Catfish Blues has to be the most mysterious important song ever made.
The first known recording was in 1941, created by Delta blues musician Robert Petway, whose exact dates of birth and death remain uncertain. Also unknown is whether he was the first person to sing Catfish Blues or merely the first to record it? The latter seems more likely.
Later on, Muddy Waters took the track and ran with it to record Rollin' Stone, which in turn is said to have inspired the band as well as, possibly, the magazine, although some would suggest all were merely inspired by the saying, a rolling stone gathers no moss.
Far less shrouded in mystery is The Catfish. Indeed, like an old blues number, the manner the Fitzroy bar team has always had when it comes to greeting people – the way staff you've just met can feel like old friends, or the bar stools somehow have the feel of a dearly-missed old couch – conjures a welcome sense of familiarity, even if it's your first visit.
This weekend sees The Catty celebrate its tenth birthday, with founders Kieran Yewdall and Michael Shaughnessy citing the bar's devotion to serving nothing but good beer, live music and laughs as the source of their best memories.
But their shared memories date back well before they took over Gertrude's Brown Couch and turned it into the Melbourne icon it is today: they first met while working together at a hotel in Melbourne’s CBD. At the time, Mike was a waiter working on functions and keen for a change, while Kieran was in the bar, where he took it upon himself to show his new mate the ropes.
“Mike was 19 and I was 21 and we were working at the Hilton,” Kieran says.
“I couldn’t even open a bottle of wine,” Mike admits, without missing a beat.
Soon enough, the pair were living together – first in Melbourne, later in London – and talked often about starting their own bar.
“Beat Magazine used to print out these bar crawls in certain parts of the city,” Mike says. “We’d just pick one out and hit a bunch of little bars and check out places with the interest and thinking behind it being getting behind our own thing one day.”
Kieran says the idea of running a business together just always felt right; when he started searching for a bar to run, he figured he should see if Mike was still unhappy after switching hospo for sales.
“I knew he missed hospitality and I was looking to open something,” Kieran says.
“You work with a lot of people over the years but you don’t always feel you could open a business with any of them.”
Their search brought them to the city end of Gertrude Street, where they stripped back and repainted the existing bar while installing eight taps that have poured craft beer ever since.
“A friend of ours who's a chippy helped us build some stuff and then, when he wasn't working, we were down there doing it ourselves,” Kieran recalls.
As anyone who's paid a visit knows, there's a second business under The Catty's roof. Although something of a last-minute addition, their cohabitant, Sparrow’s Philly Cheesesteaks, has been a central part of their story, courtesy of a drool-worthy menu built upon hoagies, wings and fries. It's a relationship that’s always worked both ways, enticing sandwich lovers in for a beer and beer lovers in for a second form of one-handed, carb-loaded joy.
“We just want to be able to stick to what we do and know best,” Mike says. “It’s a very cohesive business; we attract people in for them and they attract people in for us.”
It’s one of many reasons why a label like "craft beer bar" doesn’t begin to describe what makes The Catfish so special. It's way too idiosyncratic to fit neatly into such a box.
Yes, the taps pour nothing but independent craft beer. Yes, they’ve hosted some of the finest beer events you’ll have had the pleasure to attend: a vertical tasting of eight years of 8 Wired Feijoa Sour straight from the brewer's cellar, anyone? Or the “simultaneously most fun and most disgusting” event they ever put on: a Panhead Cheesesteak Eating Competition?
At the same time, it's a knock-off spot for health workers at the nearby St Vincent’s Hospital. If you're a Melbourne blues fan then you've certainly spent many Wednesday nights over the past eight years enjoying Blues Roulette. Or maybe you were present at the bandroom’s first sellout show, when a ten-piece Blues Brothers tribute band sat safely behind chicken wire as they performed. Or maybe you've ventured through the doors courtesy of their participation in all manner of arts festivals.
“I think a lot of people have a good affiliation with The Catfish because it means different things to a lot of different people,” Mike says.
As owners, Kieran says they’ve always had complete control of steering the ship, whether that relates to booze or bands.
“We could have made a lot more money if we made a deal with one of the big boys," he says. "We’re not a pokie venue, we’d never do that.
“We could probably make a lot more money if we didn't have live music, but it’s such an integral, massive part of Fitzroy that we want to keep that going. Because, if wasn’t for small, hundred-person rooms like us, there wouldn’t be a music scene in this country anymore.
“And we’ve seen some great bands here.”
When it comes to musical highlights, they point to every single King Wolf gig they've put on, and the time they hosted Emma Donovan and The Putback’s first show. The latter have gone on to win a slew of awards and would probably sell out The Catty's bandroom in about a tenth of a second these days.
