Bendigo is a regional city that has built quite the reputation for craft beer over the past decade or so. And, while the Black Swan Hotel's history stretches back far further, it has recently helped to bolster that reputation for good beer.
Readers of The Crafty Pint likely need no introduction to the city's crafty credentials. The likes of the Dispensary Bar & Diner and The Cambrian have long been leading the way when it comes to serving excellent beer, The Hop Supply Co has fridges bursting with the good stuff, and while the delicious burger and beer joint Hustler fell foul of the economic downturn earlier this year, Bendigo Beer are well into their second decade proselytising in the community, most notably via the annual Bendigo On The Hop festival.
Way before the term "craft beer" had ever been uttered – 1873 to be precise – The Black Swan welcomed its first customers. Situated on the Gold Rush-fueled town's main thoroughfare, and backing onto the sprawling Rosalind Park, the pub has taken on many forms over the years. Up until the middle of the last decade, it was a late-night club and live music venue that held a licence that stretched on until 5am. But, when that version of the venue shut its doors seven years ago, it could have easily been the grand old boozer's last guise.
However, soon afterwards, it was bought by local doctor Dugal James. He set about fixing up the old building with the intention of reopening it as a homely and welcoming venue with a focus on local drinks. After multiple delays, mainly thanks to COVID, he reached that point as the Black Swan finally reopened its doors over Easter.
Tasked with running the venue are Peter Phillips and Grant Fairweather, who have chosen to focus on showcasing regional breweries. This includes using handwritten notes on each tap decal to let punters know which town the beer comes from and how far it is from Bendigo.
"I think with craft beer, people are often buying the beer to support the town," Peter says. "I'm trying to get across where the beer is coming from as opposed to just what kind of beer it is.
"When we opened up, Dugal wanted to make sure we kept it all local, which we are; a lot of people say they're doing local but have one local wine on, whereas all our wine, beer and cider is local."
Since opening, they've been embraced by locals eager to pop in for a drink and pizza, as well as many visitors from further afield too. Often, those from out-of-town arrive on two wheels to check out a unique feature of the pub: rooms filled with Indian motorcycles. Dugal's an avid fan of that make of motorbikes and has amassed an extensive personal collection: more than 80 are spread across the pub alongside old posters and memorabilia.
A soon-to-open whisky bar is also set to tap into history after they restored the cellar that sits beneath the main bar.
"I think someone would have lived in there when the pub was built because there is a fireplace," Peter says. "It's beautiful: it's all brick and we've built a bar, cleaned it all up, and are just waiting on licensing so we can open it."
Alongside craft beer and motorbikes, Dugal is also a big fan of blues music so that's also set to become a regular fixture via Sunday Blues sessions at the start of every month.
Bendigo On The Hop 2023 attendees will be among the first to enjoy live music there as the Black Swan plays host to Shedshaker and Holgate during the roving festival. Technically, it's the second time the building has been part of the event, after throwing open the doors for the day last year ahead of their grand opening and inviting the Bendigo Brewing team in to pour beers.
Ahead of the festival's return, owner Dugal James joined us for the latest instalment of our Beer Slingers series.
The Black Swan Hotel
Who’s involved in the business?
Owner: Dugal James.
Management: Peter Phillips, Grant Fairweather.
What are your backgrounds?
I’ve had a longstanding enthusiasm for motorcycles, blues music and craft beers. When the Black Swan became available it seemed the perfect opportunity to combine the three. I’m a new chum but Peter and Grant have been in hospitality and hotels for decades; for them, this presented as a welcome change in direction and something they could develop and grow from the roots up.
What first got you into craft beer?
I was never a fan of conventional beers drunk by the pail. As I was gradually exposed to the alternative world of craft beers, I became increasingly enthused by the growing diversity of the flavours and character of the beers being produced.
I’ve also been impressed by the enthusiasm and application of craft brewers themselves and the character of the breweries they’re developing.
What inspired you to open your venue?
I wanted to have a place people found familiar, homely, interesting and worth coming back to. I wanted to share my interests in bikes and blues and showcase the local breweries, wineries and distilleries.
We’re focused on appealing to a more mature crowd: our music, the décor and furnishings are more club-ish than pub-ish, but the feel is unpretentious, warm and inviting. We want people to feel comfortable, whether they’ve come alone or with friends and pretty soon they’re amongst friends new and old.
There are not many places like that for folk over 30.
What’s the story behind the name of the venue?
The hotel opened as The Black Swan in 1873. I think it was the first hotel with an official liquor license in Bendigo.
The concept of "The Black Swan" goes back centuries and alludes to a lack of convention, a rebelliousness, swimming against the tide. I like that, it seemed apt: bikes, blues and "home-brew".
How would you describe the vibe of your venue?
Comfortable and inviting, interesting but relaxed, worth sighing for.
Is there anything you’ve learned along the way you wish you’d known earlier?
Build a field and ... and eventually they’ll come…
Have there been any standout moments in your time as a venue owner?
I’ve had great support from a small crew – Nev and Ryan – getting the place "reclaimed", and am very fortunate to have found my management team in Peter and Grant. As they say: It’s hard to find good help.
After three years of prep during COVID we opened at Easter; it was a thrill to see the place finally hummin’ and the smile as folk happened on in and started looking around.
What local breweries are impressing you most right now?
How did you go about deciding your tap offering?
We’re wanting to support and showcase relatively local Central Vic breweries. We’re not wedded to any particular brands or styles, we continue to taste and trial different beers. We have our favorites but then want to be providing new interest and a variety of beers for people to try.
You’ve got three beers to turn a newcomer onto craft beer: what are they and why?
Variety is the spice of life. That’s the point: there’s so much out there to experience and ours is a place where you come and try something new and chat about it to someone new – or old!
You'll find the Black Swan alongside hundreds of other good beer venues across Australia in the free Crafty Pint app.
At the time of writing, there were only around 100 tickets left for Bendigo On The Hop 2023. Head here if you're keen to grab one of them.