Brisbane

Letter From Australia

News 23.1.2018

Australian bars have a different approach from that of their European cousins. A return to his hometown of Brisbane prompted Kit Kriewaldt to reflect on what separates Australian bars from European bars, besides geography.

Returning to your hometown after a long absence can very quickly turn into a game of three-dimensional spot-the-difference. You find yourself almost unavoidably noticing the venues that have closed down, the new buildings that have gone up, and the familiar faces that are missing. Whether you’re of a nostalgic bent or not, there are bound to be some disappointments: perhaps your favorite bar has turned into a poke restaurant, or the local cinema is now a 24-hour gym. Rediscovering your old haunts is a risky, but inevitable, business.

Still, if you happen to live in an area which inexplicably has no bars – almost no nightlife at all, in fact – then the differences you spot may be a sign of encouragement more than a letdown. When I came back to Brisbane, Australia from Berlin, my previously quiet inner-city suburb was abuzz with the news: we were about to get our very first local bar. Don’t get me wrong, the suburb wasn’t derelict. It had plenty of shops, cafés, and restaurants, many of which served alcohol, but nowhere dedicated to drinking.

Australian Bars: Supporting the Kiez

Every barfly knows there are PhDs to be written about the importance of a local bar in forming and sustaining a kiez. Bars act as incidental meeting places, where neighbors can get to know each other, as well as meet up with friends from outside the kiez. And just as restaurants take over the customer trade from cafés in the early evening, the torch passes to the bars later in the night.

But you don’t need a degree to predict what happened when this pioneering place opened in November last year. It’s been packed out almost every night since, with groups of happy drinkers spilling out onto the paved terrace surrounding the bar. Clearly, the venue’s owners know a thing or two about supply and demand.

As well as getting the location right, the bar also got its timing right, opening on the cusp of the southern summer – peak season for Australian bars. Holidays run across December and January and, with Christmas in the middle, everyone feels like having a drink for one reason or another. It’s the opposite of a Berlin summer, where people flock to parks to enjoy the long sunlight hours with a drink in hand, and several cocktail bars simply close for the season, to avoid competing with the outdoors.

Something For Everyone

The seasons aren’t the only thing that’s topsy-turvy here. Australian bars – and, increasingly, restaurants as well – do their best to cater to all tastes. Walk into any bar here, from the most basic neighborhood pub to the most fashionable hotspot, and you’re likely to see a good selection of beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails. There are bars with a particular focus on one of those categories, of course, and the cocktails at your local pub aren’t likely to be as good as the ones at a proper cocktail bar. But still: bars completely dedicated to one type of drink are an exception.

By contrast, bars in Berlin, and across Europe, are usually more stratified. There are different bars for different drinks. You wouldn’t expect a martini at your local kneipe any more than you’d get a beer at Buck and Breck. And that’s not because of the perceived quality of the drinks at either bar, so much as the breadth of drinks on offer. Cocktail bars are for cocktails, just as beer gardens are for beer. By and large, European bars seem to pick a lane and stay in it.

Getting Lost in Local Bar

I was reminded of this seemingly incidental difference recently, when talking with an international bartender doing a guest shift at a small bar in Brisbane. He had learned the trade in Australia, but had long since left for the UK, and spent time working in cocktail bars in London. He was remarking on some very merry, but confused, guests who had come into the bar not long after me, haphazardly ordered drinks the bar didn’t stock, then some which it did, before grudgingly drinking those and leaving.

He’d forgotten what Australian bars were like, he said. In London, people would never get lost like that. He explained that in London, if a group of friends like the ones we had seen were having a night that was more about the drinking than what was drunk, they’d go straight to their local pub. It simply wouldn’t occur to them to go to a cocktail bar if all they wanted were the most potent long drinks available.

From that point of view, the stratification of European bars helps drinkers and bartenders alike. It avoids those moments of disappointment when your favorite drink isn’t available or costs more than you expect.

Whichever Way You Slice it

But for me, separating bars into different types cuts both ways. As someone with a strong preference for cocktails, I’ll take a mixed drink over a beer most of the time. It doesn’t have to be a dusty old recipe unearthed by David Wondrich, or a carefully constructed concoction by Remy Savage – for me, even an averagely-made basic cocktail will do. And yet, I most often find myself drinking beer in Berlin, because so many of the bars my Berlin friends frequent don’t serve cocktails. They’re not cocktail bars.

Likewise, whenever I invite people to my favorite Berlin bars, I’m limiting their options. Going to a cocktail bar is essentially asking my beer-drinking friends to pay four or five times as much for a drink, with no cheaper or lighter alternatives. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the menus at all my favorite Brisbane bars, although skewed towards cocktails, feature a range of beers and wines as well. Here, it would never occur to me to ask someone what types of drinks they plan to have before deciding which bar to go to.

More Options Means More Drinkers

The downside of that democratization is having to deal with the loud drunks who probably should have gone to the pub, but the upside is that more cocktails are available to more people. Cocktails aren’t treated as a separate, locked-away drink, to be looked at only by those willing to pay for them. Sure, the quality of the cocktails at those bars isn’t always world-class, but not every painting has to be a Picasso. Just ask the people flocking to the new bar in my neighborhood – they’re there because they can get any kind of drink they like.

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