Likewise, Catfish Comedy has been running since 2015. They’ve hosted many local stars in the days before they’ve gone on to sell out shows overseas, while the Melbourne International Comedy Festival brings big names from overseas to Fitzroy.
Having said all that, craft beer and the community that surrounds it always have a home at 30 Gertrude Street. When they first opened, craft beer wasn’t quite the lifeblood of the inner north it is today; even now, however, they still take great pleasure in introducing drinkers to something new and telling the story of small breweries run by their mates.
“You open things up to them by just saying ‘Try something different',” Kieran says.
Speaking of mates, those friendships have led to many, many collaborations over the years, not least for their traditional birthday celebration, The Catfish Poker Pub Crawl (which is taking a break this year to make way for the other celebrations). The occasion sees teams descend on many of Fitzroy’s finest venues for a specially-brewed beer while collecting playing cards along the way. The team with the best poker hand once everyone has gathered back at The Catfish ultimately claims the glory. (NB If your team has anything less than five aces, you may well struggle...)
“We wanted to celebrate the people we have great relationships with,” Mike says.
“Maybe we condone cheating but you do get caught and cop the wrath; I cheated my arse off the first year and still came last.”
It’s an approach that’s seen them pick up many awards over the years, including claiming True Indie Supporter at the 2022 Indies.
“It’s rewarding to know people pick up what you’re putting down,” Mike says. “You’re doing something you really enjoy: you’re putting love, care and effort into it and people go, 'You’re doing a really good job, well done.'"
Ahead of their tenth birthday celebrations – and resident catfish Muddy's ninth – we invited Kieran and Mike to share their Ten Lessons From Ten Years.
Kieran Yewdall and Michael Shaughnessy
1. The people make the venue
Whether staff, punters, reps, brewers, distillers or any other producers – without their help and support there would be no Catfish.
2. Supporting independence is important to us, our guests, and the industry at large.
That’s really been something that we’re personally really proud of: to build these relationships, and how we’ve known a lot of these older craft breweries since they started.
We’ve had these great opportunities to host people from New Zealand as part of Pint of Origin, and from England and the States as part of Good Beer Week. We’ve had the chance to become very good mates with a lot of the Kiwi brewers and, when New Zealand brewers come over to Australia, they want to be on tap here.
3. It’s not just about the beer
We will always be Fitzroy’s home of independent craft beer, but growth is important, and we now showcase a great list of curated spirits that largely features local, independent producers and has been really lifted by our operations manager, Jaine Eira. On top of that, there’s the classic cocktail list and monthly specials, and a great range of wines.
Kieran adds: “Mike’s Bloody Mary is the best Bloody Mary in town.”
In many ways, just like many hospitality venues out there, we’re still recovering from its effects.
Loyal, regular customers and loyal staff were a blessing, but hiring a new operations manager – and we reckon being that new operations manager – in the midst of rolling lockdowns is not something we advise, but also not something we regret.
It was horrible, hard and fairly soul-destroying. But one of the things that was amazing when we got to open up again was the amount of people who were coming back to the bar who we hadn’t seen in three, four or five years.
5. Related: you can work with friends without killing them all
6. Also related: staff come and go, but we’re family forever
That’s one of the things that we can’t speak highly enough of; we’ve been so lucky and it’s such a part of why we’ve been able to be here for ten years.
It’s very rare that anyone who hasn’t worked here hasn’t become family. The amount of people who work here, leave, and then we need a shift covered or help during Good Beer Week or Pint of Origin... they’ll be here.
There’s a guy who used to work at the bar and is now a doctor at the hospital and he'll still help serve every Good Beer Week.
7. The hospitality industry is a community not a competition
We’re surrounded by mates in this industry and, having worked at big hotels, the number of times you’d call up a big brewery and they’d just say: "Nope. Sorry."
But there’s so many little breweries or bars where, if you’re in a pinch, you can just make a call and they’ll help you out if you’re in need, whether it’s a keg of beer or a couple of bottles of vodka.
8. If your mates in the kitchen serve chicken wings, you will find the bones in strange places.
Absolutely everywhere… Everywhere…
9.Muddy is a grumpy old man of a fish and spoilt absolutely rotten!
People often sit at the bar and say he needs a friend, but he doesn’t. He’s a fish: you need a friend.
10. At the end of the day, hospitality is at the core of everything we do
Regardless of what we stock, it’s the friendly greeting, the banter over the bar, and the fond farewells that keep people coming back.
Our motto is, and always will be: Good Booze, Without Pretention.
Ten Years of The Catfish and Sparrows is taking place on November 25 and includes many more collabs as well as tattoos and plenty of tunes. The full details are here. And you can find other entries in the Ten Lessons From Ten Years series here.