Australia has always been a thirsty nation, but walk into a pub 10 years ago and the choice of draught beer was grim. VB, Carlton and Tooheys New dominated the nation’s pumps. Beyond that? Your options were depressingly thin.
Since then, there’s been an alcoholic revolution as the number of local breweries has exploded five-fold. The rise and rise of craft-beer means that drinkers can now enjoy more choice than you can shake a tasting paddle at from hazy IPAs and imperial stouts to tropical pale ales and juicy kettle sours.
Driving this trend is Oscar McMahon, the magnificently bearded director of Young Henrys. Since the brand launched in 2012 from it’s urban home in Newtown, it’s become a mainstay in Sydney pubs and is now making inroads across the country. Along the way, Young Henrys has curated their own music festival and collaborated on beers with everyone from the Foo Fighters to the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Here Oscar reflects on how Australia’s beer culture is raising the bar.
OSCAR HUNT: Is it the best time in history to be a beer drinker?
OSCAR MCMAHON: Absolutely! The market at the moment is now full of so many great options and producers in basically every state. But the average quality of beer in the marketplace now is really high in Australia. We've got some incredible hop strains and growers in this country, too, that are really playing a huge part in the defining a truly Australian flavour and aroma profile. Did you know there are many hops grown in Tassie and Victoria that are unique to Australian growers?
OH: So what do you remember of the beer scene when Young Henrys launched back in 2012?
OM: Well, back then, if you were drinking a craft beer in Newtown on tap, you were probably drinking a Cooper's Green. And that's not an exaggeration. One or two places might've had a tap of Little Creatures, but that was it. So, from a craft-beer point of view it was barren. But in the eight years that Young Henrys has been around, I think there have been another 12 to 13 breweries open within a three-kilometre radius of us. That’s pretty rad.
OH: Talking about your neighbourhood - “Newtowner” is the name of Young Henrys’ flagship beer and your brewery is also based there. Newtown seems fundamental to the Young Henrys brand. What’s the significance?
OM: Look, Newtown has been changing my life personally since I was 12 years old. I went to high school here and did TAFE here after I finished high school. It's an area that I just fell in love with and was an important part of my growth and identity.
When we got the opportunity to open a business in Newtown that was really special. If you want to do well in any community, you need to understand it and you need to support it. It's a relationship - there needs to be an interflow and exchange of care and values.
Over the years, Newtown has rallied around and stood up for Young Henrys and we’ve rallied and stood up for Newtown. Today, a very large percentage of the people that work for Young Henrys now walk to work. As we've grown, we’ve hired more and more local people. So not only do we reflect our community, but we're actually hiring our community. It’s becomes literal.
OH: Before Young Henrys you were the singer/guitarist in Hell City Glamours, a rock band that toured the world. What are your favourite international beer destinations?
OM: One of my all-time favourite beer memories is from Austin, Texas in 2009. We went on a tour and we played SXSW. Austin is sort of like the Newtown of Texas. It’s this weird, incredible little city that’s basically an open-minded place wearing cowboy boots. It's fucking rad. One of my favourite beer and food memories was drinking some awesome hoppy American pale ales while eating a brisket plate at a place called (I think) Rosie's Barbecue just out of town in Austin. That was great.
OH: Did that experience inspire you to start Young Henrys?
OM: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was an important beer for me in sparking my interest towards craft beer. Definitely. But so was Cooper's Pale Ale and so was Little Creatures. Those three beers in different ways have all led to my excitement around beer.
I remember about 12 years being in Melbourne on tour one time and we went into this pub and saw this beer tap with a cherub on it. And we asked the guy, “Oh, what's that?” He said, "Mate you've got to give this a try." And he just poured us four pints. I remember me and my best mate Robbie, who was the drummer of the band, just looking at each other going, "What the fuck is this!?!" It was one of first big hoppy beers that we’d ever tasted. That was our first Little Creatures Pale Ale
But I also remember having my first Coopers Sparkling with my dad. He always drank Coopers Sparkling and he actually used the homebrew Cooper Sparkling kit. There's no one beer memory that set me off down this track. It’s more like many beers have led to the brewery.
OH: While you were in the band, you also used to make ends meet by working as a barman. That must’ve sharpened your views on pub culture. Any pet hates?
OM: Oh yeah, absolutely. If you're tapping a coin on the bar, get the fuck out. No clicking. No raising your hand. Just stand at the bar and be polite and then, guess what, the bartender will serve you. The hospitality scene relies on people being hospitable, but that goes both ways.
If you’re in a venue, act like you're having dinner at a friend's place. If you're polite, people will be polite. In fact, you know what, that's a life rule not just a pub rule. Manners, politeness and friendliness will open doors for you.
OH: You’re also the co-owner of The Unicorn, an Oxford Street venue that you resurrected in 2016. As pubs go, it’s something of a modern classic and creating something like that doesn’t happen by chance. What do you believe are the key ingredients that make a great Australian pub?
OM: First and foremost, a great Australian pub is not finished when you open the doors for the first time. It has to be lived in. It has to evolve. It has to grow. It has to be a meeting place that is somewhat influenced and affected by the people that choose to be there all the time. So, when you open any venue, you don't really know who your customers are going to be and you have to be ready to let them influence the pub a little bit.
With The Unicorn we were really lucky that we (the co-owners: Oscar, Bodega co-owner / Porteno chef Elvis Abrahanowicz, and Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham, owners of Mary’s), basically got to sit down and work out: what are the things that we love in Australian pubs? What do we want to do? Jake, for example, always wanted to have a schnitzel on the menu because, in his opinion, every pub should do a great schnitty.
We decided that we wanted to have great Australian wines and great Australian beers. But we also wanted to have Reschs on tap, too - because we're not trying to convert everyone into being a craft-beer drinker. We want everyone that turns up to be able to enjoy what they normally like.
A great Australian pub also needs to have a pool table, it needs to have a darts board, its needs to have live music and that music needs to be free. A great Australian pub needs to be a place where you can eat and hang out. It’s where everyone is welcome. Dogs, kids, everyone.
But one of the important things about what makes The Unicorn great is that we, the owners love it. We love that pub. We go in and we enjoy eating and drinking there and we really care about it. It's not just a venue to us, it's not just a number on a spreadsheet. It's something that we love. I have no interest in owning any more pubs. I love this one and that's enough for me.