to COVID’s ongoing impact.
“It had just gotten too quiet,” Marco says.
Towards the end of 2020 – at a time when many felt the worst of the pandemic had passed – they opened 12 Taps Kings Cross. But, with Sydney set to spend much of the following year in lockdown, and with the CBD and its surrounds particularly impacted, its existence was short-lived.
“It was a large venue and we just couldn’t sustain it given it was too new to get any real support from the government,” he says.
But Marco and fellow founders Byron Lotz, Brock Vanzino didn't sit idle for long: the inner west locals soon found a spot they felt was perfect for what drove them to start 12 Taps in the first place: supporting small breweries and offering warm hospitality.
The latest venue sits on a corner of Marrickville Road and is much smaller than its predecessors – Kings Cross was over two floors and both that and Glebe had kitchens too. It's a size the team feels leaves them better able to focus on beer and building a sense of community through comedy and trivia nights.
“If we were in better times, it would have been OK but we love the small bar business structure and partnering with neighbours on the food,” Marco says, adding: “Being close to the breweries does mean there’s a lot of people coming into the area looking for craft beer.”
One of their claimed points of difference is what they choose to pour: their dozen taps typically showcasing regional breweries and indies without distribution or homes of their own.
“It’s very hard for them to get taps in Sydney, almost impossible,” he says.
The many challenges small breweries can face is one Marco, Bryon and Brock have also seen through their involvement in Hopsters Co-operative Brewery. The trio met through the co-operative, which Marco founded in 2016 before going on to be its chair for three years. It launched as Australia’s first cooperative brewery nearly six years ago and today operates a taproom in Enmore and has more than 800 members.
“I love building things,” Marco says. “It’s like a social enterprise or community, so once you join you become part of the community anything you need you can work with the others on.”
It’s those Hopsters and that love of building that gives the 12 Taps team the confidence to be planning more openings over the coming year. The North Shore and Parramatta are their main focus for now – areas identified in part by the Hopsters who call them home and also by the fact they have few craft beer bars of their own.
Marco says they’re keen to franchise their model, believing it’s a good approach for someone passionate about craft beer who is keen to be their own boss.
“You do need to be an owner-operator,” he says. “It’s the only way it works really, and we want owners who love craft beer and the people who work there.
"For me, the most important thing is the team: take care of them and they’ll take care of the customers.”
You can visit 12 Taps Marrickville at Shop 5/125-135 Marrickville Road, Marrickville. Find it and hundreds of other good beer venues in the free Crafty Pint app.